After applying for our transit visa to Turkmenistan, which we got denied later, we figured that it is time to do some sightseeing. The decision was made to go to Karakol, city in the east of Lake Issyk-Kul. Karakol is also considered as one of the best places to do hiking and horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan. On the way to Karakol we did a quick stop at the Burana Tower and spent one night at Cholpon-Ata.
How to get to Burana tower by public transport
In Bishkek, go to the East bus station that is also known as the old bus station. You will see many “marshrutkas” (Minibuses) with different signs on the windows. Look for one that says Tokmok (Токмок) or ask someone to show you where they are. Marshrutkas leave when full and usually it doesn’t take a long time for people to show up.
The price as for May 2016 is 50 som per person, the driver tried to charge us for luggage but we argued and he let it go. Children under 5 years old go for free without occupying a seat.
It takes about 1 hour to get to the bus station in Takmok. From there you can get marshrutka 212 to Burana tower. There are also plenty of taxi drivers willing to bring you to the sight. Don’t pay more than 200 Som one-way. For 400 som taxi drivers will bring you there and back and would wait for you for about 1-1.5h which is plenty.
We left our backpacks at a café in the bus station in Takmok. It is the only café there so you wont miss it. The ladies running the place are really nice, they even refused taking money from us when we didn’t have time to have lunch at their place. That was quite unfortunate since the food looked good and not expensive at all.
I would recommend leaving Bishkek as early as possible since it gets harder to leave Tokmok after 3pm.
The entrance fee to the Burana tower is 80 som per person with 70 or 80 som extra for a museum. We have been running out of time so we skipped it and I am not sure whether it is worth visiting or not. There is also a nice souvenir shop in a yurt on site.
Burana tower is an absolutely beautiful piece of architecture hidden in a green valley surrounded by snowy mountains. It is a huge minaret, the last remnant of the ancient citadel of Balasagun and it looks old despite its reconstruction. It is a magnificent place to have a picnic and enjoy the view. You can also climb to the top of the tower through a very tight staircase. Behind the tower don’t miss the Turkic totem-like stone markers. Most of them date 6th to 10th century and are really cool and unique. Lia was so happy to stroll around these “faces” dispersed in the grass.
We took a marshrutka from Tomkok around 3 pm and apparently it was the last one. The price was 300 som per person. If you miss the marshrutkas there are taxis that were offering a ride for 400 som per person (of course you can negotiate) and it is not a bad deal in the end.
The road took us 3.5 hours and it was a beautiful ride: mountains, canyons, lake… As for Lia, she took the road very easily and most of the time she slept in the car which made our journey much easier and when she was awake she had a great time playing with people around. After traveling for so long the road that takes 5-6 hours is usually no problem for Lia. I guess it is because we are in the transport quite often and all of us are used to long rides.
At Chapon-Ata we stayed at the place mentioned in Lonely Planet and we didn’t regret it. The best part was that the owner had a kid of her own, a boy of 4 years old, and Lia was so excited to play with him. She was just mastering her walking skills so it was fun observing them playing in the yard.
We arrived around 6 pm so we only had a couple of hours left before night fall. We decided to check out the surrounding petroglyphs. The lady at the house offered to watch Lia since the kids were having such a good time playing together. We rarely have a chance to be by ourselves so we accepted the offer and hurried to the petroglyphs. Even with directions we got somewhat lost in the village. To find the sight easier go west (towards Bishkek), find the airstrip and follow it till the end. On your right you will see a hole in the gate-that’s it! At the sight there are signs and little flags that indicate the best-preserved petroglyphs. Don’t miss on the biggest one by the cashier (was closed but site was open).
For us the best part about the petroglyphs was the view of the lake and the snowy peaks behind it. Strolling back home we saw local youth racing cars on this airstrip, kids riding donkeys, sheep and other beauties of village life.
When back we couldn’t recognize Lia, she was all dressed up in new warm clothes and was playing with the boy outside! So adorable! And she absolutely didn’t mind our absence, one of the best parts to travel with a baby. Your child will get used to other people and wont stress out staying with strangers.
Karakol : Horse Trekking
Lake Issyk-Kul is well known for beautiful hikes as well as horse riding and we’ve been waiting for this part of our journey with a longing excitement. You can do all sorts of trips there, 1 day trips as well as multi-days ones. All depends on your stamina, equipment and time. We planed to hike to Altyn-Arashan, probably the most popular destination among travellers. Lonely planet describes it as a Spartan hot-springs development situated in the beautiful alpine valley. I wouldn’t agree more with this description, the scenery there is just stunning!
We stayed at Yak Tour guesthouse in Karakol, a wonderful old wooden house with a very nice old family running the place. It was a good location however Karakol is so tiny that any place would be a good location. Yak Tours has a partner operating in Altyn-Arashan so we could call them and ask about room availability and prices.
