A pier in the south side of Issyk Kul

Trip to the south side of the lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan

We started the trip in the +34 August heat of Bishkek by ordering a taxi through the Namba taxi mobile application and drove to the Bishkek Western taxi station from our Erkindik boulevard rented apartment. It is somehow not logic that taxis and minibuses to several Eastward destinations leave from the Western bus station but that’s how it goes in Bishkek. After arriving I stayed away while my local girlfriend was negotiating the price to take us to Balykchi at the Western end of the lake Issyk Kul, in order to avoid the extra price for non locals that can sometimes be easily applied. 

The price negotiated was 2000 som which is not a bad price during the summer hot season for a whole car. We started the journey and fetched some more water from a small roadside shop on the way while driving out of Bishkek as the car’s air condition was not working even though the driver had promised it would be working before leaving. This is the usual story in Kyrgyzstan and for some reason the taxi drivers and locals in general prefer keeping the windows open over using the AC even if it happened to function properly.

We managed to drive for about 15 km after the car got a flat tire. The driver got up from the car and was struggling in the heat to remove the spare tire from the trunk. The work did not seem to be progressing so I decided to step in as the driver also seemed to have a bad leg and walking and squatting seemed to be quite hard for him. While using the jack to lift the car the tires started to roll and the jack fell meaning the hand brake of the car was not working and the drive had not set the gear to the first gear. We had to place stones around the 3 other tires to make sure the car would not start rolling while changing the empty tire. 

Finally I managed to change the tire successfully and gained a super sweaty shirt in the process. After this episode the road was just fine with the mountains constantly visible on our right side until all the way to the gorge leading to the Issyk Kul valley and to Balykchi.

Our original idea was to only hire the driver to until Balykchi and to hire a new car from Balykchi onwards. The driver seemed to be a nice guy and drowe calmly (a rare thing in Kyrgyzstan) and suggested that he could also take us all the way to our next destination, the salty lake (or the dead lake), with a small extra fee. So we had a stop in the Narodniy in Balykchi and made sure that we have enough cash as there was an atm next to the shop. You will only find atms that work with international cards in Cholpon Ata or in Karakol in the Issyk Kul region so this was the last chance for many days to come. While our refilling of products and cash the driver had had the original tire repaired and we started our drive to the South side of Issyk Kul and the dead lake passing by the reservoir Orto Tokoi on the way. 

Orto Tokoi reservoir on the way to South side of Issyk Kul

We arrived at the dead lake around 7-8 in the evening just before the sunset after driving very slowly the last bumpy part of the road leading to the lake from the main road between Balykchi and Karakol. The lake is situated just few hundred meters away from Issyk Kul but seems to be somewhat lower elevated compared to IK.

Dead sea south Issykkul Tuz Kol

We arrived at the dead lake around 7-8 in the evening just before the sunset after driving very slowly the last bumpy part of the road leading to the lake from the main road between Balykchi and Karakol and decided to stay in a yurt not far from the shoreline.  The price for the luxury yurt (not sure what was the luxury about it), dinner and breakfast for two was less than 1000 soms, but most likely the price is higher during the high season. At the end of august and the beginning of September almost everything is already closing down in Issyk Kul area. 

The dead lake is situated just few hundred meters away from Issyk Kul but seems to be somewhat lower elevated compared to IK. We had just time to wash off our sweat from the long car travel in the salty lake where the water was strangely colder at the top than at the bottom. Most likely the water at the top is less salty than at the bottom and has only recently entered the lake through the springs that can be seen at the shoreline in several locations. You must pay about 100som/person (depending on your nationality, it seems) to enter the lake but you only need pay once so you can go again the next morning if you are staying at the lake. The water in the dead lake was extremely salty and it is almost impossible to swim. You can just float in almost any position at the water. Some people had mentioned that the area is not clean but we did not see trash of any kind. We did not notice if there were any showers nearby the lake or the restaurants and after swimming our skins got so sensitive from the salt that had dried to our skins.

After the tasty dinner and tea the locals built us a grand high bed in the yurt as the nights are getting colder sometimes near the autumn time even in IK. Just as we were about to sleep we started to hear strange noises from our food bag and even though we had hung them from the wooden parts of the yurt we realized that the mice were attempting to eat our food supplies. We managed to solve the situation by hanging the food bags in the strings coming from the roof of the yurt. Only some minor mouse squeaks were heard after that before sleeping.  In the morning we woke up to eat the breakfast served in our yurt.

After the breakfast we started to think about how to continue our journey onwards towards East. The locals hanging around the lake were sure that I am an american and were asking for more than 2000 som for a ride to Kyzyl Suu which was our next destination. We were not happy about the price and decided to try to hitch hike but it was very quiet at the lake and we had to wait for an about hour before a group of 4 sporty looking local guys were leaving the place towards Karakol. We managed to squeeze in the small car sitting on top of each other for 3 hours to the village of Kyzyl Suu but we made it and compensated it well to the nice guys even though they were not asking for anything and were trying to refuse our payment. They were excited about having a foreigner in their car and wanted to have pics as a memory with the Manas epoch reciter in the background.

Sportsmen from Kyrgyzstan with Sayahbay Karalaev in the background

After the friendly guys dropped us to the village and continued their journey to Kara-Kol we started to ask around for a taxi to reach the Marco Polo resort at the South beach of Issyk Kul. Some drivers did not want to drive the road as it was in such a bad condition and they were very right as we got to experience ourselves after we found a driver willing to drive us there. We arrived at the resort and settled in for the next few days to use it as our base camp for the next nearby destinations. 

