Issyk Kul

Issyk Kul

Lake Issyk Kul (Issyk-Kul) is the second largest alpine lake in the world and the number one beach resort in Kyrgyzstan, surrounded by amazing mountain valleys full of nature. The lake is about 150 km long and almost 700 meters deep and is surrounded by snowy capped Tien Shan mountains even during the hottest summertime. The Issyk Kul lake and its beach life very popular among the locals, Kazakh and Russian tourists. Tourists outside Central Asia come here mostly to see the amazing nature and the cultural sights around the lake and it is therefore included in most of our Kyrgyzstan Tours and Central Asia Tours.

Issyk Kul is elevated about 1,6 km above the sea level, meaning that the climate is considerably different for example from Bishkek. The huge water mass of the lake is also keeping the climate more temperate during the winter time and due to the hot springs at the bottom of the lake and the slight salinity of the water, it actually never freezes even though the temperatures go way below zero in the winter. Therefore, the translation of Issyk Kul as the “Hot lake” from Kyrgyz language, is very logic. 

There are about 100 rivers bringing water to the lake from the surrounding mountains but there is no river that would lead the water out from Issyk-Kul meaning the lake is brackish water, not fresh water as the water evaporating from the lake does not carry much of the salts with it. It is suspected though that there would be an underground river from Issyk Kul joining the Chu river. 

As Issyk Kul is fairly high above the sea level, it means that the sunshine can get quite harsh, so it is better to have your sunscreen with you if you are prone to burn your skin. Issyk-Kul is the most popular tourist destination in Kyrgyzstan for both local and foreign tourists. The nature in Issyk Kul area is also very unique and it has been recognized by Unesco as a biosphere reserve.

Issyk Kul beach
Beach life in Issyk Kul

Cholpon Ata & North side of Issyk Kul

Cholpon Ata is the main area for local tourists in Issyk Kul and the center of the beach and resort tourism. The town is located on the Northern shore of the lake. In Cholpon Ata and in the surrounding areas you can find big hotels and lots of homestays especially in the hot season which takes place in July-August. During the high season period, locals, Russians and Kazakhs gather to spend time in the more cool climate and beaches of Issyk Kul valley to run away from the 40º C in lower areas. Cholpon Ata is a good base for exploring the whole northern side of Issyk Kul. Another major base for exploring Issyk Kul area is Karakol, which is located in the southeast side of Issyk Kul. 

There are abundant numbers of shops and restaurants in the Northern shore area and during the high season it can be quite cramped resulting in higher prices especially for accommodation. The prices can reach up to 120$/night in better quality hotels. During off season the prices can be less than half compared to high season. Less expensive homestays and cheaper hotels and hostels are still available all the time. Activities like water jets, parasailing, party boats and so on can be found most like in the Cholpon Ata area or other nearby beaches.

Issyk Kul purple sunset
Issyk Kul magenta sunset
Bear in mind that majority of the beaches are private (fenced) and only accessible if you are staying in the residence or hotel. Some places might allow access to their beach or pool in more quiet times with separate payment. If you are willing to walk or drive a little bit you can still find beaches that are not fenced and are free for anyone to roam but are also mostly without any services. Beaches are a great place to catch some amazing sunsets in Issyk Kul. Thank you for photos gladkov_nikolai

South side of Issyk Kul

The south shore of Issyk Kul is a lot less populated by local tourists. There are some residences, hotels and homestays but in general the area is considerably less “touristy” and has more pristine nature. There are empty sandy or stony beaches for you to choose from and stay alone in quiet atmosphere if you wish so. In the southern Issyk Kul side there are also some yurt villages and a Salty Lake or “Dead Lake” which is a highly saline lake just 10 minute walk from Issyk-Kul. 

We highly recommend visiting and “swimming” in the lake. You will understand why the swimming is inside quotation marks after you really try it. The best base of operations for the exploration of the South part of Issyk Kul is definately Karakol but Bokonbaeva also has some services and there are few yurt villages nearby the beaches in the same area.

