Recently I visited to Melbourne’s open range zoo – Werribee – and was amazed to find a tiny herd of the Przewalski’s Horse. Amazed and transported because the name Przewalski whisked me back in time to my travels in Kyrgyzstan.
Nearby is a village called Pristan Prehevalsk. In this village is a museum and memorial to Nikolai Przewalski (1839 -1888), a Polish/Russian geographer and explorer who contributed greatly to European knowledge of Central Asia in the 19th Century.
The museum is here because Nikolai Przewalski died here in the Karakol military hospital in 1888 of Typhus, which he contracted while tiger hunting and planning his dream expedition back to Tibet over the Karakoram (as you do).
Pristan Prehevalsk is on the shores of lake Issykul and the beautiful landscape is somewhat marred by the rusting remains of the old Soviet ‘polygon’ torpedo research centre. A few dinosaur-like cranes totter on the water’s edge.
The village itself is very dilapidated, with ancient dinghies drawn up behind the houses in gardens and orchards filled with drifting blossom. Further down the road by a beach is a crowd of cute Dachas, all faded wooden paint and wild gardens.
The guardian is of the museum is 53-year-old Valentina and she amazingly spoke some English. She agreed this is nothing short of miraculous as she has only been a guide for six months and didn’t speak a word of English before then. The charming Valentina gave us the hero-worshipper’s tour – she is convinced this is a holy place where the sky is bluer than normal like a “window in the sky”.
The most striking exhibit in the museum is a 30-foot wall map that sets out Przewalski’s travels and expeditions. There are also some beautiful drawings and maps made by the great man himself, including a drawing of the capturing of a Griffon, a (I thought) mythical creature with a huge wing-span.
And the horse named after Przewalski? Well there is a stuffed example in the museum and it was named after him because he was the first European to describe this small wild horse now only living in the wilds of Mongolia.
It is described as the last truly wild horse, a breed that has never been tamed by humans. They once ranged across Central Asia and parts of Europe but human encroachment saw them classified as extinct in the wild in the 1960s.
Then they found a horse in the Gobi Desert so now it is ‘just’ critically endangered. With only around 50 animals left in the wild (thanks to conservationist efforts to breed and reintroduce them) they are on the Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources red list. Werribee Open Range Zoo near Melbourne is working together with the international Przewalski’s Horse breeding programme, with the goal of improving the genetic diversity of the population.
But back to Nikolai Przewalski,: explorer, geographer, someone who truly spent his life making the pages of the atlas real. His gravestone simply states ‘Traveller’. Now that’s my kind of guy.
By Natasha von Geldern