Places to Visit in Karakol and Things to Do

by Harsh Vardhan

It was our second day of sightseeing in Karakol and much against my wishes to sleep till late, it had to start early. We had already covered some of the places to visit in Karakol the day before were. The plan for Day 10 was to spend some more time in the city and then travel to Kumtor Gold mines.

We were carrying all our camping gear with us but have not yet had a chance to use it. For the next couple of days, we wanted to put that to use and camp wherever we could.

Journey So Far:

Karakol Church & Mosque, Altyn Arashan valley, ​Aksu Arashan Valley, Przevalski Museum, and Karakol Coffee. Please click on the links above to read the previous parts of the travelogue. The link for Day 9 talk about our visit to all these places.

Day 10: Places to Visit in Karakol & Things to Do

They said that visiting the Sunday animal market at Karakol was one of the must-do-items in Kyrgyzstan. So we managed to get up by 6:30 am and left by 7. We had not yet checked out of the hotel. The plan was to come back for a sumptuous breakfast and then drive out towards the Southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul.

The weather was damp and it was drizzling, making it difficult to carry our cameras. The market had apparently been taking place at the same location for years now as finding it was quite straightforward. We just had to follow hoards of cars and jeeps headed in that direction.

Sunday Animal Bazaar

The market typically begins early at 6:00 am and all trade is done well before 9:00 am. There were different sections for different animals.

The largest area was for sheep which were numerous, the second by size was the area dedicated for horses. Goats were fewer than sheep and were mixed in with the latter. Cows did not have a dedicated area and were few. The guidebook mentioned that the area for pigs was at the back but we never managed to find it.

The park was teeming with activity. There were many children as well with a couple of sheep tethered in their hands with their parents trying to get customers.

There is a curious way of buying sheep. The sheep in Kyrgyzstan are fat-tailed and are prized for that – the fatter the tail, the better the prize. I guess it comes from the fact that Kyrgyz people find that portion of fat especially delicious, a fact that we did not agree with.

Men sat on their haunches behind the sheep, felt the fat tail, but did not stop at that. According to me, it was more a molestation exercise than anything else. The poor sheep bleated all around with their modesty for sale along with their hides.

Some got the luxury of riding back to their new homes in trucks or mini-vans while others were shoved in the boot of Ladas. The sight of a local pushing a sheep in his small boot was hilarious, with the sheep struggling to jump out.

Sedans tow animals to the market

Sunday Animal Bazaar

Kids try to help their parents out in the sale

Sunday Animal Bazaar

The horse section of the animal fair

Sunday Animal Bazaar

Kyrgy Breakfast & Return to the Hotel

Men in the horses’ section looked definitely richer than those in the sheep section. Some farmers had a huge trailer towed by their expensive SUVs, some even had Nissan Patrols! Some were just brought in a mini-van or a truck.

Aarti tried to pat a horse but it reeled back and whinnied as it did. The owner came to the poor creature’s rescue and explained that Aarti’s brightly colored umbrella had alarmed the beast. Once it was tucked away, the horses obliged, lapping up all the love!

I could see why the folks in the West would find this animal market a must-do item. But for us Indians, it was not much different from rural India. Although being the animal lovers that we are, it was fun to be at the market, and it was great to observe the Kyrgyz people and their animals.

On our way back, I succumbed to my hunger and got some Piroshki packed. This one was fried instead of being baked and had a nice potato filling in it. I would describe it as a Bhatura with Aaloo filling.

Like in India, the oil used was quite pathetic but Piroshki itself was delicious. We were back in the hotel by 9, had our breakfast, rested a bit, and were ready to hit the road again by noon.

A rich farmer tows his animals at the back of a Nissan Patrol

Sunday Animal Bazaar

Jeti Oguz

After a good nap post breakfast, we decided to head towards the Southern part of Issyk Kul. The first stop was a village by the name of Jeti Oguz, some 20 kms away from Karakol, and a 5 km detour from the highway.

Jeti Oguz is famous for a bunch of red cliffs, popularly known as the Seven Bulls. According to legend, these seven stones in Jeti Oguz were once seven bulls that were turned into cliffs when they came to rest there.

We reached the village in an hour or so and stopped when we saw the red cliff. It seemed like a normal place, nothing out of the ordinary. The sun was up and it was already time for lunch, so we stopped by a Yurt next to the river.

Sadly, none of the usual fares of Shashlik or Manty, or Ashlan Fu was available. While I settled for a fresh grilled fish of the stream, Aarti stuck to some baked goods which we had bought earlier at Karakol. The fish tasted nice but STANK! So much so that Aarti forbade me to drive lest the smell is transferred to the steering wheel.

