Issyk Kul and the Tian Shan is a region in the east of Kyrgyzstan.
- 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 a beautiful passant Chui Valley.
- 2 Bokonbayevo – A laid-back village east of Tamga, 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 Jyrgalan – Kyrgyzstan's most eastern village and formerly mining town, jump off point to the picturesque border region for skiing and impressive hiking.
- 5 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.
- 6 Karakol – One of the gems of Issyk Kul, this was originally a Slavic settlement with a wealth of hiking, outdoor and sports available, including the Altyn Arashan hot springs, Karakol Canyon, and the beautiful Ala Kul glacier lake.
- 7 Kochkor – A small village with a park containing various Soviet structures, and a local animal bazaar, as well as an entry of point for Song Kul and launch pad for treks up into the Tian Shan Mountains.
- 8 Naryn – A city right up in the Tian Shan, near Lake Song Kul, the gateway to the entire southeastern region, its ruins, mountains, and high alpine lakes.
- 9 Tamchy – mainly a beach resort, overnight yurt stays and horseback riding trips can be arranged here, too
- 10 Tamga – town with a red sand beach; named after the nearby petroglyphs
- 1 Lake Chatyr Kul – a scenic alpine lake with a high level of biodiversity
- 2 Lake Issyk Kul – surrounded by the massive snowcapped Tian Shan, this is the main attraction of the region (and the country, for that matter) with a touristy north shore and a rugged south shore
- 3 Lake Song Kul – a beautiful yet rather inaccessible alpine lake; trips there are only feasible during summer months
The region's shimmering Issyk Kul lake and the towering Tian Shan mountains are two of the biggest draws for travelers in Kyrgyzstan, and they dominate the views over this portion of the country.
Due to the attractiveness and accessibility of the region, it is the one served most by marshrutkas, people in cars (see Kyrgyzstan#By autostop), and (shared) taxis. Checkout the specific articles of the region, specifically Issyk Kul, Cholpon-Ata, Karakol, and Kochkor.
- 1 Tamchy Airport (IKU IATA, Issyk Kul Airport), Tamchy. Tamchy has limited air service during the summer travel season from/to the nearby cities of Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek), Kazakhstan (Almaty), Uzbekistan (Tashkent), and even Russia (Novosibirsk).
To/from Western Kyrgyzstan
It seems to be very easy to hitch-hike from/to Kyzyl-Oy, Kyzart Pass, Kyzart and Aral (all on the same road), because there is a huge number of trucks using it. Truck drivers do not even want money for a ride, and up to four or five people can fit inside a truck. Or you can get all the way from Song Kul for free in way day - hike to Kyzart or Kyzart Pass and take a truck from there. Behind the city of Kochkor there is a crossroad, with the road splinting into two, one leading towards Kyzart and the other towards Naryn. This crossroad is an excellent place to catch a ride.
Numerous marshrutkas and shared taxis connect all cities, towns and villages along the main routes, and it is easy to get around. As always, relying on autostop can be efficient, economical, and a great way to get into more remote places in this region. But of course, any taxi driver will be willing to take you as well, for the right amount of money—bargain hard if you look like a tourist.
- 1 Jeti Ögüz / Seven Bulls (курорт Жети-Огуз) (About 35 km/35 min with bus #355 from Karakol's Big Bazaar Bus Station to Jeti Ögüz village, 30-35 som. From the village the driver goes up to the sanatorium if there are at least 6 people, for another 40 som. Otherwise, just hitch-hike from the village.). An ageing Russian a balneotherapic resort aka sanatorium with hot springs. Like many such sanatoriums in former Soviet countries, it carries the name курорт or kurort, which is German for sanatorium. The public bath has baths and massages on offer.
Just before it the beautiful Seven Bulls (which is "Жети-өгүз" in Kyrgyz) and Broken Heart mountain, a large, red sedimentary rocks, about 2,200 m, for which it is famous. The rocks have been carved out by a river from the Terskey Alatoo mountains. Years of weathering have split the rocks into seven parts. The forms of the rocks are similar to the head of the seven bulls, “Jeti”-means seven and “Oguz”-means bull in Kyrgyz. Broken Heart is a reddish rock shaped like a broken heart. For this rock, there are several legends: long ago a king who was very rich and had many wives went hunting. One day he saw a beautiful girl with black long hair. He fall in love with her at first sight, and wanted to marry her. However she was from a poor family and was already engaged. Her family ran away from the king when they learned that he wanted their daughter. But the king caught them, killed her fiancé and her family. Her heart was torn by sadness and the Broken Heart appeared in that place. Free, baths are extra.
- 2 Tash Rabat (use Naryn as a hub). An ancient caravanserai on the Silk Road, close to Torugart Pass to China. One of the top destinations of Kyrgyzstan but a little remote.
