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Home » Journey around Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. 700 kilometers of incredible views of the lake and mountains

Journey around Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. 700 kilometers of incredible views of the lake and mountains

Discover one of the deepest lakes in the world, surrounded by the highest peaks of the Tian Shan, the historical heritage of primitive tribes, Central Asian nomadic peoples, the Great Silk Road, and even the USSR in one trip.

Issyk-Kul Lake is both the most popular attraction in Kyrgyzstan and the main health resort, and perhaps the first thing associated with the country. The lake is located in the east of Kyrgyzstan at an altitude of 1600 meters, its maximum depth is 668 meters. Issyk-Kul is a saline lake that does not freeze in winter. Guides love to tell that the water has up to 40 shades of blue depending on the lighting, and they change throughout the day.

The main scientific research of the coastline, the bottom, flora, and fauna are associated with Russian and Soviet scientists, who began studying the lake in the 19th century. During the USSR times, underwater weapons tests were conducted on the lake. In 2006, a joint Russian and Kyrgyz archaeological mission discovered at a depth of five to ten meters traces of an unknown ancient civilization – extensive fortress walls of a city approximately 2500 years old.

The coastline of the lake stretches for almost 700 kilometers, which are conventionally divided into a southern and a northern part. The northern shore is more popular with tourists – there’s its proximity to Bishkek, sandy beaches, and a milder climate, which makes the season last longer. The southern shore is wilder, with more natural attractions and deserted beaches; there’s less infrastructure, but everything is a bit cheaper.

You can simply drive around the lake in a couple of days, but our route is designed for five to nine days to leisurely explore all the attractions.

From Bishkek to Issyk-Kul: the Burana archaeological complex, Konorchek canyons, and the Balikchi railway terminus

The first 100 kilometers (up to the city of Kemin) the road runs through the Chuy Valley along the Chu River (not to be confused with the Chui Pathway in Altai), surrounded by mountains. The terrain in this section is flat, and settlements are encountered very often.

The Burana archaeological complex (42.75896523766481, 75.25014397595216). According to the most popular version, from the 10th to the 14th century, there existed a large and thriving city named Balasagun. First, it was captured and looted by Genghis Khan, and later an epidemic of the plague finished off the city. The main object of the complex is a 10th-11th century minaret from the Karakhanid era, a Turkic dynasty that ruled these lands. The height of the minaret is about 20 meters, and there is an observation deck at the top.

The height of the minaret at Burana is about 20 meters, with an observation deck located at the top
The height of the minaret at Burana is about 20 meters, with an observation deck located at the top

Next to the tower, there is a “stone garden” – a small area where balbals (from the 6th to 9th centuries) found in Kyrgyzstan are placed. Balbals are stone pillars ranging from one to four meters in height, typically installed as tombstones. Sometimes they had inscriptions or depicted images of the person to whom the statue was dedicated. Such pillars can also be found in Russia – for example, in Altai or Tuva. Some exhibits display petroglyphs from around the 10th century BC.

Balbals are stone pillars ranging from one to four meters in height, typically installed as tombstones
Balbals are stone pillars ranging from one to four meters in height, typically installed as tombstones

On Kyrgyzstan’s roads, quite a few public transport stops from the Soviet era have been preserved. These are not just metal boxes and three pieces of wood instead of a bench. Often, a stop feels like an independent work of art with unique forms (some are shaped like Kyrgyz hats or yurts), adorned with mosaics, sculptures, or bas-reliefs. Such stops are especially numerous on the Bishkek – Balikchi road and around Issyk-Kul.

Often, Kyrgyz stops feel like independent works of art, with unique forms (some are shaped like Kyrgyz hats or yurts), adorned with mosaics, sculptures, or bas-reliefs
Often, Kyrgyz stops feel like independent works of art, with unique forms (some are shaped like Kyrgyz hats or yurts), adorned with mosaics, sculptures, or bas-reliefs

Konorchek Canyons. After the town of Kemin, the road enters the narrow Boom Gorge with the Konorchek Canyon. The rocks made of red clay, shaped by winds and precipitation, form whimsical figures. A simple five-kilometer trail leads to the canyons from the highway. It starts from the Red Bridge over the Chu river (42.599015, 75.814744), where you can leave your car and follows along the dried riverbed. The journey will take about an hour one way. The route takes you alongside a maze of rocks, which sometimes close up so tightly that there’s a passage barely one and a half meters wide. You can leisurely complete this route in half a day. However, if desired, you can set up a tent in the vicinity and trek through the canyon for several days, given that the natural area is quite vast – about 200 square kilometers. All supplies will have to be brought with you.

After the town of Kemin, the road enters the narrow Boom Gorge with the Konorchek Canyon. The rocks made of red clay, shaped by winds and precipitation, form whimsical figures.
After the town of Kemin, the road enters the narrow Boom Gorge with the Konorchek Canyon. The rocks made of red clay, shaped by winds and precipitation, form whimsical figures. Photo: Makhmud / Wikimedia.org

Balikchi is a small town that emerged during the times of the Great Silk Road – a caravan route from the Mediterranean to East Asia, which was used in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. However, no landmarks from that period have survived in Balikchi. In Soviet times, it was an industrial town specializing in wool processing and agricultural produce. It was also known as an industrial, maritime, and railway terminal. In Balikchi, the only railway line in Kyrgyzstan ends—it passes through Bishkek and further west, it heads into Kazakhstan. However, trains only run here in July and August. There are guest houses and hotels here, but it’s not a tourist destination.

