Located at just 80 km from the Kazakh border on the eastern side of the Issyk Kul lake, the town of Karakol is one of Central Asia’s most versatile destinations when it comes to outdoor activities.
Whether you are coming to this corner of Kyrgyzstan to hike, ski or climb, Karakol is a relaxed, well-connected base from where to reach glaciers, peaks and turquoise alpine lakes.
While the snow-capped Tien Shan mountains are the constant backdrop to the town’s low-rise buildings, Karakol is more than just an access point to the surrounding landscape.
With a long history of Russian colonization, the wooden houses and orthodox churches offer a glimpse into the past of this former military base, and its position at the crossroad of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and China creates the multicultural atmosphere you would expect to find on the Silk Road.
When to come
Karakol is a 4 season destination. Skiing is possiblIf you are planning to do any outdoor activity, high summer and deep winter are the best times. May, October and November are moments when there is not enough snow for skiing but too much snow on the passes for hiking. December, April, June and September can be good or bad, depending on the weather.
If you want to see the animal market, time your visit for a Sunday.
Karakol was founded in 1869 as a military outpost of the Russian Empire as it gradually conquered Central Asia. The area between the Karakol river and the abandoned caravan route leading to Kashgar was selected as ideal for settlement.
By the turn of the century Karakol had become a town of 8000 inhabitants attracting immigrants from east and west; settlers from Russia in search of fertile lands mixed with refugee Dungans, Muslims from China who were fleeing the Ch’ing Empire.
Karakol changed its name to Przhevalsk in 1888 to honor Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky, who died of typhus in the city before setting off for his third Tibetan expedition. Przhevalsky crossed Mongolia on a 12 000 km journey from Irkutsk to Beijing in 1870, discovered lake Lop Nor in Xinjiang in 1877 and traversed Dzhungaria on foot in 1879.
In 1926, Lenin switched back the name to Karakol, but less than 10 years later, on Przhevalsky’s 100th birthday, Stalin flip-flopped once more. In Soviet times, the name Przhevalsk was synonymous with a testing range for nuclear torpedoes.
After Kyrgyz independence in 1991, Karakol went back to being plain-old Karakol, and slowly re-invented itself as a year-round tourist destination blending utilitarian housing blocks, mosques, wooden Orthodox churches and camping gear shops.
Things to see and do
Hiking and camping options abound for those arriving in summer months, while a ski base is present near the city for those ready to hit the slopes in the cold season.
Horse riding is something you are unlikely to do independently. Plenty of tour operators offer tours in the area. Have a look at some tours we have selected, or send in a custom tour request to tailor something to your wishes.
Karakol is located 15 km away from lake Issyk-Kul, and the closest beach is a 20-minute ride away (bus 116).
If you want to be in walking distance of the beach, we recommend moving elsewhere. Tamga is a pleasant and quiet beach town on the southern shore, while Cholpon-Ata is good if you enjoy Kyrgyz nightlife.
Karakol city sights
Karakol is a small place and you can take in all of its attractions on foot. We did not mark the locations of attractions on the map, they are easy to find.
Cathedral and mosque
The Holy Trinity Cathedral, a church dating back to 1869 that marks the center of the city, is located at the corner between Gagarin and Lenin street, and although it has been rebuilt and restored multiple times its wooden structure and traditional onion dome are still impressive examples of Russian architecture.
A 15-minute walk from the Cathedral stands the Dungan Mosque on Bektenova Street. The Dungans of Karakol invited Beijing architect Chou Seu and 20 Chinese wood carvers to construct the mosque in 1910. The structure is built entirely without nails and painted in bright colors.
Museums and zoo
Karakol has 2 museums. In line with small-town museums elsewhere in Central Asia, neither is a must-see. The history museum mostly contains archaeological artifacts and embalmed animals, with a few pictures of Theodor Herzen thrown in. A room dedicated to pictures of Swiss adventurer Ella Maillart who passed by in the 1930s (the trip is described in Turkestan Solo) is probably the top draw.
The Przewalski museum, as the name suggests, is dedicated entirely to the Russian explorer who died in Karakol before setting out on his Tibetan expedition. Check out this Youtube walkaround if you feel this is your thing. The museum is located outside of town in the hamlet of Pristan-Przhewalsk, near the beach (OSM / Gmaps) – bus 116 takes you there.
The only zoo in Kyrgyzstan, the Bagu Enye, is also found in Karakol (some pictures here). It is small and not necessarily cheerful, but a good place to see local wildlife that is difficult to see in the wild: wolves, markhor and bear.
None of these attractions provides decent information in English.
One of the largest animal markets in Kyrgyzstan is held in the early morning every Sunday 2 km north of the city center.
The market ends around 10 am, so get there early for all the action. The market is divided into two compounds, one for sheep and goats; the other for horses, cattle and the occasional camel.
It is a great place to experience Kyrgyz culture first-hand. Locals examine and bargain for the animals on offer, trying out horses with a short test trot or assessing the weight of the butt on a fat-tailed sheep with their palms. This is Kyrgyz rural life in its unadorned form.
Or, you can buy a horse here yourself and roam the Kyrgyz countryside as it is meant to be roamed.
You can get to the market with marshrutka 102, asking the driver to leave you at Ulanova Street, or walk there in about 25 minutes from the Makish Bazaar.
