By Daniel Noll
When readers ask, “I’m traveling to Karakol. Is there anything to do there? Where should I go?” We have a raft of ideas, often surprising them.
Why? Because most travelers (and guidebooks) know Karakol, a town in eastern Kyrgyzstan, only as a jumping off point for popular day hikes and multi-day treks in the nearby Tian-Shan Mountains. What they don’t often realize, however, is the rich cultural context of the town and what there is to do there.
But first, a little background.
Karakol stands at a crossroads, geographically, culturally and even culinarily. Historically, it was in the middle of what was Turkestan, a region stretching from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert to the Caspian Sea. Today, Karakol bridges China to the east and the rest of Central Asia to the west. Because of this, a kind of ethnic diversity spills into Karakol’s food and markets, and into the activities and atmosphere of the town. Top it all off with traditional Kyrgyz culture, Russian history and influence, and vestiges of the Soviet era, and you have a place in which to engage, but also decompress and catch-up after your time adventuring in the mountains.
To help, we created this experiential travel guide to Karakol. It highlights some of the best experiences and memories from our visits to Karakol over the years, including our most recent trip in winter. It’s peppered with a few others’ recommendations, too. Our intent is to offer some diverse inspiration and practical advice to help you plan your travels in Karakol, to give you the building blocks to create your own itinerary from scratch, and maybe even encourage you to stay longer than you expected as you enjoy some of Karakol’s après-trekking, culinary and cultural features.
1. Take a Hike…and Disconnect to Reconnect
If you are the outdoor or adventuring sort (as we are), then a visit to Karakol on your trip to Kyrgyzstan is an absolute must.
Karakol is considered the gateway to the Tian Shan Mountains for good reason. From Karakol’s western perch on Lake Issyk-Kul (the second largest alpine lake in the world), you’ll find yourself surrounded in views on a clear day. On the trekking spectrum, Karakol has something for all levels of difficulty and time commitment. The most popular trek is to Altyn Arashan, which for the more adventurous continues to Ala Kol lake.
Other treks include Altyn Arashan to Jeti Oguz and the Turgen Valley. Treks in nearby villages include some newly developed trails that set off from the village of Jyrgalan (90 minutes from Karakol). Our Jyrgalan trek was three days, but rumor has it that shorter and longer variations are being rolled out, including an option to sleep in a yurt along the way.
And for the most serious mountain climbers, there are several peaks nearby that top out well above 5,000 meters.
2. Sample Eight Dishes for Good Luck at a Dungan Family Home
Eight dishes might sound like a lot for dinner, and is best experienced in a group. Dungan cuisine features meat and vegetables, is flush with various greens and is touched with subtle flavors. According to Fatima, our host for the night, there’s a deliberate approach to meal preparation whose aim is for all the dishes to complement one another.
We also received a shore history and culture lesson from Fatima about the Dungan people and their presence in Kyrgyzstan as a whole, and specifically Karakol. Originally from China, the Dungan people emigrated to Karakol in the 1880s to escape religious persecution and brought with them — and have continued to preserve — their traditions, culture, and cuisine You’ll find this especially true as you make your way around the Big Bazaar and Little Bazaar in town. Karakol owes a big thanks to Dungan culture for its impact on the local food scene.
How to book this experience: These dinners can be arranged and booked through Destination Karakol DMO. There’s typically six to eight people minimum to book, but you can inquire about joining others interested in the experience. In the summer months the dinners usually are accompanied by a Dungan-Uzbek-Kyrgyz music and dance show.
3. Find the Meaning of Life in a Russian Bath and Sauna
OK, OK. Maybe this oversells the experience just a little. At the very least, however, a Russian bath offers an immersive (literally) local experience, and a pleasant and inexpensive way to relax, get clean and warm those weary muscles as you wind down in Karakol after a long hike. You can even enjoy a few beers at the bath house along your sauna journey. Bring your trekking mates and make it a social outing.
If being naked in public isn’t your thing, don’t worry. You’ll be given a towel – more like a sheet — to wear. Alternatively, you can also book a private sauna at one of the local guest houses in Karakol (e.g., Altamira, Tagaytay, Amir, Intour, Sweet House).
How we did it: Karkyra banya (Баня «Каркыра») on Karasaev Street costs around $1.50/hour and features cold and warm pools, a toasty wood sauna and hot showers. It’s not in the center of town, so you’ll need to take a taxi there (fixed price of taxis in town = 70 Som/$1).
4. Devour the Best Ashlan-Fu in Kyrgyzstan
One of the best loved dishes in Karakol is the Dungan spicy, cold soup called ashlan-fu, made from a combination of thick rice noodles, wheat noodles, a vinegar-chili sauce and a topping of chopped herbs. Traditionally, it’s sided with piroshki (fried, potato-stuffed dough pockets), so as to balance the flavor and spice and to enable efficient mopping of the broth. Vegetarians keep an eye out: ashlan-fu can be served vegetarian or with meat. In either case, it’s delightful, refreshing and an absolute must try. Not to mention, we’ve been told it’s the local hangover cure if you’ve taken in too much Kyrgyz cognac.
