If you’re planning on travelling to Kyrgyzstan primarily to go trekking, chances are you’re going to pass through Karakol.
This city, which has more of a town feel, sits on the eastern shores of Issyk Kul and draws hikers from far and wide, but many travellers use Karakol as a quick pit stop and never really get to experience much of the town.
Things to do in Karakol
There may have been a time when there wasn’t much to do in Karakol, but the people in the tourism scene have been working hard to develop new experiences for travellers. Even coming back less than a year after my first visit (I took a day trip here during the World Nomad Games), I was surprised by how much more Karakol had in store!
They now offer free walking tours, cooking classes, traditional dinners with local families, and that’s on top of all the outdoor activities and overnight treks that Karakol is already known for.
For anyone planning on travelling this way, here’s a look at what you can get up to:
Join a free walking tour of Karakol
Karakol offers free city walking tours (though you are encouraged to tip your local guide at the end) that showcase some of the city’s main landmarks. If you’ve just arrived in town, this can be a great way to get a feel of the place and also get a few suggestions of things to do in Karakol from your local guide.
Some of the stops on our tour included:
Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church – A traditional Russian wooden cathedral with onion domes. Over the years it has been used as a school, ladies’ gymnasium, sports hall, theater, dance hall and even a coal shop!
Dungan Mosque – This mosque is unique because architecturally it looks a lot like a Buddhist temple. This is because it was built by the Dungan community, an ethnically Chinese people group who follows Islam, and their heritage played a big role in the design of their mosque. The building’s claim to fame is that it was built entirely without nails, though our guide admitted that someone in his tour once spotted a nail – maybe it was added for repairs after the initial building phase?
Karakol Historical Museum – This is a small museum with a rather large collection of stuffed animals, but what I really enjoyed was the temporary black and white photo exhibition by Ella Maillart, a Swiss adventuress who travelled solo through Central Asia in the 1930s and captured some amazing street scenes now frozen in time.
Browse for Soviet-era antiques
If you’re an avid souvenir collector then you’ll want to swing by the Antique Shop of Aleksandr Korablev on the corner of Toktogul & Jamansariev.
This little one-room shop is overflowing with treasures from the Soviet era and it’s a fun place to browse. The shop had old cameras, pins from the Russian Olympics, porcelain dolls, old postcards, busts of Lenin, jewellery boxes, and just about anything you could think of.
Since Sam is a hat collector, we picked up a Soviet-era border patrol officer’s hat complete with a hammer and sickle. I can already picture it next to the Kyrgyz felt hat we bought on our last trip.
Explore Karakol’s food scene
One of the coolest things about Karakol is that this is a city where different cultures meet, creating a delicious melting pot of flavours. I have another blog post about food in Karakol in the works, but in the meantime, here are a few of my favourite food experiences:
Having a traditional Dungan feast – According to Dungan tradition, there can be no less than 8 different dishes at the table, and as you can see from the spread below, they take that very seriously! We went for a family meal at a local Dungan home where we had a feast of a dinner.
Learning to make laghman – Laghman is an Uyghur dish that consists of wheat noodles, served either in a soup or stir-fried. We joined a cooking class in an Uyghur home, where we learned the art of rolling out the noodles (it’s trickier than it looks!) and then enjoyed a meal together.
Eating all the Ashlyan-fu – This is hands down my favourite dish in all of Kyrgyzstan! Ashlyan-fu is a Dungan dish made from wheat and starch noodles. It’s served with a cold vinegar-based broth with chopped vegetables, chilli, garlic and fresh cilantro. It’s both spicy yet refreshing and you can find it in markets and restaurants across town.
Visit Jeti Ögüz and venture into the valley
The name Jeti Ögüz translates to Seven Bulls and it’s a red rock formation that draws visitors on a half-day trip from Karakol. While I think it makes for a nice photo, I think the real gem is the Jeti Ögüz Valley, which sits on the opposite side of the rocks and can be reached via a dirt road and 5 rickety wooden bridges. Here you’ll find yourself surrounded by forests, fields, grazing animals, and snowcapped mountains.
We only visited for the day, but on the drive into the valley we noticed that there were yurt camps for travellers as well as horse trekking services, so it’s certainly possible to spend a bit more time here. This is also a popular spot for a weekend picnic with Kyrgyz families, so you should consider packing a picnic of your own.
