15 must-sees around Issyk-Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan
All the information you need to discover Lake Issyk-Kul off the beaten track
Lake Issyk-Kul, known as “the pearl of Central Asia”, has always been a strong place of identity for Kyrgyz culture. Therefore, throughout the history of Kyrgyzstan, the banks of the lake have attracted visitors for spiritual reasons (the sacredness of the lake), commercial reasons (Silk Road), for grazing (nomadism) and for health reasons (numerous sanatoriums).
In this article, we give you some tips on how to discover these different aspects of the lake, off the beaten track!
Lake Issyk-Kul, the pearl of Central Asia
From its warm and salty waters to its golden sandy beaches, only the snowy peaks surrounding it betray the true nature of Lake Issyk-Kul, nicknamed “the Kyrgyz sea”. Perched at an altitude of 1,609 m, Issyk-Kul is one of the largest high mountain lakes in the world. Bordered by the Kungey Ala-Too mountain range to the north and the Terskey Ala-Too mountain range to the south, it is fed by the hundreds of rivers that flow along these mountains.
Benefiting from a temperate microclimate, the shores of the lake have attracted people for millennia. The numerous archaeological sites scattered around the lake are a reminder of the prehistoric and ancient civilisations of the region.
Today, a very well-maintained asphalt road allows you to go around the lake. As opposed to the northern shore, which experienced the flourishing of numerous tourist infrastructures during the Soviet era, the southern shore remains quite wild and offers a lively and vibrant experience of nomadic culture.
Created in 1948, Issyk-Kul Lake Reserve is one of the oldest in Central Asia. Among the wildlife in the reserve, there are more than one hundred species of bird that can be watched quite easily from along the shores of the lake. Some of the lake’s wetlands are important wintering spots for migratory water birds. Notable water bird species include the endangered white-headed duck, but also the Eurasian coot and the red-crested pochard, which are quite common in the area. You will also be able to see gulls and rarer birds such as the flamingo or the whooper swan.
The lunar landscapes of the southern shore of Lake Issyk-kul
Canyon of the Forgotten Rivers
Between Kyzyl-Tuu and Bokonbaevo, a small track allows you to follow the southern shore of the lake and explore the lunar landscapes of the Canyon of the Forgotten Rivers. The canyon has been named Canyon of Forgotten Rivers in homage to the hundreds of dried-up rivers that have cut through the rock over the centuries. By carving through the sedimentary rock in this vast expanse, the rivers seem to have been frozen in time. Succulent plants and multicoloured flowers punctuate the landscape. From time to time, a small lizard will cross the dusty road and eagles circle high in the sky in search of prey. If you are lucky, you may come across some camels. It is possible to camp by the lake and swim along small deserted beaches. You can find more information about this route in the book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN (Route 05).
The splendid red sandstone cliffs of Jeti-Oguz, or The Seven Bulls, attract many visitors. Since it is well visited by day, we recommend that you visit early in the morning or at the end of the day when the light makes the cliffs appear to glow red. For a less touristic experience, we suggest that you explore the nearby valley : see Route 09 of the book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN.
After about twenty kilometres, the Jeti-Oguz Valley widens into a vast summer pasture (jailoo). It is nicknamed the Valley of Flowers because it is covered with thousands of wild flowers in spring: tulips, poppies, crocuses, etc. The valley is also known for its mushrooms!
Skazka Canyon or Fairy-Tale Canyon
Also known as Fairy Tale Canyon, you can do some beautiful walks in the Skazka Canyon among the red sandstone cliffs which have been carved out by erosion. Access to the valley is near Route 06 of the book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN, about 8 km from the village of Tosor. Entry to the site costs 50 soms per person. It is best to go early in the morning or late in the day to avoid the crowds and the sometimes stifling heat of the summer months. The light will be even more beautiful at the beginning or end of the day!
