When you hear about Karakol (on the internet but also on many travel guides famous) too often you hear it mentioned only as a starting point for excursions in the mountains Terskey Alatau and Tien-Shan Central.
At first glance, Karakol is a quiet town, with wide avenues shaded by poplars, low-rise buildings and surrounded by cultivated fields.
But it is enough to scratch a little below the surface and above all to spend a couple of days here to instead realize its important cultural context and the many reasons why it is worth visiting.
This little guide to 15 good reasons for visitare Police Station takes the trouble to be a starting point to help travelers plan their visit better (and hopes to do so).
And why not, maybe to convince them to spend a few more days here than they have planned.
But to understand better, we need to start from the beginning, that is, from its origins.
Police station it was founded on 1 July 1869 by a military garrison which had been entrusted with the task of finding a fertile place, with a lake full of fish and a mild climate, in which to build a city.
But the main reason why it was built right here was because it was in a strategic position: Karakol at the time was in the center of that region called Turkestan which extended from the Gobi desert in Mongolia al Caspian Sea.
It was, and still is today, a bridge between the China to the east and the rest of Central Asia to the west.
It was for this reason that its first inhabitants were mostly army officers, merchants and explorers.
Therefore, due to its geographical position (and also to the various subsequent influences during the Soviet era) Karakol is a potpourri of ethnic and cultural diversity of which we still have great evidence today.
If you are planning a trip on your own, you may find it useful to read my guide to travel to Kyrgyzstan do it yourself.
You are then ready to discover the 15 reasons to visit Karakol? Departure, go!
15 good reasons to visit Karakol
1 - Eat until you burst and discover Dungan cuisine
8 dishes seem few to you? Think about eating at least 12!
If you like to eat (and eat a lot) organize one dinner at the home of a Dungan family.
Dungan cuisine is unique and different from others found in Kyrgyzstan. It is also a great opportunity to learn more about the Dungan lineage and how they moved here from China, bringing Islam.
The first Dungan, known in China as Hui, arrived in Kyrgyzstan as slaves, but the greatest Dungan migration took place in the years 1877/78 when three great families arrived in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to escape Chinese persecution, bringing their own traditions with them. culture and cuisine.
One of these three groups was led by a man named Ma Yusuf who stopped at Yrdyk a town not far from Karakol.
Today, 150 years after that migration, Yrdyk remains one of the largest Dungan settlements in all of Kyrgyzstan: the population, of about 3000 people, has expanded and is more than double that of those who arrived here.
We arrived at Karim and Hamida's house in the evening. After washing our hands, we prepared our Ashlan-Fu with them (strictly vegetarian for me) and then we all sat together cross-legged around the carpet where dinner was served.
The dishes, mixed both meat and vegetarian, are conceived in the Dungan tradition not as single dishes, but as flavors that must perfectly complement each other.
And if eight dishes seem few to you, know that they are the minimum that will be served, to get to 12-13 courses each!
In reality, the experience we lived was not simply a dinner, but a real full-immersion in Dungan tradition and culture.
2 - Take a walking tour of the city and visit the Dungan Mosque
Try to find a nail at the Dungan Mosque ...
One of the best ways to visit Karakol is take a walking tour discovering its points of interest organized by Destination Karakol.
Among the historical sites of interest certainly stands out Moschea Dungan.
The Mosque was designed by a Chinese architect and craftsmen between 1907 and 1910 for the local Dungan community. The peculiarity of this mosque is that it was built without using even a nail but with a game of joints, exactly like a puzzle.
It is certainly very different from the mosques we are used to seeing in other parts of the world.
3 - Try the Ashlan-Fu
Ashlan-Fu, a typical dish of Dungan cuisine
Traditional dish of the Dungan people, Ashlan Fu is a cold dish made from rice noodles in a broth of vinegar and topped with strips of potato starch, chilli, parsley and a meat sauce.
For vegetarians like me, Ashlan-Fu can also be ordered without meat.
Ashlan-Fu can be found practically everywhere in Karakol. The best place we ate was in an unnamed restaurant which is located on Przhevalskiy Street near the intersection with Jusaeva Street.
