13 Terrific things to do in Karakol: Hiking, Culture and History

Karakol is a charming little town in the eastern part of Kyrgyzstan often regarded as its adventure capital.

Whether you’re looking for a relaxing getaway or an adventurous trip, Karakol has something to offer for everyone.

I loved 4 days in Karakol because of all the breathtaking nature and views, the hot pools, the museums, and the cuisine. There are so many cool things to do in Karakol, you can easily spend a week, even 2, there!

1. Explore the Karakol Museum

Karakol Museum is a must-visit attraction that showcases the history and culture of the town and the surrounding region. It offers an excellent opportunity to learn about the local traditions and customs.

There’s currently a section on archeological finds from the Issyk Kul region, a flora and fauna section, and a permanent exposition with photos of Ella Maillart, a Swiss adventurer who loved the region of Karakol.

The museum is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. The ticket costs 100 KGS / 1.05 EUR. 

2. Visit the Dungan Mosque

Dungan Mosque's Minaret in Karakol
The tilted blue minaret of the Dungan Mosque

The Dungan Mosque was built in the 20th century by Chinese Muslims who fled to Kyrgyzstan.

It is an impressive architectural wonder that combines traditional Chinese and Central Asian styles. It’s a unique attraction that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

3. Visit the Russian Orthodox Church

Holy Trinity Cathedral Karakol - one of the must-visit places in Karakol
Holy Trinity Cathedral Karakol

The Russian Orthodox Church was built in the 19th century and is one of the oldest buildings in Karakol.

It’s a beautiful example of Russian Orthodox architecture and is open to visitors. The interior of the church is breathtaking, with beautiful murals and stained-glass windows.

It started as a small brick chapel but was destroyed in an earthquake in 1889. It was rebuilt over 6 years as the marvelous wooden church you can still see today. Its proper name is the Holy Trinity Cathedral.

4. Stroll in Victory Park, Afghan Park, and Pushkin Park

Post-Soviet cities still have their Soviet-style parks. It’s quite bizarre – they’re just stuck in time with their statues, monuments, sometimes tanks, and artillery weapons, sometimes abandoned amusement parks with deteriorating Ferris wheels.

These three parks in Karakol offer just that: a blast from the past. Statues of military leaders, monuments from WW1 and WW2, a Ferris wheel that may or may not be operational, tanks on pedestals, etc.

A statue of a soldier in Karakol

5. Try the local cuisine

Karakol is known for its delicious food, including lagman (noodle soup), manty (steamed dumplings), and beshbarmak (meat and noodle dish).

You can try these dishes at local restaurants or the Karakol bazaar. Make sure to try the local fermented drink called “kymyz” (mare’s milk).

To be fair, once you leave Bishkek, this is all you’ll be eating anyway. Lagman, manty, lagman, manti… occasionally you’ll see a new dish only to try it and realize it’s just a variation of lagman.

Beshbarmak. Picture by meadowsaffron, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Beshbarmak for example (which means “five fingers”, because you’re supposed to eat it with fingers) is practically lagman with meat. It’s the nomads’ way of life so don’t expect Michelin stars.

6. Visit the Karakol Animal Market

Karakol Animal Market is a popular attraction where locals come to buy and sell livestock. It’s only on Sundays and ends before lunch, usually as early as 10:00.

You can see various animals such as cows, horses, and sheep being herded around, haggled over, bought, and sold. It’s a unique cultural experience that you won’t find anywhere else and deserves a spot on the things to do in Karakol.

It’s also called Mal Bazaar and is located in the north end of town. This is the location.

Bus 101 will take you within 5 mins of walking to the market (10 KGS / 0.11 EUR). Otherwise, you can walk the whole 40 minutes from the center of Karakol or take a taxi for ~80 KGS / 0.85 EUR.

7. Do a Multi-Day Hike to the Ala-Kul Lake

One of the most popular hiking destinations in Karakol, Ala-Kul Lake offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. The hike takes around two to three days to complete, but the stunning scenery makes it all worth it.

You don’t need a guide to do this trek!

If you do it in the high summer season, you don’t even need a tent or camping gear. Of course, take warm clothes – it gets cold high in the mountains even in the winter. You can easily find accommodation in Yurt Camps on the way.

If you feel uneasy about that, book in advance through your hostel or online. If you still feel uneasy, book an organized trek – hostels offer it.

If you’re into a longer trek with porters and a guide, then this one is for you:

The standard trek starts just south of Karakol. Take bus 101 to the entrance of the national park. There’s a 250 KGS / 2.6 EUR entrance fee for the national park.

The path then goes up, up, up to the Ala-Kul Lake and descends the other way towards Altyn-Arashan.

If you want a shorter one-day trek, then…

8. Hike to Ak Suu Arboretum

Hiking in the Tien Shan Mountains is one of the most popular things to do in Karakol
The Tien Shan Mountains from the Arboretum trail

This is an easy one-day trek of about 13 km that takes you through beautiful alpine meadows and spectacular views of the Tien Shan Mountains.

The trek starts from the same place as the Ala-Kul Lake one but goes down towards Ak Suu before the higher altitude portion. From Ak Suu, you can get back to Karakol with the regular 350 bus or hitchhiking.

When I went to Kyrgyzstan in early November, it was too late in the year to do the Ala-Kul Lake trek (too much snow) and I had to settle for this shorter trek. It was still quite worth it.

9. Hike around Jyrgalan

The view from Jyrgalan - a must place to visit when in Karakol.
The views of the Tien Shan mountains from the hills around Jyrgalan

Thanks to USAID investing in developing the region as a popular hiking and snow sports destination, Jyrgalan has become the place to visit in the region of Karakol.

