Lake Issyk-Kul is not in the vocabulary of most travelers, and that’s fine. To be honest, the country it calls home – Kyrgyzstan – isn’t either, but that doesn’t mean the region and country aren’t worth visiting, they most certainly are. The world is a large and exciting place and even the most well traveled have really only seen just a small fraction of it. Every time I visit a somewhat remote destination I’m reminded of the beauty and immensity of our planet, and perhaps nowhere else was that feeling as profound as the week I spent exploring the region around Lake Issyk-Kul. There are many reasons to love this area of Kyrgyzstan, but these moments were amongst my favorite and I’m willing to bet that they’ll be your favorite too.
Quick background on Lake Issyk-Kul: Kyrgyzstan is smack dab in the middle of Central Asia. About the same size as the U.S. state of Georgia, its neighbors are Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west and southwest, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the east. What was most interesting to me about Lake Issyk-Kul is its size. It’s the 2nd largest alpine lake in the world, the 10th largest lake in the world and the 2nd largest saline lake in the world. And yet, I had never heard of it before I found myself walking along its rocky shoreline. It’s also an important vacation spot not just for people who live in Kyrgyzstan, but for most people in Central Asia since another large body of water isn’t easily found. Thanks to all of this, a wide variety of experiences both natural and cultural have popped up over the years that even we as new visitors can enjoy.
Hang out in Karakol
Tourism in Kyrgyzstan is still in its infancy, but it’s quickly coming into its own. One area though that did have a fairly well established tourism background is Karakol. The 4th largest city in the country, its close proximity both to the massive Lake Issyk-Kul and those alpine peaks famous for both summer trekking and winter skiing means that people have been transiting through Karakol for a long time. I spent more time in Karakol than in any other region of Kyrgyzstan and over the course of a few days fell in love with the community. There are also plenty of ways to pass the time, from touring museums both in and near the city, joining a walking tour of Karakol’s history, eating your way around by participating in a food tour and even a special dinner in the home of locals. Karakol has a lot to offer and shouldn’t only be seen as a pit stop on the way to other areas of the country.
Take a sunset cruise
I have never refused an opportunity to spend time on a boat and when I learned about special sunset cruises on Lake Issyk-Kul, I jumped at the opportunity. Certain destinations are just meant to be enjoyed from the water, and this is one of them. There were only a few of us as we boarded the pleasure boat, the small staff looking as if they were extras in “The Hunt for Red October.” The remnants of Soviet life aside, I stood at the front of the boat as we pulled out from harbor, eager to escape the approaching clouds and to enjoy an evening out on the water. Laughing with new friends, eating more fried fava beans than I should have and experimenting with local beers all combined to create a slightly unusual but incredibly fun early evening out. We returned just as the sun had finished its journey for the day, energized from the experience but eager to enjoy another delicious meal in nearby Karakol.
Sleep in a yurt
I’m not a camper by nature and roughing it for me usually entails a hotel without AC, but I think it’s practically criminal for any traveler to visit Kyrgyzstan and NOT spend at least one night in a yurt. The people in this part of the world were nomadic for most of their history and at the center of that existence was their home, the yurt. Even Kyrgyzstan’s flag pays homage to this history with the design at the center of the yurt featured prominently on the national standard. For me though, spending the night along the pristine waters of Lake Issyk-Kul, listening to the waves lap up on shore as I slept in my yurt was just something I needed to do. I’d spent the week prior learning everything I could about this amazing country, but I needed that time getting closer to it in this very unique way so that I could walk away not just knowing, but understanding.
