It’s finally summertime, which means everyone wants to be on the waterfront. Some people head to the ocean. Others have their own pool. But most go to a lake. How far will you go to find the perfect lakeside setting? The Great Lakes in the US? The Lake District in Patagonia? Or the lake region in northern Italy? If you’re willing to travel for a gorgeous lake, add Issyk Kul to your ever-expanding list.
You’ve probably never heard of this lake. It’s in landlocked Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous country in Central Asia that’s surrounded by China and other “-stan” countries. It was part of the Soviet Union until the early 1990s. Civil unrest plagued the country after it gained its independence. But up in the northeastern corner of Kyrgyzstan, it’s peaceful, beautiful, and, for now, quiet. That will change with tourism money.
Issyk Kul is the tenth-largest lake, by volume, in the world. It’s also the second-largest saline lake, after the Caspian Sea. Despite it’s location in the mountains—the highest peaks in the snow-capped Tian Shan range loom over the water—the lake never freezes due to its high salt content. So while you can enjoy the blue-green water throughout the year, the temperatures are at their highest right now.
Make Cholpon-Ata, on the northern shore of Issyk Kul, your home base. The town, which was named after a mythological protecting spirit, was once a stop along the Silk Road. It later became a resort town for wealthy Kazakhs and Russians, who traveled for the therapeutic mineral water and silt mud. Everyone else is just starting to catch up.
During the cool, early morning, visit the Stone Garden. These glacial boulders contain petroglyphs from 800 BC to 1200 AD. There are stone circles, ancient tombs, and depictions of people hunting snow leopards in the open field with Cholpon-Ata Bay in the distance. After walking around the Stone Garden, tour the Rukh Ordo Tashkul-Ata Cultural Centre, a historical museum, to see religious sites and traditional yurts. More artifacts, plus a 3D model of the lake, are also at the Regional Museum.
When the temperature rises, head down to the water. Small beaches are lined with orchards and wildflower-filled fields. The sun is warm, but a breeze and slightly chilly water will keep you cool. Ride a horse along the shore, down an old logging trail, and through the Ornok Valley. Take a 90-minute cruise to the center of the lake. Then listen to live music and eat borscht and jarovnya at Sambuca Café. Just return to the waterfront for sunset. You’ll have it all to yourself. At least for now.