There’s a special alley-way in the Karakol Big Bazaar devoted almost exclusively to ashlan-fu. Take a walk, take your time, then sample away.
If you wish to sample ashlan-fu in town, there are plenty of restaurants which specialize in it. Our favorite from our last trip is from this no-name place (look for this sign) on Przhevalskiy Street near the intersection with Jusaeva Street. A hearty bowl will cost you around $0.50. Note however that once they sell out of their fresh, daily supply of ashlan-fu (almost always), they close for the day.
5. Soak Your Aching Muscles in a Natural Hot Spring
Two options here. Head to Ak-Suu Hot Spring or Up Into Altyn Arashan.
Ak-Suu hot spring is closer to town, and in 2017 it ought to feature a new outdoor pool/bar at the lower end of the access road. A bit further afield, and perhaps better timed with a hike, is Altyn Arashan where you can spend the night in a yurt or simple hostel and enjoy soaking in the hot spring pools before or after trekking onward and upward to Ala Kol lake.
The sulfurous odor of a natural hot spring offers a hint: the mineral-laden waters feel great and are good for what ails your skin, bones and muscles.
6. Dig Into Spices and Culture at the Big Bazaar
The Karakol Big Bazaar seems to sell whatever you need. Warm clothes to top off the pack before your hike to Ala Kol? Check. Dried fruit, nuts and snacks for the trek? Check. Beautiful heaps of colorful spices? Check. Ten different grades of ground red pepper flakes? Check. Walk through the Karakol Big Bazaar and in short order you’ll meet people with Kyrgyz, Russian, Dungan, Uighur, Uzbek, and Kalmak backgrounds selling their wares and specialties.
Tip: show genuine curiosity and you’ll often be rewarded by the friendliness of the spice and vegetable vendors, and a few free samples along the way.
Note: There is also a more centrally-located open market with similar offerings, but on a much smaller scale…hence the name Small Bazaar.
7. Check out the Ella Maillart Black and White Photography Exhibit at the Karakol Historical Museum
We often have our doubts about the relevance of remote history museums. At first glance, the Karakol Historical Museum also drew our doubtful ire. However, its permanent exhibition now includes a well-lit room of black and white photos from Karakol and the wider region (e.g., Turkestan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc.) taken in the 1930s by Ella Maillart, a Swiss adventurer and likely the first solo female European traveler ever to tackle the region.
Maillart’s images, besides being well-composed, also reinforce the concept of Karakol as a crossroads. They convey what the region, including its people and cultures, looked like before Sovietization. It’s worth a quick visit at the beginning of your time in Karakol to better appreciate the city and surrounding area.
Warning: you may need to pass by the museum exhibition full of dead, stuffed animals from the region, but the payoff of the photo exhibit is worth it.
8. Snap the Region into View at the Przhevalsky Museum
Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky set up shop in Karakol in the late 19th century. Rumors are that he was sent back to this region several times by the Russian Tsar in order to find a short-cut secret route from Karakol to Tibet. You might be thinking Tibet is nowhere near Kyrgyzstan. However, when you take a step back and look at a map of the region and Przhevalsky’s routes, you begin to realize how close everything really is and how the wider region might be more interconnected than you first imagined.
If you’ve traveled elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia or even in Xinjiang Province in China, the Przhevalsky museum and the telling of his travels provides essential context. If you’d like to understand how the region fits together geographically, historically, and culturally, this stop is an important piece in the puzzle.
Note: The museum is just outside of town in a quiet park overlooking Lake Issyk-Kul. A shared taxi from town costs 30 som ($0.40) or around 120 som ($1.40) for the entire taxi. The museum offers a guided tour, included as part of the entry fee, and is recommended to help fill the gaps of the exhibition pieces documented in English. In winter, only a Russian language guide was available. We’re told that English language guides are available in the summer months.
9. Haggle for a Horse at the Sunday Karakol Animal Market
If your visit to Karakol falls on the weekend, be sure to check out the rollicking animal market held on Sundays on the town’s outskirts. We can attest that the market, with its array of horse, sheep and cattle, looks much as it did 10 years ago. We can only imagine, especially after checking out Ella Maillart’s images of the market in the 1930s, that not much about its appearance has changed in decades, or possibly even centuries. This perspective alone makes the market worth a visit. It’s a cultural experience unique to Karakol.
Warning: As you might imagine, the animal market gets a little sloppy under foot, particularly if it’s wet. Better not to dress in your Sunday best!
