Issyk-Kul

Lake Issyk-Kul  and Lake Tahoe in California have a lot in common.  They are both very blue, beautiful deep mountain lakes and they both are vacation destinations freom the city, Kake Issyk Kul is about a three hour drive from Bishkek.  Both have nearby fanatastically wonderful mountains,  just as spectacular as Yosemite and  Soquioa National Parks are from Lake Tahoe (and closer too)

Both Lake Tahoe and Lake Issykl are Extra Blue because they are Extra Deep and Extra Clear

Lake Issyk was the site of the World Nomad Games in September 2018  and is an excellent jumping off place for silk road tours

It an endorheic lake in the northern Tian Shan Mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan.  Endorheic means the lake has no out flow and like the Great Salt Lake in Utah, lake Issyk is saline.  It is the tenth largest lake in the world by volume and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. Issyk-Kul means “warm lake” in the Kyrgyz language; although it is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it never freezes.

During the Soviet era, the lake became a popular vacation resort, with numerous  sanatoria, boarding houses and vacation homes along its northern shore, many concentrated in and around the town of Cholpon-Ata. These fell on hard times after the break-up of the USSR, but now hotel complexes are being refurbished and simple private bed-and-breakfast rentals are being established for a new generation of health and leisure visitors.

Issyk Kul Region on the Silk Road

Barskoon

Barskoon on the southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul only has a population of a few thousand today, but its prominent location made it an important trading post in the Middle Ages.

A route of the ancient Silk Road passed through here, passing over the 4,284 m (14,055 ft) Bedel Pass into China. The ruins of an ancient caravanserai in Barskoon, provide testament to the times when caravan routes dispersed from here into China in the East and India in the South. After the end of the Mongol Empire and the gradual decline of the Silk Road after the 1400s, the town began to lose prominence.

The 11th century scholar Mahmud al-Kashgari (also known as Barskhani) was a native of this area.  Mahmud al-Kashgari is best known as the author of the Dīwān Lughāt al-Turk, the first comparative dictionary of the Turkic languages, which he wrote whilst living in Baghdad in 1072-1074.

Mahmud al-Kashgari's world map, with Barskoon at the center
Mahmud al-Kashgari’s world map, with Barskoon at the center

Kashgari’s  tomb is in Upal, a small town in present-day Xinjiang southwest of Kashgar on the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan.

Barskoon is also known as the birthplace of Abu Mansur Sabuktigin. Born there in 942, he was later sold as a slave to Alp-Tegin, the commander-in-chief of the Samanid rulers of Bukhara. Sabuktigin became one of the most prominent generals of 10th-century Central Asia, married Alptigin’s daughter, and became the founder of the Ghaznavid dynasty, which ruled large parts of Iran, Afghanistan and northwestern India until 1186.

 

Lake Issyk Kul on the Silk Road

Issyk-Kul Lake was a stopover on the Silk Road, a land route for travelers from the Far East to Europe. The Great Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveller Xuanzang has passed this lake and recorded the details in the classic Chinese text Great Tang Records on the Western Regions in the 7th century. The Lake was once owned by the Qing Dynasty of China and was ceded to Russia including the surrounding territory after the Treaty of Tarbagatai.

Many historians believe that the lake was the point of origin for the Black Death that plagued Europe and Asia during the early and mid-14th century.   The lake’s status as a byway for travelers allowed the plague to spread across these continents via medieval merchants who unknowingly carried infested vermin along with them.

In pre-Islamic legend, the king of the Ossounes had donkey’s ears. He would hide them, and order each of his barbers killed to hide his secret. One barber yelled the secret into a well, but he did not cover the well afterwards. As a result, the well water rose and flooded the kingdom. The kingdom is today under the waters of Issyk-Kul. According to the legend, this is how the lake was formed. Other legends say that four drowned cities lie at the bottom of the lake. Substantial archaeological finds indicating the presence of an advanced civilization in ancient times have been made in shallow waters of the lak

In December 2007,  a team of Kyrgyz historians and archaeologists announced that they have discovered the remains of a 2500-year-old advanced civilization at the bottom of the Lake. The data and artifacts obtained suggest that the ancient city was a metropolis in its time. The discovery consisted of formidable walls, some stretching for 500 metres (1,600 ft) and traces of a large city with an area of several square kilometers. Other findings included Scythian burial mounds eroded over the centuries by waves, and numerous well-preserved artifacts, including bronze battleaxes, arrowheads, self-sharpening daggers, objects discarded by smiths, casting molds, and money.