Meal with a Dungan family
Originally of Chinese decent, the Dungan people fled China in the 19th century and established communities throughout Central Asia, including in what is modern Kyrgyzstan. One reason why they’ve been oppressed throughout the years is because they are also ardent Muslims, but they seem to have found a welcoming home in Karakol. They’ve also had an incredible impact on the city over the more than 100 years they’ve lived there, not only through the colorful mosques, but through their unique cuisine. One evening I joined a fun excursion to a nearby Dungan community where I had the great opportunity to enjoy a traditional Dungan dinner in the home of a local resident. Sitting on colorful rugs, it seemed as though the steady procession of small dishes would never end – it was a feast in every sense of the word. More than just amazing food though, it was a very unique way to learn more about the Dungan, to break bread with them in their homes and, by the end of the evening, to be welcomed as a new friend. Experiences like this one are surprisingly easy to find in Kyrgyzstan, most people eager to welcome visitors and to share everything that makes their way of life so wonderful. That’s unique in my experience and is just one of a hundred reasons why Kyrgyzstan was such an important trip for me on a very personal level.
Visit the mountains
A short drive from my yurt camp along the lake, the Barskoon Valley is as close to natural perfection as you can get. It’s a remarkable little pocket of alpine bliss because less than 30 minutes away is the red cracked clay of a much more arid part of the country. But in Barskoon it’s all about massive snow covered mountains, crystal clear streams and waterfalls that have been attracting curious trekkers for decades. Behind those mountains lies China, which means this very quiet valley once played a pivotal role on the Silk Road welcoming visitors from around the known world. I was only concerned though with exploring as much of it I could, to breathe in that crisp mountain air and to enjoy the moment for what it was, travel perfection.
Explore the desert terrain
Just as amazed as I was by the alpine landscapes, I was equally stunned by the desertscapes also found alongside Lake Issyk-Kul, especially at the remarkable Skazka or Fairy Tale Canyon. Easy to reach and visit, spending some time hiking around the painted desert is a must-do for anyone passing by. This is a place of myth and legends, and right away it was easy to see why. The red rock seemed to shift in color as I approached and hiking along the craggy terrain was fun and even exciting. Head to the top of the highest formation for lake views you won’t soon forget.
Eat all the food
One of my many takeaways from visiting Kyrgyzstan is how incredibly multicultural it is. Around the country there are more than 40 different ethnic groups and, for the most part, they live peacefully side-by-side. The same holds true around Lake Issyk-Kul which itself is home to a dozen or so defined ethnic minorities, living communally for decades, sharing their cultures and of course their food. Thanks in large part to its unique position along the Silk Road, traders from around the known world passed through the country over the centuries, bringing with them different spices and ingredients, recipes and techniques and infusing the region with a new way to enjoy food. The tour, led by a local, take guests through the successive waves of immigration to the region, from those early traders to the 19th century Russians. Dishes such as Lagman and Ashlyan-Fu are enjoyed but, more importantly, we learned why these dishes are so important to daily life in Karakol. Why people choose to eat them so regularly and, of course, the best places in town to find them. The Karakol food crawl was my favorite experience in Karakol not just because everything was so delicious, but because it was a truly immersive way to learn more about this fascinating part of the country.
Learn how to play dead goat polo
Attending a special ethno-festival on the banks of Lake Issyk-Kul was one of those rare occasions when I had so much to say that I didn’t know where to start. The daylong event shared some of the best aspects of traditional culture in Kyrgyzstan. Dancers, story tellers, athletes and cooks all gathered in a fun and friendly sharing of their heritage. One of the more interesting aspects of the day was watching the traditional sporting events, including one of the most unusual sports on the planet – dead goat polo. Otherwise known as Kok Boru, this very unusual activity started as a way to practice for raids on neighboring villages, but today is a fun and important aspect of the Kyrgyz nomadic identity. It’s actually a lot like watching a soccer match, two teams square off and try to capture the dead goat and take it to their goal on the opposite end of the field. Played on horseback, this is an intense sport to watch and for the riders a dangerous one. It’s also oddly enjoyable as a spectator and I quickly found myself cheering on my favorite team.
I had honestly never considered Kyrgyzstan tourism as something viable until I was approached by USAID. However, the trip opened my eyes to a new region of the world, one I had some strong misconceptions about. I never knew how beautiful it was, how friendly the people are, how delicious the food can be and just how fun traveling there is. It felt like an adventure and in 2017, that’s a difficult sensation to recapture but in Kyrgyzstan and Lake Issyk-Kul in particular, you can embrace everything great about the spirit of pure exploration.
This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.