In Balikchi, the only railway line in Kyrgyzstan ends—it passes through Bishkek and further west, it heads into Kazakhstan.
In Balikchi, the only railway line in Kyrgyzstan ends—it passes through Bishkek and further west, it heads into Kazakhstan. Photo: Der.metzger2009 / Wikimedia.org

Cholpon-Ata is the main tourist center on the northern shore. Sanatoriums, hot springs, and nomadic games. In ancient times, Cholpon-Ata was another stop on the map of the Great Silk Road. Nowadays, Cholpon-Ata, along with the neighboring village of Bosteri, is a major tourist center with developed infrastructure. 30 kilometers from Cholpon-Ata, near the village of Tamchy, is the international airport “Issyk-Kul.” Flights from local airlines from Osh, Tashkent and Almaty.

Sanatoriums. There are several sanatoriums in Cholpon-Ata, built during the Soviet period. In the popular sanatorium “Blue Issyk-Kul”, there is a whole complex of health procedures. In Bosteri, there is the “Kyrgyz Seaside” sanatorium, a large year-round resort with a wide range of treatments. Not all sanatoriums have official websites, but there are local aggregators where you can check prices and book accommodation — for example, issykkul.biz.

The salt mine is a room lined with "kochkor" salt. Inhaling microparticles of salt has a therapeutic effect.
The salt mine is a room lined with “kochkor” salt. Inhaling microparticles of salt has a therapeutic effect. Photo: Sanatorium “Blue Issyk-Kul”

Prices for a double room in most sanatoriums start from 4500–6000 som (47.33–63.10 euros) per day. This price includes three meals a day and health procedures. Specific procedures are assigned by a doctor upon arrival. Therefore, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the profile of the sanatorium you’re booking.

Beaches. In Bosteri, there is the popular resort beach “Golden Sands”. It features a small amusement park with the main attraction being a 70-meter ferris wheel on the lake shore. The city beach of Cholpon-Ata is also popular. The beaches have sun loungers and changing cabins. There are also wild, mostly sandy beaches in this area (coordinates — 42.634570, 77.067086 or 42.627018, 77.095195), which are usually not crowded even during the season. The water temperature in Issyk-Kul during the hottest months (July — August) averages around 21–23 degrees Celsius.

In Bosteri, there is the popular resort beach "Golden Sands". It features a small amusement park with the main attraction being a 70-meter ferris wheel on the lake shore.
In Bosteri, there is the popular resort beach “Golden Sands”. It features a small amusement park with the main attraction being a 70-meter ferris wheel on the lake shore

Springs. Around Cholpon-Ata, there are several underground springs with chloride-sodium-potassium mineral water at a temperature of 40–50 degrees Celsius. It’s similar to the water in the Caucasus Mineral Waters resorts. The previously mentioned sanatoriums use this water for some of their treatments. But there are also other places in the city with open-air pools where water from these springs flows. The Thermal Spa Center (42.635072, 77.083961) is located right in the center of Cholpon-Ata. On the western outskirts of the town, there’s a pool with hot springs at the “Ak-Bermet” guest complex. 50 kilometers from Cholpon-Ata, in the village of Oruktu, there’s the Keremet-Su spring (42.727541, 77.833421). One hour of pool usage costs from 300 som (3.16 euros). It’s advised not to take these baths for extended periods — after 20 minutes, it’s recommended to take a break, and usually, an hour is just right for bathing.

In the vicinity of Cholpon-Ata, there are several underground springs with chloride-sodium-potassium mineral water at a temperature of 40–50 degrees Celsius. It is similar to the water found in the Caucasus Mineral Waters resorts.
In the vicinity of Cholpon-Ata, there are several underground springs with chloride-sodium-potassium mineral water at a temperature of 40–50 degrees Celsius. It is similar to the water found in the Caucasus Mineral Waters resorts. Photo: “Ak-Bermet”

Hippodrome for Nomadic Games. In this region, there are a couple of sites unique not only to Central Asia but also to the whole world: the Dordoi Nomad amphitheater in Bosteri and the hippodrome located outside of Cholpon-Ata (42.650195, 77.127366). Both facilities are used for unique competitions and events characteristic of the nomadic culture of Kyrgyzstan.

The hippodrome in Cholpon-Ata is used for unique competitions and events typical of the nomadic culture of Kyrgyzstan
The hippodrome in Cholpon-Ata is used for unique competitions and events typical of the nomadic culture of Kyrgyzstan

In 2014, Kyrgyzstan initiated the creation of the World Nomad Games. It’s somewhat akin to the Olympic Games for ethnic sports, with regular participants including Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Russia, Mongolia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and occasionally some European countries (Germany, France, Sweden). Since then, they have been held every two years, and the first three times (in 2014, 2016, and 2018) took place specifically in Cholpon-Ata.

The program includes about fifteen sports, mainly equestrian ones (like the races of baige or chabysh), hunting, wrestling (belt wrestling – Alysh, Turkish wrestling – güreş), archery, and logic games (ordo and toguz korgool). The hippodrome hosts races and competitions in the national game of kok-boru. This is an equestrian sport where two teams of 8 to 12 people compete for a goat’s carcass (sometimes a dummy is used) which they must seize and throw into the opponent team’s “kazan” (goal). The game enjoys immense popularity among the locals, and the Kyrgyzstan team is always among the favorites. Typically, such competitions coincide with official holidays or sporting events, so there’s an opportunity to witness them not only during the World Nomad Games.