The route ahead towards Jeti – Oguz was a wonderful drive.

Places to Visit in Karakol

​Meadow near Jeti Oguz

We had marked a meadow near Jeti Oguz on a detour and decided to check it out before turning back to the highway. The half-hour ride to the meadow was through a narrow canyon, like the ones we had tried the day before.

But the road condition was much better. All of sudden, a huge meadow opened up. Sunday meant many Kyrgyz families venturing outside for a picnic and we caught many of them cooking meat over hot grills.

The meadow itself was beautiful but sadly we could not spend a lot of time there. Our destination was the high-altitude plateau near Kumtor Gold mines.

The end of the road was a wonderful ‘jailoo’ (meadow). This stream was quite a torrent

meadow near Jeti Oguz

This is as far as we ventured out in the jailoo

meadow near Jeti Oguz

There was a rickety wooden bridge over the stream adding to the charm of this place

meadow near Jeti Oguz

The town of Jeti Oguz dwarfed by the ‘seven bulls’

meadow near Jeti Oguz

Barskoon Valley

We were back on the highway by 3 pm and headed towards Barskoon from where we would turn South for the gold mines. Our plan was to reach the plateau and figure out if a road existed all the way to Naryn – the southern part of Kyrgyzstan.

Google Earth had shown that there might have been a road but no records were found on online sources. Since the plateau was located close to the border, we had to arrange special permits at Bishkek to go past the check-posts. Not many tourists visit this part of Kyrgyzstan, so we were prepared to camp out for the next few days.

We reached Barskoon after taking a small pit-stop next to the lake and refueled to the brim to ensure maximum range of the car. Little did we know how events would turn sour by the end of the day.

Took a pitstop next to the lake. That is me of course

aarti and harsh

​It was 4:30 pm by the clock when we turned south off the highway heading west towards two passes and the high altitude plains beyond. It was raining cats and dogs. The wide Barskoon valley was empty with none of the locals venturing out on what could only be called a grim day.

Plateau of Kara Sai

The road leading towards the plateau of Kara Sai was surprisingly very wide and in excellent condition. Although untarred, it was as leveled and wide to boot. 10% of the country’s GDP comes from Kumtor gold mines situated ahead. It would make sense to keep this road as perfect as possible.

We passed quite a number of heavy vehicles going in the other direction, some unloaded and some overloaded. It was left for us to imagine what might have been their payload.

We passed by some relics on the side of the road which were pretty odd. One was the statue of an old rusted dump truck atop a platform, making it a truck monument of sorts. We also passed by a floating head monument – a bust, as it is usually called, and realized on reading in our guidebook that it was the famous Yuri Gagarin.

The wide Barskoon valley, empty because of the drizzle

Barskoon valley

An hour later we reached a check-post. I went inside with permits in my hand and with much difficulty was able to communicate to the soldier on our purpose of visit.

He raised no concerns but did ask me a couple of times if I was carrying any guns. He also asked me if I could spare some cigarettes. Cinemas will tell you the ills of smoking, but no one ever mentions how it can help people bond and loosen up.

The switchbacks started as soon as we crossed the check-post. The rains gave way to a light snowfall which increased steadily as we climbed higher. It was getting quite difficult to drive with visibility dropping upon each bend and no tracks to follow. Thankfully, a truck overtook us and we found it easier to trail its marks at a safe distance.

Barskoon Pass

As the snowstorm grew worse, camping seemed out of the question for the night. We hoped to find some army accommodation at Kara Sai. The sky cleared up as soon as we reached the plateau. Sun was bursting out through gaps in the clouds and the sky was a bright blue.

The ground was blanketed with a thin layer of white as far as our eyes could see. The plateau was barren, devoid of any vegetation or inhabitation. Up ahead, a highway patrol vehicle was parked and a commotion had ensued.

A bunch of locals, out picnicking, had taken a detour in their Sedan on a dirt track off the main highway earlier in the day. They had stayed put during the snowstorm and were finding it difficult to climb back on the highway which had a layer of white on it.

Upon each try, the sedan would gain some momentum, climb up the knoll a bit, spin its wheels at the crescent, and then slide back into the trough where it had started. I asked the locals if I could help and they gave the car to me.

I tried to give it a shot but to no avail. One of the locals sat on the bonnet to help the vehicle gain some traction but failure again.

While we men were trying brute force methods, the lady in the group suggested an alternate path up the knoll which had a lesser gradient. No points in guessing that the solution worked elegantly.

Driving up towards the first pass. Passes are called Asooshy in the local language. The temperature plummets to 1 degree C, as we still climb.


