Lake Issyk-Kul (also Yssyk-Köl) is undoubtedly the country’s main attraction. Issyk-Kul is unique in every respect. The lake lies in the middle of the huge Issyk-Kul basin, which is located between two huge mountain ridges: Kyungey-Ala-Too and Terskei-Ala-Too, which occupy almost the entire area. At 1700 m above sea level, Issyk Kul is the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in South America. The maximum depth of the lake is 702 metres, making it one of the deepest lakes in the world. The shoreline of the lake is almost 700 km long, a clear indication of its size. The lake’s abundance is fed by numerous glacial rivers flowing down from the slopes of the Tien Shan – there are more than 80 of them.
The water in Issyk-Kul is salty and does not freeze even in winter. That’s where the lake got its name: Issyk-Kul means “hot lake” in Kyrgyz. The lake provides a special maritime climate in the valley, which is very unusual for high mountains and Central Asia as a whole. For example, winters here are much milder than in other parts of the country, while summers, by contrast, are not so hot. The waters of Issyk-Kul warm up to 20-25 degrees Celsius in summer, making the lake a popular bathing spot for Kyrgyz and tourists from other countries.
The shores of the lake are geographically very diverse. The western part of the river consists of dry and sandy terrain with little vegetation and a low water level. Closer to the centre, the lake becomes much wider and the deepest parts of the Issyk-Kul are here. In this section, the opposite shore is barely visible and the lake looks more like a real sea. In the eastern part, on the other hand, the lake is somewhat fresher due to the numerous tributaries. The shores of the lake here are marshy and grassy, with many small islands, coves, etc. The water level is lowest here.
The shores of Issyk-Kul are not only geographically but also culturally very different. The north shore of the lake is traditionally more visited and developed for tourism, as it has a smooth shoreline and good beaches, which is not the case on the south shore. On the north shore of Issyk-Kul there are numerous guesthouses, hotels and recreation houses that welcome guests all year round. The places near the town of Cholpon-Ata and the village of Bosteri are particularly popular. The north coast, however, is more suitable for a relatively passive holiday. There are not so many geographical attractions, but all the conditions for complete relaxation on the shores of the lake are there. Families and groups of friends would feel at home here.
The southern shore of Issyk-Kul, on the other hand, is more deserted and quiet. While there are not as many beaches, there are many different sights untouched by humans. The reason for this is that the southern shore is close to the Terskey Ala-Too Mountains. Therefore, the coastline is very rugged and the bottom is very rocky. The western part of the south shore is dominated by clay gorges and parched mountains and hills. The landscape only changes in the middle, when the mountains come as close as possible to the coast. The southern shore is suitable for those seeking solitude, nature experiences and “wild” recreation away from civilisation and noise.
Issyk Kul has an old and rich history. The first written mention of the lake dates back to the II century B.C. The primitive people lived on its shores. The prehistoric people lived on its shores and left numerous rock carvings that can still be seen today. Ancient Scythian tribes, whose main village of Chigu now lies beneath the lake, also lived there. Nestorian monks who brought the relics of St. Matthew to the shores of the lake found shelter here (their exact location is still one of Issyk-Kul’s greatest mysteries). More modern attractions include the city of Karakol, known for its architecture, and the Rukh-Ordo cultural centre in Cholpon-Ata. Every two years, the World Nomad Games, the world’s most important ethnic sports competition, also take place on the shores of the lake.