Hike up to the Barskoon Waterfalls
Another easy half-day trip from Karakol is the Barskoon Gorge which is home to numerous waterfalls.
You’ll know you’ve arrived once you reach the bust of Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, standing proud just off the main road. Apparently, he was quite fond of Issyk Kul’s south shore and even spent some time vacationing here after his first flight into space.
From Gagarin’s bust, several dirt trails break off in different directions up the mountain, all leading to various waterfalls. The closest waterfall is just a short 15-minute walk from the main road, but the main one is about a 1.5-hour hike through the forest. Since we were a bit pressed for time, we only tackled the closest waterfall, but it was impressive nevertheless.
Go on a day hike from Karakol
If you’re not yet wiped from the overnight treks from Karakol, or if you’re looking for a ‘warm up’ before you commit to anything longer, then there are a few short half-day hikes to choose from.
We did our half-day hike with Eco-Trek, which started just outside the village of Jorgolot. The first two hours were the toughest since we were hiking uphill into the valley, but once we reached the pass, things really started looking up. We had sweeping views of the valley, forests and snowy peaks off in the distance, so we did the sensible thing and pulled out our picnic right on the spot.
From here, we hiked downhill through the valley, before entering the forest (what a treat it was to get a bit of shade!), and working our way down the other side of the mountain.
We had been told this hike would take us about 3.5 hours, but it took us 5 in the end. I think it was a combination of me struggling uphill during the first stretch and Sam stopping to fly the drone, but our guide was pretty chill and let us take our merry time and as many breaks as we needed.
Take a sunset cruise on Issyk Kul
Karakol sits on the eastern shores of Issyk Kul, which is the second largest mountain lake in the world after Lake Titicaca and the second largest saline lake in the world after the Caspian Sea.
The name Issyk Kul translates to ‘warm lake’ in Kyrgyz since it doesn’t freeze in winter due to the salinity, but don’t go in expecting the warm waters of the Caribbean either. I tried going in during the summer months and only managed to get a toe in the water!
Which brings me to my next point: even if you don’t go swimming, you can experience the beauty of the lake on a sunset cruise.
Our tour departed from Przhevalsky Bay shortly before sunset and it lasted about an hour and a half. The waters were calm, we were surrounded by mountains as far as the eye could see, and the boat also had drinks on board, which made it a great way to spend our last day in Karakol with friends.
Other activities in Karakol
These are just a few of my favourite things to do in Karakol, but there are plenty of other activities that could keep you occupied around town: you could go to the banyas (baths and sauna), soak in the hot springs, visit a few different museums, and if you visit in winter, you could even go skiing!
Info for visiting Karakol
Karakol has a selection of hotels, guesthouses and hostels to fit all budgets – you can get a better idea of prices in town here.
We stayed at the Tagaytay Guesthouse which was a few short blocks from the centre of town. The rooms were small, but clean and comfortable, plus the staff was helpful and they also had a really nice and varied breakfast.
It’s about a 5-6 hour drive from Bishkek to Karakol, so you likely won’t do it all in one go. There are plenty of places to visit and tours you can take along the way, so I would personally break up the journey with a stop along Issyk-Kul’s south shore.
Locals get around via marshrutkas (minivans) and shared taxis – you can get more info on how that works here. That being said, our group along with most of the foreign travellers we met, were all using drivers to get around.
You can arrange drivers through CAT Kyrgyzstan (Central Asia Tourism Company Kyrgyzstan), and while it costs a bit more, it does save you a lot of time in the long run as you’re not waiting for minivans and taxis to fill up with people.
Booking tours and activities:
To book any tours in and around Karakol, you can visit the Destination Karakol office at 22 Gagarin Street where you can get further information about any tours you may be interested in. Their offices are right next door to the Fat Cat Cafe. Alternatively, you can message them directly through their Facebook page where they are very active. For day hikes and overnight treks, you can visit the Eco Trek office on the corner of Abdrahmanov Street and Koenkozov Street.
I always recommend travelling with travel insurance, even more so if you’re going to be taking part in adventure activities somewhere as remote as Kyrgyzstan. You can get a travel insurance quote for your trip here.
Have you travelled in Karakol?
What were some of your favourite things to do in and around town?
This trip was made possible with the support of Discover Kyrgyzstan. As always, all opinions expressed here are my own.