Sightseeing in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

by Harsh Vardhan

There was no great rush to begin the day as we had no definite plan. We were just going to drive around and spend some time sightseeing in Karakol. We intended to do some architectural visits in the town and then move towards the mountains into one of the two valleys south of Karakol. The plan was to camp there or stay in a shepherd’s yurt if available.

Journey So Far:

Our room rental in Karakol included breakfast which was actually quite nice. Apart from the usual bread, butter, and eggs, it included a glass of Kompot. A sweet Russian beverage, Kompot is made from boiled fruits and is served cold. We knew this thanks to our fling with a Russian joint in New Delhi by the name of Bline.

After hogging as much as our tummies could handle, we headed towards a market nearby to replenish our stock of supplies. This included some baked goodies, juices, and drinking water. It was only by 10:00 am that we managed to head to our first destination of the day, an orthodox Russian church located near the town center.

Day 9: Sightseeing in Karakol

The church is a sight to behold. It is made of wood with 4 striking green and yellow domes rising up over a big hall. It is surprising that the church still stands after more than 100 years of construction, especially since it is made of wood.

Karakol Church

It was a Saturday morning, and a prayer service was being conducted inside. We decided to give that a miss and after spending a few minutes admiring the church from the outside, we moved on towards our next halt, a Dungan mosque.

The Russian Orthodox Church at Karakol

Sightseeing in Karakol

The lawns in the church were well maintained

Sightseeing in Karakol

As we entered the mosque, Aarti was stopped by the guard there. He mentioned that only a burqa-clad woman can enter the compound. Thankfully, some of these ‘burqas’ were available at the entrance for people to wear on top of their clothes. Come to think of it, this was the practical thing to do, as burqa-clad women in Kyrgyzstan are a rarity.

In our few days in Kyrgyz, we were yet to come across a burqa-clad woman, so I guess these burqas were meant for all to use, tourists and locals alike. This was actually one of the most surprising things about the country for us – 95% Muslim, yet hardly any Muslim traits visible.

People drink freely, women dress freely and don’t wear burqas, men do not have beards, and many other smaller day-to-day things. The feminist within Aarti took objection to this necessity to wear a burqa to enter the mosque. I had to calm her down and only then did she decide to visit the mosque, but she remained unhappy.

Karakol Mosque

Surprisingly, the mosque looked more like a Buddhist temple than a traditional mosque. The guidebooks mentioned that it was made of only wood without any metal nails, and yet it has stood for more than 100 years. It is said that the Chinese architects built this for the Dungan people (Chinese Muslims) in the region.

The wooden tower standing in the middle of the courtyard reminded me of a similar tower I had seen at a mosque in Turtuk a couple of years ago. The resemblance was uncanny. It was almost noon now and we decided to rush to our next objective of the day, the Altyn Arashan valley.

The Dungan mosque looks more like a Buddhist monastery. The courtyard in the mosque

Sightseeing in Karakol

Another shot of the mosque.

Sightseeing in Karakol

​The road ran eastwards out of Karakol for about 10 km or so and then one has to take the dirt track heading south towards the valley. It was said in the guidebooks that the track is generally used by a lot of trekkers but sometimes old Russian 6x6s ferry tourists back and forth from Karakol.

It also mentioned that the track is bouldery and quite rocky at places, making it a pretty bumpy ride. Armed with a TLC, we were pretty sure that the track was doable for us. The entry to the park was free.

Altyn Arashan valley

A slightly steep and rocky ascent greeted us on which Aarti had to dismount so that I could avoid ripping the tires on pointy boulders. Even after the ascent, the road never got better and we were crawling in the first gear, climbing ever so slowly through the canyon.

It was a narrow canyon, much like the one we had visited the day before. Many trekkers were on their way back from the Altyn Arashan valley.

Thankfully, one such couple spoke a bit of English and we could inquire about the road condition ahead. He mentioned that the road was quite bad at certain stretches and just about okay at some. A 6×6 had gone into the valley the day before, he mentioned. With a prayer on our lips, we marched ahead.

A bouldery welcome to the park

At places, the road was not bad actually

Altyn Arashan valley

​The road condition kept turning for the worse and made the crawl quite irritating. On a bend in the road, a tree had fallen but had been hacked away so that vehicles could pass, although narrower ones. The TLC has a wide body and limited ground clearance, at least if you compare it to 6×6 vans!

