20 Best Things to do in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
This post is about the best things to do in Karakol in Kyrgyzstan. The first time I visited Karakol in 2014 there were not really any things to do in Karakol. It was a grubby town with concrete Soviet flats. Karakol only served as the gateway to the spectacular mountains nearby.
There was no reason to stay any longer than the time you needed to get from your latest hiking trip to the next. The only good memories I had from Karakol was about meeting my fellow travellers and how we tried to order something edible in the only restaurant in town.
Fast forward to 2019 and Karakol in Kyrgyzstan is a different experience. USAID has done much to promote tourism. The result is destination Karakol that has done a great job in pointing out all the interesting things to do in Karakol. Places that were there all along, but that foreigners were simply unaware of.
There has also been an explosion of hostels, homestays and restaurants catering to the increasing number of tourists. Back in 2014 I could not imagine that Karakol could become a culinary destination. However, Karakol has now a good restaurant scene reflecting the multicultural nature of the city.
Karakol in Kyrgyzstan is a mix of Kyrgyz, Russians, Chinese Dungans, Kazakhs and Uzbeks. All of them brought their own cuisine with them. If you love food there are now a number of delicious things to do in Karakol. What about joining a Dungan family dinner, going on a Kyrgyz food tour or trying out the cold noodle dish Ashlan fu?
Things to do in Karakol Kyrgyzstan
Holy trinity cathedral
Karakol started as a Russian outpost in the nineteenth century. Karakol was as far east as the Romanovs would get. The Holy trinity cathedral became its first orthodox church, but the original was destroyed by an earthquake in 1890.
A new wooden church was built, but it was soon captured by the Soviet state. After the fall of communism the structure was given back to the church.
The Dungans are Chinese muslims that came to Karakol in the late 19th century as refugees fleeing war and persecution in China. They did not only bring their own cuisine, but also their own culture.
The Dungan mosque was built in 1904 according to Chinese traditions. Remarkably no nails were used. The result is more like a Chinese temple than a mosque. Maybe that is why it was the only mosque that survived the Soviets who had no problems desytroying the eight other mosques in town.
Karakol is characterized by low rise concrete homes. Among them you will still find some beautiful wooden Russian gingerbread homes as you walk through the backstreets of Karakol.
Overall, Karakol still feels very much like a Russian outpost if you look at the architecture. Except that the Russian people are now in the minority and its the friendly Kyrgyz that dominate the city.
If you are looking for the Russian gingerbread homes you will have the most luck in the Russian quarter on Zhamansariev street.
Karakol Victory Park
Like every former Soviet city Karakol also has its own victory park with a Great Patriotic War memorial. But that is not all. At the entrance is also a smaller memorial remembering the victims of Stalins regime and yet another monument to the great Urkun.
The Great Urkun is one of the most tragic events in Kyrgyz history when thousands of Kyrgyz fled to China in 1916 to escape Russian troops. Many were killed or did not survive the journey over the Tien Shan mountains. One of the reasons is that the Kyrgyz did not want to be conscripted in the Russian army to fight in the first World War.
It’s an irony that it now stands in the victory park to remember the Kyrgyz soldiers who fought and died in the Red Army during the second World War.
It’s easy to miss, but Lenin still has a presence in Karakol. The small statue is near the Karakol university at the intersection of Gebze and Tynystanova street
Animal market (mal bazaar)
One of the top things to do in Karakol is a visit to the Sunday’s animal market. It’s one of Kyrgyzstans biggest animal markets and definetly worth the early wake up call. Most of the action is over by 10 AM so be there early to see the Kyrgyz bargain over horses, cows, sheeps, goats and pigs.
The most fun part is to see how people try to push their new possessions into wheelbarrows or pick up trucks. Especially goats and sheeps seem to be very unwilling of anything their new owner asks them to do. It’s chaos, muddy and shitty, but fun.
Although Karakol’s bazaars are not as big and colourful as those in Osh and Bishkek, it’s a great place to stack up on snacks and clothes for your upcoming treks in the mountains.
