Last year I had the privilege of visiting Kyrgyzstan for the first time. I attended the World Nomad Games, got a taste of adventure travel around Song Kol, briefly visited Karakol and then lingered for while in the capital city of Bishkek. In many ways, it was the perfect introduction to the country; however, I left wanting more.
Having the chance to revisit Kyrgyzstan and come back to Karakol for a few days (I had previously just done a day trip) allowed me to experience this part of the country more in depth and really appreciate all it has to offer. Sitting on the eastern shores of Issyk Kul, Karakol is considered the adventure capital of Kyrgyzstan. Travellers come here to arrange hikes, horse treks and camping adventures, however, the town also warrants considerable exploration when it comes to culture and local cuisine.
Visiting Karakol is similar to visiting Bishkek in the sense that it rewards those who linger to enjoy the laidback pace of life, discover its unusual attractions, do a bit of cafe hopping, and come to appreciate its many quirky charms. With this in mind, let’s discover 15 things you can do while visiting Karakol.
15 things to do in Karakol
1) Karakol walking tour
As a first-time visitor, one of the best ways to get acquainted with Karakol, is to take one of the free walking tours. These tip-based tours are put on by the tourist office and run three times a week. It’s a great way to get a feel for the town while checking out some of the major landmarks, plus you have a local guide who can answer any questions you may have about the place, and even offer suggestions on other things to do.
2) Dungan Mosque
Our first stop of the walking tour was the Dungan Mosque. This architecturally-unique mosque looks a lot like a Buddhist temple; this is because it was built by the Dungan community, an ethnically Chinese people group who follow Islam but incorporated architectural elements from their own culture. As a fun fact: apparently this mosque was built without the use of nails (though some nails have been spotted from modern-day repairs).
3) Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church
Another iconic place of worship in Karakol (Каракол) is the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church. This is a traditional Russian wooden cathedral complete with onion domes. Over the years, it has been used as a sports hall, school, theatre, coal shop and dance hall, just to name a few!
4) Antique Shop of Aleksandr Korablev
If you’re an avid souvenir collector then you’ll want to peruse Aleksandr Korablev’s Antique Shop. This little one-room shop is overflowing with treasures from the Soviet era. They have things like old cameras, porcelain sculptures, and even busts of Lenin.
I wanted to purchase many items but due to the lack of space in my suitcase, I only ended up buying a Soviet-Era border guard hat to add to my ever growing collection of hats from around the world. They had quite a few hats to choose from, and we learned that the color of each hat denotes whether it was an official cap for the army, navy, police or border control.
5) Karakol’s History Museum
We also squeezed in a quick visit to Karakol’s History Museum. The small museum is home to an impressive taxidermy collection, plus when we visited there was an exhibition of photos by Ella Maillart, a swiss traveler who photographed her travels through Central Asia in the 1930s.
6) Victory Park and World War II Memorial
For a green escape, we also visited Victory Park and World War II Memorial located in the Przhevalsk District. Everything here, from the many busts to imposing monuments, is done on a grand scale and if you look closely enough you’ll see how tiny I am on the left of the above picture snapped by Audrey.
7) Fat Cat Karakol for food and drinks
Our favorite place to spend a lazy afternoon in the city was hands down the Fat Cat Karakol located on the corner of Gagarin and Alybakova. First recommended to us by two Dutch travellers we met at Bel Tam Yurt Camp, this chill cafe served up some amazing cakes, as well as pizzas and grilled cheese sandwiches paired with craft beers.
What makes this place even more special is that the owner, Zhamila, has used her business to do a lot of good in the community, including organizing projects to raise funds for school supplies and empower women to start their own businesses.
8) Visiting local markets
Meandering through the local markets was another one of our favorite things to do in Karakol. You’ll find just about everything here ranging from fresh produce to boxing gloves, and in the food department, you can’t go wrong with a bowl of Ashlyan-fu (or three), but more on that local dish later.
9) Dungan 8-course meal
For the culture vulture and foodie, arranging an eight course meal with a Dungan family is another must. Before the food was served, we had the opportunity to help prepare Ashlyanfu (Ашлян-фу) – a cold soup featuring different kinds of noodles, a vinegar based broth and a combination of bell peppers, garlic, cilantro and tomatoes thrown in for good measure.
The dinner itself was a feast of feasts. According to Dungan tradition no less than 8 different dishes appear at the table. We came with our best intentions to finish everything served, but we didn’t even come close to accomplishing that. You can book this experience through Destination Karakol.
10) Uyghur Cooking Class
With our love of indulging in local cuisine, another experience we really enjoyed was a cooking class where we learned to make a traditional Uyghur dish: laghman (Лагман). We had Gulya as our guide in the kitchen; she taught us how to stretch the noodles and let’s just say I was all thumbs in the kitchen.
After a fun demonstration, we left it to the experts to continue with the recipe and we just watched as they fried the ingredients and worked on the broth. Once again, you can arrange this cooking class through Destination Karakol.
11) Eat a bowl of lagman
Speaking of the dish I just mentioned, lagman (Лагман) is a popular Uyghur dish that is a staple of Kyrgyz cuisine. The hand-pulled noodles can be served either soupy or fried with plenty of meat and vegetables, and it’s another dish that you’ll want to sample in the local restaurants.
12) Sunset Cruise on Lake Issyk-Kul
One of our last activities in Karakol was a sunset cruise on Przhevalsky Bay located on the eastern shores of Lake Issyk Kul (Ысык-Көл). Surrounded by friends, we enjoyed a spectacular sunset with drinks in hand and calm waters as we marveled at mountains off in the distance.
13) Jeti Oguz Valley for hiking
Our favorite day trip from Karakol was a short 30-minute drive to Jeti-Ögüz. Translated, it means ‘seven bulls’, named so for the seven plus hills that make up the formation. As you get a little deeper into the valley you’ll find great opportunities for hiking and horse-trekking. Pack a picnic lunch like a Kyrgyz visitor or stay longer in one of the yurt camps.
14) Barskoon Gorge
To extend the day trip a little longer, we continued on to the nearby Barskoon Gorge. You’ll find numerous waterfalls here along with some great hiking trails and a bust of Yuri Gagarin – the first cosmonaut who apparently had a particular fondness for this area. You can reach some of the smaller waterfalls within 15 minutes of hiking but the main one is 1.5 to 2 hours away on foot.
15) Karakol Day Hike
Lastly, we couldn’t visit the adventure capital of Kyrgyzstan without doing at least one hike. With a local guide from Eco-Trek and a dog friend in tow, we set off on a scenic journey starting from the village of Jorgolot with highlights including panoramic views of Karakol, a great picnic in the valley, and a walk through the forest trails to finish off. Of course, far more ambitious hikes, horse-treks and yurt stays can be arranged from Karakol, but a day hike is a good option if you’re short on time or need a little help deciding whether you want to commit to something more challenging or not.
Well, that’s it from me! I hope this guide offered some worthwhile suggestions of things you can do in and around Karakol, as well as day trips to some nearby attractions.
This trip was made possible in partnership with Discover Kyrgyzstan. As always, all opinions expressed here are my own.