Issyk-kul lake, Kyrgyzstan – photo essay and tourist information
Could you imagine yourself staring across vivid blue water, along a lake lined by palm trees, framed by the backdrop of snow capped peaks everywhere you look? If so, then Issyk-kul Lake is most definitely the place for you.
We found the Issyk-kul and the surrounding area to be among the most stunning locations in Central Asia, if not the world, and it was almost impossible to drag ourselves away. The water might be a little too chilly to swim in and the people arguably not quite as friendly as in the rest of the country but the landscape was enough to make you want to stay there for far longer than you have time for.
A little information…
Situated in the north-east of Kyrgyzstan, Issyk-kul Lake is the world’s second largest alpine lake and spans 170km long and 60km wide. It is the 10th largest lake in terms of volume and is the 2nd largest saline lake in the world after the Caspian Sea.
The name Issky-kul translates as ‘hot lake’ from the local Kyrgyz language and although this is a bit of an exaggeration, it is unique in the fact that it never freezes even though it sits at a lofty 1,607 metres above sea level. This imperiousness to cold is a result of its extreme depth (up to 668m in places), thermal springs and its saline content. Furthermore, the temperate water even helps to create a mild microclimate that helps ensure slightly warmer temperatures in its surrounds in spite of the harsh Central Asian winters.
The lake is encompassed by the Tian Shan mountain range with the Kyungey Ala-Too mountains to the north and the Terskey Alatau to the south. Most of the surrounding peaks range from 3000 to 4000 m and make for a stunning background.
Tourist information – What to see and do
The lake can be broadly divided between the more populous and touristy north, the alpine hikes of the east and the more rugged and isolated south.
The north is extremely popular with rich Kazakh and Russian tourists who head there for the bars and nightlife on offer. The epicentre of the summer party scene is Cholpon-Ata, where people sun themselves on the beaches by day and drink in open-air cafes by night.
The most common base for the east is Karakol, an unremarkable town dotted with Russian colonial period buildings. The reason most come here, is that it is the best base from which to attempt the hikes into the valleys south of the city. Hiking up to Altyn Arashan and beyond is one of the most rewarding hikes anywhere in Central Asia and well worth the effort.
The south is often overlooked by tourists in search of the easy life, but the views here are arguably the most stunning anywhere on the lake. You can visit the red sandstone cliffs of Jeti-Öghüz (seven bulls) or simply disappear into nature, away from the tourist crowds and enjoy being in Kyrgyzstan’s most beautiful corner.
We highly recommend wild camping near Ottuk. There you will find a wild beach and a forest to camp in, as well as a village shop to stock up your supplies.
Map of Issky-kul lake
Getting around Issyk-kul lake
Most people will arrive to the lake area from Bishkek in the west where the access town is the extremely unremarkable town of Balykchy. As always we recommend hitchhiking as the best means of transport but in all honesty it is slow going. We also found many of the drivers to be drunk. If all else fails, you will find many marshrutkas travelling both ways around the lake especially between Balykchy and Karakol. They will normally travel along the north coast so you may need to town hop if you want to travel along the southern route.
On the north coast there are a range of accommodation options, ranging from higher class hotels, to more economic homestays. In Cholpon-Ata head for the bus stop where you will be approached by elderly ladies offering rooms. Make sure you bargain to find the best price.
In Karakol, there are many accommodation options but we would recommend the SunHouse Hostel, with free wifi, peaceful location and friendly staff. It is a great base from which to explore the surrounding hills.
The south coast is all about camping, find a peaceful spot along the lake and relax surrounded by some of the best nature in Central Asia.
written by: Jon