Karakol – Kyrgyzstan’s Most Diverse City

Karakol – Kyrgyzstan’s Most Diverse City

Experience

In Karakol, local student Amman showed me around his home city. This was once a Russian outpost on the edge of the vast Czarist Empire. This was the furthest east the Russian’s would reach, as beyond here were the domineering Tien Shan mountains, a range that forms one of Kyrgyzstan’s best trekking regions and also the border with China. Amman is Kyrgyz, but he explained that this frontier town grew from the combined efforts of people from across the Russian Empire and people from far beyond its eastern border with China.

I was taken to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a building that during the Soviet era was a storehouse and then a dance hall, before finding its religious affiliations again amongst the Russians who remained here after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Just down the road though, is the intriguing shape of a brightly coloured mosque that’s inscribed with Chinese characters and is distinctly eastern in architectural style. This, Amman explained, was the Dungan Mosque, the centrepiece of the local Dungan community who were exiled here in the 1870s. They were welcomed by Russia to settle and helped to grow Karakol from a small, isolated outpost into one of the largest cities in the east.

Amongst the Russians, and the Chinese Muslims, there were Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and many more unique different peoples who made Karakol their home and that over the decades since their arrival transformed this backwater into one of Kyrgyzstan’s most fascinating and multicultural destinations.

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SEE – Photos & Videos

WSE Travel - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan’s Most Diverse City - Dungan Mosque in Karakol

Dungan Mosque in Karakol

WSE Travel - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan’s Most Diverse City - Karakol Orthodox Church

Karakol Orthodox Church

WSE Travel - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan’s Most Diverse City - Karakol Sign

Karakol Sign

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GO – Getting There

Karakol is one of the largest cities in Kyrgyzstan, located in the far east of the country on the serene shores of Lake Issyk Kul. Despite being the country’s fourth-largest city, Karakol’s air links to other destinations in Kyrgyzstan are almost non-existent. The small airport has only occasional charter flights during the summer tourist season, and so travellers will find that the only real means of transport here is overland.

If flying internationally into Kyrgyzstan, you will need to land at and pass through Bishkek, the capital city. There are regular direct flights here across Central Asia and further afield to the Middle East and Turkey from where you can connect to almost anywhere else in the world. There are also international bus and train routes arriving in Bishkek from nearby cities such as Almaty, Tashkent and even as far away as Moscow.

From Bishkek, there are regular local Marshrutkas – minibuses – departing from the western bus station, although expect the vehicles to be packed for the duration of the journey. There are also many shared taxis departing from the Osh Bazaar. Travel time will be at least 6 hours, and transport will only leave once it’s full, so it’s advisable to start early to secure a seat and to ensure you arrive in Karakol itself at a reasonable hour. You can also travel from Bishkek via Cholpon-Ata, a resort town on Lake Issyk Kul which is approximately at the halfway point, giving you the opportunity to break the journey up.

WSE Travel - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan’s Most Diverse City - Map

Karakol – Kyrgyzstan’s Most Diverse City – Map

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Do – Activities & Attractions

Trekking

Many travellers will use Karakol as a base for trekking into the local mountains, as the region offers exceptional hiking in areas that are almost untouched. You can trek along high altitude passes and visit remote nomadic camps to experience a way of life that the local Kyrgyz people have lived for centuries. It’s best to arrange guides for longer multi-day treks, due to the wild nature of the scenery and the weather.

Walking Tour

The tourism board run a free, tips based walking tour in peak season that is guided by local students in English. The tour will give you an inside look at the city’s intriguing history and growth from being a simple Russian military outpost to one of the most important locations in Kyrgyzstan.

Museum of Karakol

Set in one of the city’s oldest buildings, the Museum of Karakol offers a look at the city’s diverse history and at the different people who call this region home. The most impressive display is the photographic exhibition showcasing the work of Ella Maillart, a Swiss adventurer and one of the first solo female travellers to document life in Russian Central Asia in the 1930s.

Lake Issyk Kul Cruise

Enjoy the beautiful still waters of nearby Lake Issyk Kul, one of the largest lakes in Central Asia. You can take a tour of the nearby shoreline and even enjoy a few sunset drinks too.

Orthodox Cathedral

The huge, wooden facade of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral is a wonderful sight in the centre of the city, and one of the best remnants of the Russian Empire’s time here.

Learn About the Dungan People

The Dungans are a group of Chinese Muslims who were exiled to Karakol after a failed rebellion in the 1870s. They have since flourished and helped to turn Karakol into a multicultural city, with their biggest legacies being the elegant Chinese inspired Dungan Mosque and their mark on the local food.

