80 km east of Almaty, the high mountain lake of Esik offers splendid views amidst what is viewed by locals to be excellent photo-posing and meat-grilling territory. You can go for a dip in the icy water or just relax and take in the fresh air and the beautiful surroundings.
Esik Lake works well as a weekend camping trip for people living in Almaty, or as a part of a bigger loop around Almaty Region’s highlights.
En route to the lake, you can visit the town of Esik, where the famous Golden Man was found in a Saka grave, adorned with 4000 pieces of gold. There is a small museum, and you can see ritual burial mounds.
The lake’s name is also transliterated as Issyk, but we keep this spelling to keep it separate from its much larger namesake in Kyrgyzstan.
Esik lake was formed some 10 000 years ago by rockfall making a natural dam, capturing the water from the Esik river. It was a large lake, more than 2 km wide, and a popular resort for residents of Almaty.
In the 60’s, a new landslide destroyed the dam, and the lake emptied out for a large part. It was a busy day on the lake, and many died in the tragedy. Subsequently, the lake lost its popularity to resorts like Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan and Alakol further north of Almaty.
Things to do
Not much. The water is very cold, even in summer. Swimming is only for the brave. You cannot really go hiking in the vicinity. Only a languid stroll along the shores.
Esik kurgans and archeological museum
Esik is also famous for its kurgans, burial mounds from the Saka people who lived here around 2000 years ago. You can see the hills alongside the road from Almaty to Esik.
The Saka were skilled goldsmiths and had a sophisticated semi-nomadic society. The newly renovated museum (Gmaps) does a decent job of explaining what their culture is all about with archaeological exhibits, paintings, a diorama and a life-size doll of the famous Golden Man, a warrior adorned with 4000 pieces of gold, found in one of the kurgans.
Entrance is 100 tenge. You can learn more about Esik’s contribution to our understanding of Saka culture in the following (Russian-language) articles from Vox Populi:
The lake (Gmaps) can get busy on summer weekends with local day-trippers and campers. During the week, you have the place to yourself.
June – September is the best time to go. After that time, you might find it very cold up there, or frozen. If you don’t have a car, you can take public transport to Esik and try to hitch a ride to the lake (on the weekend), or join a bus tour for 3000 tenge organised by Almaty tour companies.
You will have to suffer through the complementary visit at the ostrich farm though!