Issyk kul is the eye of the Tian Shan range: a massive expanse of clear, inviting water sunk right between the mountains. In the morning haze the surrounding peaks blend and blur into the edge of the lake, sharpening and separating in the afternoon glow. Issyk Kul is second largest alpine lake in the world, but the road around it is an easy and enjoyable ride, a series of stunning views on welcoming roads. It’s a cruise made interesting by the decidedly different feel of each side of Issyk kul. The north is more of a beachside vacation; the east, an abundance of tall mountains and the perfect base for long treks; and the south a less-developed myriad of changing landscapes and shorelines. We take three days to loop the 440 KM around but it could easily be done in half that.
The North Shore
The North Shore of Issyk Kul is a vacation destination for locals, Kazaks and even Russians, who flock here in the summer towards the closest body of water that resembles a sea. The lake stays naturally warm –that being a relative term— is slightly saline and reflects the sun in colbats and azures. Soft sand beaches filled with umbrellas and a string of stereotypical waterfront resort towns, like a tamer myrtle beach or Phuket, sometimes the north shore does feel weirdly close to the ocean.
We’ve been invited to one of these resort towns, Bosteri, by Gauhar, a Kyrgyz friend from the hostel in Almaty; a law student in Bishkek, she writes for the newspaper in the summer, making the rest of her money part-timing at a Kazak hotel. When we arrive in Bosteri at night, we can’t find the guesthouse she’s said to meet her at, and instead manage to end up parked outside the gate to some megaclub filling the night with American trap and Russian remixes. After some series of phone calls made together by Jie and a young Kyrgyz boy, we find Gauhar and spend the night eating samsa’s, walking past the neon spiral of a Ferris wheel, beachside patios playing Arabic dance hits and a club named Faberge –a weird ode to Russian elegance.
In the morning we make our way to the beach, which by noon is already packed with crowds of sunbathers and hawkers selling a strange combination of fish, fresh fruit, corn and cotton candy. We find a place by the water right next to the takeoff spot for parasailers and around where eagle tamers have seemed to congregate to charge tourist for photos. We swim for the better part of the afternoon; the water is brisk but refreshing as we dodge rented paddleboats and young Kyrgyz boys flipping off eachother’s shoulders. One of the main regrets of this trip was that we weren’t going to be at the beach for a long time and here it’s finally starting to feel like summer again. Very few western tourists to Kyrgyzstan come to the north shore, especially not backpackers, but for us it’s a perfect way to spend a day: a relaxing, small insight into what it’s like to be young, Kyrgyz, and soaking up the sun. It may not be the actual ocean, but backed by the force of the entire Tian Shan range, it’s impressive in a totally different way.
The East Shore:
We leave late in the afternoon bound for Karakol, a city tucked in the corner between Kazakhstan and China. More importantly for most, it’s also right at the base of some of Kyrgyzstan’s most impressive and accessible mountains, both the Ala-too and central Tian Shan. Most travellers we meet in Kyrgyzstan spend a majority of their time here, going on one to ten day hikes up into the Tian Shan through cascading valleys, meadows of wildflowers, natural hotsprings and pristine alpine lakes. It’s said to be some of the best natural scenery in all of Asia; every one we talk to raves about it. Unfortunately, to make it around the country on a good schedule, we don’t have the time for any long treks this time around, but we still manage to enjoy Karakol nonetheless.
The best hot springs in the area are three hours up the mountain at Altyn Arashan but as the sun goes down and it starts to get surprisingly
cold we decide to try to make our way to the sanatorium (still not sure what this word actually implies) at the base of the range instead. We bump or way through the night on dirt roads, stopping
to ask directions from a guy who is more interested in talking to Jie about boxing. A couple more kilometers and over the rocking planks of a wooden bridge and we arrive at what seems to be a
pretty good, but also very full, hot springs complex. The old lady behind the counter manages to relay to us that there’s no room for another two hours, so we say our thank you’s and pack up our
things to camp. Nothing is without reason, though, and soon we find ourselves in a small clearing on a soft bed of grass by the river, perfect to sleep at and full of the most stars I’ve
seen on this trip. The Milky Way explodes across the sky in this part of the world, and this becomes the first night of many that we sit outside in awe of the pulsing
The South Shore:
The south shore of the lake has its own character. Driving west from Karakol, the road winds toward a shoreline that seems more Mediterranean than it does central Asian. The turquoise shallows splash into ridges of round white rocks and small sand inlets. Spruce trees stand perfectly straight dotted amongst chaparral fields filled with lilac and rosemary. To our left is the water, and to the right are the mountains, one side falling into a vast blue expanse, one side rising in endless triangles in green brown and white –both equally as enchanting.
The shoreline here changes rapidly, though. The rocky hills suddenly shift into red sandstone cliffs and long stretches of red sand beach and then suddenly again do the same in yellow. We curve along the water’s edge through it all, past beaches full of local kids and others packed with holidaymakers. It’s not until we’re pushing our way up a long incline at sunset that we realize we’re already almost at 2000m elevation. Maybe it’s just the otherworldly Kyrgyz landscape, it’s easy to zone out when your both comfortable and amazed at the same time.
As night arrives, we decide we both want to camp as close to lake as we can. We hop off the main road on to the sand of a windy riverbed and cut a direct path towards some low vegetation by the shore, skirting around thorn bushes and almost getting stuck in the hard patches of long grass. In a clearing by water we find a spot for the tent amongst the reeds. The night deepens as the stars brighten and we manage to get a fire made of driftwood going in a pit we’ve dug in the rock beach. I make a pillow out of some bigger smoother stones and turn up towards the sky over the other shore. Meteors begin to rain down in slow, the perseids is tonight, and I doze of to the crackle of the fading coals, calm in the wash of the waves on the lake.