Through a serendipitous series of events we ended up spending five weeks in Kyrgyzstan, a land-locked mountainous country situated between China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
Rather than attempting to see the whole country in a month, we spent most of our time in or near Karakol, a pleasant sleepy Soviet-style city close to Issyk Kul lake, which is the second-largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca in South America. Karakol is also a popular base for hiking and trekking in the Tien Shan mountains. You can do anything from day hikes, to a popular three day hike to Ala Kul lake, to epic multi-week treks in the remote high mountains close to the border with China, to technical climbs of 7000 meter high peaks and helicopter skiing.
The first two weeks we volunteered in Memo’s Guesthouse, a boutique guesthouse on a quiet street in Karakol. And the last three weeks we did several treks: two warm-up treks close to Karakol followed by an epic 14-day trek deeper in the Tien Shan mountains (more about this later).
One of the things I did during our time at Memo’s Guesthouse was to put together a list of things to do in Karakol, which I’d like to share with you.
Walking tour in Karakol
An excellent way to explore the colorful streets, vibrant markets, and cultural highlights of Karakol is to walk around the town on a self-guided or guided walking tour. The center of the city is quite compact and can easily be covered on foot within 2 or 3 leisurely hours.
For a self-guided walking tour, we recommend downloading the free izi.TRAVEL app on your Android or Apple smartphone. The tour has 18 stops which are clearly indicated on a map in the app. There is a recorded explanation in English for each of the stops, which include: the Holy Trinity church, the Dungan Mosque, the Karakol history museum, the merchant quarters, the Issyk state university, the pedagogical college, the Soviet memorabilia souvenir shop, the Tatar mosque, as well as several other monuments and parks. After opening the app, choose around me and then Karakol City Walking Tour. It is best to click on Download while you are still on your hotel’s WIFI, so that you can follow the tour even when you don’t have mobile Internet. Finally, click Start when you are ready to start the tour (it starts in the center of town).
If you prefer a guided walking tour of Karakol, the destination Karakol visitor’s center offers walking tours with English speaking guides. The tour takes 2.5 hours and is donation based.
Holy Trinity cathedral
The Holy Trinity Cathedral is a beautiful wooden Russian Orthodox church with four colorful green and gold onion-domed towers set in lush flower gardens in the center of Karakol. It is built on the same site as an earlier church, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1889. After the revolution in 1917, it was used for various secular purposes: it was a school, a gymnasium, a theater, and a warehouse. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the building was returned to the church authorities and restored. Today, the church is one of the most famous sights in Karakol and well worth a visit.
Entrance free. Open Mon-Sat 8:00-18:00, Sun 8:00-17:00. Women must cover their head with a scarf, which is provided for free at the entrance.
Dungan is the term used to refer to the Muslim people of Hui origin that fleeing violence in the 1870s and 1880s migrated from Eastern China to Kyrgyzstan. The Dungan mosque in Karakol is a unique structure whose architecture has many pre-Islamic Buddhists elements. It is constructed entirely of wood without using any nails and is colorfully painted in red, green, and yellow. In Dungan culture, yellow symbolizes prosperity, green symbolized happiness, and red wards off evil spirits.
Entrance 20 som. Open daily 8:00-18:00. Women must cover their arms, legs, and head; hooded coats are provided for free at the entrance.
Russian quarter and gingerbread houses
The area around Zhamansariev street, between Toktogula and Gagarin streets contains several intricately carved wooden merchant houses (locally known as gingerbread houses) dating back to the times that Karakol was the edge of the Russian empire.
Entrance free. Open daily all day.
This small museum contains historical and cultural artifacts about Karakol and traditional Kyrgyz nomadic culture. But the most interesting part is a permanent exhibition of black-and-white photos made by the famed Swiss traveler and adventurer Ella Maillart who visited Karakol in the 1930s.
Entrance 70 som. Open Mon-Fri 9:00-17:00, Sat-Sun 10:00-16:00.
The animal market (Mal bazaar)
To witness the hustle and bustle of buying and selling of sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, cows, and bulls in all colors and sizes, get up early and head on over to the Sunday animal market (Mal Bazaar). The market is big and crowded with thousands of animals being pushed and pulled around through thick crowds of people. Locals of various ethnicities are prodding the animals to check their quality and haggling for the best price. The colors, noises and smells make quite the impression! Dress appropriately, keeping in mind that the ground can become muddy and covered in animal dung. It starts very early at 5:00 in the morning and by 9:00 it already starts winding down, so it is best to get there early. A trip to the animal market is often combined with a trip to the Slavic market (see below) which is also held on Sundays.
Once a week, on Sundays, the so-called Slavic market takes place about 2 km or 20 minutes walking north west of the center, on the corner of Prjevalskogo and Issyk-Kulskaya streets. This is a flea market where you can find a bewildering assortment of old junk: car parts, electronics, washing machines, sewing machines, pots and pans, strollers and so on. But who knows, maybe you will discover some old Soviet treasure as a memorabilia. In the streets nearby they also sell vegetables, pets, flowers, and clothing. This trip is often combined with a trip to the animal market (see above for details).
Open Sundays 10:00-15:00.
Soviet memorabilia souvenir shop
If you have a weak spot in your heart for old kitsch Soviet trinkets, such as posters, post-cards, pins, medals, and hats, then Alexandr Korablev’s Soviet memorabilia souvenir shop located in the center on the corner of Zhamansarieva and Toktogula street is the place for you.
Open daily 10:00-18:00.
