Issyk Kul (Kyrgyz: Ысык көл Ysyk Köl, Russian: Иссык-Куль) is a lake in Kyrgyzstan. The name refers both to the lake and the oblast (region) containing the lake. The region is centered around the massive Issyk Kul lake, which is the second largest alpine lake in the world. It is completely ringed by the massive snow-capped Tian Shan mountains that lie between 3,000 and 4,000 m.
Cities and villages
- 1 Balykchy – the gateway to Issyk Kul, Balykchy is a small, dying industrial center on the western shore, and a former fishing town, with a train service from Bishkek through the beautiful Chui Valley
- 2 Bokonbayevo – a laid-back village east of Tamga, for horse treks and eagle shows
- 3 Cholpon-Ata – an upscale summer resort town and central city for tourism surrounded by mountains, with the popular Grigorievskoe Trail nearby and most of the resorts within 50 km
- 4 Kadji Sai – a small lakeside picturesque town, where you can (literally!) have a radioactive bath, climb the nearby Tashta Ata Mountain, or have a magnificent view from the Shatyly Panorama outlook. Its twin village Kadji-Sai 2 is a popular beach resort at the highway
- 5 Tamchy – mainly a beach resort, overnight yurt stays and horseback riding trips can be arranged here, too
- 6 Tamga – town with a red sand beach; named after the nearby petroglyphs
There are plenty of smaller villages at lake shore, with cheaper accommodation and less tourists.
Issyk Kul is a slightly saline deep water body. Years of over-fishing have decimated its fisheries and many of the smoked fish sold in the surrounding cities come from other alpine lakes. Due to a lack of reasonable control on tourism, many sub-standard and unfinished low quality tourism resorts ring the lake's north shore. Nevertheless, there still remain numerous places to appreciate the true beauty of Issyk Kul.
A mountain pass road being constructed between Issyk Kul and Almaty, Kazakhstan is set to increase the number of tourists in the coming years and without government controls on development, exposing the lake to more tourists will only deplete its natural beauty. The Issyk Kul lake reaches to 663 m deep in the center. The east end of the lake was also once used as a torpedo testing site by the Soviet Navy, making the region off limits to foreigners for a period of time. Issyk Kul is divided between the more populated and touristy North Shore and the more rugged and less populated South Shore.
Russian and Kyrgyz are the primary languages. Some hospitality staff may speak English, but it is much more helpful to know basic Russian.
The simplest way to reach Issyk Kul is by minibus from Bishkek western bus station (Западный автовокзал Zapadniy avtovokzal). There are minibuses that goes over northern or southern shore, you can arrange with driver to stop at your desired village. The price is 280 som to Cholpon Ata and about 350 som to Karakol.
You can arrange a van or taxi from Almaty or Bishkek. A hired driver one-way from Bishkek will cost up to US$100. Leave from the western bus station (Западный автовокзал Zapadniy avtovokzal) to get to Issyk Kul. A seat in a 4-person shared car to Cholpon Ata will cost about 500–1000 som. Beware that prices may differ largely between different drivers and be prepared to bargain. You may wish to team up with other travelers (or locals) and negotiate a price together, locals often pleased to ensure that you pay the local fare. Prices may be higher on weekends or peak season.
There is also a scenic train ride from Bishkek to Balykchy (see here for more details). The train is slower than bus or taxi, and there is only one train to Balykchy departing early morning and returning back at afternoon. But the train ride boasts amazing views of the mountain pass. And the tickets are very cheap, for 69 som.
All of the larger cities have bus stations with frequent marshrutkas. If you are in a smaller city, town or village, you might have to head to the highway around the lake to catch a marshrutka.
Hitching a ride around the lake or into any direction is easy—see Kyrgyzstan#By autostop. This can be especially useful if you leave the main road around the lake and head for instance into the mountains, where there is no public transport.
Most bus stations have a taxi stand nearby where you can negotiate additional rides. But also in smaller cities, towns or villages, you can just ask around for a car and driver—there are plenty.
The locally published Spektator magazine had an online guide to circumnavigating Issyk Kul.
Issyk Kul is also ringed by hundreds of kilometers of beaches popular for swimming and sunning.
Most of the restaurants serve "national and European" cuisine, which amounts to local and Russian food. There are few restaurants catering to western tastes. Most locals pack their own food and prepare in their hotel rooms and on the beach. You can find numerous shashlik stands in the summer serving marinated grilled lamb and beef.
Some locals believe drinking the slightly saline water of Issyk Kul has health benefits. But, there is a uranium tailing pond on the south shore, that likely runs off into the lake.
There are no lifeguards at any of the beaches. There are no nudist beaches and women being topless is quite rare, but local custom has no aversion to extremely skimpy swimsuits.
Beware, as the lake sits at 1,600 m above sea level, the UV rays are far more damaging to your skin than they are at sea level. Wear sunscreen.