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Karakol Travel Guide + 13 Things to do in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
Updated April 2020, Karakol Travel Guide + 13 Things to do in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan was originally written in January 2020
Most who visit Karakol come to get out into the mountains and explore the natural wonders eastern Kyrgyzstan has to offer, but Karakol is a destination in its own right. With arguably the best cuisine in Central Asia and several attractions in the pint-sized town, Karakol offers plenty to do in between trekking adventures in Kyrgyzstan. In this Karakol Travel Guide you’ll learn the best things to do in Karakol, where to sleep, the best restaurants, how to get to Karakol, and more.
Things To Do In Karakol
Karakol Walking Tour
Destination Karakol offers up a free (donations encouraged) 3 hour walking tour of Karakol, taking in the small city’s most impressive sites. A portion of the donations from the walking tour goes directly to supporting Destination Karakol, who helps to develop tourism in Karakol as well as enterprise and community activities.
Dungan Family Meal
Having a delicious Dungan meal is a must-do activity for anyone coming to visit Karakol. The Dungan people are a Chinese-Muslim ethnic group that fled from China in several waves over the years and a large population now calls Karakol and several surrounding communities home. The Dungans brought their culture, traditions and most noticeably their cuisine to Kyrgystan. In the nearby village of Yrdyk, you can arrange to have a Dungan family-style meal which on both occasions I have been part of one has been a highlight of my visit.
At my first Dungan meal, a large group of us (about 15) entered a friendly home where the wife cooked furiously in the kitchen and the husband brought plates out to begin sampling. Before long he’d appear with another set of plates and yell at us to hurry to finish the previous one because he had no room for the new hot dishes. It was quite a comical experience with a man yelling to eat faster while cracking a smirk at the same time. After dinner, the family sang traditional Dungan songs and even taught us the Dungan (Perso-Arabic) alphabet. At my second Dungan family meal, our host Hamida gave a tutorial on how to make ashlan fu (more on ashlan fu later in this post), before letting us all construct our own bowl. After that, the Dungan feast commenced with plate after plate of delicious traditional dishes.
If you would like to participate in a Dungan family meal and explore the village of Yrdyk, click here to reserve a spot. The cost is 1,400 KGS per person.
Karakol Foodie Tour
Karakol has the best food in Central Asia, try to change my mind…
I’m not looking for a debate, but I can honestly say that my heart flutters when I hear the name Karakol because I know that’s the spot where I’m guaranteed to overstuff myself with delicious ashlan fu, lagman, manti, oromo, azu, ganfan and more. Karakol has a unique and diverse ethnic makeup where Kyrgyz, Uyghur, Dungan, Russian, Kazakh, and Tatar influences have all shaped the food scene in Karakol. And best of all, Destination Karakol offers a Karakol Foodie Crawl where you can try many of the delectable dishes around town and with a local guide who will help to explain the origins, ingredients, and answer any questions you may have. The Karakol Foodie Crawl costs 600 KGS for the nearly 3 hour long tour.
Check out my post on all the foods you must try in Karakol
Take A Cooking Class
Whether it’s you want to give lagman noodle pulling a try, stuff and neatly fold a delicious manti, learn the art of making mouthwatering and hangover-curing ashlan fu, or knead some dough and learn how to fire up a tandyr to make a beautiful Uyghur-style mai kotch, Destination Karakol can set you up to take a cooking class where you can learn to prepare these meals on your own. In my travels, I get introduced to amazing foods, but the downside is that many of those amazing foods do not exist where I live. So I love taking cooking classes so that I can take home recipes from my travels and trying to recreate them back in Alaska. If I ever find myself missing a cold bowl of ashlan fu or steaming lagman I now can make my own at home (though mine is never as good as what I can get in Karakol).
The Dungan Mosque
Karakol’s Dungan Mosque is one of the most unique mosques the world over, combining Chinese, Arab and Russian elements. It was constructed to be used by the local Dungan community, built and designed by Chinese architects and artisans between 1907 and 1910. The original mosque was built entirely without nails, however, more recent renovations did make use of iron and nails.
Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral
The wooden, green-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral is one of the first images you typically see when you’re searching online for information about Karakol. The cathedral was originally built in 1869 when Karakol was founded as a city named Przhevalsk, to serve troops stationed in the city, when it was really nothing more than a garrison on the edge of the Russian Frontier. In 1889 the cathedral was destroyed by an earthquake, but reconstructed shortly after. The cathedral was closed in 1971 and only opened again after Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991.
Grab A Cold Bowl Of Ashlan Fu
Ah, ashlan fu, a cure for hangovers and likely the most delicious and spicy dish you’ll eat anywhere in Kyrgyzstan. Whatever you have planned for your visit to Karakol, you need to set aside time to drop what you’re doing and head to Ashlan Fu Alley at Bugu Bazaar and give this spicy, cold noodle soup a try. I mean, I’m not one to try and tell people how to travel or live their lives but I’m telling you now that you gave Karakol no justice if you don’t try it.