10. Buy a Lada or Moskvitch at the Used Car Market and Plan Your Next Road Trip
If you’ve traveled across Central Asia, you’ll likely have found that the landscape — ranging, mysterious, and remote — hints “Road Trip!” If an urge to hit the road strikes you, or if you just wish to dream and look at old cars, stop by the used (and often antique) car market held on Sundays, right next to the Karakol animal market.
Lada, Niva, Moskvitch, Zhiguli, Volga, UAZ — name any of the old Soviet car models and you are likely to find at least one here for purchase. Some are in original condition, if a little beaten up. Others look as though they’ve been tricked out for cruising around the main square. Prices seem reasonable, even low. With doubt on our faces, we drew plenty of offers to take the merchandise for a test drive. We were tempted to buy the green Moskvitch above (roughly $700) and store it at a friend’s place for our next trip.
11. Find a Nail at the Dungan Mosque
The Dungan mosque was designed by Chinese architects and artisans between 1907 and 1910 for the local Dungan community. However, the wooden mosque was constructed entirely without the use of nails. Pretty remarkable, like a puzzle. As you walk around, note that it probably doesn’t look like any other mosque you’ve seen in your travels. Much of its imagery, including a wheel of fire and a pagoda (in place of a minaret), harkens to the Dungans’ pre-Islamic, Buddhist past.
During your visit (or if you are going with a guide), be sure to seek out the imam as we did and ask questions about the building and the community behind it.
12. Amaze Your Friends with Your Cache of Soviet Memorabilia
If you like tchotchke, especially of the Soviet or communist variety, then you might spend all day in this corner antique shop. The owner-collector, Alexandr Korablev, has not only spent decades finding and collecting a sea of Soviet memorabilia but he seems to know the story behind every pin, poster and clock.
You don’t need to break the bank, either. Many smaller items like event and festival pins cost $1 or less. Very affordable, especially if you want to surprise all your friends for Christmas with 1980’s Moscow Olympics paraphernalia. Even if you have no interest in buying anything, pay a visit if only to peer into the past.
Where to find it: The Antique Shop is on the corner of Zhamansarieva and Toktogula streets.
13. Discover All the Kyrgyz Felt Products You Never Knew You Needed.
We don’t consider ourselves avid shoppers or souvenir buyers when we travel, but the “One Product, One Village” store on Toktogula Street in Karakol draws us each time we visit. The shop, run by a rural women’s development project sponsored by JIKA, a Japanese aid organization, has not only trained Kyrgyz women across the country in high quality felt and natural soap production, but it also offers a fair marketplace in which to sell their traditional crafts.
If you’re considering buying souvenirs in Kyrgyzstan — everything from wall hangings to hats and change purses to locally made honeys and jams — this shop is worth a visit. Although the range and style of handicrafts can be somewhat limited, prices and quality are competitive or better than similar shops in Bishkek.
14. Find a Kyrgyz Handicraft Course – In Town or in a Nearby Village
After admiring all of the handicrafts in “One Product, One Village”, you might want to understand better the Kyrgyz nomadic tradition of felt making and shyrdaks, and learn how they are made. Ask the staff about the half and full-day outings available (request to see the catalog) to nearby villages, and learn how to make felt, handicrafts, honey, jam and more. Or, send a message to request information through their Facebook page.
Alternatively, Damira from Tolgonai NGO offers various handicraft courses in town. She has an interesting personal story, too. As she tells it, her skill in traditional crafts passed onto her by her grandmother is what enabled her to get out of debt and support her family as a single-mother. To say she’s passionate about Kyrgyz traditions is an understatement.
How to do it: The Destination Karakol DMO (Destination Marketing Organization) can help coordinate visits and handicraft courses.
15. Enjoy REAL Coffee and Support Local Community Projects
If you find yourself desperate for the taste of real coffee — a luxury in a part of the world whose cafes run rivers of Nescafe – check out Fat Cat Karakol at Gagarina Street 22. While there are a number of formidable cafes in town serving coffee, tea and even homemade spirits (e.g., Karakol Coffee) — Fat Cat brewed coffee comes on offer with homemade cookies, cakes and other goodies – a portion of whose sale proceeds go to support community projects for disadvantaged families in the area.
Fat Cat is also a haven for meeting English speakers, locals, visitors, and Peace Corps volunteers alike. The owner, Jamila, is full of information about the area and can tell you which other businesses in town — taxi companies, hostels, hair dressers, etc. — also work with her to donate a portion of their profits for community projects.
16. Imagine Dancing in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral
Ok, so you can’t go dancing in there now…and we really encourage you not to try for risk of getting thrown out by the priest. However, at one point during Soviet times Karakol’s famous Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral served as a (rather elaborate) dance hall.
The cathedral originally dates back to 1869, a time when Karakol was only a garrison town outpost on the edge of the Tsarist Russian Empire. Back then, the cathedral was a chapel that served Cossacks and other troops. Today, its unusual wooden structure is one of the town’s main landmarks.