Big bazaar (Ak Tilek)
The big bazaar, a 15 minute walk north-west of the city center on the corner of Torgoev and Aldashev street, is the main market of Karakol. Here you can buy vegetables, fresh or dried fruits, nuts, spices, bread, street foods and snacks, clothes, and so on. The big bags of colorful peppers and spices are a favorite photo opportunity.
Open daily 8:00-18:00.
Small bazaar (market Makish)
On the inside of the block bordered by Toktogula street, Lenin street, Ulitsa Orozova street, and Zhamansariev street, you will find a smaller market selling mainly vegetables and fruits. This is a great place to stock up on fresh supplies without having to leave the center of town.
Activities around Karakol
From the center Karakol, you can already see the snow-covered peaks of Terskey-Ala-Too mountain range beckoning in the distance. Here you can find stunningly beautiful scenery filled with turquoise alpine lakes, lush green pastures, icy glaciers, and lofty snow-covered peaks reaching up to 5,216 meters.
The hundreds of kilometers of marked trails close to Karakol offer some of the very best hiking in Kyrgyzstan, if not in the world. Still, these mountains have not yet been discovered by the crowds, and as a result still offer the remoteness and solitude that is hard to find elsewhere. There is something for everyone, ranging from easy day hikes where a taxi brings you to the trailhead and picks you up, to the popular 3-day hike past Ala Kol lake where you can stay in tents or yurt camps, all the way to epic 14 days hikes going up to the basecamp of Inylcheck glacier sleeping in tents above 4000 meters.
Horseback riding tours
If hiking up to 3900 high passes sounds too tiring, you can also organize horseback riding tours in the mountains. Rides can range from just a few hours up to several days.
Dungan family style dinner
One of the most popular experiences in Karakol is a Dungan family style dinner. Destination Karakol can organize a family style dinner in a traditional Dungan house in a village close to Karakol where you will be served a veritable feast of Dungan dishes. The tens of small dishes present an explosion of textures and colors. Each meal typically includes spicy noodle salads, deep-fried meatballs, sweet puff pastry, and many more dishes.
Lake Issyk Kul beach
There are many public and private beaches on the shore of Lake Issyk Kul, where locals and tourists like to sun-bathe and swim. The closest beach is about a 15 minute taxi ride from Karakol. A visit to the beach can be combined with a visit to the Nikolai Przhevalsky Museum.
Nikolai Przhevalsky museum
This is a small but fascinating museum documenting the travels of Russian geologist and explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky for whom Karakol was previously named. The museum document his extensive travels in central and east Asia. There are many photographs and most explanations are translated to English. The museum is located very close to the lake Issyk Kul beach, a 15 minute taxi ride from Karakol.
Seven Bulls of Jeti-Oguz
The Jeti-Oguz valley is a scenic valley about 30km south-east of Karakol. While the valley’s most famous landmark is the “seven bulls” red sandstone formation, the rest of the valley has plenty of natural splendor on offer. There are lots of red sandstone bluffs all over the valley, including one in the shape of a broken heart. In summer you may also encounter nomadic yurts with bee hives. The seven bulls are about a 40 minute taxi ride south-east of Karakol. In the morning the light is best for photos.
Fairytale canyon Skakza
The fairy tale canyon lives up to its name: it is a mystical magical landscape of red sandstone hills twisted into shapes that appear to come from another planet. You can spend an hour or more exploring the many trails. It is located at the end of a short turn-on from the highway along the south shore, about 1 hour and 35 minutes east of Karakol.
From time to time, the Lake Issyk Kul South Shore tourist office organizes cultural festivals, which are announced on their website https://southshorekg.com/what-to-do/festivals/. The festivals are very popular and well organized. They usually include eagle hunting demonstrations, horse riding and horse game demonstrations, traditional dances and costumes, yurt building etc. The festivals often take place at Jaichy yurt camp near the village of Ak Say, a 2.5 hour taxi ride from Karakol. A visit to a festival can be combined with a visit to the Fairy Tale Canyon and the Seven Bulls to make for a long day.
There are several hot springs around Karakol. The Ak-Suu Kench hot springs are located are 30 minutes outside of Karakol. There are four hot springs in the village of Chong-Oruktu, about an hour from Karakol on the shores of lake Issyk-Kul.
Cholpon-Ata Petroglyphs museum
An open air museum of petroglyphs dating from the Bronze Age to the first century AD spread out over a large area.
Other south shore of lake Issyk activities
The road between Bishkek and Karakol passes along the south shore of lake Issyk. If you have time and the flexibility of your own transport there are several interesting options along the way. The attraction along the south shore include:
Treks: the south shore panoramic trek, the Shatyly overlook, the Ak-Sai petroglyphs, the tranquility valley from Boz-Salkyn to Barskoon, and the Teshik-Köl trek.
Outdoor activities: live with an eagle hunter for 3 days and go eagle hunting, horseback riding, and mountain biking.
Natural attractions: the Skakza “fairytale” canyon, the shores of lake Issyk-Kul, Barskoon waterfall, the Jeti-Oguz valley, Boz Salkyn Jailoo mountain pasture, Mykaachy gorge, Tuz-Kol salt lake, various hot springs, and Chokmor Ata sacred mountain site.
Cultural activities: The Salbuurun traditional hunting festival, yurt building and yurt stays, Shyrdaks and traditional Kyrgyz handicrafts, folk music and dancing, the Kok Boru traditional nomadic horse game, and the ancient art of Kyrgyz nomadic leather.
See the very informative website https://southshorekg.com/ for more details.