Petroglyphs
Zoomorphic petroglyphs (ca. 1500 BC) near Issyk Kul. Photo courtesy Fred Hiebert.

Issyk Kul is an endorheic lake (meaning that it has no outlet) with abundant underwater springs, and the water level has fluctuated dramatically over the centuries, submerging settlements, buildings and even entire cities that had been established on earlier shorelines. Issyk Kul was one of the earliest sites for underwater archaeological research in Central Asia, with divers exploring its depths as long ago as the 1860s.

A 19th-century diver in Issyk Kul. Photo from Vinnik 1959.

Articles identified as the world’s oldest extant coins were found underwater, with gold wire rings used as small change and a large hexahedral goldpiece. Also found was a bronze cauldron with a level of craftsmanship that is today achieved by using an inert gas environment

In the Middle Ages, the region around the lake was hotly contested by two divergent lines of descendants from Genghis Khan: nomadic, shamanistic Eastern Mongols and the city-dwelling, Islamic Western Mongols. The legendary Western Mongol leader Tamerlane (Timur, 1336-1405) was said to have battled for the lake region in the early 1400s, and there are medieval accounts of palace built by the conqueror on the northern shore of Issyk Kul.

Tamerlan
A Timurid-era illustration of Timur

This rumored building has been one of the most frequently cited phenomena in the lake, and a site associated with it was first investigated by a Russian historian, G.A. Kolpakovsky in 1869. A few decades later, the historian V.V. Bartold theorized that the site was associated with the 15th century palace as described by the medieval Arab historian Ibn Arab Sheikh.

Ibn_Arabi
Ibn Arabi

The existence of such a building is of major historical importance, as it would document a critical expansion of Tamerlane’s empire, and the possibility exists that the building was constructed in the style of the Timurid state buildings at Samarkand and Shakhrisabz, as well as the Taj Mahal. If this is indeed a newly discovered Timurid monumental building, it would be a very significant addition to the catalogue of Islamic architecture

Since Bartold first presented his theory that there may indeed be a monumental building associated with Tamerlane in Issyk Kul, archaeologists and historians have repeatedly returned to the site, located near the town of Cholpon-Ata.

In 1926-27 the archaeologist P.P. Ivanov carefully studied the underwater ruins in and made a map, “so that future researchers could not spend too much time searching for their interest.” His work however, was never published and only came to light only in 1957.

In 1959, Dmitri Vinnick of the Kyrgyz Institute of History returned to the question of the nature of the remains and began systematic archaeological survey of the site. He reported regular walls made of brick, wooden beams and blue-glazed tiles of a Timurid type, but ironically, due to Soviet political repression of “Central Asian” history–i.e., finding evidence of Tamerlane’s (a Muslim) conquest of the region–his work was not followed up and he was not allowed to publish on this important finding.

National Geographic Archaeology Fellow Fredrik Hiebert at work in Issyk Kul; Photo courtesy Brad Vest
National Geographic Archaeology Fellow Fredrik Hiebert at work in Issyk Kul; Photo courtesy Brad Vest

In 2012, a National Geographic team conducted a visual and remote sensing survey of the site, and they found compelling evidence to  stage a full-scale examination with a toolkit of high-tech remote sensing equipment, along with traditional exploration, diving and underwater excavation, mounting an underwater archaeological expedition on one of the world’s highest lakes.

Things to Do around Issyk Kul

Lake Issyk Kul from Space

Lake Issyk Kul in Nature

Going to the lake is a summer ritual in Krygystan.  Is the second largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca in South America. It is at an altitude of 1,607 metres (5,272 ft), and reaches 668 metres (2,192 ft) in depth

The lake is a Ramsar site of globally significant biodiversity (Ramsar Site RDB Code 2KG001) and forms part of the Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve.

About 118 rivers and streams flow into the lake; the largest are the Djyrgalan and Tyup. It is fed by springs, including many hot springs, and snow melt. The lake has no current outlet, but some hydrologists hypothesize that the lake’s water filters deep underground into the Chu River. The bottom of the lake contains the mineral monohydrocalcite: one of the few known lacustrine deposits

The lake’s southern shore is dominated by the ruggedly beautiful Teskey Ala-Too Range of the Tian Shan mountains. The Kungey Alatau of the Tian Shan runs parallel to the north shore.

