Meaning ‘Hot Lake’ in Kyrgyz, Issyk Kul is the world’s tenth largest lake (by volume) yet never freezes, despite the shores reaching sub-zero temperatures in winter. Wash your car in the water (as we foolishly did!) and the white, oily sheen left over the entire surface reveals its anti-freeze secret- a low level of salinity. In fact, it’s the second largest saline water body in the world, after the Caspian Sea. Only two and a half hours drive from the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, this is the perfect escape from the city and in the summer is visited by thousands of Kyrgyz holidaymakers and Kazakhs from across the nearby border.
Your personality dictates your shore preference- on the North you can pedalo and party with fluorescent beach resorts pumping out distorted Russian pop amidst the lingering smell of mutton shashlik and Baltika beer. Meander along the south and you can find entire, sedate beaches to yourself or wander into the quiet backdrop of mountains into Swiss-like scenery with crystal clear rivers and lush green valleys. At times, driving along the South coast the blue waters and sheltered rocky coves and beaches are reminiscent of an azure Adriatic coastline.
We visited alluring Issyk Kul three times, driving a complete lap on our first jaunt, diverting into several valleys with mineral springs, glacial rivers and grassland plateaus and visiting the charming market town of Karakol. Our second stop-off, on route back from southern Kyrgyzstan escapades, was more relaxed with a few days camped on a quiet stretch of the northern shore, swimming and watching the sun set across the water over the Tian Sian in the distance.
Finally, when prolonged visa delays in the capital became too much, it was to the southern shore of Issyk Kul that we fled, the lapping waves bringing instant calm and lazy beach days rejuvenating our stressed souls from permits and paperwork.
The loftiest of the lakes at just over 3,000m, Song Kul leaves all the beachgoers and picnickers at the foot of its perilous road and high-pass precipitous approach, almost an initiation for those worthy enough to make the effort and reap the rewards of time spent in this incredible location. This is true wilderness; a remote and barren place where the weather changes in an instant and the sky is a rolling, dramatic aerial dome of colours and clouds. A lap of this far-flung lake is an off-road expedition on steep sand tracks, through boggy margins and stony beaches, passing isolated yurt camps and windswept plains. During our summer visit, the northeast part of the lake was home to nomadic grazers; their numerous sheep, goats, yak and horses dotting the rich grassland. Friendly nomads called at our camp, joining us for tea or breakfast and insisting we ride their horse in return. Young, pink-cheeked children practise herding, bouncing around on donkey-back and giggling as they stop to let their mini-steeds drink from the lake edge.
A diversion into western Kyrgyzstan and a bumpy climb through the lush forests of Jalal-Abad Province is rewarded with the picture-perfect sight of Sary Chelek Lake. Nestled between vertical forested slopes of the Chatkal Mountains, the colossal snow-covered peaks of the Tian Shan loom in the distance, reflected enchantingly on the still surface of the water. A relatively small lake compared to its mightier cousins, at just 1.5km at its widest point and 7.5 km long, Sary Chelek translates literally to ‘yellow bucket’ after its appearance amidst golden trees in autumn. In contrast, our summer visit was a green vision of verdant beauty. Winding steeply along the approach road, an occasional peek of the vivid blue lake is glimpsed between the dense, overgrown vegetation and woodland. The inaccessibility of the lake protects its pristine relict fruit and nut forest edges, we settled for a camp on the shores of a nearby lower lake connected by shallow cascades. This is a shared paradise with many other visitors but we managed a quiet afternoon paddling in the cool edges, watching shoals of fish darting in the shallows and relaxing in the lakeside meadow.