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

The resort had a nice beach and was very clean and well organized for a Kyrgyz hotel complex and also had a quite well taken cared warmed pool at the premises as the water of Issyk Kul can be quite cool even in August. Three meals were included in the price of staying as usual in IK with mostly Russian style dishes. Apparently the tradition with the Russian dishes comes from the Soviet period when the tourists in the area were mostly from the other Soviet states. 

The next morning we set out to visit the Barskoon Valley and Fairytale canyon somewhat back Westwards at the shoreline with the same driver that brought us to the hotel the day before. We arrived to the Skazka canyon around 10 in the morning in a nice sunshine and with temperature not much more than 20 so the conditions for hiking up the mountain to the waterfalls were perfect. Already on the way along the Barskoon valley we saw the second and third waterfall from afar in the nice autumn colors that had already started to appear in the higher levels of the mountains in the late August and early September. From between the mountains we could also see some white glaciers. There is a small camp at the bottom of the trail up with meals, toilets and horse renting possibilities. 

Highest waterfall of Barskoon

The way up started quite easily with not so steep ascend to the first very small waterfall. The forest gets thicker when hiking upwards from the first waterfall and the climb gets more tough as well. We somehow managed to stray away from the left side path that leads to the second waterfall and almost hiked up to the third one where the trees disappear and the climb gets even more steep and scary as if you fall down due to the loose gravel there is nothing to stop you for tens or hundreds of meters. From above we saw the second waterfall and decided to return back there. Climbing down with the loose gravel was even harder than going up so it took a while but we finally found our way to the right trail and reached the second and the most beautiful waterfall. We were not able to cross the river due to the large amount of water flowing that would have allowed us to get almost under the waterfall according to a guide that happened to be at place with her group. All the area surrounding the waterfall was filled with fine mist from the water splashing down and created small rainbows underneath the waterfall together with the sun. On the way down we enjoyed the great views of the valley with the gray huge mountains and with the snow capped peaks further South in the higher mountains. After a walk down and a good kurdak at the camp below we continued towards the Fairytale canyon with our driver that had waited us by the camp.

In order to reach the Skazka or the Fairytale canyon we drove more Westwards along the Issyk Kul shoreline and arrived to the place in the afternoon which meant that the air got quite hot and with no wind at all it was very hot in the desert like canyon with the sunshine but on the other hand the sunshine allowed us to see all the great colors of the stones ranging from red to orange and yellow with the peculiar forms of animal like figures, holes and human like characters. There was also a nice view to Issyk Kul from the highest parts of the valley. 

Skazka or fairytale canyon near Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan
Hole in the stone in Skazka Fairytale canyon near Issyk Kul
Skazka canyon hippo shaped rock

After walking around the Skazka we returned to our base camp and enjoyed again the Russian style dinner there. The next morning we set out to drive towards East to Karakol and to see couple of places along the way again together with the well proven driver. 

First stop on the way was the Jeti Oguz where we roamed around for some time but did not have the time to visit the thermal spring treatment facilities. On the way back to the main road from the Jeti Oguz resort we stopped by a big rock that looks like a heart that has broken into two. 

Jeti Oguz reddish mountains in South part of Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan

Just as we were about the leave the broken heart a boy with an eagle in his hand approached us and asked if we would like to have a picture with the eagle against a small fee of course. The bird proved out to be quite heavy to be held on your arm.

Eagle hunting eagle in Issyk Kul

On the way we stopped in another valley that staid unknown to us. There was another resort with soviet time dilapidated hot spring treatments with conditions that did not look really appealing to us with the rusty pipes and plain concrete structures in the pools with some green algae growing everywhere inside the small buildings that the pools were located in next to a river. 

After arriving to Karakol the first stop we decided to have was in the bazar to enjoy the local delicacy Ashlan Fu. It was literally the best place to enjoy this Karakol dish we have ever tried. Everything was super fresh and especially the fried bread was exceptionally good. After the lunch we settled in the Park hotel that was a very Soviet style hotel with greenish walls but very inexpensive, about 30€ for 2 persons. 

We still had a lot of the day to be used so we took a taxi from the hotel (Dad of the owner of hotel) and went to see the museum dedicated to the famous explorer called Prezhevalskiy at the shoreline of IK. The museum area consists of a park with different species of plants with a memorial monument and a building where inside there are stuffed animals from the area that were found by the explorer together with information about his travels and life. From the end of the park you can also see the harbor that was used to transport the coal from the area across IK to Balykchi from where it continued by train. 

Przhevalskiy memorial near Karakol in Issyk Kul

The trip to the explorer’s museum was quite short as it is not far away from Karakol so we decided to visit also the local historical museum just near our hotel and the famous wooden orthodox church of Karakol. In the historical museum there are more stuffed animals from the region and some ancient artifacts from the different cultures that have inhabited the area for already thousands of years. There was also an exhibition of a woman photographer that had traveled the Central Asia. The museum is small and you need an hour at most to walk through it with mostly only Russian descriptions of items. The fee to enter was very modest. 

The Orthodox church was not far away from our hotel either so we continued by walk and saw some nice gingerbread houses on the way. 

Gingerbread wooden house in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
Holy Trinity orthodox cathedral in Karakol

After a long day we were ready for the bed and for the final day of our trip. Before that we had a dinner in Karakol. It was pizza, that did not prove out to be any better than the ones in Bishkek so not that great but filled our stomachs. At the hotel we agreed for a ride to Cholpon Ata with the same driver that had taken us to the Przhevalsky museum.

The next morning we had a short walk to check out the Dungan mosque, another one of the major sights in Karakol. Women need to wear long clothes inside the area and they can be obtained at the gate when paying the entrance fee. The mosque is very peculiar with all the different colors and the fully wooden structure resembling more a Buddhist temple than a mosque.

That concludes our trip in the South side of Issyk Kul. Many places were still left for the next trips and of those we will write later.

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