November 19th, 2008 – by: sayohat
A view from our pitstop en route to Karakol
Within minutes of saying goodbye and thank yous to Dustin, I was squashed in one of the back seats of a minibus headed for Karakol, a small city near the eastern edge of Lake Issyk-Kul. The journey was about six hours and was not comfortable, but could always have been worse. It was hard to see through the frosted, scratchy plastic window that was below eye-level, but I did glance out to catch several beautiful views of the north shore of the lake. We started out driving in thick fog, but by mid-morning we were flying along the highway under sunny skies. We stopped only once for a 15-minute break and arrived at the Karakol bus station around 2pm.
A taxi dropped me at the recommended guesthouse, but no one was there so I walked around the block and scored a cheap ($7) room in the cleanest guesthouse I've ever stayed.
Believe it or not this is where I'm staying (but the main entrance is on the other side and not as ferocious-looking)
It was also the first non-hotel that featured a real hotel-style reception area complete with a front desk! There were no other tourists so I got a three-person room all to myself. The bathrooms and shower were across a wide courtyard that doubled as a secure place for travelers to park their vehicles. I imagined a very comfortable place to hang out in the summer as well. In addition, the location was a block from the center and because Karakol is fairly compact, just about everything is within walking distance aside from the bus station. My backpack was too big to fit through the door, so the front desk clerk opened the metal door to the courtyard and I quickly dropped my pack and made a beeline for the nearest restaurant.
It took a little time for the initial service at the Cafe Zarina, but once I ordered the food was delivered quickly and it was delicious and filling.
The Chinese Mosque
Karakol was founded as a Russian garrison in 1869 and in addition to a sizeable Russian population, there is a significant Dungan influence. The Dungans are Chinese Muslims and several restaurants here and in other cities in Kyrgyzstan feature their cuisine. I'm not sure what cuisine my late lunch was, but the mash horda
(soup with mung beans, bits of ground beef, rice and vegetables) and farshirovannaya okorochka
(kind of like a stuffed chicken with the skin on but stuffed with a mixture of chicken meat, rice, vegetables, spices, mushrooms and possibly breadcrumbs) were unique and tasty. After unsuccessfully trying to use the new ATM across the street and visiting the tourist office, I saw the Dungan mosque (also called Chinese mosque) that resembles a one-level pagoda.
Backdrop of mountains
I walked to the Ak-Tilek bazaar, but the sun was starting to get low and it was shutting down. It seems the sun sets earlier here. Just before it was dark, I walked around the large Russian Orthodox church that dominates an entire square block not far from my guesthouse. At 6pm the electricity in the downtown area appeared to have gone out, judging from a disproportionate number of dark storefronts and an occasional humming generator. Luckily the lights in my room worked, at least for most of the night.
I ventured out to have a light dinner and went to the Cafe Arzu to try their breizol, a thin strip of meat breaded and rolled around some vegetables. It was perfect--delicious and not too filling. Other customers included some guys who were listening to loud music and drinking beer and it appeared that one of them was dating one of the girls who waited on me. I bought a bottle of Kyrgyz wine for about a dollar and went back to my room to warm up. While the wine was a little sweet and not that tasty, it grew on me and was not as bone-chilling as a cold beer would be. There isn't much to do in Karakol at night, but nevertheless it is a rather charming place to spend a few days.