Lonely Planet Writer

New tours connect travellers with local culture at the gateway to Kyrgyzstan's mountains

Known for years as an independent travellers’ trekking hub in the Tien Shan, the Kyrgyzstan city of Karakol is giving visitors a few more cultural reasons to linger.

Learn about Kyrgyzstan through local arts and crafts. Image by Stephen Lioy

Destination Karakol has spent the summer of 2017 trying out new tour experiences that are helping take travellers beyond the trails to connect with local culture.

Enjoy a multi-course feast of Dungan cuisine in the home of community leader Karim. Image by Stephen Lioy

The most popular with guests is the Dungan Family Dinner, a half-day experience in which visitors travel to the nearby village of Yrdyk to learn about Kyrgyzstan’s unique Dungan ethnic minority and the flight from war that lead these Chinese Muslims over the mountains and into modern-day Kyrgyzstan. The experience ends with a multi-course feast of Dungan cuisine in the home of community leader Karim, featuring the Dungans’ iconic noodle dish of ashlyan-fuu as the focal point.

Learn about Kyrgyzstan through local arts and crafts. Image by Stephen Lioy

In Karakol itself, a Free City Walking Tour introduces visitors to the city’s history and architecture with stops at the elaborate Dungan Mosque (a Chinese-style wooden structure constructed completely without nails) and the wooden Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral from 1895. Travellers who work up a hunger after all these cultural tours can continue on the Karakol Food Crawl, sampling some of the city’s best Tatar, Kyrgyz, Uigher and Dungan food at popular local restaurants. For the culturally inclined, handicrafts workshops guide visitors in preparing traditional Kyrgyz crafts – most notably shyrdak and kilim felt carpets.

Take a cruise through the world’s second-largest alpine lake. Image by Stephen Lioy

Several kilometres inland from Issyk-Köl, the world’s second-largest alpine lake, Karakol is also a natural transfer point for the newly-developed Sunset Yacht Cruise tours. These two-hour excursions, are a great way to unwind after a long trek as the setting sun lights up the mountains on the horizon, and have become one of the most popular experiences organized by Destination Karakol.

Aside from tours the organization has worked closely with city authorities to develop the Karakol River Park, a formerly overgrown stretch of land along the Karakol River which has been reclaimed and developed into a large park and activity space for local residents and visitors to the city.

Summer over, the city is now preparing for winter tourism at Karakol Ski Base and nearby free-ride bases across the region – another potential draw for adventure travelers.

By Stephen Lioy