The Przhevalsky Museum – Karakol

April 12th, 2016 Sections: Issyk Kul, Museums
 Nikolay Mikhailovich PREZHEVALSK - Russian explorer

Nikolay Mikhailovich PREZHEVALSK – Russian explorer

There are lots of jokes about the spelling of Kyrgyzstan … about Scrabble scores and alphabet soup … but there are other words in Russian that caused me problems … and still do.

Take, for example, the Russian word for Hello – Zdravstvuyte – with the strange letter combinations that it is difficult for English speakers to come to terms with: those opening three letters, ‘zdr‘ … then the ‘vst‘ in the middle … and the ‘vuyte‘ at the end.

Then there is the name of the Russian explorer who opened a lot of Central Asia in the way that Livingstone opened the continent of Africa in the nineteenth century: Nikolai Przhevalsk.  Just how are you supposed to pronounce the combination of letters ‘Przh …”?  The ‘zh‘ is bad enough – we don’t have that sound in English, but even if we did … where is the vowel between the consonants ‘Przh

I admit that I cheat … by adding an extra e: Prezhevalsky …

Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsk was born on 12th April, 1839, and undertook a series of expeditions to explore Central Asia in an attempt to reach Lhasa in Tibet … but unfortunately contacted Typhus as he was about to embark on his fifth of his expeditions through the region and died just outside Karakol in October 1888, at the age of 49.

The town was renamed in his honour (although it has changed back and forth several times and has now reverted to its original name – Karakol) and his house was preserved being turned into a small park and museum and a visit is often included in tour itineraries and guidebooks to the region.

It is in a peaceful spot overlooking the Mikhailovka inlet on Lake Issyk Kul, at Pristan Przhervalsk, (Przhervalsk Pier), some seven kilometers out of Karakol.

A bit further down the road towards the settlement of Mikhailovka, past some dachas and small beaches, there is a zone which is still closed to foreigners, because the Soviet navy had a base here, (still maintained by Russia as a Military installation), which was used for testing torpedoes and as a research center.

The Museum and park were completed in 1957, (opening on 29th April), on the site of a former graveyard … and part of the grounds have since reverted to this original use.

The gates to the park are flanked by two giant ibex standing on plinths …

The park is well maintained with over 30 different types of tree (particularly local varieties of Poplar, Spruce and Larch) and flowers with footpaths.

The Prezhervalsk Memorial in Karakol

The Prezhervalsk Memorial

In the grounds, there is a monument, (symbolically placed facing Lhasa), depicting an eagle landing atop a mountain, (built from 21 massive stones which symbolically represent the 21 years he spent exploring Central Asia). The larger than life bird, (it’s actually twice life size – with a wingspan of 2.5m), has an olive branch (representing peace) in its beak and in its talons there was originally a golden baton … but it disappeared in the uprising of 1916 … and was replaced with a stone scrolled map.

Under the eagle there is a cross, (Ortghodox style with two horizontal and one sloping crosspieces), and below that a bas-relief portrait (in profile) of the man himself, which is based on that on the gold medal he was awarded by the Russian Academy of Science in 1866, and a short inscription.

Nearby is his grave marked by a flat, inscribed stone.

The museum itself, (a small, white classical style building set among the trees), includes exhibits featuring a variety of Russian explorers, but the main exhibition is about the life and exploits of the great man himself.

There are maps (including a large one in the foyer) outlining his expeditions, some large murals (which change perspective when you look at them from different angles) and pictures depicting scenes from his travels, as well as artifacts and some of his equipment.

Prezhervalsky Horse

Prezhervalsky Horse

Among the stuffed animals on display, there is one (somewhat ‘worn and threadbare’) of small Mongolian horse, once thought to be extinct, which he discovered and was renamed in his honour, The Przhervalsky Horse.

Apparently, he showed that it was a horse, not a donkey, by counting the vertibrae.

A little to the side is a small construction which is said to be the house in which he died.


To be fair, the museum itself and many of the displays and exhibits show definite signs of age … and need of restoration.  On the other hand, many I have heard one comment that ‘the place belongs in a Museum of museums‘ as a typical example of Soviet style institutions of the second half of the twentieth century.

For foreign visitors to the museum, it’s probably best to read up about it beforehand, or having someone who can act as a guide, because, (as is the case with most museums in Kyrgyzstan), most of the signs and explanations are in Russian (… although there are now some in English).

For those who do already know something about Przhervalsk, the exploration of Central Asia and the Great Game played out by the Tsraist Russia and the British Empire, the museum can offer an interesting and informative excursion, taking anything from about half an hour to an hour.

Russian visitors, in particular, seem to find it an interesting, as a reaffirmation of part of their history and heritage … indeed, several people (including Westerners) have commented about how they their visit had the feel of a pilgrimage.



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