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Lake Issyk-Kol

Lake Issyk-Kul, the second-largest alpine lake in the world (Lake Titicaca in Peru/Bolivia is the largest), gives its name to the oblast that surrounds the lake's shoreline and extends across the high Tien Shan range south to the Chinese border. Issyk-Kul Oblast, which in area makes up around 20% of Kyrgyzstan's territory, has a population of less than half a million, the vast majority of whom live around the lake's shores.

Prospects for economic prosperity here are bright. The closing down of production enterprises has caused poverty but tourism provides significant employment along the north shore of Issyk Kul (also Ysyk-Kol). The tourist sector, already substantial, promises to become increasingly important to the local economy, though this will depend on sustainable and careful management of tourism development in the coming years to ensure the protection of the region's natural resources.

The lake's name, which is also spelled Ysyk Kol or Issyk-kol, means literally 'warm lake' in the Kyrgyz language, as does its Chinese equivalent, Ze-Hai. There is good reason for this: in a part of the world where winter temperatures can plummet to -25°C or worse, the shores of the lake have a microclimate that is relatively balmy and, even more aptly, its waters never freeze. This is all the more surprising considering that the lake stands at considerable altitude - 1,606m above sea level. Its moderating effect on the climate, plus abundant rainfall, have made it something of an oasis through the centuries. Scientists have long debated the precise mechanics of this, and it would seem that it is down to a combination of deep water physics, slight salinity and underground thermal activity. Most locals are less questioning and are merely grateful for the respite the lake offers, assuming that it is because the water is warmed by heat wafting up from the earth's core.

Synonymous in the Soviet mind with relaxation and fun, this 6,236 square kilometre expanse of sky-blue water with its sandy beaches is the pride of the Kyrgyz people. Strike up a casual conversation with your taxi driver or the person sitting next to you on a bus and one of the first questions, posed with a certain glee, will be whether you've visited Issyk Kul.

After tsarist military officers and explorers put the lake on Russian maps, immigrants flooded in to found low-rise, laid-back, rough-and-ready towns. Health spas lined its shores in Soviet days, with guests from all over the USSR, but spa tourism crashed along with the Soviet Union, only reviving in the last few years thanks to an influx of moneyed Kazakh tourists. The part of the central Tian Shan range accessible from the lake comprises perhaps the finest trekking territory in Central Asia. The most popular treks hop between valleys south of Karakol. 

In geographical terms, the lake is one of two massive depressions that dent the Tien Shan range: in Issyk-Kul's case, the depression is ringed by mountains and filled with snow-melt to form a lake; the other depression, a lower and altogether hotter region, is the Fergana Valley.

An air of mystery and legend surrounds this great inland sea. The official depth of 702 metres is disregarded by locals who know it to reach to the hot centre of the earth. Legends of ruined cities nestling on the lake floor were confirmed when the ruins of Chegu ('red valley'), a former Usun town, were discovered under the water near Tyup. Fishermen in Toruagyr, near Balikchy, also speak of seeing submerged buildings in waters just off their village.

Lake Issyk-Kul, 'the pearl of the Tien Shan', is in the shape of an eye. Dusted with clouds and dotted with villages on the north shore, the lake runs eastwards for 182 kilometres and is up to 61 kilometres wide. Issyk-Kul is flanked by two mountain ranges that run its full length from east to west: to the north is the Kungey ('Sunny') Ala-Too range, beyond which lies Kazakhstan; to the south is the Terskey ('Shady') Ala-Too. At the southeast end of the lake, close to Karakol, are a number of narrow valleys that run south from the Terskey range towards the lake - Altyn Arashan, Karakol and Jeti-Oguz. Beyond the Terskey range to the south are the even loftier peaks of the Central Tien Shan chain, and the high glaciers that connect them. In the far southeast, nudged against the Chinese and Kazakhstan borders in a frozen wonderland of rock and ice, are the peaks of Khan Tengri (6,995m) and Pobedy, which, at 7,439m, is Kyrgyzstan's highest point. The extensive Inylchek Glacier stretches out beneath these peaks. This distant and inaccessible corner of the country is also home to the mysterious Merzbacher Lake, a geographical enigma par excellence.

Lake Issyk-Kul was created in the early Miocene period 20 million years ago, when tectonic activity created the depression that became filled with fresh water. During the Pliocene period it covered an area substantially larger than it does now. Today it covers an area of 6,236 km2. Over one hundred rivers and streams flow into the lake, the largest being Jergalan and Tyup at its eastern end. The total distance around its shoreline is 688km. The lake's average depth is around 270m but it is as deep as 668m in places, making it the fifth deepest lake in the world. Most of the water in Issyk-Kul comes from snow-melt or is provided by springs, some of which are thermal. In hydrographical terms, Issyk-Kul is an endorheic basin like the Caspian Sea, in that there is no outlet for its water either by river or underground and water can only leave it by evaporation or seepage through the soil.

Minerals give the salty lake its curative properties and colour, and make it unsuitable for drinking or irrigation, though cattle are sometimes watered here. Visibility in the clear water is unusually high at 20 metres. The lake's western and eastern shores serve as a wintering place for waterfowl: the pochard duck, mallard, bald coot and teal are the main visitors. Hare, fox and muskrat live in the thickets around the lake. Supporting some 40 kinds of mammals and 200 types of birds, the lake and a 1.6-kilometre-wide zone around its shore were made the Issyk Kul preserve in 1948 and hunting was banned within its limits.

When Pyotr Semyonov and his army arrived at the lake in the 1850s they caught 400 pounds of carp by simply slashing in the shallows with their sabres. By the 1920s carp, bream (whose species are unique to the lake) and herring were perilously depleted. To boost levels of edible fish, trout were brought from Lake Sevan in Armenia in 1928 to little avail. A second attempt was made in 1936, which also seemed to fail until, during World War II, a monster version of the trout appeared, at least three times its normal size and weight. More bream were later introduced from the dying Aral Sea but the outsize trout are said to have unbalanced the fish species of the lake.

Scores of streams pour into the lake but none escape her. Bizarrely for a lake fed by scores of rivers and streams and drained by none, the level of the lake has fallen by two metres in the last 500 years. Some people say the lake level has periodically risen and fallen over the centuries, inundating ancient shoreline settlements. Artefacts have been recovered from what is called the submerged city of Chigu, dating from the 2nd century BC, at the east end. Mikhaylovka inlet, created by an earthquake near Karakol, reveals the remains of a partly submerged village. Despite recent fluctuations, geological evidence points to a long-term drop - as mentioned above, 2m in the last 500 years.

"When in 1375 Tamerlane passed this spot leading his savage hordes, the lake of Issik bore the Mongol name of Temurtu nor, or Iron Lake"

"Turkestan Solo" by Dervla Murphy

Getting There & Away - The western road access to Issyk-Kul is a 40km-long, landslide-prone, slightly sinister canyon called Shoestring Gorge (Boomskoe ushchelie), which climbs into the Ala-Too east of Tokmok, with a howling wind funnelling up it most of the time. From the north, a rough jeep road (4WD only) from Almaty’s Bolshoe Almatinskoe Lake leads over the Ozerny Pass, through the Chong-Kemin Valley and then the Kok Ayryk Pass to Chong-Sary-Oy near Cholpon-Ata. There’s no public transport along the route, the bridges often get washed out and there’s no immigration post, making it a particularly tricky option for foreigners. It might make an interesting mountain-bike trip if you can sort out the visa situation.