4 - Immerse yourself in spices (and culture) at the Grand Bazaar
Il Gran Bazaar di Karakol it's one of those places where you can find really anything: clothes, fruit and vegetables, spices and chillies.
Walking among the stalls of the Grand Bazaar you also have the opportunity to understand how much here in Karakol there is a melting pot of cultures. The sellers belong to ethnic groups from all over Central Asia: Kyrgyz, Russian, Dungan, Uighur, Uzbek and Kalmak.
In addition to the Grand Bazaar, there is another similar market in the city, smaller in size but more central, the Small Bazaar.
5 - Bargaining for a horse at the animal market
Meetings at the Karakol Animal Market
If you happen to be in Karakol during the weekend, an appointment not to be missed is the animal market.
It starts very early on Sunday morning, the ideal is to get there around 5 when it is still dark and observe the shepherds who bargain with each other and buy, sell, trade animals: sheep, horses, bulls, cows and goats.
They actually do great deals. At the animal market you can buy a good horse for less than 500 euros.
The animal market is a blast from the past. Walking among the animals one gets the impression that the market has remained the same as it was in 1930, that nothing has changed. It would be worth the visit just for this: it is a unique cultural experience.
The only warning is to be careful not to get gored by some cows as you pass by.
You also have to be very careful where you put your feet: you can in fact step on something unpleasant and maybe take a nice slip.
In this regard, we must also take into account that there is a risk of getting dirty so don't wear your best dress.
6 - Impress your friends with an original Soviet souvenir
Alexandr's little shop… Here you can find everything that could be an original souvenir
If you haven't been able to buy a sheep at the animal market and want to fall back on something more comfortable to pack, take a trip to the antiquity shop at Alexandr Korablev.
If you like trinkets (tchotchke) or knick-knacks especially from the Soviet and Communist era, you could spend a week in this little shop.
Alexandr is a collector and has spent years putting together all the objects, large and small, found here. It also appears that Alexandr knows the story behind each of them.
If you want to amaze your friends, give them a Soviet brooch from the 1980 Moscow Olympics as a souvenir.
Even if you do not intend to buy anything, take a look at the strategic advice.
You can find it on the corner of Zhamansarieva and Toktogula streets.
7 - Learn to sew a traditional felt rug
Massi busy sewing his first Shyrdak ...
I don't consider myself a compulsive shopper, but the first time I saw the shyrdaks, the traditional Kyrgyz felt rugs, I would have bought them all.
By the way maybe you like: how felt is worked and how a Yurt is built
Damira della Tolgonai NGO offers various courses in the city on felt processing.
Damira learned how to knit felt from her grandmother. Left alone, with a family to support and financial problems, Damira has made this tradition her job. But not only.
Damira has founded a school where young women who, like her, have found themselves in difficulty can teach and work.
In this school, in addition to buying high quality handicraft products, it is also possible to take a lesson and learn how to knit felt.
8 - Orthodox Cathedral
Imagine dancing here ...
Built in 1869 the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity it is a strange wooden building surmounted by turrets with a green roof.
Destroyed by an earthquake and later rebuilt, even if small it is really worth a visit.
Inside, icons and relics make a fine display, but it is not possible to take photographs. During its history (a bit troubled let's face it) it was also a ballroom.
9 - Photographing the gingerbread houses
These typical wooden houses of Russian architecture, with their blue decorations, they are scattered throughout Karakol.
The windows of these houses are in fact so decorated that they are called wooden lace!
Originating in the 19th century, during the maximum expansion of the Russian Empire, today they remind us of the history of the city and give the streets of Karakol a touch of color.
10 – Relax sul lago Issyk-kul
And now imagine relaxing here and taking a nice bath!
When visiting Karakol it is easy to forget that the city is only a 15 minute drive from lago Issyk-Kul.
Lake Issyk-kul is the largest alpine lake in the world after Titicaca and is one of the most popular summer destinations for tourists, especially Russians, who come here to spend their holidays.
The lake is absolutely gorgeous and its sandy beaches are a great place to relax, sunbathe and swim during the summer.
Its peculiarity is that despite being surrounded by mountains covered with glaciers, this lake does not freeze even in winter thanks to its thermal springs.
