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 and briefly visited Karakol. We 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). This allowed me to experience this part of the country more in depth. I got to 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. Especially, when it comes to culture and local cuisine.
Visiting Karakol is similar to visiting Bishkek. Karakol rewards those who linger.
You can 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.
Karakol History For Visitors
Karakol is a fascinating city in the eastern region of Kyrgyzstan, which boasts a rich and diverse history. The city is situated at the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains and is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure travelers, but it also offers a wealth of historical and cultural attractions for visitors.
- Early History – The Karakol region has a long and fascinating history that dates back to ancient times. The Kyrgyz people, who are believed to have originated in the area, have been living here for thousands of years. The region was also home to various nomadic tribes, including the Saka and the Hun, who left behind numerous archaeological sites, including petroglyphs, burial mounds, and fortifications.
- Russian Influence – In the late 19th century, the Russian Empire began to expand into Central Asia, and Karakol became part of the Russian Empire in 1876. The Russians established a military outpost in Karakol, and it became an important center for trade and commerce. Many of the city’s architectural landmarks, including the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, were built during this period and reflect Russian influence.
- Soviet Era – After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Karakol became part of the Soviet Union. The city continued to grow and develop as a regional center for agriculture, education, and industry. During World War II, Karakol played an important role in supplying the Soviet army with food and other resources. Many of the city’s public buildings and monuments were constructed during this period and reflect the Soviet-style architecture.
- Independence – After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan became an independent country, and Karakol became part of the new republic. The city has continued to grow and develop, with a focus on tourism and sustainable development. Today, Karakol is a thriving cultural and economic center, with a rich mix of Kyrgyz, Russian, and other Central Asian cultures.
Visitors to Karakol can explore the city’s rich history through its many museums and cultural attractions. The Karakol Historical Museum offers a glimpse into the region’s nomadic history, while the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church and Dungan Mosque reflect the city’s multicultural heritage. The city also hosts an annual cultural festival, the Issyk-Kul Forum, which celebrates the music, dance, and cuisine of the region.
Karakol’s natural beauty is another major draw for visitors, with the nearby Tien Shan Mountains offering a wealth of outdoor activities, including hiking, skiing, and horseback riding. The stunning Issyk-Kul Lake, one of the largest alpine lakes in the world, is a popular spot for swimming and boating, and visitors can also explore the nearby Jeti-Oguz Gorge, famous for its red sandstone cliffs and unique rock formations. With so much to offer, Karakol is a must-see destination for travelers to Kyrgyzstan.
15 Things to Do in Karakol Travel Guide
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. Also, to even offer suggestions on other things to do. More information here: https://destinationkarakol.com/tours/karakol-walking-tour
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 they 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). Further information: https://destinationkarakol.com/what-to-do/attractions-museums/
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 interested in Kyrgyz cuisine, 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. Additionally, 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: https://destinationkarakol.com/tours/dungan-village-family-dinner/
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. 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. We just watched as they fried the ingredients and worked on the broth. Once again, you can arrange this cooking class through Destination Karakol: https://destinationkarakol.com/food-drink/kyrgyz-food/#karakoldishes
11) Eat a bowl of lagman
Speaking of the dish I just mentioned, lagman (Лагман) is a popular Uyghur dish. A true staple of Kyrgyz cuisine. The hand-pulled noodles can be served either soupy or fried. Coming with plenty of meat and vegetables. 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. With calm waters we marveled at mountains off in the distance. Further information about the cruise: https://destinationkarakol.com/tours/karakol-sunset-cruise/
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.’ It was 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. Hiking information: https://destinationkarakol.com/what-to-do/trekking/
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. He was 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. We also enjoyed 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 are best arranged from Karakol. However, 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.
Karakol Accommodations Guide
Karakol is a beautiful city in eastern Kyrgyzstan that attracts travelers from all over the world with its stunning natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. The city is located at the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains and is a hub for outdoor adventure activities like hiking, skiing, and horseback riding. However, to enjoy these activities, finding the right accommodation in Karakol is essential.
One of the most popular and affordable accommodation options in Karakol is guesthouses and hostels. These places offer visitors an authentic experience of Kyrgyz culture, with many located in traditional Kyrgyz homes. Visitors can choose from dormitory-style rooms or private rooms with shared bathrooms. The Nomads Home Guesthouse is a popular choice for backpackers and budget travelers, offering cozy rooms and a friendly atmosphere. For those who prefer to stay in a hostel, the Tumar Art Hostel and the Happy Nomads Yurt Camp are both excellent options.
For travelers who want a bit more comfort and privacy, Karakol has several mid-range hotels that offer good value for money. The Green Yard Hotel is a cozy family-run hotel that provides a peaceful retreat for visitors after a day of outdoor activities. The Altamira Hotel is another mid-range option that offers comfortable and spacious rooms, with the added convenience of an on-site restaurant. The Alakol-Jeili Hotel is located in the heart of the city and offers a range of amenities, including a sauna, fitness center, and restaurant.
If you’re looking for a luxurious experience, Karakol has a few high-end hotels that offer top-notch amenities and services. The Karakol Plaza Hotel is a stylish and modern hotel that boasts a spa, indoor swimming pool, and restaurant. The Issyk-Kul Karven Resort is a luxurious resort located on the shores of Issyk-Kul Lake, offering stunning views of the lake and mountains. The Jannat Resort is a luxurious hotel that offers spacious and beautifully decorated rooms, a spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and a range of dining options.
