Issyk Kul, located in the Eastern part of Kyrgyzstan, is the 10th largest lake in the world by volume, and the second largest salt lake on the planet, after the Caspian Sea. It is often referred to by locals as “the Pearl of the Tien San“.
Geography and Hydrology
With a length of 182 kilometers and a width of 60 kilometers, Issyk Kul is the second largest mountain lake after Titicaca. It is surrounded by the lovely Teskey Ala-Too range of the Tian San Mountains on the Southern part, and by the Kungey Alatau on the Northern shore. These mountain ranges protect the lake from extreme climate changes and wind flows, so the lake never freezes. The name Issyk Kul actually means “hot lake” in Kyrgyz language.
Because of the unique combination of surroundings – sea, sandy beaches, steppe, mountains and eternal ice zones – the whole area has an incomparable ecosystem. This region has the highest snow-capped peaks in Kyrgyzstan.
The lake is of tectonic origin and is estimated to be 25 million years old. In medieval times the water level was lower by 8 meters, and even in recent years the water level dropped 2.5 meters as a result of water diversions.
Because of its high mineral content the water is not drinkable, but serves as treatment for various illnesses. The lake’s salinity is estimated to be 0.6%. Issyk Kul has clear blue waters and a visibility that can usually reach up to 20 meters.
There are more than 100 rivers and streams flowing into the lake, of which the largest are the Djyrgalan and the Tyup rivers. Besides these, the lake is also fed by a number of springs and snowmelt. It has no actual outflows so the only water loss is through evaporation; however scientists are suspecting that somewhere underground the lake might be leaking into the Chu River. The lake area is also home to a number of thermal mineral radon springs.
Because of the surrounding mountains protecting the lake from extreme continental temperatures and winds, the local climate is pretty mild. In the summer months the average air temperature is between 25-28 degrees Celsius, although it can get cooler during the night. In wintertime the temperature can get as low as -5 Celsius. The water temperatures between the months of May and October range from 14 to 22 degrees Celsius. There are 2,900 hours of sunshine annually.
Local History and Legends
The first source mentioning the lake is an anonymous script, dating back to 982 AD, written in Tajik language and it even states the exact size of Issyk Kul.
The lake served as a stopover on the Silk Road, a famous network of trading routes that went on until medieval times. Many historians believe that the lake was the birthplace of one of the most devastating pandemics in history, the Black Death. This deadly virus originated from infested vermin, which historians believed was carried into Europe by merchants. The epidemic was so severe, it caused the death of 75-200 million people in the 14th century.
In the Soviet era, the lake’s surroundings gave home to a Russian facility where they tested the latest submarine and torpedo technology. In 2008 the Russian military made an inquiry about putting a base around the Karabulan Peninsula to establish a naval testing facility. India is also planning to invest in the project and use the torpedo testing facility.
In 2007 archaeologists found the remains of advanced civilizations with settlements submerging in the shallow areas of the lake. In the deeper parts of Issyk Kul they even came across ancient city walls which are 500 meters long, as well as other traces of old cities, burial grounds and plenty of well-preserved artifacts such as battle-axes, arrowheads and daggers.
There are plenty of legends trying to explain the origin and formation of Lake Issyk Kul. Some state that there are as many as four drowned cities at the bottom of the lake. According to one particular pre-Islamic myth, the ruler of Ossures had big donkey ears which he was ashamed of, so he killed all the barbers to hide his secret from getting out. One barber who escaped from the frustrated king yelled the secret into a well and but forgot to cover it, so the water rose from it and flood the whole kingdom, giving birth to the lake.
Human Settlements around Issyk Kul
The lake basin is a densely populated region, with tens of villages and cities. The largest city is Karakol with a population of 90,000, followed by Blykchy, which serves as a small but dying industrial center, and Cholpon-Ata, the center of tourism. Other towns include Koshkol, Tamchy, Tyup and Barkson.
Because of the decline of industrial activity in the area, locals work mainly on farms and fisheries, transporting their goods with horses and donkeys.
Because of the moderate climate conditions, fruit trees such as apricots, peach, pears and apples are pretty common. The inhabitants collect and sell these fruits, as well as dried fish caught from the lake at the local market.
Every Sunday morning the city of Karakol hosts a huge and famous animal market, where vendors exchange cattle, sheep, donkeys, horses and pigs. Many farmers come a great distance from surrounding areas to participate in the weekly fair. The prices of these animals are very low compared to the Dollar or Euro currency.
Environmental Issues, Flora and Fauna
Since the valley encompassing the lake is so densely populated, environmental protection is somewhat difficult. Because of intense exploitation, the extinction of some species and elements of local landscape has become inevitable. Among these endangered species we can mention the snow leopard, mountain goats and large falcons. Only 4% of the local flora is endemic.
The first national reserve in the country, the Issyk Kul State Reserve was established in 1948 to protect the unparalleled nature and landscape of the lake. In 1975 the area was recognized as a Ramsar site, which ensures the protection and sustainable development of wetlands. In 2000 the Biosphere Reserve Issyk Kul was established, in collaboration with UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
The lake serves as a stopover for migratory and wintering birds such as swans, geese, ducks and cranes. The surrounding mountains give shelter to rare animals, such as the cutter-loader and the wild boar.
Fishing is a very popular activity. The naked “soman”, the “chebak”, the common carp and the “marinka” are amongst the most popular commercial fish species. The lake is home to a highly endemic fish biodiversity, out of which 4 species are endangered. There has been a recent decline in catches, mostly because of overfishing and overpopulation of predator species.
There is one species of fish that has been transferred to Issyk Kul from the Armenian Lake Sevan, called the Sevan trout, because it has better chances of surviving in the Kyrgyz lake.
Accessibility and Tourist Facilities
The area was a popular tourist region even back in the Soviet period, when plenty of vacation homes and hotels were built to house Russian tourists. There was a decline in arrivals after the fall of the USSR, but nowadays renovations are being made and the place is quickly becoming an attractive spot for travellers yet again.
The tourist season is during the summer months, from June to September, with the month between the 25th of July and the 30th of August being the peak season.
There are a number of ways through which one can get to the lake. The best choice might be by minibus from Bishkek, which costs around 250-300 Kyrgyzstanian Som (the equivalent of 4-5 US Dollars). You can also hire a private van or taxi to take you to Issyk Kul, which will set you back approximately $100 (prices may be subject to bargain). In addition to these options, there is a scenic train ride from Bishkek to Balykchy, which although is pretty slow, has incredible views and is even cheaper than the minibus. There are also regular ferries transporting tourists across the lake.
On the shores of Issyk Kul you can find plenty of guesthouses, hotels and health resorts, some having their own mud and thermal spa treatments.
As for activities, there are plenty of ways to have a memorable stay at Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake. For those who like nature walks that aren’t too difficult, there are plenty of valleys worth exploring, such as Gregorievka and Simeonevka valleys on the North and Barskoon valley on the Southern shores of the lake. The lovely mountain range of Tian San offers scenic hiking trails ranging from easy paths to more challenging routes, and there are also a few cycling roads around the lake. One can also go skiing at higher elevation. Water sports enthusiast can enjoy a great day of either rafting, swimming or windsurfing in the Issyk Kul Lake.