Kok-boru is an equestrian sport where two teams of 8 to 12 players compete for a goat's carcass, which they must seize and throw into the opponent team's "kazan" (goal)
Kok-boru is an equestrian sport where two teams of 8 to 12 players compete for a goat’s carcass, which they must seize and throw into the opponent team’s “kazan” (goal). Photo: Helen Owl / Wikimedia.org

The Dordoi Nomad Amphitheater (opened in October 2017) is primarily designed for hosting cultural events, such as performances by narrators of the “Manas” epic — the main Kyrgyz epic about a legendary hero. It is included in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage masterpieces and in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most voluminous epic in the world. The amphitheater also hosts competitions among Akyns — masters of improvisation in the form of oral folk song poetry accompanied by stringed instruments.

The Petroglyph Museum (official name: Issyk-Kul State Historical and Cultural Museum-Reserve, located at Chui Street, 42.658091, 77.057222). The museum, spanning an area of 500 m², houses a vast number of stones, boulders, and rock fragments covered with petroglyphs. They span a vast historical period — from the 2nd millennium BC to the 8th century AD. Scholars believe that in the distant past, these stones were brought down from the surrounding mountains by mudflows and were successively adorned by the various peoples who replaced each other. You can easily spend a couple of hours meticulously examining the stones and searching for the most vivid petroglyphs.

Covering an area of 500 m², there is a vast number of stones, boulders, and rock fragments covered with petroglyphs that span a historical period from the 2nd millennium BC to the 8th century AD
Covering an area of 500 m², there is a vast number of stones, boulders, and rock fragments covered with petroglyphs that span a historical period from the 2nd millennium BC to the 8th century AD

The “Rukh Ordo” complex named after Chingiz Aitmatov (located at Sovetskaya Street, 38a) encompasses several exhibitions about the country’s cultural and spiritual heritage. Among them are a hall of Kyrgyz art and culture, a painting gallery, a photo gallery, and a pavilion dedicated to Sayakbay Karalaev (a Kyrgyz poet-storyteller). Translated from Kyrgyz, “Rukh Ordo” means “spiritual center”, and in accordance with its name, the complex features five identical chapels dedicated to five religions — Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. There is also a separate memorial house for Chingiz Aitmatov, the most renowned and respected Kyrgyz writer (famous works include “The Scaffold” and “The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years”).

Translated from Kyrgyz, "Rukh Ordo" means "spiritual center". Therefore, the complex features five identical chapels dedicated to five religions — Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism
Translated from Kyrgyz, “Rukh Ordo” means “spiritual center”. Therefore, the complex features five identical chapels dedicated to five religions — Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism

From Cholpon-Ata to Karakol: gorges and mountain lakes

Kungey Alatau is a mountain range of the Tian Shan located north of Lake Issyk-Kul. It forms the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. This range is a popular trekking destination, where most routes invariably include its two most famous gorges — Grigorievka and Semenovka. Both gorges can be visited in one day without an overnight stay if traveling by car.

The foothills of the Tian Shan on the southern shore begin just five to ten kilometers from the coastline, so the northern part of Issyk-Kul offers more scenic views of the southern shore.

Kungey Alatau is a mountain range of the Tian Shan located north of Lake Issyk-Kul. It forms the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan
Kungey Alatau is a mountain range of the Tian Shan located north of Lake Issyk-Kul. It forms the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan

Grigorievka Gorge. The village of Grigorievka is located 35 kilometers east of Cholpon-Ata. From here, a road leads into the mountains to the gorge of the same name. Another name for it is Chon-Ak-Suu, named after the river that flows through it. The endemic species of spruce, the Tian Shan spruce, grows here. From the village to the very center of the gorge (42.805460, 77.456563, where there is also a yurt camp) is 15 kilometers, which can be traveled by car, and to the beginning of the gorge is seven kilometers. There are three mountain lakes in the gorge. The first part is the Lower Lake. It’s about five kilometers from the road fork (42.830630, 77.446024). Above, in the area of the At-Jailoo pastures (meaning “summer pastures” in Kyrgyz), is the Middle Lake (42.837181, 77.362477). It’s about two and a half kilometers from the Lower Lake to the Middle Lake. Approximately six kilometers from the Middle Lake lies the most beautiful of the three lakes, the Upper Lake (42.836788, 77.29952). Beyond this lake, at an altitude of about 3500 meters, the forested areas turn into alpine meadows. Thanks to the gentle slope of the gorge, all landscape zones are clearly expressed.

All three lakes can be seen in one day, but it won’t be an easy hike and you’ll have to cover about 14 kilometers one way. You can also reach the lakes by car, but only with four-wheel-drive jeeps.

Semenovka Gorge is named after the Russian explorer Pyotr Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky. In the season (May – September), yurt camps are set up in Semenovka Gorge, where you can spend the night. You can go trekking in the surroundings or just enjoy the views and live like a nomad. The most famous trekking route here leads to the Holy Lake (42.841054, 77.567668). Part of the road is accessible by car, and the start of the pedestrian path is at 42.812267, 77.535360.