17. Populate your Instagram Feed with Russian Gingerbread Homes
Make a point to walk around Karakol and notice all the gingerbread-style windows, doors and awnings. These photogenic gingerbread homes with all their blue and white adornments are a throwback to Karakol as 19th century boom town on the edge of the Russian Empire. Today, they’re very much a unique visual fixture of the Karakol town landscape that remind us of its history.
18. Find Treasure in the Chaos of the Slavic Market
The Karakol Slavic Market, held on weekends, looks a bit like grandma emptied her attic of all its Soviet relics and spread them out on a blanket. A photogenic free-for-all, the Slavic Market is the local incarnation of the maxim, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
It’s also the place to go if you need spare parts for that old Soviet car you just bought at the used car market (see #10 above).
19. Time How Long it Takes You to Build a Yurt
While there are other regions in Kyrgyzstan known for their yurt-building know-how, Karakol is worth a stop if you haven’t had the opportunity to understand how a yurt is constructed. You can even attempt to build one of your own, or with a group of friends. When you are done, you can find out how much they cost to buy. Hint: they are probably less expensive than you think.
Note: Damira from Tolgonai NGO offers yurt building experiences in town. The Destination Karakol DMO can help coordinate so you can add “yurt building” as an important skill.
20. Learn the Three Ways of Laghman
Sure you’ll eat more laghman, homemade noodles topped with vegetables and meat (usually), as you travel across Kyrgyzstan. But, before you do, use Karakol and its restaurant scene to understand the three primary styles — boso laghman (fried), traditional (more soup-like), and guyru laghman (not fried, less soup) — to figure out your favorite. Among the best in town according to our sources, and our own experience, is at Cafe Zarina on Lenin Street 120.
21. Go Vegetarian in Kyrgyzstan
If there’s a destination in Kyrgyzstan whose food variety, restaurants and culinary scene give vegetarians a fighting chance, it’s Karakol. Get a dose of vegetarian relief with the Dungan and Korean salads (in big buckets) at the Big Bazaar or Small Bazaar.
Try ashlan-fu, pumpkin manti dumplings, vegetarian laghman and kitaiski (Chinese) salad. Of course, you’ll have to ask questions and do your homework to avoid meat, but there are enough vegetables festooning the market stalls in Karakol to hint at its being a possible vegetarian oasis in Kyrgyzstan, if not all of Central Asia. Some restaurants in Karakol even offer a vegetarian menu.
22. Discover the Magic of Fried Fava Beans at the Market
Why these dried, fried fava beans are not served everywhere in Karakol — and throughout Kyrgyzstan — is a mystery to us. Not only is this natural snack tastier and healthier than most other fried snacks, it’s also fresh and different.
This is a free hint to Karakol’s entrepreneurs and bar owners: serve these with beer and during happy hour. The Karakol chill out scene will never be the same.
23. Find a Summer Pick-Up Game of Kok-Boru in a Local Village
Rumor has it that teams of men host pick-up games of Kok-boru (goat polo) in summer in nearby villages and the outskirts of Karakol. While these aren’t scheduled events and may be difficult to find, each village does have its own team so ask around at your guest house and at the various tourist centers and agencies to get some inside information. If you happen to be in Karakol on August 31, Kyrgyzstan’s Independence Day, then you’ll definitely be in luck to catch a Kok-boru match or two.
If you manage to catch a match, you’ll likely be amazed by the skill and physicality.
24. Hop on a Horse, Head to the Hills
If trekking isn’t your thing or you wish to cover a bit more ground, find yourself a horse trek and head into the mountains. Horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan is an absolute must-do. If you haven’t already planned or ventured out on a day trek or multi-day ride elsewhere in the country, get your giddy up going in Karakol.
How to do it: Contact Almaz at Bulak Say Horseback and Trekking. You can also check out other local horse trekking options at the Karakol Tourist Info Center, Ecotrek, or CBT Karakol. A little further afield, Jyrgalan village offers horse treks in the summer season (contact the Jyrgalan DMO for more details).
25. Paraglide or Ski/Snowboard From 3040 Meters
We have not yet paraglided above Karakol and Lake Issyk-Kul. That will change with our next visit. The physical beauty of the region — lake, mountains, meadows, big sky, and all — makes it too perfect to pass up the chance to see it from above. We did see several people take off from the 3040m panorama, however. It looked like it would be a ton of fun, particularly in summer.
If paragliding isn’t your thing, you can also take the Karakol Ski Base lifts to the 3040m Karakol panorama peak in summer.
And, if winter sports are more your thing…Karakol becomes a haven for skiers and snowboarders looking for a long skiing season, fresh snow, beautiful views from the slopes, and reasonably priced day passes at $20/day.
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