11 - Rediscover romantic with a sunset cruise
Ok, we have the Coke in hand because my beer was obviously already finished for a while ...
During our visit, after a day spent relaxing and bathing in Issik-Kul Lake we were lucky enough to spend nearly two hours on the boat, watching the sunset.
After we also jumped off the boat, we enjoyed the spectacle of the sun setting behind the mountains with a cold beer and picking fried broad beans.
From this year in fact it is possible to book a tour of about 90 minutes at a cost of about 17 euros with aperitif included !.
12 - Discover three different types of Langhman
Each Kyrgyz dish is a culinary surprise
Langhman noodles are a dish found all over Kyrgyzstan and even parts of China.
These particular "spaghetti" are still pulled by hand here and are worked for a long time until they become very long!
They are then usually added to spiced broth, to obtain a soup, or fried with sauce and sautéed with meat and vegetables.
No matter what type of langhman you choose, it will still be a great dining experience.
I ate some very good ones at Cafe Zarina on Lenin Street.
13 - Find out how good a fried bean seed can be
You knew that you can fry the beans? Not me (only to discover that the web is full of recipes on how to make them) until I tried them in Karakol.
In Karakol, fried beans are found practically everywhere and I have developed a sort of addiction so now I also make them at home.
They are perfect for an aperitif accompanied by a nice cold beer. In karakol you can also find them in the Bazaar and they are mainly sold by Uzbeks who have moved here.
I always think that one day I have to open a small kiosk and sell them. I think I would always be full of people: trust me you won't be able to do without them!
14 - Get on a horse and feel like a Kyrgyz nomadic shepherd
For those who love to walk in nature, but work less, or want to feel like me a real cowgirl, then it is the case to jump on a horse and head towards the mountains.
Il horse trekking it is one of the things that absolutely must be done in Kyrgyzstan.
About this you can read mine 3 day horse trekking to Song Kol!
To organize your horse trekking, please contact Destination Karakol.
If you want to contact an agency instead, Bulak Say Horseback and Trekking is among those recommended.
Within easy reach of Karakol (about an hour by car) the small village of Jyrgalan (my favorite place in Kyrgyzstan along with Song Kol) offers various types of walks and horse trekking even for several days.
15 - Take a real Russian-style sauna
I only took the sauna in our hotel, but if you want a truly authentic experience try a real Russian sauna.
The sauna is ideal for relaxing tired muscles, especially when returning from trekking on the Tien-Shan range.
Do you want to organize a trekking from Karakol? Read about my trekking Turgen-Ak Suu, 3 days in a tent on unmarked paths!
Karkyra banya (Баня «Каркыра») on Karasaev Street offers a very “local” experience: there are hot and cold pools, hot saunas and showers to rinse off.
It costs about 1 euro per hour but to get there you will have to take a taxi (it is located a little out of town).
If you don't feel like being naked in public don't worry, you will be given a towel to cover yourself.
Visiting Karakol: essential information
The Karagt hotel may seem like a business hotel, it is actually very welcoming
How to reach us
How to get there from Bishkek: take a marshtrutka (minivan) or a shared taxi from the main bus station. The journey takes about 5-6 hours.
Da cholpon ata: jump on a marshtrutka. The station is located outside the city center so you will need to take a taxi to get to the center.
During our stay we stayed in two excellent hotels in Karakol:
Hotel Tagaytay: a cozy guesthouse with a very kind owner who uses solar and renewable energy for electricity and hot water (the rooms are very nice)
Hotel Karagat: one of the largest hotels in Karakol with huge rooms, sauna and swimming pool. The Karagat might look like a business hotel, but it is still a comfortable place to stay and relax before and after the treks.
For travelers who want to spend less in Karakol there is a wide range of cheap hostels and if you want to sleep in a yurt you can try Happy Yurt Camp.
Here you will find other hotels, hostels and guesthouses in Karakol.
How to book tours and excursions
All tours and experiences listed in this post you can book them at Destination Police Station Visitor Center which is located at 22 Gagarin Street. You can also send an email to this address firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 996 558 508 808.
Disclosure: my experience in Kyrgyzstan is the result of a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) tourism development project. The contents are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government: as always, all thoughts and information, the how, what and why, are entirely personal.