Places to Visit in Karakol

Trying to pull out the poor stuck sedan

Places to Visit in Karakol

Kumtor Gold Mines

​Up ahead there was a fork in the road, the left went towards Kumtor gold mines while the straight path went to another pass and to the Kara Sai plains beyond. The beauty of fresh snow and an arrow-straight road tempted us enough to take the left towards Kumtor.

It was still only 6 pm and we still had 3 hours of daylight with us. The detour to Kumtor gold mines was 90km back and forth, and we calculated that we would be back on the main road in about 1.5 hrs or so. Kara Sai was another 90 km on the road straight ahead. It was a close shave but we decided to take the detour and camp somewhere before Kara Sai.

The drive towards Kumtor can only be described as surreal. Not a single vehicle, or person, or a village was in sight for miles. No vehicle crossed us in either direction. The fresh layer of white glowed in the evening sun as we zipped across at a high speed.

If I were to compare, I would probably do it with white Moreh plains. Although untarred, the road was very smooth making a cruising speed of 80 kmph possible. There were signboards capping the speed limit at 90 kmph.

We were cruising comfortably in our heated cabin soaking in the sights with a smile on our faces. This was the reason why we had planned Kyrgyzstan as our destination.

First Sign of Trouble

We were unaware of the impending troubles ahead. With so much beauty around, photo-breaks were many. On one such photo break, we decided to take out woolens from the back and have some snacks as well. Unsuspecting, we killed the engine during this particular break.

However, as we started to proceed further, the car would not restart even after multiple cranks! The battery must have been fine as the self-start mechanism was sounding fine. It felt as if the fuel was either not reaching the combustion chamber, or probably not igniting due to some reasons.

I opened up the bonnet while Aarti took out the service manual but we were not able to figure out much. Hoping against hope, I took out the air filter and gave it a couple of shakes to take off some dirt.

Even tried a few cranks without the air filter, but there was no positive response from the engine bay. I was unable to locate the fuel priming pump which was my second option.

Strangely though, the car came back to life on the next attempt. I was a bit confused since I could not think of anything that I had done which helped it start.

Nevertheless, we were both thankful that it did, but were wary of the fact that it might happen again soon. We soon reached as far as civilians were allowed on that road and took our U-turn.

Looking south towards Sook pass, we take a left towards Kumtor soon

Places to Visit in Karakol

Absolutely a vast track of nothingness

Places to Visit in Karakol

Driving up towards the gold mines

Beauty shot of the TLC

Places to Visit in Karakol

Trouble Again

We sped up on the drive back since we were pressed for time. We were cruising at around 80 kmph when suddenly, upon a bend, the TLC started to skid wildly. My instincts took over, did their work, and managed to stop the vehicle before we could go off the road or worse, topple.

As soon as the car stopped, we both got out to see what the problem was. The left rear tire was completely flat! It was scary to look at.

The tubeless tire was completely damaged with ripples over its sidewalls. A deep gash that had ripped it open and probably had induced the skid. I shuddered partly at the thought of ‘what ifs’, and partly because of the cold howling winds.

The task at hand was simple, we just had to change a flat tire. We pulled out our luggage from the boot and adjusted it in the middle seats lest it gets dirty in the muddy grime of that road.

The spare wheel was mounted under the vehicle which had to be pulled down using a long cumbersome rod. The rod itself had to be assembled first like a lego. Damn these Japanese.

The ‘crystal maze’ did not end there as the ‘lego’ rod with a screwy head had to be shoved through a narrow slit and into a slot that was rusty and squeaky. It had to be rotated clockwise to lower the spare wheel.

More & More Trouble

The cold wind, the dying sun, a missing screw that held the lego together, and frayed nerves made it even more difficult than it actually was. Once done, I had to lay flat on my belly to keep the jack in place to lift the vehicle up – and in the process, I ended up with a soaked pair of jeans and a wet jacket.

Notice the cuts in the tire, it was gone. Note the ripples if you can

aarti and harsh

​The jack had not been used in a long time and it was an effort to use it. The higher altitude was also making its impact. While the bolts on the flat tire came off easily, the tire itself would not budge! I pulled, pushed, kicked to no avail. The tire simply remained jammed in the place it was.

I decided to give it one more shot with every ounce of strength I had left in me and to my horror, the entire vehicle came crunching down and the jack cracked under its weight. Ironically, it was the jammed tire that saved this bleak situation, else the car would have landed on the axle hub and might have damaged it.

I pulled the jack out and noticed that it was only the top part that had come off but it could still work. I asked Aarti to start the engine and slowly park the vehicle where the road was comparatively a bit flatter.

​An Unplanned Adventure

Aarti sat on the wheel and started the car. Or tried starting it that is. Nothing happened. The starting trouble that had plagued us an hour ago was back. It really was the icing on the messed-up cake that we had before us.

