Issyk Kul

Issyk Kul LAKE

Lake Issyk-Kul is the second largest alpine lake in the world and the number one beach resort in Kyrgyzstan. The lake is about 150 km long and almost 700 meters deep and is surrounded by snowy capped mountains even during the hottest summertime. Imagine sandy beaches with clear blueish water while drinkin an Arpa (a local Kyrgyz beer) enjoying the +25 – 30 C and admiring at the white capped mountains in the background. 

Issyk Kul lake is elevated about 1,6 km above the sea level meaning 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 time which is logic as the name of the translates into “Hot lake” in Kyrgyz language. 

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. 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. The nature in Issyk Kul area is also very unique and it has been recognized by Unesco as a biosphere reserve.

Marco polo hotel beach at the South side of Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan

Cholpon Ata & North side of Issyk Kul

Cholpon Ata is the main area for 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 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 South-East 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 nearby beaches.

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 also without any services.

South side of Issyk Kul

The south shore of Issyk Kul is a lot less populated by tourists. There are some residences, hotels and homestays but in general the area is considerably less “touristy”. There are empty sandy or stony beaches for you to choose from and stay alone in quiet atmosphere if you wish so. In the South 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 in 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.

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 together with some 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”.

You can check also our travel story covering most of the South side of Issyk Kul.

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 about 1 hour drive away from Cholpon Ata 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. More famous hot springs are located on the southeast side of the lake 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. 

Ancient signs of culture in Issyk Kul

There are numerous locations around the lake where one can find ancient symbols, fortresses, petroglyphs, balbals or drawings dating thousands of years back. Many of the represent buddhist religion that was 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. 

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. 

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 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. 

San Tash is a big pile of stones near Issyk Kul and Karkara valley

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 and but the Western and Northern part of the area is more humid and green. 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 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 is also 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 arrive 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
Nomad traditions in Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan

How to get 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 at the half way for some trekking. A private taxi without sharing from Bishkek to Cholpon Ata should be about 1000-1500 som and a shared taxi 300 to 400 som. The trip by marshrutka is about 200 – 250 som but it can get fairly crowded and hot in marshrutkas.

If you want to add a little bit of soviet exotic 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 (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 but a good negotiator will always get it down.

Destinations and sights near Issyk Kul

Page updated: 4.7.2021

Scroll to Top
error: Alert: Content is protected