Think of Kyrgyzstan and the first thing that comes to mind is probably not tourism. The small, poor, mountainous former Soviet nation is often ignored by the rest of the world, so much so that even Mother Nature seems to overlook it — it is the farthest country from the ocean in the world, and all its rivers flow into closed systems instead of the sea.
But if you visit Kyrgyzstan — and believe me, you must — be sure to pack your swimsuit.
Because Kyrgyzstan is home to the second-largest mountain lake in the world, right after Lake Titicaca in South America. Issyk-Kul is also the second-largest saline lake on the planet. As you traverse its never-ending shoreline, the calm, cool, crystal-clear water stretches to the horizon, the far shore so distant that you can just make out the shape of the Tian Shan mountains — which are snow-capped year-round — against the skyline, seemingly floating above the clouds. It’s at once breathtaking and humbling, grand and tranquil, ethereal and powerful and … did I mention breathtaking?
Think there’s no way in hell that such an idyllic place exists without anyone knowing about it yet? You’re right — just late to the game. Issyk-Kul is a bustling tourist destination for Russians and Central Asians (mostly from nearby Kazakhstan). Most Kyrgyz people from the capital, Bishkek, “have not traveled anywhere else in Kyrgyzstan except Issyk-Kul,” says Ryan Hornung, director of Iron Horse Nomads, a car rental and tour company based in Bishkek. It’s not surprising with the diversity of attractions on offer. Though you may be deep in an isolated region of Central Asia, Issyk-Kul can transport you to the parties of the Caribbean, the beaches of the Mediterranean, the mountains of Switzerland, the steppes of Mongolia, the geology of Utah and the bizarre post-Soviet wastelands of Chernobyl — all in a three-day vacation.
The main attraction for many Kyrgyz and Russian tourists on the north shore is the built-up resort town of Cholpon-Ata. There, you can go parasailing, banana boating and whizzing down massive slides into the water, all right next to a beach bar serving cheap watered-down booze, and a soundtrack of LMFAO, J Balvin and Russian house music. Like any typical beach resort, you’ll find drunk 20-somethings doing the limbo and, a few parasols away, families with young kids making sandcastles and paddling in the water.
Scroll around on the video below to explore Cholpon-Ata in 360 degrees!
Cholpon-Ata, and the north shore in general, is the go-to place if you like traffic, weirdly fake nationalistic museums and overpriced menus featuring everything from Chinese food to pizza (though, all told, a meal for two including drinks still comes in at under $10). But there’s a reason it’s so popular — the beaches are long and sandy, the lake is clear and calm and it’s a lovely 75 degrees with a light breeze. An added bonus: Just behind the resort you can see some prehistoric petroglyphs.
When you get to the south side of the lake, Issyk-Kul reveals a completely new set of treats. Venture just briefly away from the shoreline and you can be off-roading, hiking or horseback riding in an untouched mountain landscape, with thick pine forests, alpine streams of glacial meltwater and wide-open grassy plains. “They say it’s like Switzerland, it’s true!” says Vincent, a backpacker from Belgium hiking through the region with two friends. The highlight of Central Asia for them? The varied geography of Kyrgyzstan, with desert and forest and mountains and steppes all within a day’s hike (the group hadn’t even made it down to the lake yet).
There are yurt stays and nomadic horseback tours galore, but they feel a lot less gimmicky on the south side of the lake, as compared to the north side (or other tourist destinations in the country), partly because most of the tourists are Kyrgyz, and there’s not even that many of them. After exploring for several hours to see a grand rock formation — “one of Kyrgyzstan’s most photographed natural features,” my guidebook assures me — we see a total of 10 other people on a Sunday during peak season (July to September). Back on the shoreline, the lake’s south side is much more secluded, with myriad tiny beachfront villages still to be yanked out of the Soviet Union by tourism. Each has its own curious attraction, from stunning canyons to mountainside cemeteries and a random Soviet airplane on a plinth surrounded by thousands of broken beer and vodka bottles.
Ask any two Kyrgyz people which shore is better — north or south — and you’ll kick-start a great debate. But the beauty comes from being able to experience both in their diverse glory. Two Kyrgyz travelers, Gunuz and Aisuluu, from the city of Osh (some 12 hours’ drive away), say that Issyk-Kul is the most beautiful place they’d ever visited — they had just spent two days partying in Cholpon-Ata and were about to spend the next night in a random guy’s yurt they found in the mountains.
While buses run between the lake’s major destinations, and you can also hire drivers, it’s pretty easy to rent a car from Bishkek — and it provides the freedom to explore the 300 miles of alpine lake coastline independently. There’s something indescribable about the beautiful randomness of stopping at a deserted beach, like a scene out of Eat Pray Love, and then next poking around an abandoned Soviet port with giant rusted machinery. However, be warned: Go off the main road and you might end up on a horrendous unpaved backstreet, suddenly surrounded by a herd of cows. But you also might encounter a beachside bouncy castle flanked by a popcorn stand.
It’s clear that Issyk-Kul is still a secret, especially to most of the English-speaking world. The only non-Asian tourists we met were Europeans who had been visiting Kazakhstan and followed advice to cross the border into Kyrgyzstan — the giant lake was a spectacular surprise. But being able to take a dip in the still, cool waters (Issyk-Kul means “warm lake” in Kyrgyz … it might be “warm” compared to the surrounding glaciers, but let’s just say everything’s relative) is the best surprise of all.
Go there: Issyk-Kul
- Kyrgyzstan: Flights often connect to Bishkek via Istanbul or Dubai. You can also fly to Osh.
- Visas: Travelers with passports from most major countries can visit visa-free.
- The drive: Traffic dependent, it’s a four- or five-hour drive from Bishkek to Cholpon-Ata, the main resort on the north shore. It’s another two or three hours to Karakol, the main city on the eastern tip of the lake. Driving directly between Bishkek and Karakol via the south side of the lake takes around six hours with no stops or traffic.
- Pro tip: Police line the main highways between Bishkek and Issyk-Kul, especially in peak season. They pull over anyone for driving even 1 mph over the speed limit or not having headlights on. It’s nothing to worry about — pay the standard bribe of 500 som ($7) and you’ll be on your way again.
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