Nestled between the Lake Issyk-Kul and the Tian Shan mountains, Karakol (Каракол) is a fascinating gateway to the region’s diverse history, cuisine, and nature. A city sits in Eastern Kyrgyzstan, Karakol has unique cultures contribute to the town’s culinary history and cultural heritage: Kyrgyz, Tatar, Russian, Dungan, Uighur, Kalmyk, Uzbek, and more. If you made a stop here, stay long enough to wander its historical streets, long enough to feast on the city’s famed multicultural culinary offerings and certainly long enough to feel the warm welcome of Kyrgyz hospitality.
Getting to Karakol
- From Bishkek: There are frequent marshrutkas leaving from Bishkek’s Western bus station to Karakol. The journey takes between 6 to 8 hours for about 350 KGS (US$4.70) per seat. The journey time depends on which route the driver took: quicker route along the northern route, or the longer southern shore route via Bokonbaevo.
- From Almaty: We took a bus from Almaty to Karakol via Bishkek at 9 pm daily. It’s an 11-hours overnight bus that cost 2000 KZT (US$5) per person.
Getting around Karakol
Karakol is a small town and you can easily walk between the main attractions. If you wish to go further, there are 5 locations around Karakol that serve as bus stations:
- South Bus Station: You can get to almost every village or town located on the South Shore of Issyk-Kul Lake, such as Bokonbaevo, Tosor, Tamga or Balykchy.
- Jeti-Oguz Bus Station: From here you can get to Jeti-Oguz village and resort to do a one-day trip to Seven Bulls and Broken Heart mountains.
- Big Bazaar Bus Station: The biggest bus station in Karakol. There are buses to Jyrgalan (#331) and Ak-Suu Resort (#355) from here.
- Bus to Przhevalsky Museum: Bus #116 goes to the museum and Karakol Beach.
- Long Distance Bus Station: Get buses here to Bishkek, Almaty, Cholpon Ata, Kochkor and Naryn.
Accommodation in Karakol
We stayed in Duet Hostel in located in the town of Karakol. Duet Hostel is the perfect mix between modern amenities and Kyrgyz hospitality. The hostel is suited for backpackers and anyone who is looking for trekking partners, chat about life with foreigners, and just relax. We really like the small notes providing information of different attractions allowing backpackers to explore by themselves than taking a tour. The hostel also has its own restaurant next door providing yummy food and chilled beers.
What to see and do in Karakol
The Dungans are Chinese-Muslims that came to Karakol in the late 19th century as refugees fleeing war and persecution in China. They not only bring their own cuisine, but also their own culture. The Dungan mosque was built in 1910 and is a unique mosque that architecturally looks a lot like a Buddhist temple rather than an Islamic mosque. Maybe that is why it was the only mosque that survived the Soviets after destroying the eight other mosques in town. You can stop by to see the colorful wooden structure that was initially constructed without any nails. You are allowed inside but ladies are required to wear a head covering which is provided by the mosque.
Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Church
Karakol started as a Russian outpost in the nineteenth century. The Holy Trinity Cathedral became its first orthodox church, but the original was destroyed by an earthquake in 1889. This new wooden church was re-built in 1895 preserving some of the iconic designs like Saint Troitzy by Andrei Rublev, a famous Russian painter.
If you are looking for the Russian gingerbread homes you will have the most luck in the Russian quarter on Zhamansariev street! These photogenic blue and white homes are a throwback to Karakol as 19th century boom town on the edge of the Russian Empire.
Although Karakol’s bazaars are not as big and colourful as those in Osh and Bishkek, it is still a great place to stack up on snacks and necessities for your upcoming treks around the region. Ak Tilek Bazaar is the big bazaar where the locals go and is 10 minutes from the town’s center. There are also small bazaars like Bugu Bazaar, Makish Bazaar, and Center Bazaar. Center Bazaar is a great spot to find a little bit of everything.
Every Sunday, Karakol has one of the region’s more interesting markets where you find hundreds of Kyrgyz people selling, swapping and bartering for livestock. It is one of Kyrgyzstan’s biggest animal markets and definitely worth the early wake up call as most action will be over by 10 am. The grounds can be a bit messy with mud and manure, so don’t wear your best clothing or shoes.
Enjoy a cuppa at Fat Cat Cafe
This is one of the most popular cafes in town. It’s also right next to the Destination Karakol office, so you can get more info and knock out two birds with one. Grab a bite to eat or enjoy a pastry whereby your purchases will go towards giving back to the local community by helping the homeless, low-income families, and victims of abuse. This is not your usual cat-petting cafe, but there are several friendly strays that like to hang around.
Book a tour with Destination Karakol
Destination Karakol is the main tourism agency in the city to get oriented and gather additional information in the region. If you have any inquiry or dietary restrictions regarding any tours, you may simply email them ahead of time to get your arrangement done without worries. Many of the tours are donation based so be generous and keep in mind that your contribution will help develop future programming!
Ashlan-fu is a popular spicy noodle dish originated by the Dungan people. This dish is made from wheat and starch noodles, served with a cold vinegar-based broth with chopped vegetables, chilli, garlic and fresh cilantro. This is one of my favourite in Kyrgyzstan!
Day-trip from Karakol
Located 25-kilometres South-west of the town, Jeti Ögüz (Жети-өгүз) is a red rock formation supposed to resemble 7 bulls that stand out against the surrounding mountains. While Jeti Ögüz is worth the visit alone, the nearby dirt-path that follows a clear running stream will lead you through a fairy-tale forest and you might find the secret Devechi Kosy waterfall.
How to get there: From Karakol’s Big Bazaar bus station, take marshrutka #371 or #355 to Jeti Ögüz village. The journey is around 30-minutes and costs 30 KGS (US$0.40) per seat. After arriving at the village, you will have to take a shared taxi for a further 12-kilometres to the red rock formation that should cost no more than 50 KGS (US$0.70) each person. Alternatively, you may take a shared taxi from Karakol straight to Jeti Ögüz rock formation for 150 KGS (US$2) per seat.
Pack your bag and prepare for an idyllic day at the beach on the East side of Lake Issyk-Kul (Иссык-Куль). It is the 7th deepest lake in the world, the 10th largest lake in the world by volume, and the 2nd largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. Issyk-Kul means “warm lake” as it never freezes even though closely surrounded by snow-capped Tian Shan mountains. However, be mindful that the water is actually freezing cold despite of its name!
How to get there: Take a marshrutka #116 from the corner of Lomonosov street and Toktogul street to Pristan. Get off at the last stop and walk a little further. The journey costs 20 KGS (US$0.30) per way.
Lastly, if you want to keep a track of all my photos and travels, remember to follow @wanderrsaurus on Instagram!