Karakol is the adventure springboard of Kyrgyzstan, the place you go to get set up for a trek into the gorgeous mountains and valleys nearby. See our recent feature story on hiking in Kyrgyzstan for all that.
It’s worth hanging around Karakol for at least a couple days though, especially if, like my group, you just spent close to a week sleeping in a tent at around 3,000 meters each night. You’ll appreciate the good food, cheap beer, soft beds, and hot showers. While you’re there, here are a few activities to check out after you’ve rested up.
Dungan Village Family Dinner Spread
When a brochure for a village dinner experience says, “We dare you to leave hungry,” it’s a pretty good bet that you’re going to find plenty to eat. That was the case when my Kyrgyzstan hiking group rolled into the ethnic Dungan village outside Karakol and the bowls kept coming.
We had all been hiking up and down mountain passes for six days straight, often only stopping for lunch and one break from early morning until the sun was heading down. The porters were carrying food and we had a good cook, but we were looking forward to chowing down on what was coming out of a real kitchen.
As you can see from the spread above, we weren’t hurting for choices. The tradition is to cover the whole mat on the floor with an even number of dishes, artfully arranged. In our case it was 40 of them, with a wide spectrum of flavors. Before we sat down, we put together our own versions of the dish ashlyanfu, catering the spice level to our own tastes.
The Dungan people have an interesting history, which you’ll hear via a translator after visiting a small museum in the village of Deishin. They originally came to Western China when recruited from the Muslim world along the Silk Road as great warriors. They intermarried with the locals and became a part of the community. As the tides of government changed they launched a rebellion for independence and that did not go well. Eventually they migrated to the Russian sphere of Central Asia. The ones that made it over the mountains in winter have been in Kyrgyzstan for around 140 years.
The cost of the dinner and museum is 1,400 som, which when I visited came out to around US$21, including transportation. If you have your own wheels or are on a tour it should be less.
Karakol Kyrgyz Food Tour
Destination Karakol also arranges a walking food tour of their city, with stops at four restaurants for different dishes (and if you’re nice, a sweet somewhere at the end.) This one is even more of a bargain, at around $9.
At each restaurant we sat down, had some tea and waited for the surprise to arrive. Each one was delicious, but the crowd favorite was the Tartar dish azuu. Pegged as a great hangover meal, it’s made of beef tips, onion, garlic, beans, french fries, and…dill pickles. It disappeared quickly.
The restaurant interiors are almost as varied as the dishes, though be advised it’s a set dish at each place and only one of them we ate was vegetarian. (The oromo one pictured here at the left.) If you have special dietary needs you’re probably better off making up your own tour of local eateries, armed with a phrase book or app.
See the Sites of Karakol
You’re not going to spend days in this ex-communist town seeing the sights. Most are stern monuments and blocky buildings meant to be functional, not beautiful. The best things to see pre-date the Soviets and a walking tour of the city will provide some more background. This also enables you to ask all those questions that have been bugging you since you arrived.
Stop by the Destination Karakol office to sign up for their free walking tour, which usually gets going at 9:30. It visits the Dungan Mosque (unlike any you have ever seen) and also this gorgeous wooden church that saw other uses during Soviet times. One interesting aspect here is that most religious buildings have an orchard beside them bulging with pears or apples.
You will also visit the small but well-done Przhevalsky Museum, which gives you a lot of insight into the Kyrgyz topography, history, and culture.
Take a Cruise on Giant Lake Issyk-Kul
Nearby Lake Issyk-Kul is the second-largest mountain lake in the world after Titicaca and one of the largest overall by volume. If you travel from Bishkek to Karakol you’ll mostly go along this lake: it’s 131 miles (182 kilometers) long. You’ll find yurt camps and resort hotels along its banks.
If you want to get on the water instead of next to it, take a short hop from Karakol and get on a sunset cruise of the lake. You can jump off and swim if you’d like or just drink a beer and enjoy the views.
Go Flying Through the Air From a Cliff
Have you ever wanted to run down a hill and then go flying through the air like a bird? I have for most of my life and finally got to do it in Kyrgyzstan.
We went paragliding with Sky Trial, based in Karakol and run by an ex-military entrepreneur. Although this is one of the best travel bargains you could ask for—less than $20 per person—I was impressed with the seriousness and the security precautions of the operation. There was a good bit of waiting around on a sunny hilltop for the wind to get gusting strong enough, but we were glad he waited for optimal conditions instead of hoping for the best.
No experience is necessary: you go in tandem with the person who really knows what he’s doing and he also does the steering. It’s like paragliding at a beach resort area, but with a lot more movement and fun as you sail over farmland and animals outside of the city.
For more information and photos, see the Visit Karakol site. See more on the whole country at Discover Kyrgyzstan.
This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.