Traveling around Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia was one of the most unexpected experiences of my year, but also one of the most fun. When I was invited to visit by USAID, I had no idea what to expect – but that’s normal I think. New to international tourism, Kyrgyzstan is trying to share with the world everything that makes the country so interesting to experience. After ten days of travel, I was convinced by the width and breadth of activities from urban escapes in Bishkek to admiring the beauty of Alpine meadows. There’s a fierce diversity of activities in Kyrgyzstan and that is especially true in the northern city of Karakol. Even though I knew little about Karakol before my visit, I left the city with an incredible admiration for it, my time there easily amongst the many highlights of my trip. Since I am fairly sure that Karakol is well off the radar for the average traveler, today I want to share some of the city’s best features that make it so incredible to visit no matter what kind of traveler you are.
Where it is
Kyrgyzstan is smack dab in the middle of Central Asia. About the same size as the U.S. state of Georgia, its neighbors are Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west and southwest, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the east. Karakol is the 4th largest city in Kyrgyzstan and is located in the northeast, about 90 miles from the Chinese border and 240 miles from the capital city of Bishkek. The easiest way to get there is by car from Bishkek.
Important city to visit
Tourism in Kyrgyzstan is still in its infancy, but it’s quickly coming into its own. One area though that did have a fairly well established tourism background is Karakol. The 4th largest city in the country, its close proximity both to the massive Lake Issyk-Kul and those alpine peaks famous for both summer trekking and winter skiing means that people have been transiting through Karakol for a long time. That’s part of the problem though, “transiting through.” The city was a base camp, a place to stay for a night either before or after some grand adventure, and it still serves that role today. But, after spending a few days in and around the city, I can honestly say that Karakol itself has a lot to offer the curious traveler.
One of my many takeaways from visiting Kyrgyzstan is how incredibly multicultural it is. Around the country there are more than 40 different ethnic groups and, for the most part, they live peacefully side-by-side. The same holds true in Karakol which itself is home to a dozen or so defined ethnic minorities, living communally for decades, sharing their cultures and of course their food. Karakol’s history isn’t unlike many other cities around Central Asia. It was “created” by the Russian Empire in the late 19th century as an outpost in their newly acquired lands. Over time a variety of people moved to the city for work or refuge, in the process creating the melting pot that exists today. This same unique combination of traditions is easily experienced on a walk around town with the fine folks over at Destination Karakol who offer a special Karakol food tour of the city.
Thanks in large part to its unique position along the Silk Road, traders from around the known world passed through the country over the centuries, bringing with them different spices and ingredients, recipes and techniques and infusing the region with a new way to enjoy food. The tour, led by a local, take guests through the successive waves of immigration to the region, from those early traders to the 19th century Russians. Dishes such as Lagman and Ashlyan-Fu are enjoyed but, more importantly, we learned why these dishes are so important to daily life in Karakol. Why people choose to eat them so regularly and, of course, the best places in town to find them. The Karakol food crawl was my favorite experience in Karakol not just because everything was so delicious, but because it was a truly immersive way to learn more about this fascinating part of the country.
Experiences Around Town
For a small town, there’s actually quite a bit to see and do, most of which I learned about on a Karakol walking tour led by a local. To be clear, this isn’t Bishkek. The roads aren’t always in the best shape, there are plenty of abandoned areas and Soviet era statues and memorials line the parks and public spaces. But, believe it or not, that’s all part of the charm of the city, what makes it special and, ultimately, what keeps luring in visitors from around the world. The city was created by the Russians and so has a planned look and feel to it. Streets are mostly in a grid pattern and in the old part of town you can still see the old Russian homes and other buildings, all colorful and all a reminder of Karakol’s origins. The highlight of these buildings is the wooden Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which has had many lives on the last 100 years. It’s in great shape though and with plans to completely refurbish it, the church will continue to be a highlight for many visitors. Another colorful highlight is the Dungan mosque, a great example of how many different ethnic groups all live alongside each other. Unique shops, incredibly diverse markets, a fantastic history museum and more all make spending time in Karakol fun and important for any visitor.
Originally of Chinese decent, the Dungan people fled China in the 19th century and established communities throughout Central Asia, including in what is modern Kyrgyzstan. One reason why they’ve been oppressed throughout the years is because they are also ardent Muslims, but they seem to have found a welcoming home in Karakol. They’ve also had an incredible impact on the city over the more than 100 years they’ve lived there, not only through the colorful mosques, but through their unique cuisine. One evening I joined a fun excursion to a nearby Dungan community where I had the great opportunity to enjoy a traditional Dungan dinner in the home of a local resident. Sitting on colorful rugs, it seemed as though the steady procession of small dishes would never end – it was a feast in every sense of the word. More than just amazing food though, it was a very unique way to learn more about the Dungan, to break bread with them in their homes and, by the end of the evening, to be welcomed as a new friend. Experiences like this one are surprisingly easy to find in Kyrgyzstan, most people eager to welcome visitors and to share everything that makes their way of life so wonderful. That’s unique in my experience and is just one of a hundred reasons why Kyrgyzstan was such an important trip for me on a very personal level.
When asked, I usually describe my style of travel as experiential luxury. That means I really enjoy experiencing new destinations on deep and personal levels, trying just about anything and getting to know the people who live there. But, it also means I prefer to stay in nicer accommodations, hotels with a number of stars before their name. Since tourism in Kyrgyzstan is still in its infancy, there aren’t many options around the country and up until now, most travelers elected to stay in guesthouses. Luckily, thanks to the new wave of tourists visiting, new hotels are starting to pop up and in Karakol I had the great opportunity to stay in the newest (and nicest) hotel in town, the Karagat Hotel. Since Karakol isn’t very big, walking to the downtown area from the hotel was easy and the hotel itself has all of the finishing touches I’d expect from any great hotel around the world. Add in wonderful hospitality, great food, large rooms and a steady supply of Diet Coke, and I couldn’t have found a better home base for my time in Karakol.
Spending a morning touring Karakol, one of the day’s highlights was actually about 30 minutes outside of town at the gorgeous Jeti Oguz rock formation. Translated, it means the Seven Bulls and there’s a legend attached to it of course, but for me the experience was amazing in its own right. Standing there, listening to the rushing stream as dozens of horses wandered about freely grazing to their heart’s content, that moment seemed to define Kyrgyzstan for me so far. Known for their horsemanship and love of nature, to join them in this love affair was a special moment. Of course it helped that it was also a nice day, but I soon realized why Jeti Oguz is one of just a handful of places around the country that every Kyrgyz hopes to visit at least once in their lives. There are many other day trips available from Karakol, all of which highlight the natural beauty for which Kyrgyzstan is so very well known.
No, Karakol is not the next London or Paris, but it is an important stop for any visitor to Kyrgyzstan. It’s from this eclectic community where many of the country’s best adventure trips start and it’s where many other folks pass through on their way to other destinations. But don’t just be a voyeur; don’t just stop for the night and stay holed up in your hotel. No, instead add in a day or two, get to know Karakol in its own right, learn about its own inherent value and of course, be sure to experience the best the city has to offer.
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.