There is a lot that tourism in Kyrgyzstan can offer: outdoor activities like trekking, horseback riding, paragliding, culture, history, beautiful destinations and relaxation to name a few. One of the most popular sites that contains almost all of these in one place is the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan: Lake Issyk Kul.
Lake Issyk Kul is not only the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, but the second largest alpine lake in the world. It has a length of 182 kilometers, a maximum depth of 668 meters, and a surface area of 6,236 km².
Looking across its waters to the other side, it seems like an ocean. However, what will boggle your mind is that while you feel like you are looking out over an ocean, you can see snowcapped mountains in the background that stand guard around the lake.
Travelers that want to take advantage of what tourism in Kyrgyzstan can offer around Lake Issyk Kul usually end up either on the north shore or the south shore of the lake. Each shore is quite different from the other both in scenery, infrastructure, and activities. Of course if you have time, try to visit both, but in case you are trying to decide between the two, here are some advantages and disadvantages of each shore.
LAKE ISSYK KUL: THE NORTH SHORE
Activities & Destinations
The north shore is a great place for water sports and activities. Looking to jet ski? Want to take a boat ride around the lake? Do some swimming? If your answer is yes, then the north shore is a great option for you. The beaches on the north shore are significantly nicer than those on the south shore. The north shore of Lake Issyk Kul is actually set a bit further away from the mountains and does not offer as many outdoor mountain activities as the south shore such as horseback riding and trekking. There is also a large open air petroglyph museum outside of Cholpon Ata. At night, restaurants and resorts provide more Kyrgyzstan nightlife as well, giving you more evening entertainment options.
Lake Issyk Kul’s north shore contains a lot more upscale lodgingoptions, resorts, and restaurants. So if your goal is to pamper yourself on your vacation, the north shore has a lot more variety for you in this regard. Also, if comfortable transport in Kyrgyzstan is one of your priorities, driving around this shore of the lake will be more amenable to you. This shore sports nicer roads with more public transportation options.
LAKE ISSYK KUL: THE SOUTH SHORE
Activities & Destinations
The south shore of Lake Issyk Kuloffers a lot more Kyrgyz cultural experiences than the north shore. Things to do along the south shore include things like visiting the village of Kyzyl Tuu where you can find professional yurt makers that can walk you through the process of yurt-building and demonstrate how to set one up. There is also a village on the south shore where you can meet a Kyrgyz falconer that can demonstrate the ancient Kyrgyz art of hunting with a trained eagle. Other activities include trekking and horseback riding in destinations like Jeti Oguz Gorge, Barskoon Gorge and Fairy Tale Canyon. As far as enjoying nightlife in Kyrgyzstan, the south shore is not the place for you. Small villages, not large cities, are scattered along the shore, so there is really no nightlife to speak of here.
Issyk Kul’s south shore does not contain nice hotels or resorts. The small villages along the south shore do offer some guest houses, but accommodations are fairly primitive. Some guest houses have running water, others do not. However, if you are an adventure traveler looking for an authentic cultural experience, these guest houses could be right up your alley. There might not be any restaurants to speak of, but you can enjoy a good, home-cooked Kyrgyz meal at your local guest house and chat with your hosts. As far as roads and public transport in Kyrgyzstan on the south shore, roads are not is as great condition and there are fewer public transportation options.
ADVICE FOR BOTH SHORES
One thing to take into account for both the north and south shores is that travelers should avoid drinking tap water in either place; drinking only bottled or boiled water is recommended. The drinking water in Kyrgyzstan’s capital is treated and perfectly safe to drink, but any time you venture outside the capital, the drinking water in Kyrgyzstan could likely cause you health problems if you are not from the area and your body is not used to it.
My second and last piece of advice is that if you plan on traveling around Lake Issyk Kul in the summer, make reservations and arrangements well in advance. Lake Issyk Kul is a hot spot for summertime vacationers from all over Central Asia and Russian. Don’t wait until the last minute to make plans! Decide which areas interest you and start lining up your trip; you don’t want to miss out on a vacation around this gorgeous mountain oasis.
Photos by Sergey Kalachov, Vlad Ushakov