Lake Issyk Kul: a Pearl Resting in the Tian Shan Mountains

I think one of the first questions people in Kyrgyzstan ask travelers when they’re introduced is “Have you been to our Issyk Kul yet?”  Even if the person has only been in the country for a day, they’ll get asked this question. It’s actually quite revealing and shows how much pride Kyrgyz people take in this grandiose lake in the heart of their mountains. Taken for granted by the people of Kyrgyzstan it certainly is not.

Lake Issyk Kul is the second largest alpine lake in the world, second only to Lake Titicaca in South America.  It’s 182km (113 mi) long, 60km (37 mi) wide, 663m (2,175 ft) deep in the center and covers an area of 6,236 square km (2,408 sq mi).  Its waters are vibrant blue, a smidge salty, fed by over 100 rivers, and surrounded by mountains whose peaks look like they’ve been dipped in white chocolate. 

Snowy peaks at Lake Issyk-Kul, by Tan Yilmaz

Since Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country and Lake Issul Kul is so gargantuan that it seems unending, it’s basically the Central Asian version of an ocean, but with mountains in the backdrop. The people of Kyrgyzstan often spend their summer vacations at Lake Issyk Kul, basking in the cooler summer weather and enjoying various water sports and activities. However, if you’re planning to visit Lake Issyk Kul and fear it’ll be overrun with crowds, don’t worry. With the lake being as big as it is, there’s always a stretch of land you can claim that’s open and peaceful.  

Lake Issyk-Kul, by Ehlina Magalimova
Southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, by Genadii Vyenko

Most people travel to Lake Issul Kul from June to September to escape the sweltering summer heat of the lower elevations and enjoy some pleasant weather by the mountain lake. There are lots of things to do in and around Lake Issyk Kul. If you’re a fan of water sports, I’d recommend swimming, of course, some boating, parasailing, or jet skiing. If spending a lot of time in the water isn’t your thing, but you’d like to do some stuff around the area, I suggest doing some trekking, horseback riding, cycling, or visiting some health resorts, local festivals, or exploring some of the nearby villages. 

Lake Issyk-Kul, by Vitaliy Ragulin
Horse riding at Lake Issyk-Kul, by Aaro Ylitalo

There are several nice cities/villages spaced out along the perimeter of the lake you can stay in or just visit. Kyzyl-Tuu is a village a few kilometers from the southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul that’s famous for its yurt builders. (A yurt is the traditional felt tent used by Kyrgyz nomads.) If the yurt building process interests you, they do demonstrations of how to put one up so you can get a more intimate glimpse of nomadic living. It’s really cool. 

Kyzyl-Tuu people, by Kiyiz Duino

Barskoon is also on the south shore and has a famous waterfall that people often go on trekking expeditions to see. If you happen to go in early November, Barskoon hosts an annual horse racing festival that encourages the continued breeding of the Kyrgyz horse that’s actually close to extinction.

Tears of a Bars Waterfall, by Denis Frantosuzov

Cholpon-Ata makes a nice stop along the north shore of Issyk Kul. There’s an open air petroglyph museum with a minimal fee to explore that also overlooks the lake. 

Petroglyphs of Cholpon-Ata, by Dmitrii Luzhanskii

Karakol is on the eastern end of the lake and is a major hub for tourism. It has a lot of places to see inside the city including a Dungan mosque built without a single nail, an old Orthodox church, as well as some local museums. Karakol is more built up and has more options for accomodations and such, which makes it a bit more crowded. 

Dungan Mosque, by Yodod

On the edges of cities/villages around Lake Issyk Kul, don’t be surprised to see vendors on the side of the road selling fruits, homemade food, animal skins, baskets, etc. They’re actually great places to pick up unique, handmade items or indulge in some rich, syrupy jam made with local apricots, raspberries and strawberries. I know I’ve been guilty of buying more than my share of jam and honey from them on more than one occasion…

Selling apples at Issyk-Kul, by Uncor

With all the stuff there is to do and see, it’s easy to see why people love the area so much. Lake Issyk Kul is a natural wonder that also has lots of good historical destinations, water sports, natural beauty, festivals, health resorts, and outdoor activities, making it especially nice if you’re on vacation with a group of people with varied interests.  So if you’re making your way through Kyrgyzstan, stop by Lake Issyk Kul, check it out, and see for yourself why people call it “the Pearl of Kyrgyzstan.”