As of 2018 both local taxi drivers and CBT quote a price of 2,000 soms for a return trip, including the driver waiting. The drive to Tash Rabat takes 2 hr. It's also possible to sleep there at a handful of yurt camps in the summer season, which is highly recommended if you plan on going hiking the following day. The 2018 price list by CBT charges the following: B&B 600 som per person per night, horse rental 800 som per horse per day, a guide 1,600 som per day, lunch or dinner 400 som per meal. It might be possible to negotiate a lower price with locals when not booking through CBT.
- 3 Barskoon waterfalls & gorge (Водопад "Слёзы Барса") (20 km from the highway to the south, 90 km to the south-west of Karakol. Not much traffic, may need a taxi.). Barskoon waterfall is a geological protected area in the Jeti-Ögüz District of the Issyk Kul Province, on one of the tributaries of Barskaun River. It was established in 1975. Within the Barskoon valley there are two waterfalls on top of the mountain and the mountainside. At the foot of the mountain you can enjoy the beautiful river of Barskoon. During the summer time there yurts to stay over night. At the yurt you can try Kyrgyz traditional drink Kymys while enjoying the beauty of the landscape.
There are three amazing waterfalls that can be seen within 2-4 hr hiking (return) from 2,350 m to 3,300 m.. Make sure to bring a lunch and hiking boots. Best to come here in spring when lots of water is coming from the mountain. Another interesting highlight are the two busts of Yuri Gagarin at the foot of the gorge. Food yurts, small shops and horse rental are available at the foot of the trail.
- 4 Fairy Tale Canyon (Skazka Valley / Каньон "Сказка") (4 km from the village of Tosor). A beautiful and colorful mountain range, made of sandy red and yellow formations, popping out of the otherwise rather grey region. Diverse forms that look quite different with rain, shortly after or just sun. The satellite picture best summarises its potential. The canyon was named because of its bizarre rocky landscape, which for many years has been transformed by erosion into amazing sculptures and formations. Some formations look like the Great Wall of China and you can also find other formations that look like snakes, dragons, sleeping giants and even whole castles. From the canyon you can see a majestic panorama of Lake Issyk-Kul and snow caped mountains. It’s an easy hike close to Lake Issyk-Kul. 60 som.
- Unfortunately, the place is kind of a touristy rip-off nowadays, charging entrance for a non-private mountain range—it is not-even a national park. If you do not want to support this practice, just take the second road 1 km further east along the highway, which leads to the same colorful canyon (last 1 km walk), just its eastern range.
- 5 Issyk Kul State Reserve. winter, spring, fall. About 50,000 waterfowls stay here during winter. Great for photo hunting and birding.
- 6 Tamga Tash. A rock that has the Buddhist/Tibetan inscriptions "Om Mani Padme Hum" on it, a divine formula of Buddhism. It is dating back from the 3rd to 8th centuries. The locals interpretation is "Tamga".
- 7 Sayakbol Karalaev Monument. Monument of the famous Manas teller that lived between 1894 and 1971.
- 8 God's View. A picturesque viewpoint along the southern highway of Lake Issyk Kul with a cemetry, the plaines and mountains.
- 9 Manjyly Ata Monument (Манжылы Ата) (just nearby God's View, about 600 m towards the mountains). A sacred place.
- 10 Abandoned mosque and festival ground. A quite picturesque scenery on front of the lake with beautiful paintings and a stage behind.
- Kan Dobo Ruins and Museum (near 11 Tuura-Suu). Ruins of an ancient 6-12th century settlement.
- 11 Ancient Burial Place I. Ancient nomad dome burials.
- 12 Ancient Burial Place II. Ancient nomad dome burials. At the nearby Konur-Olon, a mosque regularly attracts tourists.
- 13 Ak-Sai Petroglyphs. Tibetan stone inscriptions of the 15-17th century, and cave drawings of 1 B.C. Checkout the path leading to the petroglyphs: https://www.openstreetmap.org/way/610293285
- Er Tabylyd Mausoleum (a few km after the petroglyphs on the right). Hero epics of Er Tabylyd describing Kyrgyz people stories of the 15-17th century.
- 1 Kadzhi-Sayskiy Beach (Каджи-Сайский пляж), Kadji-Sai 2. A popular beach resort with many activities, facilities and hotels nearby. Though, it is very busy in summer and some people will prefer more remote beaches on the southern shore.
- 2 Zhindl Chap Canyon. A picturesque, red and white colored canyon cutting its way through the hilles between the highway and Issyk Kul. It is possible to hike down the canyon to the lake directly from Ak Say village at the highway , there are some trails. 10 km from the highway to the lake.
- 3 Salt Lake (Туздуу-Көл / sometimes Кара-Куль) (at Kyzyl Tuu). This is apparently the touristy one of all the salt lakes in this region, often called Dead Sea of Kyrgyzstan. It is comparable to the Dead Sea—one can float on the surface due to the high salinity. The lake was opened as a tourist destination in 2001. The water is so salty that one can read a newspaper while floating on the surface. The water contains about 132 grams of salt per liter. This lake is also popular as a “medical tour”. Mud is superheated deep beneath the earth’s surface. Many locals believe that it has healing properties. If you walk across the dune, you can wash off the salt in Issyk Kul lake.
