Colonial Karakol

December 10th, 2014 Sections: History, Issyk Kul
A merchants house - a fine example of Colonial architecture

A merchants house – a fine example of Karakol’s “colonial architecture”

One of the places that often top of the list that tourists want included on their itinerary is Karakol in the Issyk Kul oblast.

One reason for this is that it is the natural starting off point for treks into the Terskey Ala Too Mountains to the south of Lake Issyk Kul – with the Altyn Arashan and Djety Oguz gorges nearby – and for mountaineering expeditions tothe peaks of Khan Tengri and Pobeda towering over the Enilchek Glacier.

This time of year it’s also a popular destination as as well as the Karakol Gorge just to the south of the city – with the Karakol  Ski-base.

The city itself boasts a fine Orthodox Cathedral, an interesting Dungan Mosque, the regional museum, and a lively animal market on Sundays, as well as Kyrgyzstan’s only zoo.

An example of colonial, "gingerbread", architecture.

An example of colonial, “gingerbread”, architecture.

Many of the descriptions of the city, however, also draw attention to the colonial heritage of the city – especially the architecture – referring the the “gingerbread” colonial type houses.

So, what of this “colonial” heritage … here are some brief thoughts:

As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth century, a small town at the western end of Lake Issyk Kul, Karakol, was of the main centers of trade and economical activity in the whole of Turkestan.

In May 1869, the Turkestan Military District of the Russian Empire sent an expedition into Issyk Kul, then a distant part of the Kokand Khanate. It was commanded by Baron Alexander Kaulbars and he charged with deciding upon the site for a fort, administrative center and associated settlement.  Attracted by the location at the foot of the Terskey Ala Too mountains, his party began surveying and planning the layout for what became the city of Karakol.

The garrison which was to take up residence consisted of an infantry battalion, a mountain battery and 200 Cossacks.

On June 1st, work began on constructing a fortress by the River Karakol and across one of the ancient caravan routes from the Chui valley to Kashgar.

As with other settlements designed by military engineers at that time, the town plan was based on a rectangular grid of streets. Later regulations ensured that every house that was built had to include a garden and an avenue of trees outside. These avenues of Silver Poplars are still evident today.

Construction proceeded rapidly. Within two years of Kaulbars’ arrival in the district there were several streets already built up, and the community consisted of 80 rich farmsteads and five mills. Near the newly planned main square, space was allocated for a new cathedral and a bazaar. An educational institution was established, a commercial district, public park and even a theater, all linked by wide and spacious streets. In the streets there were over 50 benches for the citizens to sit on and relax.

Migrants from the Ukraine and Central Russia began to arrive in the 1890’s.  According to some contemporary reports the settlers were middle class, not peasants or simple “workers”. A poor harvest had spurred them to seek new pastures and there were many stories about the rich soil and farming potential in the region of Karakol.

Karakol was to claim a number of important “firsts” in Kyrgyzstan:

  • the first meteorological station in the region was established in 1881
  • the first public library in what is now Kyrgyzstan was opened here
  • the first hippodrome in Center Asia was built in Karakol

Other social institutions were established – for example schools and parks. There were 2 churches, 9 mosques, and 44 factories.  All of which signaled that Karakol was a thriving and prosperous market town. In 1907 the town’s 308 shops managed a turnover of 1,191,000 rubles.

As well as a garrison town and regional center, Karakol also served as the base camp for several expeditions: into the Tian Shan and across into China.



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