Chances are, if you are looking to do some easy trekking while in Kyrgyzstan, you will find yourself in Karakol. Although Lonely Planet has a grim description of this town, I found it rather delightful. It is a perfect place to chill out in between trekking out to Altyn-Arashan, or longer routes in the mountains. There is some great architecture scattered throughout the town, and beautiful snow capped peaks in the distance. Although it can seem like it is on Issyk-Kul Lake, it is about 11km away.
Things to do:
- Sunday animal bazaar-
This claims to be the biggest one in all of Kyrgyzstan. Make sure to get up early and grab a taxi or minibus. You can also opt to walk there. I did not make it to the market, but from the pictures that I have seen, it looks like a pretty wild experience to behold. My husband and I joked that it would be funny to buy a horse or camel at one of these markets and tour the country on our new animal friend.
- Holy Trinity Church-
Located just a block away from the center of the city, this old church is made entirely of wood, with turquoise roof spires topped with gold, making for beautiful photos. It is also surrounded by a nice garden, full of beautiful flowers. There are signs saying you can’t take photos of the church, but I assume that pertains to the inside, especially if there are people worshipping there. It appears that women need to cover their heads and legs when entering the church.
- Karakol Café-
This is a great place for coffee, pizza, homemade desserts, beer, and a good way to meet people. The café seems to be run by a family, and two young girls who speak great English will take your order. Their home made-cakes are amazing, and if you are lucky enough there will be a fresh baked apple coffee cake that might be the best cake I have ever had. Also, right next to the café is a very strange alligator statue. I don’t know why its there but it’s a fun, random feature of the town.
- The bazaar-
The bazaar is located near the bus stand to Auk Cyy and Altyn Arashan trailhead, or about a ten-minute walk from the center of town. It is bustling throughout the day, but definitely not as overwhelming as the Osh bazaar in Bishkek. You can find the usual things, from food to clothing and everything else in between. There is a smaller bazaar located near the church and the center of town that is less chaotic, offering nearly the same things, as well as good options for food including fresh baked bread, samsas, vegetables, fruit and cheese.
Where to eat
Karakol Coffee- Only has pizza and cakes, but both are good. Great staff!
Hamburger stand- I’m not sure if it has a name, but it’s a really small stand on the corner of Toktogula and Jusaev Street. The menu is in Russian or Kyrg, but there is a young guy who speaks good English, and he will help you order and make small talk with you. It seems they make shwarma and hamburgers, although the hamburger is not a patty, but rather the same beef used for shwarma. So far it was the cheapest and tastiest one I have had in Central Asia.
If you are on a budget, head towards the smaller bazaar near the city center (between Lenin and Jusaev Street). You can find freshly cooked meat filled pies for 30som. There is also a bakery where you can buy a fresh loaf of bread, then head to the market for cheese, salami, cucumbers and tomatoes.
I have found that it is cheaper and better to create a small dinner by heading to a market as opposed to going to a restaurant. The restaurant might have an English menu, but you can always point at the market.
Day Trips from Karakol-
If you are in Karakol, it’s probably because you are using it as a base to head into the mountains, or check out some other natural attractions nearby. Most day trips or smaller overnight trips will most likely involve hiring a car, which can be pricey, but if you find other people to come along, you can split the cost. Most guesthouses can help you plan these trips, and help with hiring a car.
Altyn Arashan– This is perfect if you are looking to do a little trekking, but aren’t feeling ambitious enough for a multi-day trek. Since there are guesthouses and yurts at Altyn Arashan, you don’t need to have camping equipment.
Standard 3 day/2 night trek- This popular trek will take you over a pass, and Ala Kul Lake. Your last night will bring you to Altyn Arashan where you can rest your body in the many hot springs along the river. Most guesthouses in Karakol can show you the route, or connect you with a guide. You can rent gear for the trek, and arrange a guide at Kyrgyz Tour Guesthouse just a few blocks from the Holy Trinity Church on Lenin Street.
It is also a jumping off point to many national parks, biking routes, and more. I recommend it as a perfect place to relax in between adventures.
Where to stay
There are many places to choose from, but I highly recommend staying at Kyrgyz Tour Guesthouse. Not only is it a beautiful setting but the family that runs the place are very friendly and helpful. Only the daughter speaks English, but if she isn’t around someone will call her and she can help you with whatever you need. It costs 680som/person for a double room and breakfast. The breakfast is made fresh for you each morning, and will keep you full for a long time. There are different types of accommodation to choose from- dorm, yurts, private rooms, or you can just throw your tent up outside. Aside from accommodations, they also offer luggage storage, gear rentals, and you can arrange a specific trip with a guide through them. They gave all sorts of good suggestions, and seemed very eager to help people see the natural beauty surrounding the town.
So while there are cheaper places to stay in town, most of which had mixed reviews, I highly recommend this place if you make your way here, as it will really help make your stay convenient and special.
Getting to Karakol
Karakol is located at the southeastern edge of Issyk-Kul Lake. You can grab a minibus (mashtruka) from the Western Bus Station in Bishkek for 350som/person. Make sure your minibus has a Karakol sign in the front window. We were whisked into a minibus claiming to take us to Karakol but a few towns after Cholpyn-Ata, there was only me, my husband, and two other passengers left onboard. The bus pulled over, shut the engine off, and flagged down other minibuses to take us to our final destination. Luckily, I had jumped out of the van to stretch my legs, and watched as he paid the remaining fair for the other two people. So when a Karakol-bound minibus stopped for us and he tried to make us pay more, I knew we didn’t have to. (I love all things Kyrgyzstan, aside from the negotiations that come when arranging a ride.) So definitely don’t pay more if this situation happens to you.
It takes about 5-6 hours with one break after two hours. Alternatively, you can take a shared taxi which should cost 700som/person. I found the ride via minibus to be bearable but my husband was having a bit more trouble, as he is pretty tall. Your butt will probably get pretty sore, but it’s cheap, and the views are amazing. If you aren’t on a tight budget, taking a share taxi will be more comfortable. But beware that either way, it’s very possible that you will have a new friend sleeping on your shoulder. Not so bad when that person is smaller than you, but a bit uncomfortable when that person is a grown man and a deep sleeper.
- Always make sure to know how much minibuses should cost to your destination before you set out.
- Make sure to check that your minibus has the name of your destination in the window.
- There is only one stop on the way from Bishkek to Karakol, so plan accordingly and don’t drink too much water or coffee. You might also want to bring snacks.
- If you are lucky you will end up on a minibus that has windows that open. If you do, sit next to them, as it gets very stuffy inside the vans, and most seem to not have air conditioning.
Have you been to Karakol? Did you love it? I would love to hear about your experience below.