The lake water’s salinity is approx. 0.6% – compared to 3.5% salinity of typical seawater– and, although the lake level is still currently some 8 metres higher than in medieval times, its level now drops by approximately 5 cm per year due to water diversion

The lake contains highly endemic fish biodiversity, including endangered endemic Schmidt’s dace (Leuciscus schmidti), Issyk-Kul dace (Leuciscus bergi), marinka (Schizothorax issyk-kuli), and sheer or naked osman (Diptychus dybovskii)

Sevan trout, a fish endemic to Lake Sevan in Armenia, was introduced into Issyk-Kul in the 1970s. While this fish is an endangered species in its “home” lake, it has a much better chance to survive in Lake Issyk-Kul where it has ravaged the indigenous species.

Barskoon

There are ruins of an ancient caravanserai in Barskoon, providing testament to the times when caravan routes dispersed from here and Barskoon is a popular tourist destination and home to tourism companies, such as Shepherd’s Way Trekking. (See our Tour Agency Review Page)

The Barskoon valley includes the Barskoon waterfall and is a good center for trekking and horseback riding. You can see a bust of Yuri Gagarin, who holidayed on the South shore of Issyk Kul after his historical first manned space flight.

West is the village of Tamga, which is famous for a rock (“Tamga-Tash“) with a Buddhist inscription dating from the 3rd to 8th centuries, which the locals interpreted as a Tamga.

The modern town began as a Russian military post after the Russian conquest of Central Asia. During the 1916 uprising of the Kyrgyz against colonial rule known today as Urkun, large numbers of Kyrgyz attempted to flee through the Barskoon valley into China, and many perished at Bedel and Seok Pass. The name of Seok Pass (“Bone Pass”) stems from this incident.

After the establishment of the Soviet Union, the ancient trade road became important for frontier defense against China. The border crossing at Bedel Pass was closed, and a new road, present-day A364, was built over Barskoon and Seok Pass towards Kara-Say, then east towards Ak-Shyrak and Engilchek.

 

Cholpan Ata

The beach is where you will meet Kyrgyz on vacation.  There is lots of amazing hiking and activities to do in the local areas. The water is nice and clean and there are many places to stay and to eat along the waterfront.

Camel
Cholpon Ata beach is super. with many of tourists from Russia and Kazakhstan and local people on holiday

The Issyk-Kul lake is a precious gift of Nature, preserved here untouched

The Ruh Ordo Cultural Center in Cholpon Ata on the shore of Issyk-Kul is a lovely place to visit when you are in this fine town. The chapels to each religion are beautiful and resplendent in their modesty and allowing all to show tolerance between the religions as well. The place is well cared-for and is a wonderful way to acknowledge and observe the beautiful land of Kyrgyzstan and it’s wonderful citizens

The open air Museum of Petroglyphs just outside of Cholpon Ata is a collection of rocks covered in ancient drawings moved by glaciers and deposited here thousands of years ago.  It is amazing to see art en-suite.from millenia in the past.   Musuem quality petroglyphs have been moved indoors, but there are so many to see here where they were first made.

There there are not a lot of descriptions of anything so it it might be worthwhile to obtain a guide in Cholpon Ata.    This museum does require a fare bit of walking and there are wild goats roaming around in the morning.  The best time to visit is early morning or late evening when sun the sun eluminates the petroglyphs from an angle, they can appear washed out at mid day.

The Cholpan Ata Historical Museum has a good collection of Kyrgyz history.   Many travelers know little about the history and culture of Central Asian countries, this little museum is a good place to start.  It is fortunate that they have docents that speak English otherwise you won’t be able to understand the exhibit.

Jeti-Oguz Canyon (Seven Bulls Rocks)

If you are traveling through Karokol, you have to stop to see Jeti-Orguz Canyon. which is less then an hour away by car.  One red rocks  formation looks like the a broken heart, and the other looks like the backs of seven bulls.   It is a good place to stop to take some pictures. In the summer there are kebabs and such offered nearby.

