If Kyrgyzstan is the “Switzerland of Central Asia” (a generous comparison that tourist agencies will gladly have you believe), then Issyk Kul is surely this country’s Lake Geneva. Situated some 200km east of Bishkek in a sheltered crease of the Tien Shan Mountains, this expansive lake – the second largest alpine lake in the world, in fact, and the second largest saline lake as well – has been a popular tourist destination since early Soviet times.
It’s said that Brezhnev frequented the lakeside resorts and sanatoria, while Yuri Gagarin allegedly rehabilitated here following his historic ride into space. The Soviet Navy brass liked Issyk Köl so much that they built a torpedo testing center on the eastern shore, a clear gesture of appreciation. In those days, Issyk Köl was simply the place to be.
Warm though the water may be in August, it’s pretty damn cold the rest of the year. Whoever gave Issyk Köl the name ‘Warm Lake’ clearly never went swimming here in the dead of winter (editor’s note: it’s also cold in summer). So following the autumn outflux of tourists, local businesses grind to a halt, and the towns fall quiet.
Most restaurants, guesthouses, snack shops shut down for the long off season. Youngsters reclaim their bedrooms from renters and head to school, while their older siblings return to the universities in Bishkek. Roving shepherds and their animals descend from the summer jailoo to graze lakeside. The whole place just seems to freeze in time.
I’ve never actually been to Issyk Köl in the summer. Or on a clear day, for that matter. I most recently visited the lake in early May, spending a weekend at a friend’s guesthouse in Tamchy. This small, unassuming village sits on the northern shore of Issyk Köl, midway between regional centers Balykchy and Cholpon-Ata.
So far, Tamchy has escaped the conspicuous resort-style development of the area, and remains pleasantly calm and quiet. It is notable for two reasons, however: it boasts the only international airport in the Issyk Köl region (why here, I don’t know), and it was once a popular summer hangout for Kyrgyz gangsters.
A few years back, one enigmatic capo decided to build himself a castle in Tamchy, replete with towers and parapets. Unfortunately, he was gunned down before his castle was finished. Now, it’s a business hotel. I don’t have any photos of the castle-hotel, because I am an idiot and forgot my camera.
In the summertime, Tamchy fills up with foreign trekkers, Bishkek families, and others seeking a quieter alternative to the nearby resorts. Many Tamchy locals rent out their extra rooms to travelers, or convert dining rooms into makeshift restaurants.
But during the 9 month off season, the village all but shuts down. When I was there, all the restaurants were closed, along with most shops. Even the ubiquitous tire vulcanization garage – a staple of Central Asian roadside architecture – was closed. Cows and sheep, not tourists, controlled the beach.
My friend’s guesthouse was located just a stone’s throw from the water, separated from the beach by a beautiful poplar grove.
It’s easy enough to imagine the shores of Issyk Köl in high season – gleeful yelps of water-winged children splashing in the shallows, jetskis loudly skittering across the water, vendors hawking their wares, the steady thump of last year’s pop hit, emanating from Disco Club Graffiti. Personally, I appreciate the quiet offseason vibes.
Written by Cooper Thomas, this post first appeared at his blog.