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August 2011
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Week at Lake Issyk Kul

We had a great week visiting Lake Issyk Kul. Issyk Kul is the centerpiece of the biosphere reserve of the same name, and one of the most famous sites in Kyrgyzstan. At more than 5,000 feet above sea level, 113 miles long, up to 37 miles wide, and more than 2,000 feet deep, it is the second largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca in South America and the tenth largest lake in the world by volume. Although more than 100 rivers and streams feed into the lake, none come out, resulting in its slight saltiness, and making it the second largest saline lake in the world (by volume) after the Caspian Sea.

William, after a brisk swim

We’ve been to Issyk Kul several times, and enjoyed ourselves each time. Swimming in the cool water surrounded by snow-capped peaks on both shores is a spectacular experience. Early July, though, is too soon to allow the water to warm up much, and it was pretty chilly, this time. Still, we had a great time, and will go back again in mid-August to sample the water again.

Braving some pretty cold water

We stayed this time in the Raduga, a resort just west of Cholpon Ata. We’ve stayed in both Raduga and Kapriz, and both are nice places — very park-like. Cholpon Ata is the most popular destination on Lake Issyk Kul. A small town, there are several major resorts nearby, hotels and pensions in town, and restaurants.

Alex and Aliciya

There are also a few tourist attractions beyond the lake itself. The best is no doubt the petroglyphs. There is a whole field of them on the edge of town. There is also a small but interesting museum. There are a few places to eat in town. Our favorite was the Ribaka, for good fried trout. We went to the Green Pub, but were unimpressed. We were even less impressed with the food at the two resorts we stayed in, so I would suggest you not go the “all-inclusive” way, if your tastes are western. I have been told that the food at the Karven Four Seasons (just west of the Raduga) is much better.

Christina and William at Cholpon-Ata Petroglyphs

Alex and Chris at the Petroglyphs

Traveling to Cholpon Ata

Getting to Cholpon Ata is easy. I’ve attached a gdb file for you to use in your GPS unit or open in Google Earth to get a better look at the route. I’ve also input the whole route into OpenStreetMap, so if you use the OSM implementation on your GPS, you can just use the “follow road” option to create your own route.

Route Map - Click to Enlarge

If you get on Chuy Street and head east, following the signs to Tokmok and Bakakchi you will get there. However, if you want to skip the centers of all the small towns between Bishkek and Tokmok, start your trip by driving north on Almatinskaya to A-365 before turning east. That old highway is being repaired and the parts which are finished make up, without a doubt, the best road in Kyrgyzstan.

Shortly after leaving Bishkek (about 15 miles from the turn onto A-365) you will notice the fences that mark the border with Kazakhstan, which the road follows for quite a ways. Close to Tokmok is an unfortunate gas station which ended up in Kazakh territory. Until recently, it was fenced off from the road, but an accommodation seems to have been reached now, and it was open last time I passed.

The obvious side trip is to the Burana Tower. You turn to the tower shortly before arriving in Tokmok. You can find the description of that route on the Burana Tower page, when I get it up.

After some 70 miles on A-365, you reach a junction at which a road turns up the Chong Kemin River into Chong Kemin valley, the birthplace of Askar Akayev and a destination for trekkers. At this point the road turns south up Boom (Shoestring) canyon. In spring and summer, yurts on the sides of the road in the canyon will sell you refreshing Kumis (fermented mares milk). The trip up Boom Canyon is its own adventure, right now, as the road is being re-built by the Chinese. Some interesting construction techniques are on display. When we passed in July there was one team of workers high up on the scree on the side of the canyon throwing rocks down and causing mini-landslides. I guess the idea was to get down all the loose rock, but that looked like a job which might take centuries.

From the Chong Kemin turnoff, it’s about another 35 miles to Balakchi, where you finally see Issyk Kul. As you reach the town there is a toll booth, charging entrance to the Issyk Kul biosphere. Further on, on the left side of the road, is a fun honey stand with a wide variety of different regional honeys and honey products. Watch for the bear statues.

From the left turn in Balakchi to Cholpon Ata is about another 50 miles along the north side of the lake, with lots of pretty views to be had. Of course, just how far you will be going depends on where you will be staying, as there are resorts and hotels scattered from just beyond Balakchi to Cholpon Ata and beyond.

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