Trans Eurasia travel

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Dungan Mosque

What looks for all the world like a Mongolian Buddhist temple on the corner of Bektenov and Jusup Abdrakhmanov is in fact a mosque, built without nails, completed in 1910 after three years’ work by a Chinese architect and 20 Chinese artisans, for the local Dungan community.

The houses of the two big religions of Karakol (Orthodox Christianity and Islam) are both made of wood and thus very interesting buildings. The Dungans are muslim Hui Chinese living in Kyrgyzstan. Their Chinese provenience obviously also influenced the architecture of their mosque.

This distinctly Chinese building looks bizarrely out of place in Karakol. It is a masterpiece of Dungan architecture, featuring a carved frieze of fine workmanship. Inside its imagery is an eclectic mix, testament to the Dungan's pre-Islamic Buddhist past, combining a pomegranate (a folk symbol of longevity) with Buddhist imagery such as the shell and wheel of fire as well as representations of dragons and phoenixes that reflect the unmistakable influence of Chinese mythology. Completed in 1910 it was built entirely without nails using an uncommon grey-blue brick. Instead of a minaret, the mosque has a wooden pagoda. Similar to many mosques in Xinjiang and Muslim China, there is a veranda either side of the entrance. Like many religious buildings in the Soviet Empire, it has had a turbulent century; it twice lost its roof and was closed from 1933 to 1943. These days the mosque no longer serves the Dungan community exclusively and is attended as much by Kyrgyz as it is by Chinese Muslims. Non-Muslims are sometimes allowed inside the mosque; women should cover their heads.

Apart from the Dungan mosque and the Orthodox church, there are a lot of old, colourful houses in Siberian style in Karakol – unfortunately in a very neglected state.