Initially we planned to hike to Altyn-Arashan and now knowing the road I would highly recommend to hike instead of taking a car. The hike is not that strenuous and is very picturesque! Valentyn, the owner of the Altyn-Arashan Yak Tours almost convinced us to get a ride for “just” 300 som saying that the road is bad and it is hard to hike. I would be so pissed if we take the car, honestly!
However we had some luck when the owner of the place we stayed (Yak tours hostel) put us in touch with Almaz, the guy who organizes horseback trekking. He offered us a very fair price, much better than the CBT office does and even though we didn’t seriously considered to do horse trekking in Karakol, he won our hearts with a good price and a good attitude! Another reason why we agreed on this trip is the fact that Almaz has gelding horses who are calm and who are working with tourists for many years.
My biggest fear was how we will manage to do it with Lia, who just turned 1 year old not long ago. How tame are the horses, how dangerous it is? Even though the horses are castrated, it is still an animal and therefore unpredictable! Will Lia be able to sit still in her baby-carrier or will she freak out when seeing the horse? There was only one way to find out and we don’t regret it as we had a fantastic time and will remember our experience for a very long time.
We did 3 days trek and for us it was definitely enough. It turns out it is quite tiring to ride a horse, especially when you are a novice. The first day it took us about 4-5 h to get to Altyn-Arashan. The road was beautiful, moving for a long time along the river and in between high pine trees, getting higher and higher to fields full of flowers. Unforgettable view! Unfortunately we only have a few pictures from this trip, I dropped the camera into the puddle from my horse and the camera was ruined… The rest of the day Jose tried to fix it, to take apart and clean the lens of muddy water, but it all was in vein.
The next day we wanted to go to the Ala-kul Lake, the pearl in the mountains. Valentyn again tried to change our mind saying that we wont make it and we should just go to the small lakes nearby Altyn-Arashan. I already had little trust in this man and luckily we didn’t listen to his advice and we still ventured to get to this lake. I must say it was one of the most beautiful treks I have ever done. Mountain Rivers, endless sheep, donkeys, horses, alpine valleys in blossom with distant snowy mountain and us strolling peacefully on the horses.
To our relief Lia didn’t freak out from seeing the horses, she was actually very happy, especially when horses tried to gallop. Jose as a better rider than me had her in the baby-carrier on his stomach. They looked wonderful together, these two… The only annoyance was the wind into our faces and too much sun so our faces, even Lia’s got very red and wind-blown. Looked quite horrible but in just couple of days all of us recovered.
We didn’t get to the Ala-kul lake in the end, it was indeed covered in snow and the last part of the trail was rather steep so we turned back. We also met 3 Israeli and an English guy who completed the trek coming from Karakol in 3 days camping along the way. They also were told that it is impossible to do it and yet they proved everyone wrong! I am always so proud of people who are not easily intimidated. We met those guys again throughout our travel in Central Asia and they are indeed tough people!
The 3rd day we started our descent early in the morning. There was a chance of rain and we didn’t want to get all wet, not to mention it could be quite dangerous on horseback. Luckily we escaped the rain and made it safe and sound to the village where we got a free ride from locals while waiting for a marshrutka.
About hot springs… it was nice to dip into hot water and relax your muscles after a tough day. However I have to admit we had quite a bad experience with hot springs at our place. Upon our arrival I asked about the prices at the premises and Valentyn never mentioned that his hot springs are not included as everyone thought. Instead they were just giving us the keys every time, saying “Go, go, and relax”. After checking out he declared it was 200 som per person, per day!! The funny part that none of the other foreigners knew about it, all of us thought is included as Lonely Planet says. Alas! Very bad experience with that place and I would definitely not recommend it neither be back. There are also natural free hot-springs in the valley, we were told much more picturesque than a soviet hut but we were too tired to look for it. Our bad. Well, it was a lesson for us to ask properly the prices about everything beforehand in order not to be fooled any more.
Anyway despite the bitterness we felt when we left Arashan Yak Tours, we had overall an amazing time and I am looking forward to be back to Karakol again when Lia is older to hike by herself and to remember this unmatched natural beauty.
- Bishkek-Tokmok 50 som
- Tokmok-Burana tower 400 both ways for a car.
- Tokmok-Cholpon-Ata 300 som per person (marshrutka)
- Cholpon-Ata-Karakol 150 per person (marshrutka)
- Karakol-Bishkek 350 per person (marshrutka)
- Horseback riding. 3 days, 2 horses and a guide, just horse is 800 som per day and our total cost was 9,000.
- His contact info:firstname.lastname@example.org, www.karakolhorsetrekking.blogspot.com
Even though Karakol is considered to be a city, it is indeed a small town with just few supermarkets.
You can find baby formula and diapers, however we personally had back luck finding baby food jars. I would recommend to stock up in Bishkek before coming to Cholpon-Ata and Karakol since the prices are cheaper and there are more options.
Baby formula 1200 som (~17$),
Diapers 1400 som for a big pack of 72 pieces (~20$)
Food jars 50-80 som (~ 0.7-1$)