There is also a canyon formed of reddish and yellowish rocks called Fairytale canyon or “Skazka“. In the canyon you can see peculiar animal resembling shapes and other beautiful formations shaped by wind erosion and rain. The canyon is located not far from the village of Tosor. Similar kind of reddish rock formations can be found in the Jeti Oguz gorge together with a sanatorium with some more hot springs nearby.

Barskoon Valley is a place worth to visit while traveling the South side of Issyk-Kul. The valley starts nearby the village of Barskoon and continues South towards the Tien Shan mountains. In the valley you can see spectacular views of mountain forests and the Barskoon waterfall which is named in Kyrgyz the “Tears of the snow leopard” plus some Soviet relics of Yuri Gagarin.

Issyk Kul lake with mountains in the background
Barskoon valley largest waterfall in autumn colors in Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan

Hot springs in Issyk Kul area

Several hot springs, man made or natural can be found in the Issyk Kul area. Some of them are located not far from the lake itself and are easily accessible but others can be located high in the mountains and are only accessible by trekking or horseback. There is an area east from Cholpon Ata, about 1 hour drive away, that has few hot spring places with services like massaging and drinks at the shoreline of Issyk-Kul, south towards the lake from the village of Chong Uruktu. There is also a very nice hot spring place called Ak Bermet, just west from Cholpon Ata. 

Hot spring near Karakol
Ak Bermet hot spring near Cholpon Ata in Issyk Kul

More famous hot springs are located on the southeast side of the lake, not far from Karakol, in Juuku Valley and the Kyzyl-Suu hot springs are in the same region, together with the Ak-Suu hot springs not far from Karakol and the Altyn Arashan gorge hot springs high in the mountain valley. 

Hot spring near Karakol
Altyn Arashan Kyrgyzstan Karakol Hot spring

Ancient & medieval signs of culture in Issyk Kul

There are numerous locations around the lake where one can find ancient symbols, fortresses, petroglyphs, balbals or rock drawings, dating back in the past from hundreds or even thousands of years.

Many of them represent Buddhist or the Tengrism religion that were once dominant in the area or are of Scythian origin. There are also remains of an ancient cities under the water but the locations have been kept secret to prevent vandalism and scavenging of relics. Issyk Kul has been habited for a long time and during that time the water level has fluctuated and therefore aided and in turn destroyed the civilizations inhabiting its coasts.

In the very East end of the Issyk Kul valley, about 20 kilometers from the border of Kazakhstan, there is a big pile of stones in a village called San Tash. There are many legends associated with the birth of the pile of stones but the most popular one is related to Amir Temur who was the ruler of a vast kingdom in Central Asia. On the route to invasion against China the ruler requested each soldier to add one stone to the pile and on the way back asked each one to pick up one stone from the pile thus calculating the losses of men in battle. 

San Tash is a large pile of stones in Issyk Kul area
Tosor fortress ruins are covered by a cemetery in Issyk Kul

At the South shore of Issyk Kul there are the small ruins of once a great city called Kan Dobo with a museum and some walls still standing from the 12th century and evidences of an underground city next to the small village of Turasu. 

South from Kaji sai, on the other side of a low mountain range or a serie of fells, there is a double fortress that was once guarding both sides of a river and the remains of a bigger fortress just next to the town of Tosor. There is also a fortress at the northern side of Issyk kul not far from the Zharkinbaevo village. There are also small fortress ruins in the Barskoon valley, just next to the road leading to the waterfalls.

Fortress ruins in Barskoon valley of Issyk Kul region
Kaji Sai double fortress ruins at the southern side of Issyk Kul

Nature of Issyk Kul

The great diversity of the landscape types in Issyk-Kul area offers living conditions for various plants and animals. In the western and southern parts of the Issyk Kul valley, there are deserts and semi deserts but the eastern and northern parts of the area are more humid and green with mountain forests. 