The Semenov Gorge is named after the Russian explorer Pyotr Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky. In the gorge, one can go trekking in the surrounding areas or simply enjoy the views and live in a yurt like a nomad
The Semenov Gorge is named after the Russian explorer Pyotr Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky. In the gorge, one can go trekking in the surrounding areas or simply enjoy the views and live in a yurt like a nomad. Photo: Vidocq / Wikimedia.org

Karakol: Soviet and Kyrgyz architectural monuments, Przhevalsky Museum

Karakol is the administrative center of the Issyk-Kul region and the fourth-largest city in Kyrgyzstan. It is not located on the lake’s shore, but a little away from it. Once, the fortress of the Kokand Khanate stood here, later occupied by Russian soldiers. They founded the city of Karakol in 1869 as a transit point on the caravan route to Kashgar (the western part of modern China).

Nikolay Przhevalsky. These places are closely associated with the life of the Russian traveler and geographer Nikolay Przhevalsky, who explored vast areas of Mongolia, China, and Tibet during his lifetime. In 1888, during one of his expeditions in Karakol, Przhevalsky died of typhoid fever. A year later, by order of Emperor Alexander III, the city was renamed Przhevalsk. This name lasted (with a small break from 1922–1939) until the collapse of the USSR.

15 kilometers from Karakol, in the village of Pristan-Przhevalsk on the shore of Issyk-Kul, is the memorial complex of Nikolay Przhevalsky (42.573881, 78.319012). The complex consists of a museum, a grave, and a monument within a small park. The museum has many exhibits related to Przhevalsky, as well as the daily life and fauna of Karakol and its surroundings.

15 kilometers from Karakol, in the village of Pristan-Przhevalsk on the shore of Issyk-Kul, is the memorial complex named after Nikolay Przhevalsky. The complex consists of a museum, a grave, and a monument within a small park
15 kilometers from Karakol, in the village of Pristan-Przhevalsk on the shore of Issyk-Kul, is the memorial complex named after Nikolay Przhevalsky. The complex consists of a museum, a grave, and a monument within a small park

Cathedral and Mosque. The Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (intersection of Gagarin and Lenin streets) is almost the same age as Karakol; it was built in 1876 from brick. However, 13 years later, an earthquake destroyed the church. It was rebuilt from wood (since wooden structures are more earthquake-resistant) but ceased to be used for its intended purpose during the Soviet period. The cathedral is particularly interesting because it is a rare example of 19th-century wooden church architecture. In Russian cities, starting from the 19th century, churches were typically no longer constructed from wood – stone or brick was used instead.

The Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Karakol is interesting as it is a rare example of 19th-century wooden church architecture
The Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Karakol is interesting as it is a rare example of 19th-century wooden church architecture

The second important religious site in the city is the Dungan Mosque from 1904 (intersection of Abdrahmanov and Bektenov streets). The Dungans are a people living in China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. The mosque is built from wood using traditional Chinese techniques without the use of nails and resembles Asian pagodas more than traditional mosques. The mosque, like the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, survived the challenging Soviet era but has reached us almost in its original form.

The Dungan mosque is built from wood in the traditional Chinese technique without the use of nails and resembles Asian pagodas more than traditional mosques
The Dungan mosque is built from wood in the traditional Chinese technique without the use of nails and resembles Asian pagodas more than traditional mosques

Architecture. Other beautiful architectural sights to see include: the girls’ secondary school (intersection of Lenin and Koenkozov streets), the teacher training college (Gagarin street, opposite the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity), the local history museum, Breusov House (intersection of Lenin and Tynystanov streets), Piankov’s House (intersection of Zhamansariev and Koenkozov streets), and the guest house (Gagarin street, 10). For those who appreciate Soviet heritage, there is a remarkable statue of Lenin (intersection of Gebze and Tynystanov streets, next to the Karasaev Lyceum), painted in gold.

The building at the intersection of Lenin and Koenkozov was built in 1911 and housed the first girls' secondary school, and for a long time, it was used as a teacher training college
The building at the intersection of Lenin and Koenkozov was built in 1911 and housed the first girls’ secondary school, and for a long time, it was used as a teacher training college. Photo: Adam Harangozó / Wikimedia.org

Mountains. From Karakol to the border with China is about 150 kilometers as the crow flies, but there’s no road. That’s because the majestic Tian Shan range stretches almost along the entire southeast border of Kyrgyzstan. Specifically in Kyrgyzstan are located the two highest peaks of this mountain range — Victory Peak (7,439 meters) and Khan Tengri (6,995 meters). However, due to the peculiarities of the terrain, it’s not possible to see these peaks from the Kyrgyz side. But this is more than compensated by the views of other peaks around Karakol, located along the Teskey Ala-Too ridge. It closely approaches Karakol and seems to frame Issyk-Kul from the south.

Just 20 kilometers from Karakol is Przhevalsky’s Peak (4,273 meters). A good view of it can be seen from the “Karakol” tourist base (42.412943, 78.465729).

The Altyn-Arashan valley (30 kilometers from Karakol) has magnificent landscapes and hot thermal springs. Plenty of information about trekking around Karakol is available at the city’s tourist center (Lenin Street, 150) and on the website destinationkarakol.com.

