Karakol (pop. 75,000 people) is a peaceful, low-rise town with backstreets full of Russian gingerbread cottages, shaded by rows of huge white poplars. Around the town are apple orchards, for which the area is famous. Karakol is sandwiched between Lake Issyk Kul and the awesome wall and jagged fangs of the Tien Shan, the mighty mountainous barrier that rears up between the former Soviet Union and its powerful neighbour, China. For many centuries the Tien Shan, enveloped in legend and strictly out of bounds in Soviet times, remained one of the most unexplored and remote places in the world. The seventh century Chinese traveller-monk, Xuan Zang, reported:
These mountains stretch for thousands of leagues: among them are several hundred tall peaks which reach to the very sky; the valleys are dark and full of precipices. The snow that has accumulated here since the creation of the world has changed into ice rocks that do not melt either in spring or summer. There is a strong cold wind and travellers are molested by dragons.
And yet at its feet the land is fertile and the climate mild. As a series of brave Russian explorers put these valleys and peaks on the map, Karakol, initially a military garrison, burgeoned as a town of explorers, professionals and merchants. After a military garrison was established at nearby Teploklyuchenka (Ak-Suu) in 1864, and it dawned on everybody that the area near the lake was a fine spot-mild climate, rich soil, a lake full of fish, and mountains full of hot springs-the garrison commander was told to scout out a place for a full-sized town.
Karakol was founded on 1 July 1869, with streets laid out in a European-style checkerboard, and the garrison was relocated here. A quaint story surrounds its founding. The cartographers appointed to survey the site had just finished their work when a ferocious storm swooped in from the mountains, sweeping away the contents of their yurts, including the precious maps and plans. The following day the local Kyrgyz people offered to lend a hand and, together, they and the Russians formed a line towards the Jergalan river to comb the valley in the direction the storm had taken and found all but a few pages of the surveys. Thus the friendship between Kyrgyz and Russian inhabitants is said to spring from the very founding of the town.
The town's early population had a high proportion of military officers, merchants, professionals and explorers. The population swelled considerably in the 1880s with the arrival of Dungan, Chinese Muslims, fleeing persecution in China. At this time Karakol was a town at the edge of the world.
The town was named Karakol until 1888, when the Russian explorer Przhevalsky died here while preparing for an expedition to Tibet and was buried on the lakeshore nearby. The town was graced with his name until 1921 when Lenin, in response to local sensitivies, returned the town's original name. In 1939, at Stalin's behest, it reverted to Przhevalsky which it remained until the fall of the Soviet Union, when it resumed its Kyrgyz name-Karakol, or 'black wrist', possibly a reference to the hands of immigrant Russian peasants, black from the valley's rich soil. The town didn't escape a trashing by the Bolsheviks. Its elegant Orthodox church lost its domes and became a club; only one small church on the outskirts was allowed to remain open. Of nine mosques (founded by Tatars, Dungans and various Kyrgyz clans), all but the Dungan's were wrecked.
The town has a pleasant climate, with warm summers and winters much milder than elsewhere in the region, a phenomenon that owes much to Karakol's modest altitude of 1,770m, and the moderating effect of Lake Issyk-Kul. Today this is the administrative centre for Issyk Kul oblast and boasts three bazaars, a small one to serve the town, a regional one on the outskirts and an animal bazaar every Sunday - a sight not to be missed. In fact, try to time your visit to include a Sunday, when the animal bazaar and Russian cathedral are at their most active. The town is the best base for exploring the lakeshore, the Terskey Ala-Too and the central Tian Shan.
Of all the towns in Kyrgyzstan, Karakol tends to be the one in which the majority of foreign visitors spend the most time. This is down to the fact that as well as possessing a number of sights and monuments worth seeing, Karakol is also ideally situated for forays into the mountains to the south that beckon so tantalisingly from the town. Because of this, Karakol represents one of the focal points, perhaps the focal point, of Kyrgyzstan's fledgling tourist industry, and has, more than anywhere else in the country, including even Bishkek, a well-developed tourist infrastructure concerned with outdoor and adventure pursuits.
Having said that, Karakol remains low-key in the extreme; as yet, there are no brash hotels, fancy restaurants or lurid nightclubs. It is a delightfully serene sort of place, still resonant with the ghosts of 19th-century rural Russian life (along with the odd phantom from the Soviet period), and with an ambience that, paradoxically, feels both homely and comfortable and frontier-like.
Karakol can seem like a big village at times; apart from a park, a small bazaar, a cluster of shops and, of course, the ubiquitous Lenin statue, there is not really much of a centre. The town streets, set in a typical Russian grid plan, are long, straight and lined with poplars. Most of the houses are old, wooden 'gingerbread' houses, with neat florid gardens, picket fences and fruit-laden orchards - it might even be a Siberian village, or at least an idealised version of one.