Dungan family dinner
Destination Karakol organizes a number of cultural activities and one of the best culinary things to do in Karakol is the Dungan family dinner. Not only will you get delicious food, but also an insight into the Dungan culture.
In theory you can book this every day, but they need a minimum number of people. As we were travelling off season we couldn’t book this yet, but its high on my Karakol bucketlist for next time.
Try Ashlan fu
One of the most popular Dungan dishes in Karakol is Ashlan fu. It’s a local recipy of marinated cold noodles that you won’t find elsewhere in the country. Near the Karakol bazaar are some local restaurants that serve nothing else but Ashal fu. I wasn’t a big fan, but others claim it’s the best thing they tried in Kyrgyzstan.
Karakol food tour
If you really want to delve into Karakol’s multicultural cuisine then you can join the Destination Karakol food tours.
It’s a great way to start your adventures in Karakol, because they share with you where you can get the best Dungan, Tartar, Russian, Kyrgyz and even Uighur food.
Things to do near Karakol Kyrgyzstan
Przhewalski was a Russian scientist that was one of the biggest explorers in Russian history. He conducted several missions to Central Asia, Mongolia, China and Tibet where he has done a remarkable job documenting the people’s cultures as well as the flora and faune of the places he visited.
He died in 1888 of typhus on the shore of Lake Issyk kul. The museum is an interesting collection of some of Przhewalski’s personal items, his diaries and drawings from his journeys.
The easiest and closest hike to Karakol is to the Jolgolot viewpoint from where you have a beautiful view over Karakol. If the weather is clear you can even see lake Issyk kul in the distance.
How to get there: take a marshrutka to the suburb of jolgolot (zholgolot) and walk up the mountains. It takes about 1 – 2 hours and it’s especially scenic in the afternoon during sunset
Hiking to Ak Suu Arboretum
From the Jolgolot viewpoint you can continue to walk towards the Ak Suu arboretum. Although the mountains are not as spectacular as Altyn Arashan or Jyrgalan, it’s the quickest way from Karakol to be in beautiful alpine meadows with views on the snow capped peaks of the Tien Shan.
How to get there: take a marshrutka to Jolgolot (zholgolot) and ask the driver to let you out at the turn off where the trail starts. It’s an easy day hike of about 13 kilometers that takes about 5 hours. Once in Ak Suu you can take a marshrutka back to Karakol.
Hot springs of Ak Suu
Ak Suu village is for many the start or endpoint of the hike to Altyn Arashan or the Ak Suu arboretum. Few know that there are good reasons to stay a couple of hours before heading back to Karakol.
Ak Suu is famous for its hot springs. The Aksuu Kench hot springs are a great way to relax your sore muscles after hiking Karakol’s mountains. It’s also open in winter.
How to get there: marshrutka 350 leaves regularly from Karakol center to Ak Suu village. It takes about 30 minutes to reach Ak Suu.
Altyn Arashan hot springs
Altyn Arashan is one of my favourite places near Karakol, although a lot has changed in recent years. In 2014 there was just one basic guesthouse and only a handful of tourists. Now there are a number of yurt camps to choose from that all fill up quickly during the high season.
Altyn Arashan is no longer an off the beaten path destination, but its beauty is still the same. Alpine meadows, snow capped peaks and mountain slopes covered with fir trees. It’s a hikers paradise and every evening you can warm up in the healing waters of the radon hot springs.
How to get there: it’s a very scenic 15 kilometer hike from Ak Suu village. Take marshrutka number 350 from the centre of Karakol to Ak suu resort and ask the driver to let you out at the turn off to Altyn Arashan from where the hike starts. It’s even possible to charter a 4 wheel drive all the way up, but the road is so bumpy that I wouldn’t recommend this.
Ala kul lake
Ala kul lake is one of the most popular hikes near Karakol. Possible as a very long day hike from Karakol or as a multiple day loop that includes Altyn Arashan. The multiple day route is about 45 kilometers and takes between 3 to 4 days.
It’s easy to do the Ala kul hike without a guide and it is so popular in summer that it should not be difficult to find travel partners if you don’t want to go alone. Yurt camps on the way provide food and accomodation.