The view of the Teskey Ala-Too ridge near Karakol — it closely approaches Karakol and seems to frame Issyk-Kul from the south
The view of the Teskey Ala-Too ridge near Karakol — it closely approaches Karakol and seems to frame Issyk-Kul from the south

Untouristed southern shore: yurt complexes, deserted beaches, and unusual rocks in canyons

The road along the southern shore of Issyk-Kul stretches from Karakol to Balykchy for 230 kilometers. In contrast to the popular northern shore, the beaches here are often deserted, the nature is wilder, there’s less tourist flow, and significantly fewer guesthouses and hotels. Less than half an hour’s drive from the coast are valleys, canyons, and mountains that you can either easily visit by car or traverse through on multi-day trekking routes. Within 50 kilometers of the Issyk-Kul coast are well-known peaks — Karakol (5280 meters), Djigit (5130 meters), and Przhevalsky (4273 meters). In the summer, a mountaineering camp operates at their base (in the Karakol gorge). A bit further away are other peaks that extend above the snow line (i.e., the boundary where snow doesn’t melt even in summer), extremely popular with mountaineers: peaks of Zhukov (4450 meters), Telman (4460 meters), Dimitrov (4450 meters), Fuchik (4219 meters), Gastello (4350 meters), and Boris Yeltsin (5170 meters). In the Kurgan-Tor gorge, there are popular waterfalls — On-Tor and the Sharkyratma cascade.

The Jeti-Oguz gorge is located at an altitude of approximately 2200 meters. It is 15 kilometers south of the village of the same name, which is connected by a paved road. A range of striking red rocks (formed from red sandstone) covered with forest stretches here for several tens of kilometers. Right next to the road are two red rocks that form what looks like a broken heart when viewed from the side of the Jeti-Oguz village (42.336673, 78.236389). This is a popular stop for romantic couples.

The Jeti-Oguz Gorge is a striking chain of red rocks formed from red sandstone, covered with forest, and stretching over several tens of kilometers
The Jeti-Oguz Gorge is a striking chain of red rocks formed from red sandstone, covered with forest, and stretching over several tens of kilometers

Near these rocks is the balneological resort “Jeti-Oguz” (42.330210, 78.237632). It was built during the Soviet period and hasn’t been renovated since. Nevertheless, you can stay there overnight, take radon baths, or just enjoy the pure air and nature in a Soviet ambiance. Important: radon treatment should be prescribed by a doctor as there are many contraindications to these procedures, and they are not allowed everywhere in the world.

The Kok-Jayik Valley. If you leave the paved road right around the “Jeti Oguz” resort, a dirt track leads higher into the mountains to the Kok-Jayik Valley (42.295595, 78.268862). From here, even more impressive views of the snow-covered peaks open up. You can spend the night in one of the yurt complexes located directly in the valley (42.294082, 78.259588; 42.291638, 78.282029 or 42.294347, 78.274094), and embark on radial hikes (walking or horseback) through pastures and meadows, as well as along different slopes of the valley. For example, it takes about an hour to get to the Devichie Kosi waterfall (42.288308, 78.247478).

If you turn off the asphalt road near the "Jeti Oguz" resort, a dirt track leads higher into the mountains to the Kok-Jayik Valley. From here, even more impressive views of the snow-covered peaks open up
If you turn off the asphalt road near the “Jeti Oguz” resort, a dirt track leads higher into the mountains to the Kok-Jayik Valley. From here, even more impressive views of the snow-covered peaks open up

Barskoon Village. The village of Barskoon is the gateway to the picturesque Barskoon gorge of the Tien Shan. The road from the turn-off to Barskoon in the mountains stretches for more than 150 kilometers, but only about 30 can be traveled without hindrance since this is already a border area (checkpoint coordinates — 41.925165, 77.641980). But even within these 30 kilometers, there are several landmarks: a monument to Yuri Gagarin (42.008821, 77.615062) and the Champagne Splashes waterfall (42.003441, 77.606651). You can arrange with someone local in the village (then the checkpoint will let the guest pass) and go further to two beautiful passes — Sary-Muynok (3400 meters) and Barskoon (3800 meters). Further on, the road leads to the Naryn River, from which it is directly about 30 kilometers to China, but there is no direct road there.

The Naryn River, from which it's directly about 30 kilometers to China, but there's no direct road there.
The Naryn River, from which it’s directly about 30 kilometers to China, but there’s no direct road there. Photo: Ninara/ Wikimedia.org

Skazka Gorge. Tosor village, 15 kilometers from Barskoon, is a good place to spend the night. There are several guest houses and yurt complexes here (42.177701, 77.413117). There’s also a good, deserted, rocky beach.

Five kilometers from Tosor is the Skazka Gorge (42.155188, 77.355365). The gorge is so named because the hills and mountains in it are made of red and orange sand, and they easily change their shape under the influence of rains and winds, creating surreal landscapes. Its area is only 3-4 km², but you can definitely spend a couple of hours there, climbing the peaks or navigating through the labyrinths of numerous passages.

The gorge near Tosor is called "Skazka" because the hills and mountains in it are composed of red and orange sand, and they easily change their shape under the impact of rains and winds, creating surreal landscapes
The gorge near Tosor is called “Skazka” because the hills and mountains in it are composed of red and orange sand, and they easily change their shape under the impact of rains and winds, creating surreal landscapes

The saline lake Tuz-Köl (or Kara-Köl, 42.250862, 76.747742) is much saltier than Issyk-Kul, and when swimming in it, you don’t sink like in the Dead Sea. During the season, there will most likely be many vacationers here, and therefore, it might be dirty.