The town still has its frontier feel hut also a gentle, cosy air, maybe emphasised by the rigours of the mountains beyond. Watered by rain blown west by the prevailing winds, it is a fertile garden town, famous for the sweetness of its apples. Its gardens overflow with plums, pears, cherries, peaches and apricots. The streets are shaded with unusually high poplar trees, and Tien Shan spruce, tall and magnificent, stand with dainty Russian birch in Pushkin Park. It's also a town of flowers; the bugloss was brought from the Caucasus by the meteorologist and keen botanist General Korolkov at the turn of the century and the surrounding hills are now blue with them.
Karakol is a spread-out sort of place without much of an obvious focus for a centre. The town centre, such as it is, is the area immediately around Jakshylyk bazaar and the central square south of the university that has stands of pine trees, some broken benches, a scattering of memorials and a statue of Soviet hero, Yusup Abdrakhmanov, 1901-38, who was the First Secretary of the Kyrgyz Communist Party from 1924-25. Another Soviet hero, Lenin, stands nearby at the junction of Gebze and Tynystanova.
Other than the obvious sights indicated on the left side menu, much of Karakol is pleasant enough to wander at will and enjoy the wooden Russian domestic architecture that characterises much of the town. In particular, the area along Lenina and Gorkovo, southeast of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, is a rewarding quarter to explore.
Horse-drawn carts are common and herds of sheep are everywhere, flowing around the traffic like a river of wool. But it's the mountains that make Karakol really special. Just outside the town the mountains offer mountain biking, climbing, riding, skiing and more hiking than there are days in a lifetime. Karakol is ideally placed to become an important outdoor activities centre in the coming years, but this is dependent upon large-scale investment in the town's infrastructure and the development of sustainable tourist facilities.
It's not quite paradise for those who live here. The economic stresses since independence and the decline in spa tourism have led to considerable hardship, thinned out available goods and services, and returned a kind of frontier atmosphere to this old boundary post. It is extremely dark at night and some travellers have reported being hassled, so be vigilant and carry a torch (flashlight).
There is not a lot to do here; rather, it is a town to savour and absorb the atmosphere while preparing for, or recovering from, strenuous hikes in the nearby valleys. Beyond relishing the relaxed pace of the town, there is a handful of genuinely interesting sights that can be enjoyed at leisure, as well as an excellent animal market on Sundays. There are few facilities for tourists with a taste for the luxury end of the market, but for those seeking a pleasant base for hiking and adventure travel Karakol is unparalleled.
The valleys and mountains around Karakol are extremely beautiful and offer unrivalled walking, trekking, mountaineering and simple day trips. If you plan to camp, bring your own food, plus extra lea, sugar, salt or newspapers for herders and caretakers in the hills.
The red sandstone and grey granite walls of the canyons form impressive backdrops to smooth green valleys, deeply cut by charging rivers. Forests shroud the slopes: Tien Shan spruce whose green clothes sweep to the ground, stretch tall and silent to the sky; Siberian larch and walnut shelter the occasional red squirrel, now almost extinct due to the introduction of grey squirrels early in the 20th century. The mountains are alive with plants used in medicine and distilled to essential oils for use as perfumes.
From April to July, spring strides up the mountains as the sun warms the slopes. The Soviet botanist, IV Vykhodtsev, describes the multitude of spring and summer flowers:
A wave of tulips gives way to fields of scarlet poppies, ... and cornflower- blue ixylirion and golden Arabian primroses ... and pale pink eremurus form a veil on the foothills... Spring reaches the sub-alpine belt where the meadows turn into gorgeous, lush, green carpets into which are woven white anemones, blue forget-me-nots, orange and golden poppies, flaming flea- bane, lilac asters, deep purple geraniums ...
Orientation - Karakol has a central square, but the commercial hubs are the Makish Bazaar (nicknamed gostinny dvor – the Russian equivalent of a caravanserai or merchants’ inn, after its namesake in St Petersburg) and also Ak-Tilek Bazaar (good wishes). The long-distance bus station is about 2km to the north and the ‘better’ part of the town is considered to be west of the river.
Getting There & Away - Karakol’s long-distance bus station (Przhevalskogo) has buses to Bishkek (eight hours) hourly between 7.30am and 1.40pm, and at night between 7pm and 11pm. These stop in Cholpon-Ata and Balykchy following the northern shore route. Only the 7.30am bus goes along the southern road. Out in front of the long-distance bus station are minibuses and taxis that leave when full to Bishkek and Cholpon-Ata.
There is one bus a day in summer to Almaty but note that this runs via Bishkek not the Karkara Valley. To get to the bus station, take local bus 105 or 109. If you are looking for transport along the southern shore of the lake, its best to catch a marshrutka from the southern bus stand. There are departures hourly to Balykchy between 8am and 3pm, hourly to Barskoun between 8am and 5pm and hourly to Bokonbayevo between 7am and 6pm. For Naryn and Kochkor, change at Balykchy. Most local buses (eg to Ak-Suu, Jeti-Oghuz and Barskoun) go from the local bus stand in the centre of town, at the Ak-Tilek Bazaar. You will also find taxis here for local hire around the region, but agree on a price and waiting time beforehand.