The TLC’s underbelly scraped a stone and that made us finally realize that even a vehicle such as this could be stopped in its tracks. 100 m ahead, the stretch seemed much trickier than before, and on dismounting and inspecting the stretch closely, we realized the boulders would definitely hit the underbelly should we decide to continue.


The choice was limited, it was either taking a hit on the underbelly or risk toppling the vehicle over with one tire on the slanted bank next to the river. It was there that we decided to turn around and drop the plan to visit this valley. It was too much of a risk to take in a rented car in a foreign land.

Taking a U-turn was a pain, but what was perhaps worse was the smirk on the faces of the trekkers as we crossed them on our way back. With a heavy heart, we trudged back to Karakol for lunch. We decided to go to a fancy restaurant, but on reaching found that the inside seating was reserved for a marriage party.

The place was nice, so we decided to sit outside since we also could observe the guests coming in for the party. The customs of post-marriage functions seemed strikingly similar to those in the West (as seen in different movies).

Just about wide to let the TLC pass. Taking a U-turn on a narrow road is quite a task

Altyn Arashan valley

A rocky track behind us

Altyn Arashan valley

​Aksu Arashan Valley

After a good lunch, we decided to head out to the Aksu Arashan valley just south of Karakol. It was around 2:30 pm then. The guidebook had mentioned that the valley was as beautiful as the one we tried to visit earlier in the day, but being closer to Karakol it was more frequented by locals as well as tourists.

We reached the gates of the park by 3 pm and unlike the other park, entry was not free. A guard at the park gate made us wait for at least 10 minutes before he let us pass. He was excited to know that we were from India and wanted to show us an Indian movie he was watching on TV – Sita Aur Gita, with Russian subtitles.

The valley was narrow again initially and had a denser forest as compared to the other one. It was overcast and the region had been lashed with heavy rainfall recently, making it look very green. There were many locals out there enjoying their weekend, and they came in all kinds of vehicles.

The sedans had parked early on, not wanting to risk the dirt track while the SUVs had parked further up where the track crossed over to the other side of the river over a wooden bridge. The track climbed steeply beyond where the SUVs were parked, and the condition of the road deteriorated considerably thereafter.

An Off-Roading Adventure

The road climbed up from the riverbank, across the bridge, and for a small stretch it opened up in a meadow. It was slippery, slushy and the track was not level. It was slanted and the vehicle was now at an angle, ascending the meadow at times, descending at times.

My heart was in my mouth, fearing the vehicle would topple over on a slanted descent but I kept reminding myself that it is not a Safari but a TLC with much better articulation. We trudged slowly off the meadow and into the woods again.

The track was thankfully wide after the meadow, but it was ridden with deep slush as far as the eyes could see. We ambled along very slowly in 4H, trying not to break the momentum lest we get caught in one of those mud traps with all 4 wheels spinning. A particular ditch seemed treacherous up ahead.

On the left, there was a fall towards the river while the track itself had a deep mud hole with ruts made by trucks. Driving with both wheels in the rut with speed could have meant hitting the underbelly as the ruts looked deep. I decided to mount one wheel at the edge of the road and keep one wheel in the deep rut.

The Scare

That was the error on my part, I should have dismounted and inspected the depth. Taking my chances with one wheel on the bump and the other in the rut, I marched on. The rut was much deeper than I had thought it would be.

The left tire remained on the hump while the right one went deep into the ditch and since I was moving to keep momentum both the right wheels were in the rut. The vehicle had come to a halt and was now at a very precarious angle, much more than our poor Safari could ever take.

When I looked at Aarti, I had to actually look DOWN, such was the angle! She was terrified and so was I. The vehicle was in a very dangerous position and I could feel that should it tilt furthermore, it would topple ever so slowly. I could feel that all 4 wheels were well-grounded despite the tilt.

The TLC had articulated extremely well. The first reverse lurch did not get us out of the bog, but the second one with 4-low and the center differential engaged did. It flew out of the ditch in a jiffy and returned to its natural untwisted position.

It had all happened in a span of 10 – 15 seconds, but the fear of toppling over had shaken us. I was visibly shaking but thankfully Aarti was braver than me. We spent the next 10 minutes gaining our composure standing outside the car while it drizzled.