The saline lake Tuz-Köl is much saltier than Issyk-Kul, and when swimming in it, you don't sink like in the Dead Sea. Photo: Adam Harangozó / Wikimedia.org
The saline lake Tuz-Köl is much saltier than Issyk-Kul, and when swimming in it, you don’t sink like in the Dead Sea. Photo: Adam Harangozó / Wikimedia.org

Beaches. The southern shore of Issyk-Kul is less developed in terms of infrastructure due to its remoteness. Nonetheless, there are quite a few decent beaches along it – for example, near the settlements of Barbulak (where, by the way, there are hot springs, 42.264180, 76.598084), Kaji-Sai, Ak-Terek, Orgochor.

Back to Bishkek: Orto-Tokoy Reservoir and Chon-Kemin

The Orto-Tokoy Reservoir is a creation of Soviet engineers from the mid-20th century, stretching for about 18 kilometers. It regulates the flow of the Chu River, which marks a long segment of the northern border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and is used for agriculture. A good vantage point for the water and the barren shores can be found at 42.344581, 75.872068.

The Orto-Tokoy Reservoir regulates the flow of the Chu River, which runs along a prolonged section of the northern border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and is utilized for agriculture
The Orto-Tokoy Reservoir regulates the flow of the Chu River, which runs along a prolonged section of the northern border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and is utilized for agriculture

The Chon-Kemin Valley is located within the namesake national park covering an area of roughly 500 hectares. The gorge along the Chon-Kemin River gradually widens in its eastern part, forming a broad valley in its central part, and narrows again near the exit with an altitude range from 1400 to 2800 meters. The turbulent and water-rich river running through the gorge spans 116 kilometers, and is popular among rafters. To admire the mountain peaks and lakes, one can turn to the village of Shabdan. At the turn (42.693209, 75.876544), there’s a splendid view of the confluence of the Chu and Chon-Kemin rivers of different colors. In Shabdan and a couple of nearby villages, there are several guesthouses that can serve as bases for hiking, horse riding, or rafting trips.

The Chon-Kemin Valley is located within the namesake national park, covering an area of about 500 hectares. The turbulent and full-flowing river that runs through the gorge spans 116 kilometers, and is a favorite among rafters
The Chon-Kemin Valley is located within the namesake national park, covering an area of about 500 hectares. The turbulent and full-flowing river that runs through the gorge spans 116 kilometers, and is a favorite among rafters. Photo: Lupus-sapiens / Wikimedia.org

Transport

Car rental. The best way to travel around Kyrgyzstan is by car. However, there are no international rental agencies in the country. Therefore, one has to rely on local providers. Due to mountainous roads and dirt tracks, it is most optimal to rent a four-wheel-drive SUV — for 65–75 euros per day. For example, a “Renault Duster” or “Toyota RAV4” costs 65 euros per day with the Prokat.kg service.

For traveling around Issyk-Kul, a passenger car will suffice, and it will cost within the range of 30–50 euros per day. For instance, a “Chevrolet Aveo” will set you back 30 euros, while a “Toyota Camry” is priced at 50 euros. However, if traveling in winter, it’s better to rent a jeep.

Due to the large number of mountain roads and dirt tracks in Kyrgyzstan, it's most optimal to rent a four-wheel-drive SUV. The approximate cost is 70–80 dollars per day
Due to the large number of mountain roads and dirt tracks in Kyrgyzstan, it’s most optimal to rent a four-wheel-drive SUV. The approximate cost is 70–80 dollars per day. Photo: Ninara / Flikr.com

An interesting feature of the car rental market is the relatively large number of old “Lexus” cars (manufactured between 2000 and 2002). At the “Russian Troika” rental office in Bishkek, they cost 40-60 euros per day.

During the peak season, there’s high demand for cars, so it’s better to book as early as possible. The deposit is typically 280-380 euros, but you might try to negotiate without it. Usually, there’s no full insurance, but the deductible amount is also a topic to discuss with the lessor. Good news: there are no restrictions or additional charges for daily mileage. A domestic Russian driver’s license is sufficient for rental. International licenses are not required.

Public Transport. An alternative to renting a car, albeit very limited, is minivans. They only operate between Bishkek and Karakol. It takes four-five hours by minivan to Cholpon-Ata and six-seven to Karakol. The ticket costs 400-500 soms (4.21–5.26 euros). In late December 2022, the Go Bus company launched minivans from Bishkek to Karakol with a fixed schedule. Tickets can be purchased through the GoBus app. Buses and minivans depart from the Western bus station (Chimkentskaya Street, 1, 42.885939, 74.567417).

Trains from Bishkek to Balykchy only operate in July and August. The ticket costs just 80-100 soms (0.84–1.05 euros). You can buy them at the station before departure or on the train.

At the end of December 2022, the company Go Bus launched minibus routes from Bishkek to Karakol with a fixed schedule
At the end of December 2022, the company Go Bus launched minibus routes from Bishkek to Karakol with a fixed schedule. Photo: GO BUS

Roads

A363 is the main highway around Issyk-Kul. The road surface is in good condition, as it is a very popular route. Dirt roads are found on secondary routes, for example, to Jeti-Oguz or Grigoriev Gorge, but they are also passable by car.