Skazka Canyon

Also known as the Fairy Tale Canyon, Skazka is a beautiful realm of unique rock formations just down the road from Karakol. You can hike through this surreal landscape that’s more akin to Cappadocia than to Kyrgyzstan.

Winter Sports

Once the snow has fallen and settled, the surrounding mountains turn from a trekker’s paradise into a winter sport’s paradise. There are many great runs and the Karakol Ski Resort just outside the city can provide lodging and gear.

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Stay – Accommodation

The city has an ever increasing range of accommodation that’s emerging due to the gradual interest in tourism in the region. There are more backpacker hostels than ever before, offering great value dormitories, while also being excellent sources of information on the local area. Karakol used to be popular as a tourist destination during the Soviet-era and you can find lots of cheap, but basic Soviet-style apartments and sanatoriums, while increasingly, lots of locals are joining the tourist game by renting out their own rooms as part of homestay experiences that allow you to immerse yourself in the local food and culture.

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Eat – Restaurants

The local food has influences from across Central Asia, the former Russian Empire and neighbouring China. You can find some spicy local delicacies, including the local speciality, Ashlan Fu, a noodle soup made with lots of vegetables and chilli. The local markets are the best place to find authentic local dishes, with a popular area being known as Ashlan Fu Alley, where you can find not only this dish but many other local dishes too.

The local tourism board, Destination Karakol, also run an insightful food tour of Karakol that takes you to the best local eateries, while a local Dungan family – an ethnic community from China that were exiled to Karakol in the 19th century – host a family dinner in a nearby village where you can learn more about this unique people’s history and culture and how to cook the famous Ashlan Fu that they brought with them from their home country many years ago.

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Time – Seasonality & Schedules

If you are interested in trekking or hiking around Karakol then undoubtedly the only season to visit the city is in the summer. Karakol lies next to the formidable Tien Shan Mountains that form the natural border with China, and as such the high altitude results in heavy snowfall through much of the year. The best time to visit to enjoy the excellent summer weather and great hiking is between April and September, but be prepared in the shoulder months for unpredictable weather and even snow as early as mid-September. Much of the tourist facilities close down within the city itself after the summer season has ended, due to lack of demand.

Conversely, if you are interested in skiing whilst visiting Karakol, then the best time to travel will be from January to March when you can enjoy the great winter sports opportunities.

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Safety – Possible risks

Karakol is a very safe destination to visit, particularly within the city itself. You will find it to be an enjoyable place to wander around, with plenty of opportunities to meet and interact with the diverse local communities too. The biggest danger to travellers is when out hiking or taking part in winter sports. Lots of the trails are remote and with unpredictable weather and high altitude, it’s to become disorientated and even sick. It’s advisable to hike with guides who know the area and who know the routes, as most are unmarked.

Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.

Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.

Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).

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Pay – How much does it cost?

Karakol can be exceptionally cheap to travel to, and you can find plenty of ATMs and money changers within the city centre itself. Local food, particularly Shashlik or the local favourite, Ashlan Fu, will set you back no more than 1-2 USD per plate or bowl, while the fancier restaurants aimed at the emerging tourist market and specialising in regional delicacies will be slightly pricier, but no more than 5 USD per meal. There is even a free, tips based walking tour to allow you to see the city with locals, while other tours will cost no more than 20 USD. The biggest expense when in Karakol would be for trekkers or skiers hiring equipment and guides, and these costs will vary.

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Responsible Travel – Best Practices

Community Based Tourism is an initiative that has taken off in recent years across Kyrgyzstan, and Karakol is no different. The idea is to help support local communities directly, by employing local guides and using local homestays. CBT is both a helpful resource and a way of contributing directly to the local economy if you seek their help during your travels here.

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Reality Check – Be Aware

Karakol can be a tricky place to travel through sometimes, particularly if you don’t speak much Russian or any of the local dialects. Infrastructure is basic and outside of the city, almost nonexistent. Roads can easily be washed away or snowed in, while the altitude is a real issue for many not used to it. CBT and the local tourism ventures are extremely helpful though, and a visit to Karakol is sure to be an adventurous undertaking that despite its challenges will leave you feeling very much rewarded.

Additional Resources

Fairy tale Canyon Kyrgyzstan

Destination Karakol

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JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages

This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!

Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.

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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?

Please feel free to share your stories and thoughts in the comment section below!

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