Przhevalsky Museum & Memorial
PRZHEVALSKY MUSEUM AND MEMORIAL
Open daily 9am-5pm. Closed 12-1pm. Exhibits in Russian and English. If the door is locked just call and the caretaker will let you in.
Thanks perhaps to the efforts of Soviet historiographers, and to the fact that he died here, the Russian explorer Nikolai Przewalsk is something of a local icon, an increasingly poignant reminder of what the Russians accomplished in this part of the world. His grave and memorial museum are 12km north of Karakol on the Mikhaylovka Inlet. A visit with a Russian guide still has the flavour of a pilgrimage.
This museum lies on the road to Pristan (Pier) Przhevalsk and Mikhaylovka. The museum stands on the same site as the house he had built for himself close to the lake. The monument and small chapel that stand here were built on the site of his grave in 1894, just six years after his death. If you go too far you come to an abrupt halt at a sign forbidding foreigners to pass. Beyond lies a summer playground of beaches and dachas (the latter said by locals to be dilapidated and barely used now), still closed to foreigners due to its Soviet importance as a former torpedo research centre. From the Prezhevalsky statue, a pier and selection of long- legged cranes can be seen rusting into the lake.
The museum and formal park dedicated to Nikolai Mikhaibvich Przhevalsky was completed in 1957. With a cavalier disregard for local sensibilities, a village graveyard was removed to make way for it. Recently, the park has again been used as burial ground, this time for local Kyrgyz dignitaries.
Quite fittingly, this considerable slight to local sensibilities was carried out to commemorate a man who could hardly be described as a loyal friend of the Kyrgyz people. The grave and monument stand at the north end of the park overlooking the waters of the Mikhailovka inlet. The park is landscaped with bright flower beds and planted with a variety of trees native to the region, like Tien Shan spruce. The monument itself, comprising 21 pieces of stone sculpted to form a precipitous mountain peak with a spread-winged eagle on top, is a popular spot for wedding parties to congregate for photo shoots. The inlet that lies beyond, of which you get teasing glimpses through the railings, is one of the few zones of modern-day Kyrgyzstan that remains firmly off-limits to visitors - it was once part of the old Soviet top-secret military zone that included the nearby villages of Mikhailovka and Lipenka. Now that the Soviet navy's torpedo-testing facility has closed down for good, it would seem that there is little that requires military secrecy here any more. The view along the inlet just offers up a glimpse of cranes and warehouses, a boat or two, and a few wooden dachas.
Explorer, botanist, zoologist and spy Przhevalsky's only connection with Karakol is that he died here in 1888. Past the inevitable roll-call of Russian explorer-heroes, you are taken on a tour through his life, with enough written information, in English, to make it of considerable interest.
The museum, near the park entrance in a neoclassical building topped by another sculpted eagle, has a large globe and 3D map of central Asia that shows the routes of Przhevalsky's various journeys. The accompanying displays detail the ways in which his passion for exploration was aroused, and how he managed to organise his trips to central Asia and beyond (by doing a bit of spying on the side). There are lots of his letters, photos and books, and also some excellent line drawings of the scenery and sights encountered during his explorations by his second-in-command. Labels are mostly in Russian and Kyrgyz but there are some that are in English. A curiosity of the museum, which should be pointed out to you by your guide, is the wall mural that changes perspective according to the viewer's position.
English-speaking guides are sometimes available but the tour is a little heavy on statistics – ask them to tell you some of the legends. Guides are friendly and will gladly answer questions, although they might not appreciate being diverted too much away from their rehearsed spiel.
Displays show Prezevalsky's early fascination for maps and exploration and the cunning deals he struck with the army to allow him to travel, as well as some harrowing details of the tribulations and hardships undergone by early travellers, along with pictures of a Chinese torture scene he witnessed. This would not be a proper museum, of course, without a few stuffed animals, and there are a few dioramas with representations of the region's birdlife that include griffon vultures and a golden eagle. There is also a rather moth-eaten specimen of the native Mongolian horse named after the explorer himself: the short-legged Przhevalsky horse (and which is now being reintroduced to the Mongolian steppe from zoos, having disappeared from its natural habitat).
Conspicuously absent are details of the significant part Przhevalsky played in the 'Great Game' or 'Tournament of Shadows', as the Russians called the complex silent dance of espionage that was the cold war of the 19th century.
To get to the museum, take a bus marked dachi from the bus stand outside the small bazaar in the town centre. These run frequently in summer. Alternatively, take a taxi from the same place.