Can you tell I’m a fanatic?
The delicious soup that is ashlan fu combines Chinese stretch noodles (similar to those used in lagman), starch noodles, vinegar, chili, egg, herbs, and vegetables, is always served cold and usually accompanied by a hot piroshki- a Russian potato-stuffed fry bread. Ashlan Fu came to Karakol thanks to the Dungan people who fled from religious persecution, discrimination, and war in China in 1877 and have continued to come over in waves, making the journey across the Tien Shan Mountains to settle in eastern Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The dish has largely stayed the same over the years despite the forced assimilation of the Dungan people into Russian and Kyrgyz culture.
Largely regarded as the best ashlan fu in Karakol is Ashlan Fu Saida, located in the Ashlan Fu Alley of Bugu Bazaar. A bowl goes for 30 KGS.
Explore The Bazaars & Shops
Bugu, or Small Bazaar is located at the corner of Alybakov & Gagarin Streets in the middle of Karakol. Bugu is the perfect place to head to stock up on things you may need while out trekking or on your onward travels, or search for that perfect souvenir. It’s a lot smaller and quieter than the big Ak Tilek Bazaar just outside of town. When you visit Bugu Bazaar you must head to Ashlan Fu alley that I mentioned previously to get a could bowl of delicious ashlan fu. You’ll also find manti, Korean and Chinese salads, piroshki, bread and more.
Kork Souvenir Shop
The Kork Souvenir Shop is located right next to Bugu Bazaar, so if you’re looking for good quality handmade souvenirs and handicrafts make sure to stop by.
Ak Tilek is also known as Big Bazaar. It’s located about 500 meters from Karakol’s city center on the corner of Torgoev and Aldashev streets. Ak Tilek Bazaar is a bit more chaotic than Bugu Bazaar, but you can probably find just about anything you could possibly need here.
Whether you’re looking for Kyrgyz handicrafts, honey, jams, soap, hats, purses and most any other locally made souvenir, make sure to stop by the Issykul brand shop. Issykul Shop is sponsored by JICA, a Japanese aid organization that helps support a rural women’s development project.
Soviet Antique Shop
The Soviet Antique Shop ran by Alexandr Korablev, is chock full of all types of Soviet memorabilia, from propaganda posters, Soviet pins, medals and more.
Karakol History Museum
The Karakol Historical Museum houses several exhibits displaying historical and cultural items and artifacts local to the Karakol region as well as displays featuring Kyrgyz nomadic culture. Another feature of the Karakol History Museum is the photography exhibit od Swiss explorer Ella Maillart’s photos. Entrance to the Karakol History Museum is 70 KGS per person.
Nikolai Przhevalsky Museum
Nikolai Przhevalsky is the 19th century explorer who Karakol was originally named after when the city was founded. Przhevalsky ended up in the region when he was sent to find a shortcut to Tibet, he died in Karakol in 1888. The museum houses his tomb, a memorial garden, and several exhibits displaying his life and his route through Central Asia. Admission to the Przhevalsky Museum is 80 KGS.
Going to Kazakhstan too? Check out the two week Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan itinerary
Issykul Sunset Cruise
It’s possible if you can get together a group of 8 or more to arrange a sunset cruise on Issykul. Issykul is among the 30 largest lakes in the world and has a high enough saline content that it just doesn’t freeze in the winter. Destination Karakol can help arrange a cruise. They typically depart at 6:30 pm and last for about 2 hours.
2 kilometers outside of Karakol every Sunday there is a huge animal market that takes place where people from all over the region come to buy, sell, and trade livestock. You’ll find goat, sheep, camels, horses, cows and more as you walk along the aisles, as well as locals yelling offers and making deals. This is a great place to see Kyrgyz lifestyle in action, however, if you are sensitive to animal treatment, this may not be the best activity for you as many of these animals are being sold to eventually become food or be used for work. Don’t wear your Sunday finest, you’ll be wading around in lots of mud and manure. Boots or at least closed-toe shoes are a wise choice. Getting out there early is best when the market is most active. The market starts at 7 am and is over by noon. You can grab a taxi from Karakol to the Animal Bazaar 100 KGS or take Marshrutka #102 for 10 KGS per person.
Wander Around Karakol’s Parks
Victory Park & Monument
Victory Park is a great place to head to wander treelined paths, featuring a monument to World War II, a monument to the 1916 Great Urkun revolt of the Kyrgyz people against Tsarist Russia, and a monument to the victims of the Stalinist Regime.
Pushkin Park forms the center of Karakol. Originally the park had been dedicated to Nikolai Barsov, the first governor of Karakol. In 1934 the name was changed to Pushkin Park to honor the famous Russian poet Aleksandar Pushkin.
