Photography by Justina Mickute and Oliver Banatvala
Issyk-Kul is a deep blue lake in northern Kyrgyzstan. On the south-eastern bank of the lake Issyk-Kul is small a town called Karakol.
Although Kyrgyzstan became independent twenty-six years ago, it still remains a largely unknown and unexplored part of the world for many people. Protected by its mountainous terrain, many cultural traditions of the region are still very much preserved and thriving, making it a unique destination in our globalised era. Since 2013, the Kyrgyz government has endorsed a visa-free policy for 61 countries. This has been highly successful in the development of the tourist industry. A growing number of entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity to draw in international interest through the development of a ‘Community Based Tourism’ initiative.
Community Based Tourism (CBT) directly involves local communities in the development and management of tourism programs, creating a unique opportunity to share everyday life and culture with Kyrgyz people. All money goes directly to the community rather than an office in Bishkek. The beauty of CBT rests in the authenticity of each experience, all of which provide insight into the lives of host families. Sharing accommodation with strangers is naturally an unnerving prospect, but the homely atmosphere and endless amounts of food on offer can dissolve any vail of unfamiliarity quickly.
Central to the post-Soviet Kyrgyz identity is Islam. The religion’s re-emergence is made clear through the recently built mosques that are visible in every village encountered on the road to Karakol. However, in Karakol itself, the wooden Orthodox church, which still features the original golden domes, built in 1894 for Russian expatriates, remains evidence of Russian Imperial era. The originality of Karakol does not end there. The Dungan Mosque was built in 1904 according to traditional Chinese design. It is a layered wooden cornice, built with not a single nail.
The vast landscapes and overwhelming sense of space surrounding Karakol is reflected in the activities that are possible to do through the CBT programme. It provides the opportunity to go horse riding to the lake, climbing in the canyons, and there is even one of the country’s largest animal markets nearby.
It is also possible to make the most of the stunning mountain range that surround the town. Through CBT, it is possible to organise treks through the valleys in the mountains, an area inhabited by snow leopards (sightings are rare…). There are a few houses up the mountain which are used as a ‘base camp’, with a beautiful river and hot spring to relax after a day climbing the mountain.
Kyrgyzstan is incredibly beautiful, and when visiting it becomes more and more shocking that so few people know about such a fantastic country every moment spent there.