Unfortunately, the naming is not quite consistent and sometimes it is named Кара-Куль aka Kara Kul, which however is the same name as the one below right next to the highway. 100 som.
- 4 Tuz Kul (Туз-Көл). Another salt lake just before the touristy one along the same road. The situation on which one the saltiest is, is unclear. Eiter way, they are close to each other. So, you can check out both or just skip the one that is charged for.
- 5 Kara Kul (кара-көл). Another salt lake, but not as salty as the former two.
Besides the ones below, checkout Kadji Sai.
- 6 Jyluu Suu (Jily Suu / Жылуу-Суу).
- 7 Bar Bulak (Бар-Булак). The name of a village with hot springs. The name literally means hot springs.
There are many routes for hiking into the mountains surrounding Issyk Kul.
- 8 Grigorievskoe Trail. About 30-40 km (return) in a beautiful valley north of the lake about 10 km from its shore. Apparently sometime a small fee is charged at the entrance of the gorge, but this does not seem to be enforced consequently. There are several beautiful lakes along the way. The gorge leads into a rough river valley and later up to a pass from where you can reach the neighboring Semenovsky Gorge. Download coordinates: GPX, KML.
- 9 Ton Ashuu Pass (4,250 m) (Тон).
- 10 Teshik Kul (3,505 m) (Тешик-Кёль). A triangular shaped mountain lake.
- Kyzyl Suu River Valley (Chon-Kyzyl-Suu / Чон-Кызылсуу). On the top of the Kyzyl Suu river valley is a 1 Geo-physic and meteorologic station (2,580 m) build in wood in 1948 by German builders. Families staying there all the year around will explain their activities and can guide you around the region. It is possible to sleep in the station.
- High routes from Kyzyl Suu River Valley going to:
- Or directly to the glacier lakes:
- Kashkator (?) (3 hr walk), and
- 7 Shakartma (3 hr hike).
- Central Tian Shan Mountains. Even if you do not want to climb Khan Tengri, the glacier that runs west of it is impressive and worth the trip. The trail to the start of the glacier is not particularly difficult, because it is mostly a trek through the valley. But first you need to arrange a transport by 4WD to Engilchek (aka Inylchek) village from Karakol.
- 11 Engilchek village. Population dropped from 5,000 to 345 after the tin mine closed. Of interest near the village could be the "devil's grave", where supposedly a UFO crashed in 1991.
- 12 At-Jailoo - Merzbacher Lake. Highest point: 3,550 m. Lowest point: 2,630 m. Total elevation gain: 920 m. Total elevation loss: 920 m. Level of difficulty: medium/difficult. Total hours hiking: ~31 hr. Average total amount of trekking days: 7. Approximate trekking distance: ~76 km.
A possible itinerary: https://visitkarakol.com/10_days_totheheart_of_tien_shan2
- Echkililitash - At-Jailoo. Highest point: 4,001 m. Lowest point: 2,630 m. Total elevation gain: 1,471 m. Total elevation loss: 2,021 m. Level of difficulty: medium/difficult. Total hours hiking: ~39 hr. Average total amount of trekking days: 8. Approximate trekking distance: ~92 km.
- 13 Enilchek South Base Camp Trek. The base camp, run by Ak-Sai, is ideally situated in the heart of the Northern Tian Shan Mountains, south of the Engilchek glacier at 4,000 m. It has great views of the Khan-Tengri (7,010 m) and Pobeda peaks (7,439 m), which can be climbed from here.
Highest point: 4,000 m. Lowest point: 2,630 m. Total elevation gain: 1,370 m. Total elevation loss: 1,370 m. Level of difficulty: difficult. Total hours hiking: ~49 hr. Average total amount of trekking days: 11. Approximate Trekking Distance: ~83 km.
- 14 Engilchek Glacier (Inylchek Glacier) (50 km east of Engilchek village).
- 15 Khan Tengri (7,010 m). Treks can be organised in Karakol.
Eat and drink
Please see the relevant city articles for details.
There is virtually an infinite number of free camp sites available. If you want to stick with proven ones, checkout OpenStreetMap. Also, to the southern side of Issyk Kul, many yurts catering for tourists can be found along the side roads (south of the highway) leading to the various sights in this area, between Kara-Talaa and Tosor.
- 1 Meteo Station Guest House, (Chong) Kyzyl Suu Valley, ☏ . A convenient place to stay when about to hike the destinations around the Kyzyl Suu Valley. There is also a large lawn nearby to put up a tent.
- Kadji-Sai 2, a beach resort along the highway and twin village of Kadji-Sai has many hotels and guesthouses, even yurts, catering for tourists.