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Travel: The Kyrgyztan Detour

At the extreme eastern end of Issyk-kul, the vast lake whose northern shores we saw in 2017, lay the town of Karakol. Not far from
Przhevalsky Museum in Karakol Kyrgystan
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The Kyrgyzstan detour was an afterthought. We had done the country handsomely in 2017, with even a foray (our second) into Xinjiang and back overland. But the Pamir Highway and our itinerary terminated in Osh: we could have taken the flight home from there like good boys. But we were anything but good, and we were loath to leave Kyrgyzstan. Yet, we had seen everything it had to offer on our previous trip. Or almost everything, at any rate. The Enilchek base camp in the upper Tien Shan seemed to offer alluring possibilities; however, our travel agent gently let fall that the sole helicopter that ferried people there and back had crashed somewhere a few days before (he was pointedly silent on the fate of its passengers and crew), and that they were negotiating the hire of another from neighbouring Kazakhstan, and that it was all very uncertain. We dolefully let go of those uncertainties. 

But we were not quite willing to let go of Kyrgyzstan. And as we mulled on its now familiar landscapes in our mind, something stirred. A quick reference to one’s library, and there it was– a very worthy objective, a fine device on our Central Asia escutcheons, a neat poetic ​‘finis’ to our exploration of this splendid country, if we could but pull it off. 

Lake Issyk-kul
Lake Issyk-kul Kyrgyztan

At the extreme eastern end of Issyk-kul, the vast lake whose northern shores we saw in 2017, lay the town of Karakol. Not far from it, in 1888, the great Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky often called the Russian Sven Hedin, with good reason – stood poised for his fifth great expedition into Central Asia, this time determined to reach Lhasa in Tibet, a prize denied him by the Dalai Lama’s emissaries in 1880. He was set, his team was in fine fettle, the future beckoned in glory. There was nothing to stop him. 

Or so he believed at any rate. 

For he had reckoned without Fate. A few days before the start of the journey, the locals in Karakol invited him to a pheasant shoot in the marshes of the Chui River. At the end of the excursion, exhausted by the afternoon heat, he quenched his thirst in the river’s waters.  

Nikolai Przhevalsky
Nikolai Przhevalsky the great Russian explorer

That cooling draught was to prove fatal. Not long after, he came down with a fever, nose-bleeds and respiratory difficulties – a remnant apparently of the typhoid epidemic which had recently ravaged the town. He steadily worsened; and never recovered. On October 20, 1888 Nikolai Przhevalsky, best remembered in the name of a now nearly extinct breed of wild Mongolian horse discovered by him, quietly slipped into death. The greatest of Russian explorers, without whom no history of Central Asia would be complete, had fallen ignominiously to a water-borne virus.  

His last wish was that he be buried on the shore of Issyk-kul, in his expedition clothes, a wish reverently carried out. The whole town turned out to bid him farewell. 

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In the years following, Przhevalsky attained deservedly, the status of a national icon, a hero for a nation that believed in an Asian imperial destiny. For a brief while even the town of Karakol was renamed Przhevalsk. His grave became a site of pilgrimage, and before long a fine museum dedicated to him sprang up on the shore of his beloved lake. Set in vast luxuriant grounds, and added to handsomely by successive governments both Tsarist and Soviet, it became one of Kyrgyzstan’s chief attractions. 

grave of Nikolai Przhevalsky
Grave of Nikolai Przhevalsky

At nine in the morning we set out for the real objective of the trip, the Przhevalsky Museum, a  seven kilometre drive through pastoral country in the kind of weather which one usually ascribes to a particularly indulgent Providence. Twenty minutes later, we drove into the tree-lined driveway leading to a neat if modest neo-classical facade of pediment and columns in pastel blue, crowned by a Russian imperial eagle. Hallowed ground at last. Inside, an enormous globe, with the explorer’s expeditions and routes marked on it dominated the room. His life and work lay lovingly displayed in glass cases: his scholarly contributions in faded journals of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, the books he wrote, his expedition kits, his surveying instruments, his personal rifle. A large life-size portrait adorned a wall, and a clay model of the Przhevalsky horse – though somewhat inexpertly executed – stood in a diorama of its imagined habitat.  

 It didn’t seem much in the compression of that museum space, but it was all there, a record of nearly twenty years’ indefatigable wanderings over Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet. The Russians  did well by him, and it was evident that they, and now the independent Kyrgyz still remembered him with not a jot of reverence diminished.  

globe inside Przhevalsky Museum in Karakol Kyrgyztan
Globe inside Przhevalsky Museum with markings of the explorer’s travels

Set a little away from the museum, in a roped off enclosure was the grave, with its simple tombstone with name and dates below an Orthodox Cross. A few hundred yards away, the waters of Issyk-kul smiled benignly over it, just as its resident had wished. We stood there in silence, scarcely believing the moment: as pilgrimages went, this was particularly sacred. We had felt the same at Chini Bagh in Kashgar, at the Stoddart-Connolly bug-pit in Bokhara, at Ishkashim on the Oxus in the Pamirs. Not every scholar drunk on Central Asia gets to pay homage at the shrine of one of its greatest exponents; we felt uniquely chosen and blessed. 

We returned to Karakol in anticlimactic despondency. The highpoint of the Kyrgyz detour was behind us. We quickly wrapped up the other two sights of the town, the old Russian Orthodox Church, and the Dungan Mosque.  

Dungan Mosque in Karakol
The Dungan Mosque in Karakol

The only other incident worth a mention was comic, although only afterwards. In the evening I told J about the clear view of Peak Przhevalsky from my room, and he quickly dashed out to fetch his camera. Not quite satisfied with the window opening, he suggested we go up to the landing on the floor above, whose window perhaps offered better results. While trying to  struggle with the latches and pushing the frame out, he applied a mite more pressure than necessary, and before we knew it- to our horror, the whole frame, netted with plastic, came off  and crashed to the ground seven floors below. 

For half a second the shock overcame us, but we knew better than to put our heads out and look down; and with a celerity we never suspected in ourselves, ran to J’s room and sat down, still bereft of speech but convulsed with laughter like a pair of poultry thieves. 

view of Peak Przhevalsky from hotel in Karakol
View of Peak Przhevalsky from my room

Fortunately, there was no one below in the path of the descending window-frame, although a few shouts and exclamations among the hotel staff told us that the event hadn’t gone unnoticed, through all of which we managed to exhibit a puzzled, touristic inquisitiveness. Someone said something had fallen in the hotel’s backyard: we registered the information with a perfunctory “Oh!”  

 Of course, we told ourselves later that the frame was light, that it had plastic netting instead of glass, and therefore not really lethal; but that was only our attempt at mitigating a potential disaster. We did shudder – very privately – at what might have been. 

Next morning we took the road back to Bishkek, driving along the southern rim of Issyk-kul this time. Seven hours later we entered Balykchy again, thus completing the circumnavigation.  

 Not bad, we told ourselves modestly.  

***

For tips and guidance on how to plan a trip to Karakol Kyrgyztan, there are plenty of resources available on the internet.

Images courtesy: K V K Murthy & Wikimedia Commons (portrait of Nikolai Przhevalsky and Dungan Mosque)

Mr K V K Murthy is a retired banker with mainly scholastic interests. He travelled extensively in Central Asia in the years 2014-18, and most recently in Iran (August 2022). He lives in Bangalore.

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