Lake Issyk Kul

Lake Issyk Kul

"Pearl of the Tien Shan"

From Bishkek the lake is approached through Boom Gorge, and it is possible to cut into the mountains here to the Chon Kemin valley, birthplace of President Akaev.

The lake lies at the bottom of a drainage hollow, or depression and has no outflow.

Mountains ring the lake and there are several valleys worth visiting, Gregorievka and Simeonevka on the North, Barskoon on the South and numerous others around Karakol. To the North are the Kungei (“Sunny”) Ala-Too mountains and are criss-crossed by trekking routes including ones that connect the lake with Almaty – while to the South lie the Teskei (“Shady”) Ala- Too mountains. These mountain ranges protect the Issyk Kul hollow from winds bringing either extreme cold – or extremly hot – winds.

Issyk Kul is Kyrgyzstan’s largest Lake and at about 180 km long by 70 km wide and 668 meters deep at the deepest point, (the average depth is about 300 meters), it is the world’s second largest mountain lake – and the fifth deepest lake in the world.

The lake has been held in high regard by the Kyrgyz – it is known as the “pearl of the Tien Shan” – and in 2004, the government declared the lake as the “property of the nation”. One source even suggests that, at one time, it was even forbidden to swim in the lake.

The landscape of the Issyk Kul basin can be divided into a number of quite specific types, starting from the level of the lake and climbing:

  • Rocky deserts – in the West, near to the lake shore.

  • Semi deserts – also in the Western part of the basin, but this type of landscape used to be much more extensive than at present … the reduction has been a result of the expansion of agriculture which led to land being ploughed and orchards planted.

  • Dry Steppes – found on the upland slopes, (next to the semi-desert regions), and in the East they extend down to the lake shore itself.

  • Meadows – usually found at altitudes between 1900 and 3200 m. between outcrops of Spruce or Juniper. These areas exhibit a wide variety of bio-diversity and are especially important for the range of herbs that grow here.

  • Shrubland – with buckthorn, berberice and even roses.

  • Forests – found mainly in the east, where there is greater rainfall and water retention

  • Alpine Meadows – found on the higher slopes and utilised as pasture land.

  • High Mountain Cold Steppes and swamps on permafrost soil – found in the wide and shallow valleys in the high mountain regions.

  • River meadows – centered on the medium sized and larger rivers, and characterized by species of willows.

  • Nival and sub-nival – (i.e. land which experiences long periods of snow cover with vegetation sparse vegetation which can cope with the cold temperatures can grow under snow, such as lichens) – important for the bio-diversity of the region, partly because there is hardly anh human use of this land – and it forms habitat for many endangered species.

  • Cliffs, glaciers and snowfields.

Horses on the beachIt is on the flight path for a wide variety of migratory birds – the population can vary between 50,000 and 100,000 – and although counting by ornithologists has been somewhat haphazardly over the years, it is clearly a major wetland site, recognized under the Ramsar convention as a “Wetland of International Importance”. The shallow waters of the lake support a rich submerged and floating vegetation, and abundant zoobenthos, (with over 150 species represented), which are an important food source for visiting birds. Many different species winter in the areas at the two extremes of the lake (in the bay by Balichky and around Tup).

In Kyrgyz the words mean “warm lake” – that is not because the waters are warm, (although there are a umber of local hot springs in the area), but because the lake never freezes over. Apart from the large volume of water, this is because although 134 streams and rivers flow into the lake, none flow out – and every year about 80 centimeters of water evaporates from the lake surface, so the water is slightly salty and this lowers the freezing point where water turns to ice. (Apparently, at one time it used to be called Tuz-Kul or Salty Lake). Although the lake is said never to freeze over, apparently, sometimes the shallow water at the Northeastern end of the lake – near Tup – has been known to freeze.

The water has a transparency of up to 30m.

The water level has varied over the years. It seems that the level has been falling – one source says that the water level has fallen 3 metres over the last 70 years and another that the levels have been declining for the last 150 years. However, in 2006, it was reported that the water levels have risen – almost 12 centimeters since 1999. Although, technically, building near the shore is strictly controlled – several problems have already been reported and there is concern that several of the hotels, sanatoria and resorts that have been built may become unusable in the future.

The fall in the water level was once ascribed to the diversification of the rivers that feed the lake for irrigation purposes, changes in forestry practices and possibly also as a result of climatic changes. Some scientists are now suggesting that the recent rise is due to global warming melting the mountain top glaciers that surround the lake’s basin and feed the streams and rivers that flow into the lake. They cite the fact that the average temperature recorded at the Cholpon Ata weather station has risen by 1.5 degrees in the last 45 years and the fact that the area of the small portion of the lake which does actually freeze over in winter is shrinking. Apart from global warming, another cause for the increased melting of the glaciers has been suggested – dust from the gold mines settling on the snow cover.

