We left Bishkek at 10:00 for the 406km drive to Karakol, the largest city nearest Lake Issyk-Kol and fourth largest in Kyrgyzstan. The marshrutka ride cost us 350KGS ($5.19) and took 6 hours with a 30 minute break for lunch. The ride actually felt longer, but that’s more being in a car for 8 days straight before on the Pamirs.
Karakol is the largest city around Issyl-kul Lake and fourth largest overall in Kyrgyzstan. In reality, “large” is the opposite of Karakol. But its location near the Tian Shan Mountains makes it a good base to head to hike around… when the season is right.
Eating in Karakol
We found some new dishes to try in Karakol. Formerly known as Przhevalsk, Karakol is 150km from the Kyrgyzstan-China border and some dishes unique to the region stems from the closeness to China. Ashlan-fu (Ашлямфу) is a cold, vinegary, gelatinous noodle soup that comes from the Dungan region in China. Excellent for vegetarians. We ate this while it was snowing outside, so eating it felt out of place. But in the hot summers, I can see it as refreshing.
Baursak (Борзок) is essentially deep-fried dough. Traditionally, it comes cut up in small squares. In Karakol, they liked things big. Sometimes, it comes filled with potatoes, meat or spring onion omelette. Our host in the guesthouse made one for us right after we had dinner. A bit oily and plain, but the Kyrgyz treat this like toast. Makes sense.
Super hoshan (супер хошан) is what I would equate to as a deep-fried in butter chicken samsa. It was especially delicious when eaten with laza hot sauce or lazadzhan (Лазаджан), a traditional Uyghur chili sauce.
Oromo (оромо) is a Kyrgyz rolled pasta dish. The pasta is rolled flat and wide, then an assortment of vegetables and meat are layered on top. It is then rolled into a log and steamed. The ones we had were a bit too doughy and not enough filling, but it made us full very fast.
Issyk-kul Lake is famous for its smoked and dried fish. On the way from Bishkek, there would be roadside stalls selling these things. Unfortunately, since we took a marshrutka, we couldn’t really ask the driver to stop so we could pick some up. The fish population in the lake has decreased dramatically over the years, so these guys at the supermarket were a bit pricey. Sadly, we weren’t really able to try these.
Soaking in Karakol
When we left Bishkek to go to Karakol, we were fortunate enough to have Stan, a Lithuanian who helped us with translating. We met up with him in Karakol and together, we did what the locals liked to do, sit in the hot springs.
We boarded marshrutka 350 (30KGS/$0.44) from the center of Karakol to the end of the line at Ak-Suu. Ak-Suu Hot Springs is located 15km from the city, slightly up the mountain and next to a river. The water is heated by radon, a radioactive gas, that apparently has many therapeutic benefits.
It wasn’t exactly posh or well-maintained by Western standards. The Danish mother/daughter couple who also went with us were turned off by the facilities. We went on a Saturday afternoon, so the rooms were quite full.
When Robb and I got a room, we went in and found two semi-rusty bathtubs. There was a silicone mat that acted as the drain stopper and a water bottle with the top cut off. We turned on the faucet and eventually got in.
Even though we were both turned off by the appearance of the room, we quite enjoyed the experience. The water was hot, but there was also a cold tap. We only lasted 30 minutes in there before we left with wrinkled fingers. The overall experience cost us 50KGS ($0.74)/person. But the next time we do it, we’ll probably bring towels and not the paper napkins we got from the coffee shop.
Other things to do in Karakol
Robb and I decided to go to the Karakol Historical Museum. The entrance fee was 70KGS ($1.03) per person and features numerous archaeological artifacts from the Scythian era. There was a lot to see but very little was translated into English.
My favorite part of the museum was a photo exhibition by Ella Maillart, a Swiss travel writer and photographer who went to Central Asia in the 1930’s. It was really interesting to see how things were like way back when in photos.
Karakol was a nice change in pace. We got to try lots of different food and experienced some Kyrgyz hospitality. And we also got a leopard/flower print headscarf and a kalpak (traditional Kyrgyz hat) from our guesthouse. What do you think?
- Accommodations: We stayed at Guesthouse Krasnii Zvetok, which was literally some rooms in a person’s house. The room came out to $9/night. It was a bit far from the center of Karakol, but that all really means it’s a 10 minute walk. The host mother didn’t really speak much English, but tried her best to communicate. Luckily, her sister was home from school and she did speak English. We ended up playing Jenga and Uno with the family.
- Coffee: Because we ended up spending quite a bit of time in Karakol, we got to try all the coffee shops in town.
- Karakol Coffee is right smack in the middle of downtown. It has nice seating and good coffee. Very popular with tourists. It was the most expensive of all the coffee places. (An Americano was 120KGS/$1.77.)
- Fat Cat Karakol is a cozy coffee shop that also is socially responsible. This place is the hangout for the small expat/Peace Corps community. There are fleece blankets to wrap yourself in if the shop gets too cold. The owner speaks really good English and makes some amazing cakes and cookies.
- Vista Coffee is many where the young Kyrygz kids go to hang out. It was the cheapest of three, with an Americano costing 70KGS ($1.03).