You will have plenty of hiking options if you go in the summer and skiing trails if you go in the winter.

Do note that accommodation is quite a bit more expensive there. Sometimes spelled as “Dzhergalan” on booking sites, one night in a homestay will cost you at least 20 EUR.

Food is also more expensive, as the locals cater specifically to pockets-full-of-cash tourists. That’s why I opted to do a one-day self-organized tour there to visit the Turnaluu Lake and Kok-bel Waterfall.

To get there take Marshurtka 331 from the Big Bazaar bus station at 8:30, 13:30, and 17:30. If you’re doing a one-day trip, then obviously take the early morning one. The journey takes 1.5 hours and costs 90 KGS / 0.95 EUR.

The last minibus back to Karakol from Jyrgalan is at 16:30. This gives you around 6.5 hours to hike around Jyrgalan – enough to visit the lake and the waterfall.

The hiking trails to both the lake and the waterfall are on Maps.me.

10. Visit the Jeti-Oguz Canyon and Count the Seven Bulls

Jeti Oguz resort with its Seven Bulls Rock Formation
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 Bulls!

Jeti-Oguz Canyon is famous for its red rock formations that resemble seven bulls. You can hike or horse-ride through the canyon and enjoy the stunning scenery. It’s a great place to take some Instagram-worthy photos.

To get there, take bus 371 from Karakol. It takes you to Jeti-Oguz Resort from where you can start your trek. To get back to Karakol you might have to hitchhike or ask a local to call a taxi for you.

A more convenient way to go there is to partner up with others from the hostel and take a shared taxi. Arrange with the taxi driver to come pick you up after you finish the trek. It should be around 200 KGS / 2.1 EUR per person one way.

11. Relax at the hot springs

Ak Su Hot Springs near Karakol
My Russian friend Oleg posing for a picture in the Hot Springs

Karakol has several hot springs located nearby that are believed to have healing properties. It’s a great way to relax and rejuvenate after a long day of hiking or sightseeing. The hot springs are also a popular attraction among locals.

The easiest to get to is the Ak Suu Kench hot springs. To get there take Marshrutka 350 from Karakol and ask the driver to stop at the Ak Suu Resort or the Hot Springs.

Pro tip: For all of the Former Soviet Union (-Stan countries, Caucasus, etc) download 2GIS – a Google Maps alternative that finds public transport routes even offline!

Entrance to the Hot Springs costs 250 KGS / 2.64 EUR and allows you to relax in three pools of different temperatures for an hour.

12. Explore the Issyk-Kul Lake and the Przhewalski Museum

Przhevalsky museum from the outside
Przhevalskiy Museum

Located near Karakol, the Issyk-Kul Lake is the second-largest alpine lake in the world. You can swim, boat, or simply relax on the beach. The lake is surrounded by stunning mountains and offers a tranquil setting for a day trip.

Make sure to visit the Przhewalski Museum. This Russian explorer and adventurer was a big deal. He was so big of a deal that Karakol was named after him for over 100 years.

He traveled through all of Central as far east as Mongolia and Tibet and documented his adventures for the benefit of geography and biology. There’s still a place, now administratively a part of Karakol, called Pristan’-Przheval’sk.

To get there, take a marshrutka with this exact name: Pristan’-Przheval’sk. It costs 20 KGS / 0.2 EUR. The Museum costs 100 KGS / 1.05 EUR to enter.

13. Marvel inside Skazka Canyon

Skazka Canyon

This is another marvelous place to visit in the region of Karakol. Skazka Canyon is a geological wonder that will leave you in awe. The name Skazka, which means fairy tale in Russian, perfectly describes the otherworldly landscape of this natural wonder.

As you enter the canyon, you’ll be greeted by towering red sandstone formations that seem to have been sculpted by the hands of giants.

The rocks are twisted and contorted into fantastic shapes that look like castles, animals, and mythical creatures. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a dream world or a scene from a fantasy movie. Fairy tale indeed.

To get there from Karakol take Marshrutka 310 or 315 from the Southern bus station towards Bokonbaevo and get off at the sign for the Skazka canyon (ask the driver). From there you can walk to the Skazka Canyon (~30 minutes).

You can explore the canyon on a day trip and come back to Karakol the same day.

How to get to Karakol from Bishkek

To get to Karakol take a minibus from Bishkek that costs 500 KGS / 5.3 EUR and takes around 6 hours. The minibuses depart regularly from the Western Bus Station in Bishkek.

The minibus leaves once it’s full (no set time, but it goes in the morning) and passes through Cholpon-Ata.

Make sure to sit on the right side of the minibus to enjoy the spectacular scenery of Lake Issyk Kul.

Alternatively, you could choose to take a shared taxi which will cost you around 700 KGS. It’s a bit more comfortable, but won’t be much faster than the 6 hours by minibus.

Read my full guide about traveling between Bishkek and Karakol.

The minbus from Bishkek to Karakol broke down
NOT BLOOD. The minibus just broke down and my journey took 8, not 6 hours.

Where to stay in Karakol

There are two cheap hostels in Karakol on Hostelworld – Snow Leopard and Karakol Based Hostel. I stayed in the latter and it was very, very nice.

Awesome atmosphere, knowledgable and helpful host, cozy rooms. Both go for 400-700 KGS (4.5-8 USD) per night depending on the season.

There are a few more budget options on Booking.com, but not any cheaper and I argue not better either. There are plenty of more expensive options – hotels, homestays, etc. too.

Karakol is a must-visit in Kyrgyzstan and a part of this extensive 14-day Kyrgyzstan Itinerary!

Karakol wooden Church pinterest Pin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *