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Svetly Mys

This tiny hamlet is 48km from Karakol, just south of the village of Al-Bulung (formerly Belovodsk), on the Zayachy peninsula at Lake Issyk-Kul's northeast corner.

It is the site of up to eight monasteries that were founded here over a period of two thousand years and, more controversially, as the supposed burial place of the apostle Matthew. The macabre truth is that it is also perfectly possible that it was at this same Armenian monastery that the late 14th-century plague pandemic - the 'Black Death' - broke out before travelling west and east to devastate both China and Europe.

This secluded site has attracted a succession of believers, pilgrims and eight monastic communities over at least sixteen centuries. A Nestorian Christian and two Armenian monasteries are thought to have existed here. Many of the existing wooden village buildings are in fact the surviving structures of a 19th century Russian Orthodox monastery, founded by order of Tsar Alexander III in 1888. Roads in the village are arranged to represent an Orthodox cross.

In the 1916 anti-Russian uprising the monastery was attacked and all but two of its 26 monks were skinned alive, boiled or otherwise horribly murdered. Two monks survived; Iraklii fled to Almaty and Seraphim to Ananyevo further down the lake. Both have since been canonised. The monks' storehouse is now a mill, the remaining wall of their church (most of which burnt down in the 1930s) part of a craft workshop and their library still in use as a library today.

Graves from an earlier monastery were uncovered in the 1950s, when foundations for an agricultural college hostel (on your left as you enter the village) were dug. An intricate silver crucifix was stolen from around the neck of one of the skeletons, at which point the fragile grave collapsed into dust. In a rare display of Soviet sensitivity to such issues, the hostel was immediately moved several metres south, away from the graves. Local women are still working to find the cross and return it to the church. The north-westerly corner of the hostel building has become a common site for prayer. There have been moves to re-establish an Orthodox presence in Svetly Mys, but this depends on funds and local sensibilities.

Svetly Mys certainly abounds in mystery. As well as the St Matthew claims, the monastery church was also once the home of an icon of the Virgin Mary that was to cry blood, repel bullets and glow with an ethereal light when it came under attack by the rebels in 1916. The icon can now be found in the Orthodox cathedral at Karakol.

Complexes of catacombs, said to be the cells of fourth or fifth century Armenian monks that were inhabited by subsequent communities, can be found on lakeshore peninsulas close to the village. Most are overgrown and filled with silt; elderly villagers talk tantalisingly of childhood games in 50 metre-long corridors of cells, long since collapsed. One surviving site is on the shore south west of the village. At a mill on the main road, just east of the Svetly Mys turn-off, take an unpaved track towards the lake. Follow it south, passing an abandoned fish farm, until you come to a marshy inlet on the lakeshore. On the furthest crown of the westerly peninsular it is possible to poke your head through two claustrophobic holes in the ground and glimpse forgotten passageways and rooms with a torch. If you are tempted to climb down inside, please remember that the dry, crumbling walls and ceiling are extremely dangerous and prone to collapse. Turkestan in Karakol operates tours to Svetly Mys and the catacombs.

In addition to the archaeological interest at Svetly Mys itself, nearby Ak-Bulung also has several unexcavated Scythian kurgani (tumuli), which can be seen just to the west of the village.

To reach the village, turn south down a tree-lined avenue, off the mam road just east of Belovodsk.

Just west of the village of Belovodsk and its turn-off to Svetly Mys are a series of large, grassy mounds, laid out in perfectly straight lines between the mountains and Lake Issyk-Kul. These are kurgany (tumuli), the burial chambers of Scythian warriors and nobles. Some are said to be unexcavated. Similar mounds in Kazakstan and to the south of the lake were found to contain armour, weapons and intricate golden jewellery, including the famous 'Golden Man", now displayed in an Almaty museum.