As far removed from an ocean as is possible on this planet, Central Asia is not the first place that comes to mind when thinking of beautiful shores. But they exist, in abundance even, and the following 7 lakes are just a highlight of the aquatic splendor that is on offer in the heart of Eurasia.
Karakul is to the Turkic-speaking world what Newtown is to the English-speaking one: every country has at least one. ‘Kara’ means black in Turkic languages, and ‘Kul’ means lake.
Calling water (su) black in Central Asia means that it is coming from an underground source, contrary to the much preferred white water (aq-su), meltwater from glaciers. Interestingly, Russians have the opposite idea: they prefer ‘black’ water.
This particular Karakul is located near Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province. Its shores are inhabited by ethnic Kyrgyz living in yurts in summer. You can rent a horse and spend the day galloping around the lake.
High up in the Kazakh Altai mountains and snowed under for most of the year, Rachmanov springs is the type of place where you can really recover from your smog allergy. Surrounded by pine trees and filled with mineral-rich water, the lake is surrounded by sanatoria reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
You wish you could stay forever. Sadly, because of its proximity to the Chinese border, you can’t.
Kyrgyzstan’s most celebrated lake is a tourist draw card and you will find fellow hikers and horseback riders on its shores in summer. Although rubbish is becoming a problem, Song Kol’s perennial calm is still overpowering.
Be sure to stay in a yurt at Song Kol, as the food is delicious – all meat, jams and milk products are 100% fresh and homemade.
“Iskander Kul is indeed a beautiful spot”, wrote Mabel Rickmers in 1906 with her trademark British composure. Named after Alexander the Great (Iskander in Turkish/Arabic) when he passed by Tajikistan 2300 years ago on his quest to conquer the known world, today it still is ‘a beautiful spot.’ Besides watching the water turn colour in the shifting sunlight, a 40m waterfall and the president’s dacha are local highlights, as well as listening to the legends surrounding Alexander.
From the village of Sarytag 10km ahead, one can reach the 7 lakes and pass through the Fann mountains on foot all the way to Penjikent.
Near Skardu, in Pakistan’s high-elevation Gilgit-Baltistan area, lies lake Satpara. One of the most picturesque lakes in Pakistan recently got a lot bigger, as the Satpara dam finished construction after 8 years. A series of incidents related to apparent shoddy construction could spell the end for the new reservoir, in which case locals will finally find out the truth about the lake.
It is said that a gold mine lies at the bottom of the lake, explaining why the water of lake Satpara shines so brightly in the daytime.
Once named Lake Victoria by the British, Lake Zorkul, straddling the Afghan-Tajik border, is the starting point of the mighty Amu Darya (previously Oxus) river, fed by the glaciers coming from the mountains above. The location of the source of the Oxus inspired considerable debate and many tales of derring-do during the days of the Tournament of Shadows, and was not resolved until recently.
To make it to Zorkul (sometimes called Sarikol) you will need permission from the Border Guard at Khorog. Once there, you can rejoice in mountain hiking, horse riding and milk tasting with the shepherds in summer.
Band-e Amir is Afghanistan’s first national park. Located near the historically important city of Bamiyan the 6 lakes it is composed of draw a steadily increasing number of visitors each year, despite the dangers associated with travel in Afghanistan. Poor enforcement of rules however, has led to problems with the natural environment.
Fishing with grenades and electricity, overgrazing and polluting visitors pose a serious threat to the existence of the park.
What’s your favourite lake in Central Asia?