Ala kul lake pass is at 3900 meters. Therefore the trekking season is short and runs from June till September. Both times I was in Karakol (October and May) I could not make it there, because there was too much snow.
How to get there: for the multiple day loop (45 kilometers) take marshrutka 101 to the last stop that is at the same time the entrance of Ala Kul national Park. From there you can hike up to Ala Kul lake and down to Altyn Arashan.
It’s also possible as a day hike from Altyn Arashan going up to the Ala Kul pass and back again.
From Karakol it is only possible as a day hike if you organize a tour with transport up to the Alp Camp in Karakol valley (3 hours by car). From there it is a 13 kilometer hike up and down to the lake.
Jeti Oguz Sanatorium
Jeti Oguz is a very popular day trip from Karakol, but actually one day doesn’t do justice to this place. It might be a sleepy little village, but there is a surprising amount of things to do. I ended up staying much longer than I originally planned.
For locals and those that love Soviet history the main attraction in Jeti Oguz is the old Soviet Sanatorium that is still up and running, even though its appearance suggests it’s not. They are now somewhat used to tourists showing up and for a few som you can take one of the radon bath treatments.
If the sanatorium is a bit too much for you, the landscape is another good reason to visit Jeti Oguz. Interesting red rock formations dominate the village and it’s a great place for some nice walks in the beautiful surroundings. In fact, because of the easy going hiking opportunities it is also one of the best places in Kyrgyzstan to travel with kids.
For alpine mountain meadows you can make the 5 kilometer hike to the valley of flowers. Here you will find the typical Kyrgyz jailoo’s with horses and yurts.
How to get there: From Karakol take marshrutka 371 to jeti Oguz kurort. These marshrutka’s don’t leave very often and the alternative is a shared taxi from the Torgoeva/Aldasheva intersection to the Jeti-Oguz resort. Also make sure the marshrutka or your shared taxi goes to the sanatorium and not to Jeti oguz village on the road. The main village is still 15 kilometers from the sanatorium and the start of the trail to the valley of flowers.
Jyrgalan is the new and upcoming tourist hotspot near Karakol for hiking, horseriding and other outdoor activities. It is one of the main projects of USAID that wanted to bring new life into this derelict old mining town. They were right that Jyrgalan was a hidden gem and that the spectacular mountain sceneries were reasons enough for people to come here.
Destination Jyrgalan has set up a number of exciting hiking trails, horse riding routes and mountain biking paths that can keep you busy for days. I stayed 3 days and I could easily have stayed more.
How to get there: From karakol you should take marshurtka #331 in the Big Bazaar bus station at 8:30, 13:30 or 17:30. The journey takes about 1.5 – 2 hours and the price is 80 som/per person. Come a bit earlier if you want a seat as the bus fills up quickly.
Barskoon valley & waterfalls
The Barskoon valley and waterfalls are so beautiful that Yuri Gagarin spend his holidays here after he returned from space. Or so the story goes and there are even two monuments put up to remember his visit.
I could definetly see why Gagarin liked this place. The scenic valley and the short hikes to the Barskoon waterfalls make it the perfect place for an easy going day trip from Karakol or Bokonbaevo.
How to get there: From Karakol (Southern bus station) take marshrutka 310 or 315 to Bokonbaevo and ask the driver to let you at at Barskoon village. From there you need to negotiate a private taxi to the valley.
Years of erosion has resulted in strange geological formations and rich colours. The red, brown and yellow rocks contrast with the deep blue colours of lake Issyk kul. It’s a fairytale landscape and therefore skazka canyon is also known as fairytale canyon.
It is one of the most beautiful places along the southern road from Bishkek to Karakol. Because it is only 2 hours from Karakol it is an easy daytrip if you leave early.
How to get there: From Karakol (Southern bus station) take marshrutka 310 or 315 to Bokonbaevo and ask the driver to let you at at the sign for the Skazka canyon (shortly after Tosor). From there you can walk to the Skazka canyon (3 kilometers, 30 minutes).