Karakol River Park
Along the banks of the Karakol River, the Karakol River Park is a great place to head for a stroll in the late afternoon or evening.
Relax At Karkyra Banya
Especially if you’ve just returned from a hiking trip, a visit to Karkyra Banya is in order to warm up, get clean and treat your body for an afternoon. Karkyra is a Russian style banya, similar to a sauna. The fun about visiting these banyas in Central Asia is that they have everything from hot and cold pools, steam saunas, showers and even a lounge where you can crack open a piva (beer) between soaking and sweating. Note that many people go into banyas nude, but you are provided a towel so if you’d feel more comfortable with a bit of coverage, that isn’t a problem. Expect to pay about 100 KGS per hour to visit. Karkyra is located a little bit out of the city center.
How To Travel To Karakol & Away
From Bishkek: From Bishkek, frequent marshrutkas depart the Western Bus Station when full for about 600 KGS per seat. Buses from Karakol to Bishkek depart main bus station in Karakol.
Visiting Bishkek also? Check out the 10 Best Things To Do In Bishkek
From Kazakhstan: The nearby Karkara Border Crossing makes for a shorter way to get between the two countries than the far more common Kordoi Border Crossing just outside of Bishkek (Ak Tilek Border Crossing, right next to Kordoi is being used at the moment due to renovations at Kordoi Crossing). The only caveat is that there is no public transport to the border from either country. For a smooth crossing, you’ll want to make advance arrangements. Read more about how to cross the Karkara Border Crossing in my post about my experience here.
Everything you need to know to Cross The Karkara Border between Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan
Where To Stay In Karakol
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Karakyz Yurt Camp, located outside of Karakol in Kara Kyz
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Karakol Day Trips
The beautiful red rocks of Jeti Oguz are easily reached on a day trip from Karakol or can be made as an overnight trip, as well as Jeti Oguz being a great place to start a multi-day trek from. Marshrutka #355 will bring you to Jeti Oguz from Karakol for 40 KGS, shared taxis will also take you from Karakol for about 30 KGS, or you can rent a whole car to take you for about 200 KGS. Read more to plan your visit to Jeti Oguz here.
Start planning your visit to Jeti Oguz
Skazka Canyon, better known to English speakers as Fairytale Canyon is located southwest of Karakol near the southern coast of Issykul. The unusual orangy-pink rock canyon features fascinating rock formations, the most impressive being a narrow spine of jagged rocks that resemble a stegosaurus’ back. To get to Skazka, take a marshrutka to Bokonbaevo from the South Bus Station in Karakol. From Bokonbaevo you’ll need to find a car to take you the remainder of the way to Skazka. Just ask drivers around ‘Skazka?’ and you’ll eventually be pointed to a driver willing to take you that way. Expect to pay around 100 KGS for the car there.
Tuz Kol is Kyrgyzstan’s ‘Little Dead Sea’, a small salt lake located right off the edge of Issykul near to Bokonbaevo. Get in, slather the black mud all over yourself, let it dry by baking in the sun and then when the mud begins to crack rinse off in the lake again.
Go Paragliding On Issykul
Sky Trial runs paragliding trips over Lake Issykul from nearby Ak Suu Village, a great option for adventurous travelers. This was another activity that we had to cancel unfortunately due to bad weather in August 2019, but friends who have been on the Issykul Paragliding trip have raved about the thrill of the aerial views of the lake.
Trekking Trips From Karakol
Altyn Arashan & Ala Kul
Altyn Arashan is beautifully set in the Anyior Valley, reachable by 4×4 from Karakol (400 KGS), or take Marshrutka #350 from Karakol to Ak Suu Sanatorium and trek 14 km to Altyn Arashan. From Altyn Arashan it’s possible to trek to the gorgeous Ala Kul Lake, or you can take Marshrutka #101 from Karako to the gate of Ala Kul Nature Reserve and opt to do the trek in reverse.
Not be confused with several other lakes scattered around Kyrgyzstan, this Kol Tor is located just east of Karakol in the mountains. You can arrange to trek on foot or by horseback to Kol Tor lake from Kara Kyz Yurt Camp. Unfortunately, we were unable to make our trek to Kol Tor in August 2019 due to heavy rains the day we were supposed to depart, but from the photos I have seen, it looks absolutely stunning.
Jyrgylan is set in a beautiful valley and offers up epic trekking, awesome cultural encounters, and more. Visit Destination Jyrgalan to start planning your trip. Marshrutka #331 departs Ak Tilek Bazaar and will bring you to Jyrgalyn, though do verify that that marshrutka is going all the way to Jyrgakyn as sometimes it only goes to Ak Suu.
Have Any Questions About Visiting Karakol Or Any Of The Best Things To Do In Karakol?
Ask your Karakol travel questions in the comments section below.