Discovering nomadic games and traditions
Bokonbaevo is the largest town on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, between Balykchy and Karakol. Here you will find all necessary amenities: shops, restaurants, inns, banks, petrol stations, garages, etc. You can also organise various tourist activities such as eagle-hunting demonstrations or traditional carpet making (shyrdak). In August, the Birds of Prey Festival is held. If you go in July, the Ethno-festival of Teskey-Jeek takes place only a few kilometres away in the next town, Ton. For dates, program and prices of the different festivals, you can ask for information directly at the tourist agencies in Bokonbaevo.
While it is true that there are only a few architectural remains in Kyrgyzstan, the long tradition of yurts is still very much alive, and the secret of their manufacture is revealed in Kyzyl-Tuu. In this small, prosperous village, craftsmen build most of the country’s traditional yurts. It is possible to visit one of these workshops or to participate in putting up or taking down a yurt. In March, the Kyrgyz National Game Festival is held in Kyzyl-Tuu which includes traditional music concerts, eagle hunting demonstrations and nomadic games.
Eagle hunting is a tradition that has been passed down from father to son for centuries. Once used as a method of acquiring food and fur during the harsh winter months, this form of hunting nearly disappeared during the Soviet era. There are only a few dozen falconers (locally called berkutshi) who still practise eagle hunting in Kyrgyzstan. They showcase their art for tourists and at traditional nomadic festivals. They are well respected and considered to be guardians of nomadic traditions by the Kyrgyz people.
You can ask for information directly at the tourist agencies in Bokonbaevo.
World Nomad Games in Cholpon Ata
The World Nomad Games is an international competition featuring nomadic sports not represented in the Olympic Games, such as Kok-Boru, horse racing, horse archery, horse wrestling, etc. Teams from all over the world, especially Central Asia and the Middle East, are invited to participate in the games, which are traditionally held in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan.
More than just a competition, this event is the largest nomadic gathering in the world. The festival also features traditional dance and music performances, eagle hunting demonstrations, yurt building and more. A true journey into the heart of nomadic culture!
The first three editions of the World Nomad Games were held in the city of Cholpon-Ata. The 2020 edition, which was supposed to take place in Turkey, has been postponed due to the Covid-19 epidemic.
Equestrian competitions are regularly held at the Cholpon-Ata racecourse. It is possible to attend them!
Discover the historical sites of Lake Issyk-Kul
In Ornek, a small museum is home to some interesting archaeological discoveries: ceramics, utensils, cavalry equipment, traditional clothing, carpets, etc.
The museum and the petroglyphs of Cholpon-Ata
Every year, this medium-sized town of 8,000 inhabitants welcomes many Russian and Kazakh tourists who are attracted by the few hotel complexes and sanatoriums built on the shores of the lake during the Soviet era. If you are passing by, do not miss the Cholpon-Ata Museum where many ancient objects are exhibited that testify to the Kyrgyz and pre-Kyrgyz nomadic culture: tools, carpets, jewellery, musical instruments, etc. For the modest sum of 200 soms, you can hire a guide to visit the site of petroglyphs located to the north of the town. This remarkable archaeological site is host to hundreds of petroglyphs, the oldest of which date from the 8th century B.C. The engravings and paintings show scenes of day-to-day life and hunting as well as animals and shamanic rituals.
Near the San-Tash Pass (2,195 m), there are several dozen mounds built by the Sakhas between the 6th and 1st century B.C. There is also a 4-metre-high and 56-metre-wide stone mound called “San-Tash” which means “counting stones”. According to legend, this monument dates from the 15th century at the time of the Tamerlane military campaigns. While Tamerlane was leading an attack against China, he ordered each of his soldiers to bring one stone from Issyk-Kul here to measure the size of his army. It is said that an old sage, who wanted to teach Tamerlane a lesson on the price of war, suggested that he order his men to pick up a stone from the pile when they returned from the war. The remaining pile of stones represents the number of men who died in the course of his exploits.
The Tibetan petroglyph of Tamga-Tash
This carved stone block of the Om Mani Padme Hum incantation in Tibetan script is rare, thousand-year-old proof of the extent of influence Tibetan Buddhism had on Central Asia. It is not easy to find! From the village of Tamga you will have to follow the Tamga River for about 5km to find it.