There are suggestions that even larger oscillations occurred long ago, before there was any possible human influence – the lake is situated at the edge of two different climatic zones and even subtle changes in moisture and/or temperature regime due to climatic shifts may have been the cause of changes in the water level of the lake.

(The dacha built for Brezhnev in the 1960’s used to be located right on the waters edge, but nowadays it is quite a walk to reach the lake shore. This isn’t necessarily just a modern phenomenon. There are many stories of sunken castles and cities dating back to medieval times, some of which have been found and excavated (see below) and references to islands in the lake although there are none to be found today. Tamerlane is said to have built a prison on an island in the lake for noble prisoners. Also, the historian Muhammad Mirza Haidar mentioned that the ruler Hakk Berdy Berichek built an impregnable fortress on another island and even provided a map to show where it was located).

At the time Semyenov visited the Tien Shan, it was still thought that the Chui was the outflow from the lake – but he showed that this was not so. The Chui river rises to the West in the Naryn province and veers around the edge of the Kyrgyz Range just short of the lake. It is thought, however, that at one time the lake did have an outflow to the River Chui – but that this has long since disappeared.

The area relishes in some 2900 hours of sunshine a year. Because of the effect of the mountain ranges North and South, it does not suffer from extreme Continental climatic conditions. Summer temperatures are usually around 25-28 degrees, but as the lake lies at an altitude of some 1606m, it can get quite chilly, especially at night. Winter temperatures can be around –5 degrees.

Air and Water Temperatures, °C








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Due to its size it sometimes appears like an inland sea, and it has a fair number of beaches. Most of these are on the Northern shore and have long acted as a magnet for tourists. There are a large number of sanatoria, holiday camps and hotels on the Northern shore and these were very popular in Soviet times. Cosmonauts, after they returned to earth were brought to the lake to rest and recuperate and Brezhnev had a Dacha on the shores of the lake. In 1999 there was an accident where a lorry carrying cyanide fell off a bridge and poisoned the river water and this led to a dramatic decline in the number of tourists to the region, although numbers are beginning to rise again.

The tourist season usually runs from June until September – but the peak season is from about 25th July until 25th August – and it may be difficult to find places and prices are at a premium. A number of the sanatoria, hotels, guesthouses and homestays around the lake operate all year round – although some are open only during the summer season.

The area was basically unknown to the Western world until Russian “explorers” like Tianshansky Semeyenov ventured into the mountains nearby. There was greater contact with the East, however, and the Chinese traveler Jan Chan Tzan reached the lake in about 128 BC as part of a 6-year journey of exploration (1138-126BC). The first written account of the lake comes from another Chinese traveler, Suan Zsan, when describing his 16-year journey of exploration. The first written example of the use of the name, Isi-kul, dates from an anonymous work – “The boundaries of the world from East to West” – written in Tajik in 982 AD. It also accurately states the size of the lake.

Issyk Kul was an important stage of several branches of the Silk Road … and the name appears in the West on a Catalonian map in 1375, which drew heavily on Marco Polo’s book published 75 years earlier.

During recent years there has been a flurry of archaeological activity.

The largest town on the Northern shore is Chalpon Ata. Nearby are some petroglyphs and the town has a small museum.

Recent underwater exactions have revealed a number of exciting finds. Historians have known for some time about “sunken cities” lying beneath the waters of the lake. A little offshore is the sunken village of Chengu – “red valley” – the capital of the ancient Usun State in the second century B.C. – and as the waters of the lake receded it is thought that the village will soon emerge from the depths.

It was referred to by early Russian explorers to the region, and diving expeditions to explore the site were undertaken in 1956. The divers found several baked bricks, fragments of ceramic dishes, a piece of a ceramic pipe (which suggests a high level of local civilization), bronze arrowheads, iron knives, and the bones of both people and animals. Offshore, opposite the villages of Korumdy and Temirovka and near the Grigoryevskaya harbor, archaeologists found fragments of ancient pots dating back to the Bronze Age. Unfortunately, only a few of such articles are preserved because most of them were taken by local residents and tourists as souvenirs. The knife handles are topped with large figures of horses or sheep. The horses look very realistic: with large heads, long tails, and well-developed leg muscles – typical of steppe horses.

One of the most interesting finds from the bottom of Issyk-Kul is a sacrificial table of almost square shape. It has four legs shaped like a woman’s body, 22 cm high. These figures are well preserved: slant eyes, wide nose, oval chin, and a short and strong neck and scholars think these figures can suggest how ancient residents of the Issyk-Kul region looked.

Another find was a large hemispheric sacrificial pot with two horizontal handles and a relief tamga (the seal of the master) resembling a crescent with the points directed downwards. Such pots were widespread in this region in the 2nd half of the 1st millennium and more than 10 such pots have been found at Issyk-Kul – but this pot was the largest. It is thought that such pots were used only on holidays and special occasions. The large size of these pots testifies to big feasts of ancient cattle breeders in honour of their gods.