Karakol Travel tips
Where to eat in Karakol Kyrgyzstan
Karakol coffee: Karakol coffee is another excellent place for coffee and cake. They also serve nice breakfasts and sell packed lunches in case you are planning a hiking trip.
Karakol Lighthouse : Karakol lighthouse was my favourite restaurant that I kept coming back to whether it was for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I especially loved the fish and chips and their pasta’s. Everything I had was very nice.
Dastorkon: For a true Kyrgyz experience and the chance of trying kyrgyz classics with horse meat come to Dastorkon ethnic cafe. The interior is nice with traditional Kyrgyz decorations and the english menu with explanations will help you choose what to take.
Where to sleep in Karakol Kyrgyzstan
Guesthouse Altay: The friendly Guesthouse Altay is a good budget option at the outskirts of Karakol that has clean rooms and includes a nice breakfast. I had a very nice stay here.
Snow leopard hostel: The dormitories of Snow leopard hostel are probably one of the cheapest accomodation options in Karakol with very friendly and helpful owners
When to visit Karakol Kyrgyzstan
Being the outdoors capital of Kyrgyzstan, the best time to visit Karakol is in summer. If you plan to do high altitude treks such as the Ala Kul hike the travel period runs from June till September. For lower altitude treks and places like Altyn Arashan and Jyrgalan you can also visit in May and October.
Snow in winter makes travelling around Karakol difficult, but Jyrgalan is now also becoming a destination for winter sports.
How to get to Karakol Kyrgyzstan
From Bishkek there are frequent shared taxi’s or minivans to Karakol. The journey takes between 7 to 8 hous and either follows the northern or the southern route along lake Issyk-kul.
Read my post about how to travel from Bishkek to Karakol for more information.
From Karakol there are frequent minivans back to Bishkek and to Bokonbaevo.
How to get around in Karakol Kyrgyzstan
Karakol is a small town and you can easily walk between the main attractions, otherwise taxi’s are very cheap. I can recommend 2Gis for offline navigation.
Sustainable Travel in Karakol
Karakol is seeing more and more tourists every year. While Tourism is a welcome source of income it can also have negative consequences. Traveling sustainably in Karakol, involves conscious choices that both minimize your environmental impact and support the local community.
Support the local community: You can support the community by purchasing goods and services from local vendors, artisans, and restaurants. It is better to try Kyrgyz cuisine that uses local ingredients rather than imported foreign foods.
Choose small scale sustainable hotels: It is also better to stay in locally-owned guesthouses or homestays to support the local economy directly. These accommodations often have a more positive impact on the environment compared to large hotels.
Karakol has a number of interesting community-based tourism initiatives. For example, I highly recommend staying in a homestay for an authentic cultural experience. You might want to bring a small book with pictures of your family to break the ice.
You can also look for guesthouses or homestays that prioritizes sustainable practices, but awareness about energy and water conservation is still limited. It’s up to you to use water sparsely, turn off lights, air conditioning, and heating when leaving your accommodation.
Leave no Trace principal: Kyrgyzstan is famous for its pristine landscapes, and it’s crucial to keep them that way. To avoid single-use plastics, invest in reusable items. For example, you can bring your own water bottle with a filter that you can refill at your accomodation. At last, use biodegradable and eco-friendly personal care products to minimize pollution of water sources.
Karakol is situated on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul and surrounded by the Tien Shan mountains. When exploring the area, stick to designated trails when they are there, avoid disturbing wildlife or picking plants, and leave no trace of your presence. Ensure you take all your trash back with you and dispose of it responsibly. Even better, is when you bring something to pick up any of the trash that other people left behind.
Respect the culture: Besides environmental concerns it is also important to be sensitive of the community’s way of life. Kyrgyzstan is an Islamic country with a nomadic culture that is just opening up to tourism. Therefore, learn about the local customs and traditions beforehand and be mindful of your behavior.
People will appreciate it, if you dress modestly, especially at religious sites. Learning a few basic phrases in Kyrgyz or Russian, can go a long way in building meaningful connections and to learn more about the local culture. Not everybody is happy to have their picture taken. When in doubt, ask permission.
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