The mountain gorges that origin from the Issyk Kul basin are mostly covered by Tien Shan spruce forests and in the lower areas also with other less robust species together with high plateaus that are used as summer pastures and are dotted with yurts, sheep and horses during the warm season. At the southern shore there is the Tien-Shan mountain range with peaks of over 7 000 m and the longest glaciers of the world outside of the polar regions.

There are a lot of land mammals living in the mountain valleys and gorges including bears, wild boars, Marco Polo sheep and even the elusive snow leopard. Issyk Kul is also a home to numerous migratory birds and many rare geese species also live there together with vultures and large birds of prey. Even flamingos have been occasionally spotted in Issyk Kul. There used to be several great birds of prey that hunted fish from Issyk Kul but introducing predatory fish to Issyk Kul has reduced their number greatly or even fully.

Desert at the south side of Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan
Green mountains of Karkara valley near Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan

Issyk Kul Tours

Issyk Kul is included in many of our tours as it is extremely diverse in landscapes and therefore in possibilities. The main reason to see Issyk Kul is the rugged diverse nature. It is best done by trekking, hiking, horseback riding or with a 4WD car and an experienced driver. Issyk Kul can also offer beach life in with Cholpon Ata services or a more quiet style natural beaches at the south shore. 

What to do in Issyk Kul

Issyk Kul is the place where you can experience a big portion of the Kyrgyz culture. Apart from the obvious beach life, the mountain valleys offer a lot to experience especially with the still much alive nomad culture and old traditions not to forget the amazing nature for hiking and exploring. Cholpon Ata and the surrounding nature has also been the regular the location for the World Nomad Games that have been organized in Kyrgyzstan for three times. 

It is not yet certain though when the games will return back to Kyrgyzstan but locals will keep practicing for them in the area anyway. Therefore it is a great place to see beautifully decorated yurts, eagles and falcons and the occasional Kok Boru (Blue wolf) horse games where the dead carcass of a goat is battled over to be taken to the opposing team’s goal on horseback! Issyk Kul also offers a lot of secrets for the Silk Road explorers and history lovers.

Eagle hunting eagle in Issyk Kul
Kok Boru horse game

Issyk Kul festivals

During the summer time, there are also several festivals and cultural events that are organized in Issyk Kul and they mostly focus on the southern beach areas but there are also events taking place for example in the Grigoriev gorge at the northern side of the lake. Most events take place in July and August as the locals consider the season already mostly over in September.

Nomad traditions in Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan
Kolfest at the south beach of Issyk Kul

Swimming in Issyk Kul

Even though the name of the lakes suggests that the lake would be hot, it is almost the opposite. Due to the vasta amount of water in the lake, the warmest water temperatures even during August are usually around 22 – 23C. It means that you can easily swim in one of the sandy or stone beaches of Issyk Kul but the water never gets very warm. On the other hand, the water does not get that cold even during the winter time so a more hardy person can also enjoy the lake during colder periods.

Travel to Issyk-Kul

Cholpon Ata can be reached from Bishkek by taxi and marshrutka. The travel takes about 3-4 hours or even less as the road has been improved lately in many sections. On the way you can enjoy the mountain sights of Boom gorge and even stop in the Konorchek canyons or the Kok Moynok canyons at the half way for some trekking. A private taxi without sharing from Bishkek to Cholpon Ata should be about 1200-2000 som and a shared taxi 400 to 500 som. The trip by marshrutka is about 250 som but it can get fairly crowded and hot in marshrutkas.

If you want to add a little bit of Soviet taste to you trip, you can take a train from Bishkek to Balykchi which is a very Soviet type industrial town located at the west end of the Issyk-Kul. The train is considerably slower than the car option (about 5 hours) and stops in each village on the way but it is a good way to see the real Kyrgyz village life. 

The train option is only available in the summer high season time. Price for the train is about 100 som so it is a budget choice, but you need to still continue to Cholpon Ata or Karakol from Balykchy by taxi or marshrutka and the price tends to be somewhat high for tourists during the high season but a good negotiator will always get it down.

Bishkek Balykchi train to Issyk Kul

Destinations and sights near Issyk Kul

Page updated: 22.5.2023

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