One important Archaeological find in the Issyk-Kul region was the “Golden Man”, thought to belong to the Scythian period, that is sometime between the 3rd and 7th centuries. The Saks culture left many burial mounds on the Kazakh steppes, and one of the most valuable mounds was discovered on the shore of Issyk-Kul , measuring some sixty meters in diameter and six meters high.

It was surrounded by several false mounds to confuse potential grave robbers. The mound consisted of two burial niches – one in the center and another on the side. Despite all the subterfuge used by the ancients who constructed the mound, the central tomb was looted by thieves, and we will never know what treasures it once contained, but the tombs located 15 meters to the south off the center remained untouched, and contained the grave of the “Golden Man”. The grave also contained 4,000 golden decorations, various plates and figures of animals.

The most valuable find were the clothes. The warrior wore a red suede jacket decorated with red plates and a high leather cap decorated with figures of birds and animals. On his side he had a dagger – both sides of the blade depicting 21 sacred animals, including a wolf, a mountain goat, an antelope, a snake, and a snow leopard. The face of the warrior was covered with black velvet – without eyes, mouth, nose and teeth. The “Golden Man” was not tall, coming up to the shoulder height of modern man.

Because the body is so small, French archaeologists have suggested that this is the body of the famous Massagete queen, Tomiris, who defeated and killed the great Persian King, Cyrus. According to the Roman historian Herodotus, the battle was fierce – the two armies stood face to face, and poured a rain of arrows on each other. When there was no more arrows, they started to fight with spears and swords. Almost the entire Persian army died in the battle, and Cyrus was killed as well. Tomiris ordered his head be forced into a bag full of blood and said, "Now be sated with the blood you have always thirsted for." It is very difficult, however, to test the skeleton since it is preserved so badly. Scholars cannot even determine the sex of the body. However, its high cap and neck decorations were symbols of clerical and religious power. So he or she was either a ruler or a priest.

At the extreme Eastern end is the town of Tup . When the renowned Russian explorer Semyenov (“Tianshansky”) first visited the region, he found near here at the San Tash pass a large barrow of smooth stones. Legend has it that it was constructed by the army of Timur. They found their way into the basin and he gave an order that every soldier was to pick up a stone from the shore of the lake and take it to the pass … when the campaign was over they would return it to the shore. Very few of the soldiers survived and so the army effectively constructed its own memorial.

One find that has so far eluded archaeologists is the grave of Genghiz Khan. There is a legend that he decreed that when he died his burial place should be kept a secret. So a party of 40 attendents took his body to a secret location, buried him (along with a treasure of untold riches), and were then killed by their 40 guards, who in turn committed suicide – thus ensuring the Khan’s wishes were fulfilled. The site has never been found, and many Kyrgyz believe that it was somewhere around Lake Issyk Kul. The theory was taken seriously enough for the Soviet government to stage an expedition to search for the grave in the 1970’s. There has, however, been much interest in a recent discovery of a mass grave in Mongolia , that some archaeologists think might be it – which will come as a surprise and disappointment to the Kyrgyz “believers”, if it can be proved.

In 2003 a book was published about the Cultural and Historical Monuments in the Issyk Kul region. As it was produced with financial Support from GTZ – The German Technical Aid Agency – it may not be surprising that was produced in Russian and German. An English version is planned, but it is not clear when it will be published. Also, it is hoped to produce similar guides for other regions of Kyrgyzstan – but, again, it is not clear when this may happen. The book was the result of surveys carried out by experts and contains an overall summary, some photographs, recommendations about the preservation of the monuments and details of some 184 examples.

Sometimes, Kyrgyzstan is known as the Switzerland of Central Asia – Tianshansky Semyenov may have been the first to make the comparison – he wrote about lake Issyk Kul: “The dark, blue surface of Issyk-Kul is as blue as the surface of Geneva Lake , but the large size of Issyk-Kul makes it grandiose, which can not be said of Geneva Lake . The Issyk-Kul water beautifully reflects snow-covered Tien Shan peaks against the background of the dark blue, bright, cloudless Central Asian sky.”

During the Soviet period the lake was used by the Navy to test torpedoes built in Tashkent – and there are still “jokes” about the Kyrgyz Navy.

In 2004, a new Tourist Map of the region (with a scale of 1:350000) was publishedwith the assistance of the German aid agency, GTZ, which includes descriptions of some 23 different itineraries for people interested in Hiking or Rafting in the region. Although the routes areen’t actually marked on the map – the descriptions give an outline of the likely duration (mostly 2-4 days), the season (mainly June to September, but extending into May and October), some General Information, a Verbal description and an indication of the degree of difficulty involved. It also has a list of the various Health Spas and Resorts situated on the lakes’ shores.

There are a large number of hotels, sanatoria, guesthouses and homestays at various points around the lake, many of which can make arrangements for services to the neighbouring mountains. Some of the sanatoria have hydrothermal springs and offer mud baths.