The quiet town of Karakol is flanked on one side by by Lake Issyk-Kul and on the other by the towering Terskey Alatau and Tian Shan mountains.
This makes it an increasingly base for all kinds of eco-tourism, primarily trekking.
If you want to spend a night in a yurt or linger in some alpine hot springs, this is the place to get started. You won’t see any high-rise buildings in Karakol. Nearly every street is lined with small cottages, giving this provincial capital a very laid-back feel. It’s a good place to kick back, relax and catch up on your sleep for a few days but don’t come here looking for a lively night life.
Karakol has both a Tourist Information Centre and a Community Based Tourism office on the same street, Jusup Abdrakhmanov. They are in the town centre and marked by two large sign from the main road, Toktogula. If you walk towards the Telecom office you can’t miss the signs pointing towards the left. In the tourist office you can buy postcards and small scale topographical maps. Both the tourism office and the CBT can offer information on homestays in the region.
Sleeping: Yak Tours Hostel is the most popular budget choice in Karakol. Beds go for 300 Som and a large home cooked breakfast is an additional 150 Som. There are some rooms with only two beds. Others are more crowded and there are even beds in the hallway, with just a curtain for privacy. We liked our room, large and nicely decorated, but there is only one toilet and getting a hot shower was next to impossible. Sergei, the manager, doesn’t speak much English and while his wife’s cooking is highly praised in the guidebooks we couldn’t get the message across that we would like to eat supper there.
We viewed a room at the Neofit Guesthouse but we weren’t very impressed. The room was plain and expensive at 500 Som per person, without breakfast.
If you arrive in Karakol during the day, stop by the tourist office (see above) and browse the selection of brochures from B&Bs there. Across the road is the CBT who can also arrange homestays. Prices tend to run around 500 Som a person. They aren’t all central but some offer nice extras like internet access or free rides into town and breakfast is usually included, making it good value.
Self-catering: There are two bazaars where you can buy fresh produce and treats like somsa. Jakshilik bazaar is small but central. It’s divided into two parts and in the second section you can find women selling spicy noodles to eat there or take away for just 20 Som a serving. The vast main bazaar has a better range of goods and is surrounded by other useful businesses like photo shops.
Dozens of magazins line the streets of Karakol and here you can pick up goods like sausage, cheese, yogurt, tinned products and alcoholic drinks. Beer goes for 30-35 Som a can and wine starts at about 80 Som a bottle. There is one modern supermarket in Karakol called Karavan on the main street. They have a good selection but prices are 10-15 percent more expensive than in the small shops.
Eating out: There are several cafes around town and all are more or less the same, serving things like salads, manty and laghman. Some have beer on tap. Prices are slightly cheaper at the cafes around the main bazaar but count on 200-250 Som for a basic meal for two with tea, rising to 300-400 Som if you have a beer or order an expensive meat dish.
What to see: Karakol isn’t strong on tourist sights but it’s worth checking out the Holy Trinity Cathedral at the corner of Lenina and Gagarin streets (women should put a headscarf on from the pile provided when entering) and the Chinese Mosque, just a couple minutes walk from the tourist bureau on the same street.
Staying connected: Internet access in Karakol seems to be provided by satellite link, making it very expensive. All internet cafes we found charged an hourly fee plus an additional traffic cost. Internet Di on Alybakov was the cheapest at just 15 Som an hour plus 4 Som per megabyte but even here we ran up a bill equivalent to about 1.50 euros an hour just with normal web surfing. In the telecom office you can get access for 30 Som an hour including 5 free megabytes. Some of the slicker cafes charge 40 Som an hour plus 7 Som per megabyte. The fees are not transparent so you depend on the owner’s honesty when he calculates how many megabytes you’ve used.