The road up to Aksu Arashan Valley was a tarmac till the park gates. Beyond the river, the valley opened for a brief while.

Aksu Arashan Valley

Notice the bump on the left, that’s where the left tires were. The rut in the middle was DEEP!

Aksu Arashan Valley

Another U-Turn

​Needless to say, we decided not to take any further risks and took a U-turn as quickly as we could. We got stuck in yet another spot right after that, where the car was skidding horribly, but managed to somehow drive through it.

The ride back thereafter seemed like a cakewalk as compared to what we had been through. It would take a big ditch and quite a hump for this monster to lose its articulation.

When we reached the wooden bridge where the other SUVs were parked, we stopped too and rested by the river. We made tea and ate some cookies while we rested. Our plan to stay in either of the two valleys had crashed and the day had been unfruitful.

By the river

Sightseeing in Karakol

Deciding not to camp in that damp weather, we returned to Karakol and spent the rest of the evening north of the town. There was a museum there which was said to be located next to the lake Issyk Kul and a torpedo research center.

During the cold war days, Karakol was off-limit to tourists as this was the hub of secret Russian naval exercises and one of them included testing new torpedos in the waters of Issyk Kul, next to this museum. Aarti’s espionage fascination was kindled by the place while I looked forward to spending the dying light of the day next to the lake.

Przevalski Museum

It had started to drizzle again when we reached the Przevalski museum, probably half an hour before its scheduled closing time. Two marriage parties had descended on the museum and were celebrating wildly outside the gates. As we walked inside, a young bride and her groom crossed by us.

The groom wore the traditional Kyrgyz felt hat, Kalpak, while the bride shone in her white gown holding her new husband’s jacket over her head to keep off the rain. As they crossed us, the bride realized that I was trying to take a picture of her. Graciously, she spun once and gave us a very nice dazzling smile. It was heartwarming.

The neat park at the Prezelvask museum. We did not go inside the museum itself though

Przevalski Museum

Aarti would not let go of the iron bars beyond which lay the torpedo testing site. She must have been a spy in her earlier life. There were few things on this planet that excited her as much as borders and secret facilities. I had to literally pry her fingers off the bar, and we then returned to the car, where another surprise was in store for us.

The test facility is located where the cranes are

Sightseeing in Karakol

The TLC gave us a scare as it would not start on the first try or the 10th after that. But eventually, after about 10 minutes, it did yield. The steering lock had been activated. It was only a matter of turning the steering and then trying to turn the key clockwise at the same time.

A new vehicle always takes some time to get used to. Even a simple thing like this was not as intuitive as it should have been.

Driving around & Sightseeing in Karakol

Since there was still a lot of daylight left, we decided to take a short spin near the lake and wandered about aimlessly for a while. Aarti wanted to go near the secret facility but she could not get anything substantial out of that recee.

We spent some time at a place which gave us a nice view of the lake as well as the mountains to the south. We also spent some time closely inspecting a cemetery nearby.

A panorama for what Karakol stands for, lake, and the mountains south

Sightseeing in Karakol

On our way back to Karakol, a young woman and her boyfriend/ husband hailed us for a lift. Both of them reeked of cigarettes and vodka, and the woman would not shut up.

She was grilling us with many questions in her local tongue. All we could do was smile, shrug and excuse ourselves for not understanding her. She did manage to convey that she knew SRK and Hrithik, and that made us smile.

Thankfully, her stop was close by as it was getting difficult to bear her stench or her constant yapping. I had half a mind to pull over and let her out.

Karakol Coffee

The evening was spent at a cafe at Karakol – Karakol Coffee. The cafe is a great hangout for those who wish to interact with English-speaking folks. It is a foreigners’ den, especially Europeans who gather there every evening to exchange tales of their experiences in Kyrgyzstan.

The coffee was not bad either. We had dinner at a local restaurant where we ordered Manty and Ashlan Fu. This was fast becoming the staple diet on our trip as it suited our palate much more than other things.

A point to be noted here is that Ashlan Fu, being a Dungan dish, tasted much better at Karakol. It has a large Dungan population than anywhere else so far.

We checked into the same hotel we had stayed at the night before and crashed early. For tomorrow, we had to get up early to visit the much-talked-about Sunday animal market. 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 sightseeing 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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