For those who want to experience the great outdoors, Karakol also has several camping and glamping options available. The Karakol Riverside Campsite is a popular choice for camping enthusiasts, offering beautiful views of the mountains and river. The Aurora Issyk-Kul Resort offers glamping tents that are equipped with comfortable beds, electricity, and heating, providing visitors with a luxurious camping experience.
In addition to these accommodation options, Karakol also offers homestays, where visitors can stay with local families and experience traditional Kyrgyz hospitality. Homestays are an excellent way to immerse yourself in the local culture and cuisine, as well as practice your language skills.
No matter what your budget or preference, Karakol has plenty of accommodation options to choose from. From budget-friendly guesthouses to luxurious hotels and camping options, Karakol has something for every type of traveler. With so much to offer, Karakol is a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to Kyrgyzstan.
Karakol, an exquisitely beautiful city nestled in the heart of eastern Kyrgyzstan, presents a multitude of tours and activities to gratify the curious traveler seeking to explore its astounding natural scenery and cultural legacy. Whether one’s predilection lies in indulging in outdoor adventure escapades, immersing in cultural experiences, or a combination of both, Karakol, with its diverse array of offerings, satisfies the desires of any discerning traveler.
- Outdoor Adventure Tours – Karakol, with its enviable location at the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains, affords visitors ample opportunities for hiking, skiing, horseback riding, and more. Several tour companies such as Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan and Discover Kyrgyzstan furnish a gamut of adventure tours that guide visitors through some of the most breathtaking natural landscapes in the region. For instance, one can partake in a multi-day trek to the resplendent Ala-Kul Lake or undertake a day hike to the captivating Jeti-Oguz Canyon.
- Cultural Tours – The city of Karakol has a fascinating cultural heritage, evocative of an amalgamation of Kyrgyz, Russian, and Soviet influences. Tourists can embark on a cultural tour of the city to explore its historical sites, museums, and traditional handicrafts. The Karakol Historical Museum is a must-visit attraction, showcasing the city’s history and culture through its exhibits and artifacts. Visitors can also witness the unique Dungan Mosque, a wooden edifice combining Chinese and Muslim architectural styles.
- Food Tours – The Kyrgyz cuisine, fusing traditional Central Asian, Russian, and Chinese influences, provides a unique culinary experience to visitors. One can savor the local flavors and dishes of the region on a food tour. Tour companies like Kyrgyz Concept and Destination Karakol offer food tours that take visitors to local restaurants and markets where they can sample traditional dishes such as beshbarmak (a noodle dish with lamb or beef) and laghman (a noodle soup).
- Horseback Riding Tours – Horseback riding, an immensely popular activity in Karakol, offers an enchanting means of traversing the awe-inspiring landscapes of the Tien Shan Mountains. Tour companies such as Visit Karakol and Kyrgyzstan Travel offer horseback riding tours that take visitors through the mountains and valleys around Karakol. The tours can range from a few hours to several days, depending on one’s preference.
- Winter Sports Tours – Karakol, during the winter months, serves as an ideal destination for skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts. The Karakol Ski Base, the largest ski resort in Kyrgyzstan, offers an assortment of ski runs catering to all levels of expertise. Tour companies such as Karakol Ski Tours offer ski packages that include accommodation, equipment rental, and ski lessons.
Karakol’s multifaceted attractions are sure to satisfy the most discerning of travelers, as they take in the mesmerizing natural beauty and the rich cultural heritage that it has to offer.
Karakol Popular Day Trips
Nestled in the eastern corner of Kyrgyzstan, Karakol is a city that exudes a mystique and allure that is irresistible to travelers. Offering a gateway to the stunning Tien Shan Mountains and the pristine Lake Issyk-Kul, this charming city is replete with a host of captivating day trips that cater to an array of interests, from the intrepid adventurer to the cultural connoisseur.
One such day trip that is a must-do for travelers is a visit to the resplendent Ala-Kul Lake. At an altitude of 3,560 meters above sea level, this captivating turquoise oasis is a marvel to behold, with its scenic vistas and picturesque backdrop. Hikers can embark on a day trek or opt for a multi-day excursion to the lake, depending on their inclination and physical fitness.
Another day trip that visitors can embark upon is to the Jeti-Oguz Canyon, also known as the “Seven Bulls.” Situated just outside Karakol, this awe-inspiring natural wonder is characterized by its seven striking red rock formations that resemble bulls. Hikers can take on the trails that meander through the canyon, and revel in the unparalleled views that surround them.
The Skazka Canyon, also known as the “Fairytale Canyon,” is yet another fascinating day trip that travelers can undertake. Situated approximately 5 kilometers from Karakol, this surreal landscape boasts of bizarre rock formations that resemble mythical creatures and animals. Hikers can embark on a unique hiking experience, witnessing the region’s natural wonders, and reveling in the mystique of this enchanting canyon.
The Karakol National Park, spanning over 150,000 hectares, is a protected area that serves as a haven for rare flora and fauna species. This national park offers several hiking trails that traverse through diverse ecosystems, from alpine meadows to subalpine forests. Visitors can also marvel at the magnificence of the Karakol Peak, which stands at an elevation of 5,216 meters.
Finally, visitors can explore the Przhevalsky Museum, situated in the nearby village of Teploklyuchenka. This museum is a tribute to the Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky, showcasing his many expeditions and discoveries, including his famous exploration of the Tien Shan Mountains. Visitors can also witness the preserved body of Przhevalsky’s horse, which he rode during his expeditions.
These captivating day trips from Karakol serve as a gateway to the region’s natural splendors, cultural heritage, and historical significance, making for an indelible and enriching travel experience.
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 is in partnership with Discover Kyrgyzstan. As always, all opinions expressed here are my own.
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