Jeti-Oguz Rocks 1

Also – you can trek up to to valley, will cross several bridges along the river until you get to the valley. there will be yurts – aslo serving fermented horse milk, non fermented horse milk too.  You can eithe walk or go there by a four wheel drive to Jayiyk

Jeti-Oguz Rocks 2

If you want to stay the night,  Jeti Oguz village  in nearby.   There is a wonderful bed and breakfast place right at the foot of the seven bulls rocks. The views are spectacular wherever you look with plenty of hiking opportunities from easy to very challenging. You can actually hike right up to the seven bulls rocks from the village side without too much effort. There are also paths to get to the top of those rock formations from the opposite side if you are up to it. The canyon itself is equally beautiful with dense pine forests covering the mountainous slopes. Great place to truly experience nature at its best

Karakol

There is so much to see in Issyk Kul, that I made a separate web page for Karakol.

The city of Karakol (formerly Przhevalsk, after the Russian explorer Przhevalsky who died there) is the administrative seat of Issyk-Kul Region. It is near the east tip of the lake and is a good base for excursions into the surrounding area.

Its small old core contains an impressive wooden mosque, built without metal nails by the Dungan people, and the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathederal is a reminder of the the Russian and Ukrainian frontiersman back in XVIII-XIX centuries who built their churches of wood.

The Nikolai Przhevalsky museum celebrates the great Centra Asian explorer,   He was genius polymath,  very strong in many things including map making, geology, botany, leadership and fundraising. The exhibits are rich and of good quality.

Come  early Sunday morning visit to the Karakol Cattle Market and  be prepared to be overwhelmed!   This market does not cater to tourists, which makes it really cool and authentic,

Fairy Tale (Skazka) Canyon 

Skazka Canyon (Fairy Tale in Kyrgyz) is very beautiful situated South of Lake Issyk-Kul, hidden in the hills is a magical place: the Skazka canyon.

While walking through it, your imagination will go crazy with all the colors and shapes created by the elements. Just look at those pictures and imagine you are in a fairy tale.

Fairy Talie Canyon 1
This is a nice place to play hide and seek. The interesting combination of up and down, deserted and plentiful vegetation, rocks and water makes this a great place to explore.

Fairy Talie Canyon 2

Clearly, Canyon Fairy Tale is an exceptional site and one that must not be missed when visiting Kyrgyzstan.  Go with a local guide, not only to locate the canyon but to help you navigate around the beautiful geological formations reminiscent of, but not quite as spectacular as, Bryce Canyon in the United States. There are no trail markings, you can follow different paths, but some would end up at extremely narrow ledges with steep precipices. This canyon is better suited for young teens and up.

Sauna

The resorts of Issyk-Kul are a natural clinic for a great number of diseases connected, first of all, with environmental pollution, the air and water in the Kyrgzy is amongt the cleanest you will experience anywhere.   Try out the numerous thermal mineral springs and therapeutic muds.

Sauna is an important part of daily (or at least weekly) life in Central Asia.   The public bathhous is a common feature in Central Asian cities and  a practical meeting point with a communal atmosphere.

For many, bathing is an individual activity – a private washing ritual safe to indulge in once the bathroom door is locked. Bathing together is seen as the height of intimacy, either indicating a dependent relationship, such as mother and child, invalid and carer, or even something slightly naughty – two people occupying a space designed for one.

Sauna 4

When presented, therefore, with the prospect of a visit to the Arasan Baths, Almaty’s public baths or banya, the uninitiated baulk at the idea of carrying out such customarily private actions in the company of strangers, and even worse, friends. 🙂

Sauna 1

Saunas come in all shapes and sizes and are an enjoyable and relaxing experience that provides welcome relief from the heat and dust of an Issyk Kul summer and is capable of combating the deep chill of winters where the temperature can plummet to -25ºc. With separate facilities for men and women, the  Baths are a truly Eurasian bathing experience offering clients a choice of Turkish, Russian, and Finnish baths.

Learn More

Kazakh Baths by Rebecca Beardmore

Things to Do in Issyk Kul Province‎  – Trip Advisor

Ancient Civilization Discovered at the Bottom of Lake Issyk Kul in the Kyrgyz Mountains –  –  en.rian.ru

2012 Issyk Kul Expedition: Search for a Sunken Palace – National Geographic

The Secret Mission of Issyk-Kul –  Discovery Kyrgyzstan

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