However, perseverance and the lord’s small mercies worked as the TLC started about 10 minutes later. We placed it on level ground and tried to take off the flat tire again. No luck. Try as I might, I was simply unable to remove the tire off the hub.

It was very cold and my hands were now numb. I took out our little stove hoping to light it up and get some warmth, but it was not igniting. Finally, when it did, it burned fiercely, scaring me. I had to shut it down as soon as the fire was ignited.

Not knowing what to do, we thought of taking a break, sitting inside the car, turning on the heater, and thinking of our options. But as luck would have it, the TLC refused to start AGAIN.

It was 8:45 pm by the clock. The sun has just set behind the mountains. The dial gauge read -2°C outside, both of us were cold, wet, and shivering like a leaf. We were wearing the only warm clothes we had got for the trip.

The rarefied air was a bit difficult to breathe in. The car had refused to start after multiple cranks. The engine was still warm, the rear tire was completely flat, the jack was broken and the flat tire had refused to come out.

The nerves were still frayed an hour and a half after the vehicle had skid wildly on the gravelly, slushy track on which the tire had burst while the vehicle was doing 80kmph.

The Rescue

The wide plain nearby was filled with snow. It was impossible to camp, and our little stove was not working. It had been around three hours since we had seen any vehicle cross us. We had little hope of finding one during the impending night ahead. There was no in-habitation for at least 20km behind us and 50 km in front of us.

We had come looking for adventure in Central Asia, and it did not disappoint.

Our last and only hope was the highway patrol we had seen at the fork. Given their job description, we thought they would cross us sometime soon. After all, a gold mine is something worth protecting.

While we waited, we thought of what our options were should no vehicle come along. It was evident that we would have to spend the night there. Camping was not an option as the ground was covered in the white and solid ground would have been difficult to find.

The only feasible option seemed to be to just stay put in the car and wait for dawn. As for food, we had some snacks still left and that would suffice for dinner. The locked vehicle would be warm enough for both of us. To ensure the safety of a parked vehicle on the ‘highway’, we even thought of using our camping lantern for the entire night.

Happiness is a Bulldozer

Before we could get comfortable and cozy enough to spend the rest of the night in the car, help seemed to be on its way and moving towards us 10 kmph. In the distance, we could see some shimmering lights getting closer, although slowly.

Eventually, we saw that about 5 huge bulldozer types machines were coming towards us. As they crossed, we waved our hands, shouting “help!”. A burly fellow was driving the first of these vehicles. On hearing the word help, he stopped, looked at us, and asked, “Help?”.

As we nodded furiously, he dismounted from the mammoth earth-moving machine and said something in Russian. I must have spoken all the Russian words I knew then, starting from Spaseeba (thank you) and ending at Pazhaloosta (please), all the time pointing at the flat tire.

The burly man looked at the tire and before I could warn him of a broken jack, kicked it a dozen times with his huge boots. And lo and behold, the tire was free of the hub in a jiffy!

In the next two minutes, we got the spare wheel mounted on the hub and the TLC further blessed us by starting in one go! From a totally hopeless situation, we were back in control in a matter of a few minutes.

Help to approach us, slowly.

aarti and harsh

Happiness is a bulldozer

aarti and harsh

The dozer was mammoth, and even the burly man looked like a dwarf when he climbed inside

Places to Visit in Karakol

The last shot before the sun went down

Places to Visit in Karakol

​Return to Karakol

The most prudent decision was to get back to Karakol where we could expect a warm bed and get the vehicle back in shape for the rest of the drive. It was a good 150 km away but that was the nearest town where we could get a spare tire.

We were both still shaking like a leaf on what could be a combined effect of cold and frayed nerves. The heater removed the chilliness that had engulfed us in 15 min. We decided not to stop and cook anything for dinner and had a few biscuits and swigs of apricot juice.

By midnight, we were back at the same hotel in Karakol where we had stayed the previous two nights. The receptionist was aghast when she looked at us covered in mud from head to toe and enquired on what had happened. Thankfully she did not pester us too much and immediately did the formalities.

It had been a long and crazy day, and a warm bed was something we were blessed to have at the end. I personally was feeling very stupid by the end of it though. If you look at it objectively, it was just a flat tire which I was not able to fix. It was a humbling thought. Please click on the link above to continue reading the next part of the travelogue.

Sightseeing in Karakol – Conclusion

I hope the travelogue, pictures, and information above on places to visit in Karakol were of help. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below or at our Community Forum, and I will be happy to answer. You can also follow me on Instagram and chat with me live there or subscribe to my YouTube channel and ask a question there.

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