When prospective travelers to Kyrgyzstan ask us for advice, we often hear: “…and I also want to visit Issyk-Kul.” That, however, is a very vague statement. A mountainous area the size of Denmark, dominated by the second-largest salt lake in the world and inhabited since the Bronze Age, the Issyk-Kul basin has got something for everyone.
Sunbathers can get fried on the beach and party in a Kyrgyz discotheque. Lovers of the outdoor can take their pick from any of the mountain ranges surrounding Issyk-Kul Lake for trekking, climbing, rafting & kayaking, skiing and horse riding.
History hounds may want to search for petroglyphs or the lost church of an early apostle. If, on the other hand, you prefer to delve into local culture, you can visit crafts cooperatives, get invited for kymys and stay overnight in a yurt, or see eagle hunting demonstrations.
Seen from the sky, Issyk-Kul looks like a giant, ancient eye, ringed by steep wrinkles. On the edges of this tearful oculus, human civilization has found a foothold.
Wedged in between the sea and the mountain, the shores of Issyk-Kul harbor towns with distinct identities.
The standard story is: the northern shore is given over to domestic mass tourism, while the southern shore is still dominated by agriculture, with some small-scale tourism thrown in. In the east, Karakol is well set up for foreigners interested in outdoor ventures, while the western town of Balykchy has little to offer tourists.
By and large, this reflects reality, but there are important nuances to make. I will start with the most important one. Despite the fact that Issyk Kul means warm lake, the lake’s water is cold year-round. Thin-skinned swimmers don’t stay in the water long.
Balykchy, at the western edge of the lake, is a fishing town with little fishing going on these days. It was once advised to disaster tourists looking for Soviet ruins, but poverty is receding and the ruins have been cleaned up. In effect, there is nothing more to see now. Even the train to Bishkek is only for fanatics.
Tamchy is the first real tourist town when coming from Bishkek. Locals have extended their houses, rent out rooms and serve up food for their guests in improvised kitchens. It is charming, and not a bad place to stop over for a night to relax on the beach and sniff up some couleur locale.
Cholpon-Ata and Bosteri are the main resort towns of Issyk-Kul. Big hotels and sanatoriums cater to families with private beaches and kids entertainment. Late-night discos attract crowds of rowdy teenagers. These towns are busy in summer. If you decide to go here, be aware that Cholpon-Ata and Bosteri have a reputation for criminal activity: rapes, theft and attacks against foreigners happen.
Continuing east, Grigorievka, Semyonovka and Ananevo are quieter alternatives for a beach holiday. These towns are comparable to Tamchy, but already have some classier homestays erected in between the farmer’s ad-lib appendages.
In the hinterland, you can find unspoilt nature, mountain scenery and historical remains. You have the place to yourself: few hikers enter these valleys.
The arcadian Chong Kemin valley starts west of Issyk-Kul and leads, hidden from the coastal towns, up to 3000 m+ passes to reach the Kazakh border. Beautiful 3-6 day trekking routes start west at Kemin and end at the beach.
Karakol is not a beach destination. Instead, this cute and historic town serves as a base for anyone looking to sample the delights of Kyrgyzstan’s great outdoors. Hikes and horse rides in the areas of Jyrgalan, Alakol, Jeti-Oguz or Altyn Arashan are excellent introductions to the topography of Kyrgyzstan. In winter, these areas double as ski bases and freeride areas.
The southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul is quiet. Relaxing. Wherever you go, the feeble pulse of village life beats slowly. Besides the peaceful, near-deserted beaches, the Terskey Alatoo mountain range rising behind the shore is full of exquisite landscapes on par with the Karakol area.
Additionally, summer offers the chance to mix with locals, who set up yurts to herd their animals in the high pastures. Long treks can be dreamed up here, east-west overlooking the lake shores, or deeper into the mountains towards Naryn and beyond.
Tamga is our pick when looking for a beach town. It has the best selection of homestays and enough attractions to keep you occupied for days when you don’t feel like the beach.
Barskoon is the best place to learn more about Kyrgyz traditions, and to book a horse ride into the mountains. Bokonbaevo is the biggest town on the southern shore. Come here for the eagle hunting and the crafts cooperative, not for the beach and the mountains.
If you are not heading back to Bishkek, Kochkor is probably your next destination, wherefrom Song Kul comes into view. Otherwise, you can continue further south towards Naryn and the Torugart Pass into China.
- The North: Bishkek and the mountains around. No one goes to Talas (yet).
- The South: Osh is the second capital and the gateway to China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Arslanbob is a highlight. Beyond, there’s more stunning mountain scenery.
- The Center: A huge mountainous area. Song Kul is the star attraction. Beyond, much more mountains, lakes, yurts and jailoos.