The A363 highway is the main route around Issyk-Kul. The condition of the road is good, since it is a very popular direction
The A363 highway is the main route around Issyk-Kul. The condition of the road is good, since it is a very popular direction

There are both Russian gas stations – “Gazpromneft”, as well as local ones – for example, Bishkek Petroleum. Local drivers are quite calm – without extremely dangerous overtaking and speeding on switchbacks. The traffic police don’t particularly try to take advantage of foreigners. Checkpoints are mainly located near the entrances/exits of major settlements like Balykchy, Cholpon-Ata, Karakol.

There are both Russian gas stations - "Gazpromneft", and local ones - for example, Bishkek Petroleum
There are both Russian gas stations – “Gazpromneft”, and local ones – for example, Bishkek Petroleum. Photo: Talant Artelow / Wikimedia.org

Accommodation

International hotel chains are only represented in Bishkek – these include Hyatt, Sheraton, Novotel, Ramada. Prices in them are approximately the same – around 9000–11,500 som (94.66–120.95 euros) per night for a double room. Hotels of a similar level, but of local brands cost 3500–5500 (36.81–57.84 euros) per night. On Issyk-Kul, there is a huge variety of accommodations – from sanatoriums and boarding houses to rooms in private homes and yurts. Even in small settlements, finding a hotel will not be a problem, but many of them are not represented on the internet. Therefore, you will have to ask the locals the old-fashioned way and walk around. A double room in good guest houses costs 2000–3000 soms (36.81–57.84 euros) per night. And bargaining is a must. After all, they love to raise prices for tourists.

Yurt complexes are an excellent option for overnight stays while traveling around Issyk-Kul. They are inexpensive (usually around 2500 soms (26.29 euros) and allow you to immerse yourself in the nomadic way of life. Yurts are made from multilayered felt stretched over a collapsible wooden frame made of willow. The outer layer is typically coated with water-repellent sheep fat, and the floor inside is covered with mats. The lattice opening in the ceiling is called a “tunduk” – it’s a wheel covered on top with felt, which is moved to provide lighting and fresh air. Inside the yurts offered to tourists, there’s typically a bed, and there might be tables, chairs, bedside tables, and hangers for things. The yurts have stoves, which are heated with wood or electricity, so even at sub-zero temperatures, it won’t be cold inside.

Such complexes became popular no more than five years ago, and their number increases every year. In the mountains, they can serve as a base for hiking. On the shore, they offer an opportunity to spend unforgettable hours watching the sunset and greeting the sunrise. Some of the complexes are available for booking, for example, on booking sites. However, most often they are reserved by phone or by personally arriving on the same day.

The yurt complexes are an excellent option for overnight stays while traveling around Issyk-Kul. They are affordable (usually around 2,500 soms) and allow you to immerse yourself in the nomadic way of life.
The yurt complexes are an excellent option for overnight stays while traveling around Issyk-Kul. They are affordable (usually around 2,500 soms) and allow you to immerse yourself in the nomadic way of life. Photo: PaulR1800 / Flikr.com

Money

The national currency of Kyrgyzstan is the som. It’s advisable to carry US dollars, as they are widely accepted for currency exchange throughout the country. While major cities and tourist areas have ATMs and banking facilities where you can withdraw the national currency, the som, not all places might accept credit or debit cards. Exchanging dollars for soms ensures you have the local currency on hand for various expenses, especially in more remote areas.

Food

Cafes and restaurants in Kyrgyzstan are on every corner. The simpler the establishment looks, the tastier the food probably is. Kyrgyz cuisine is a mix of traditional nomadic dishes (with many overlaps with Kazakh dishes) and Central Asian cuisines (Dungan, Uighur). There’s a heavy consumption of meat (lamb, beef), as well as flour-based and fermented dairy dishes. Some dishes include:

    • Shorpo: a fatty meat broth with carrots, potatoes, and noodles.
    • Beshbarmak: chopped meat (often horse meat) with noodles, onions, and meat broth.
    • Lagman: noodles with fried or stewed vegetables and meat.
    • Kuurdak: meat with potatoes and onions.
    • Boorsok: pieces of dough fried in oil.
    • Kurut: balls of sour-salty dried curd. A gastronomic highlight of Karakol is ashlyanfu — a Dungan dish made from starch noodles with vegetables and meat.
The Kyrgyz cuisine is a mix of traditional nomadic dishes (with many overlaps with Kazakh dishes) and the cuisines of Central Asia (Dungan, Uighurs)
The Kyrgyz cuisine is a mix of traditional nomadic dishes (with many overlaps with Kazakh dishes) and the cuisines of Central Asia (Dungan, Uighurs). Photo: Rio Murr / Wikimedia.org

Paradoxically, fish is somewhat hard to come by at Issyk-Kul. About 26 species of fish inhabit the lake, 12 of which are found nowhere else in the world, but their populations are sparse due to a limited food base. Long ago, during Soviet times, fried Chebak fish (similar to smelt or vendace) was popular. However, now it has become a rare delicacy. Therefore, the most one can find in terms of local fish is trout from mountain rivers, which is usually grilled.