What is a Tumulus and a Kurgan? A tumulus is a large artificial pile of earth or stones that was raised over a burial site, sometimes topped by a monument or trophy. Kurgans are the burial mounds found in Russia and Central Asia. They were left by the nomadic populations who lived in this region, notably the Scythians between the 6th and 4th centuries BC.
The most beautiful beaches of lake Issyk-Kul
Although the lake is located at an altitude of 1,607m, the water can reach 24°C in summer! The lake never freezes in winter, hence its name Issyk-Kul which means “warm lake”.
There are many resorts built during the Soviet era on the northern shore of the lake. The most famous are Cholpon-Ata and Bosteri. There you will find large resorts with all-inclusive packages that Russian and Kazakh tourists love! We recommend avoiding it if you don’t want to get stuck between two towels on a crowded beach!
If you like quieter beaches, we recommend you to go to Tosor or Tamchy. The water is clear and the sand is soft. Many Kyrgyz families come here in the summer.
And if you want to discover small deserted beaches, we invite you to visit Route 05 of our book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN.
Visit the Karakol livestock market
The town of Karakol is the main base camp for tourists going to the Tian Shan. There, you will find many travel agencies, hostels, restaurants and other amenities. Be sure not to miss its beautiful Orthodox church, built entirely of wood ! Every Sunday morning at dawn, the Karakol cattle market is held. Once a week the breeders in the region gather at this market to sell their cattle, sheep, horses etc. The atmosphere is very exotic!
Hiking in the misty mountains
The southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul is bordered by the Terskey Ala-Too range. Terskey Ala-Too means “the misty mountains” or “the mountains in the shade” as opposed to Kungey Ala-Too, “the sunny mountains” which are located on the northern shore of the lake at the border with Kazakhstan. Reminiscent of Switzerland in places, these mountains are full of hiking trails through pine forests, high meadows, lakes and glaciers.
Many of the hikes are quite accessible and can be done independently. Be careful though, there is no signposting on the trails and if there is, it is in Russian. To find hiking maps, visit the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan. Otherwise you can use applications like Maps.me or wikiloc. If you are going to the high mountains, especially for several days, it is strongly recommended to go with a guide. You can find local guides in the many agencies in Karakol, which is the main base camp for tourists going to the Tian Shan Mountains.
Nestled at 3,560 m in the Terskey Ala-Too mountain range between the Karakol and Altyn-Arashan Valleys, this sumptuous glacial lake is very popular with hikers who come to explore the region. The hike to Lake Ala-Kul can last between 2 and 4 days, depending on the route taken, and requires a good level of physical fitness. If you are not accustomed to high mountains, we recommend that you go with a guide (which you can easily find in Karakol).
The Karakol Valley is known for its ski resort, one of the largest in the country with more than 20 km of slopes. The start of the hike to Lake Ala-Kul is also at the end of this valley. Just walk along the Karakol River to a small wooden bridge.
The Altyn-Arashan Valley is the starting point for many treks in the Terskey Ala-Too, especially towards Lake Ala-Kul. You will also find many hot springs there, ideal after a big hike! There are fee-paying pools but also free natural springs, not easy to find!
On the left of the entrance to the Altyn-Arashan Valley, is the Ak-Suu Valley. It is well loved by the locals for its numerous thermal springs and sanatoriums. It is also possible to do some short walks there. The pools are kitted out and you have to pay.
About 20 km from the village of Barksoon there are beautiful waterfalls along the road running through the valley. A short one-hour walk takes you up to a viewpoint where you can see the three waterfalls which follow one after the other into the gorge. Beware, there is a climb! We highly recommend you go on horseback. At the foot of the waterfalls, you will find a few yurts where you can stay. This area is popular with tourists.
This small village, located at the foot of the mountains, is a known base camp for hikers in the area. You will find some inns and guides to accompany you on horseback or on foot in the mountains of the region. The road to get there is in very good condition.
A thousand years ago, merchants and their cargoes of silk crossed the region on their way to China. Explorers of more recent times such as Ella Maillart and Sylvain Tesson also rode through here on horseback.
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