The main bazaar on the corner of Torgoev and Aldashev streets is open daily from 8 to 18 and sells everything you’d expect from a Central Asian market, while the Bagu Bazaar (corner of Alybakov – Gagarin) is smaller and sells mostly vegetables and an odd selection of souvenirs.
A flea market operates Sundays between 10 and 15 on the corner of Przhevalskogo and Issyk-Kulskaya streets. Do not expect to stumble upon treasure, but it is great for amateur sociology.
Some monuments dedicated to Soviet idols still stand in Karakol. The statue of Yusup Abdrakhmanov (1901-38), the first Secretary of the Kyrgyz Communist Party, stands in the Central Park. The obligatory Lenin can be seen standing at the junction of Gebze and Tynystanova.
Inylchek ghost town
Constructed as a mining town during Soviet times, people started leaving the harsh environment after the fall of the Union left everyone jobless. The town is now abandoned save for a dozen tenacious inhabitants.
The area around lake Issyk-Kul offers plenty more for the engaged sightseer. The southern shore is probably the most interesting: Jeti-Oguz, Fairytale Canyon, Tamga, Barskoon and Bokonbaevo all have something to offer (but we haven’t gotten to writing it down yet. Sorry for that).
The heart of Karakol centers on the crossroads of Lenin and Toktogul streets. If you would like to walk everything, stay within walking distance of this area.
Summer is busy with foreigners, but not completely jam-packed, keeping prices very low. In winter, it’s mostly locals and prices go up during school holidays (of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia) and weekends – definitely book in advance during this time.
Karakol is dominated by guesthouses and hostels; there are not many hotels and apartment rentals.
Mid-range and above
In the 25 euro range, we can list at least 15 guesthouses run by over-the-top helpful and friendly families, with comfy beds, decent wifi, clean bathrooms, pleasant gardens, …
3 of them stand out in our opinion:
Budget travelers are spoilt for choice in Karakol; there are about 30 hostels and new ones keep being added every year. Most have both dorms and private rooms available for very reasonable prices.
Currently, Nice Hostel, KBH, Urban Monkey, Pilgrim and Duet all offer a clean bed and a friendly atmosphere in the centre of town for around 5 euro. The winner overall is KBH as it’s the only hostel in this category that also offers a decent breakfast.
If you are skiing, Dinar Sky is very close to the slopes and has a dorm.
Marshrutkas to Karakol leave from Bishkek’s main Western bus station regularly when full (350 som, 6 h) starting from 6 am. Most transport takes the quicker route along the northern route, but some minibuses take the southern shore route via Bokonbaevo.
Other marshrutkas connect the towns along the coast of the Issyk Kul, arriving or departing from Bokonbaevo, Cholpon-Ata and Balykchy, in case you want to break the journey with a beach stop.
Shared taxis are also available: slightly more expensive, slightly quicker, slightly less safe. More comfortable if you are lucky, but it is not a given with 3 in the back.
Daily transport is available to Bishkek, Balykchy, Cholpon-Ata, Bokonbaevo, Kochkor and Naryn. A very slow and uncomfortable night bus leaves for Bishkek regularly in the evening. Timetables exist, but double-check on the ground to make sure they are still up to date.
Between Karakol and Naryn marshrutkas take either the northern shore or the southern shore (450 som, 6-7 hours).
Nearby trekking destinations connected by marshrutka are Ak-Suu (for Altyn Arashan), Jyrgalan, the Karakol gorge (Karakol base camp and Alakul trek) and Jeti-Ögüz.
There are 5 locations that serve as bus stations, find them all on this Google map.
The northern bus station serves destinations along the northern shore of Issyk Kul, including Bishkek. It is located at a 25-minute walk from the center. Chances are your bus continues into the center, so don’t get off too soon if possible, or you will need to take a taxi or bus 109 to get to the center.
The southern bus station sits at the southern end of Toktogul street and serves destinations along the southern shore of Issyk Kul, including Bishkek.
Central bus stops:
- bus 355 to Jeti-Ögüz leave from the southern end of the bazaar
- buses to Ak-Suu (350) and Jyrgalan (331) leave from the southeastern end of the bazaar.
- bus 101 to the Karakol gorge can be hailed along Toktogul – Lenin – Kapacaeba streets.
The road to Kazakhstan’s Almaty region via Kegen is open seasonally once the weather warms up, and there is no regular public transport. For all details concerning opening times of the border and how to make your way across, see the Karkara valley chapter in the Kyrgyzstan border crossing page.
Given the many ethnicities that intersect in Karakol, a diverse array of foods and restaurants are waiting to be tried throughout the city.
If there is one dish Karakol is known for, however, it is ashlan-fu, a vegetarian-friendly Dungan specialty made of two different types of noodles (bean and wheat) covered in garlic, tomatoes, spices and vinegar sauce. An entire alley is dedicated to the Dungan delicacy in Karakol, right next to the small Bagu Bazaar.
Ganfan is another Chinese inspired dish commonly found in Karakol, it features the same sauce you would find on the omnipresent laghman, but served on steamed rice rather than noodles.
Manty are steamed dumplings traditionally filled with lamb and onions, a Central Asia favorite that in Karakol can also be found stuffed with chives. The local version is known as zhusay manty.
Sea buckthorn berries (oblepikha in Russian) drowned in honey is another Issyk-Kul delicacy.
Questions, reports and updates are welcome in the Karakol forum thread.