The most one can find at Issyk-Kul in terms of local fish is trout from mountain rivers, which is usually grilled
The most one can find at Issyk-Kul in terms of local fish is trout from mountain rivers, which is usually grilled. Photo: Raki_Man / Wikimedia.org

One might feel uncomfortable from unaccustomed heavy and fatty food. Therefore, it’s important not to overeat and to listen to your body (and not forget about pills). Unlike other Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan has a variety of traditional drinks. Maksym is the main and favorite drink of the Kyrgyz people. It’s made from barley, wheat, or corn bran. It’s sold both as a homemade product and on an industrial scale by the company “Shoro”. During the warm season, you can find barrels with maksym on the streets. Ayran is a classic fermented milk drink with a consistency similar to yogurt, and bozo is a low-alcohol drink made from fermented millet or sorghum.

One might feel uncomfortable from unaccustomed heavy and fatty food. Therefore, it's important not to overeat and to listen to your body (and not forget about pills).
One might feel uncomfortable from unaccustomed heavy and fatty food. Therefore, it’s important not to overeat and to listen to your body (and not forget about pills). Photo: UN Women Europe and Central Asia / Flikr.com

It’s definitely worth trying kumys. It’s a fermented milk drink made from mare’s milk with the addition of a starter, specific in taste, slightly bitter and sour. Mare’s milk is notable in that it contains fewer fats and proteins but significantly more vitamins than cow’s milk. The Kyrgyz even have kumys therapists – this drink is considered that beneficial for health.

There’s no shortage of small grocery outlets. Spices (including those for pilaf), dried fruits, rice, fruits, and vegetables are best purchased at markets.

What to bring home

In Bishkek, in the main shopping centers, you can find souvenir shops with a wide selection of national commemorative gifts. The Kyrgyz are known for their folk arts and crafts: felt decorations (like beads) and footwear; national headgear called kalpak; musical instruments — komuz (a stringed instrument with a pear-shaped body) and vargan (also known as temir-komuz) — a metal tongue instrument known for its throaty sound; textiles and carpets; statuettes made of bones and animal horns; national clothing (dresses and kaftans); clay dishes — not as branded as in neighboring Uzbekistan and much simpler in design. Though the Kyrgyz have their unique patterns, distinguishing them from their neighbors.

Folk arts and crafts are well-developed among the Kyrgyz - in the main shopping centers, you can find souvenir shops with a wide selection of national commemorative gifts
Folk arts and crafts are well-developed among the Kyrgyz – in the main shopping centers, you can find souvenir shops with a wide selection of national commemorative gifts. Photo: Nonviolent Peaceforce / Flikr.com

Around Issyk-Kul, especially during the season, many fruits will be sold (peaches, apricots, grapes, figs, persimmons, plums, pomegranates); nuts and dried fruits (walnuts, almonds in shells, apricot seeds, sugar-coated or syrup-soaked peanuts, dried apricots, raisins, figs, prunes, dogwood), as well as spices (traditional for pilaf cumin and zira, as well as pepper, turmeric, paprika, dried tomato).

Around Issyk-Kul, especially during the season, a lot of fruits, nuts, dried fruits, and spices will be sold
Around Issyk-Kul, especially during the season, a lot of fruits, nuts, dried fruits, and spices will be sold. Photo: Stephen Bugno / Flikr.com

How to get there and entry rules

By plane. Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is accessible from various European cities via several airlines. For travelers from Europe looking to fly directly or with minimal stops to Bishkek, Turkish Airlines, and Pegasus Airlines are among the popular choices. Turkish Airlines provides connections via Istanbul, making it a favorable choice for those flying from major European cities such as London, Paris, or Frankfurt. Similarly, Pegasus Airlines offers routes through Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport. Upon arrival, travelers will land at the Manas International Airport, located approximately 25 kilometers north of Bishkek’s city center. It’s advisable to check with individual airlines for specific flight schedules and any transit visa requirements.

For European travelers, there aren’t many direct flights to Issyk-Kul Airport. Most often, passengers will have to fly into larger airports like Bishkek’s Manas International Airport or Almaty in neighboring Kazakhstan and then take a connecting domestic flight or other means of transportation to reach Issyk-Kul.

Bus. From Almaty to Bishkek, minibuses run regularly. The distance between the cities is only 240 kilometers.

Entry rules. For European citizens traveling to Kyrgyzstan, visa requirements may vary based on the specific European country of origin. Many European Union citizens can enter Kyrgyzstan visa-free for short stays, typically up to 60 days. However, it’s essential to check with the Kyrgyz embassy or consulate in your home country for the most up-to-date information, as visa policies can change. Additionally, ensure that your passport has at least six months of validity from your planned date of departure from Kyrgyzstan. Always confirm entry requirements before traveling to avoid any inconveniences.

When to go

The tourist season at Issyk-Kul is from May to September with a peak in August. The best season for a comprehensive trip to Kyrgyzstan is summer and September. In summer, there’s a comfortable water temperature for swimming and it’s the best time for spa holidays. In early autumn, there’s tranquility and vibrant colorful landscapes. Unfortunately, in early spring, despite the quite hot weather in the capital, some mountain passes might still be closed due to snow. It’s also still cold in the yurts. However, in May, the poppies bloom, and it’s very beautiful. Winter is the best time for bathing in hot mineral springs, but not all roads are passable, though the mountains are, of course, transformed significantly by snow.

The tourist season at Issyk-Kul runs from May to September with a peak in August. The best season for a full trip to Kyrgyzstan is summer and September
The tourist season at Issyk-Kul runs from May to September with a peak in August. The best season for a full trip to Kyrgyzstan is summer and September
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