Balykchy (Kyrgyz for 'fisherman') is the largest settlement at the western end of Lake Issyk-Kul, and even a cursory glance tells that it is no longer the prosperous town that it once was. Originally named Kutmady, this town of around 40,000 was renamed kiybachye during the Soviet era, the Russian equivalent of its present-day name. The railway station still bears this name today, but it is not alone in echoing the name of a bygone age. Following independence in 1991, the town was known for a brief time as Issyk-Kul, but for obvious reasons this caused considerable confusion, and so a couple of years later the Kyrgyz equivalent of its earlier name was settled upon.
Fishing was one of the first industries to develop here in the late 19th century, when Russian colonists settled here and started working the lake on their doorstep. Unfortunately for Balykchy, fishing has not played much of a role in the town's fortunes since independence, and over the past two decades the town has steadily declined to the sorry state it finds itself today.
In Soviet times the town developed as an important transport and industrial centre, with shipping, fishing and shipbuilding all contributing to its economy; now, with the loss of the industrial base that the Soviet Union provided, all of these industries have virtually disappeared, and those who remain face unemployment and little promise for the future. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that depression, heavy vodka consumption and prostitution are pervasive in the town, given Balykchy's current unhappy lot.
The town's main function today is simply as the terminus of a railway line from Bishkek, and as a junction town on the road south to Naryn and China, and the roads to the east that skirt the north and south shores of the lake. For many locals, these roads arc the best thing about the place, and many of those that are able to leave have done so, migrating to Russia, Ukraine and Germany. Those left behind - mostly the old - have to cope as best they can. As elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, pensioners have been particularly vulnerable, as many are abandoned by their families in search of a better life elsewhere.
If you want a warts-and-all perspective of industrial decline in a post-Soviet transitional state, then Balykchy makes a good case study. Whatever your degree of interest, however, you probably do not want to stay here.
Aficionados of Soviet-era statuary will find plenty to enthral them here: the town has at least three Lenin figures, along with a sad array of rusting communist totems. Also, on the outskirts of the town on the Bishkek side, set back from the road on a small hillock, stands a statue of Pyotr Semyonov Tyan- Shansky, in exploration mode leading a packhorse.
Although it is undeniable that few towns in Kyrgyzstan have rejected their Soviet past outright, you get the feeling that in Balykchy they mourn the past more than most, and perhaps one indication of this has been a reluctance to dispose of the monuments and ciphers that point to more prosperous times. There again, much of the town has an abandoned look to it, and what remains is more likely a matter of indifference than any conscious effort to conserve. The street names here are largely unchanged from the communist period and Cyrillic signs still point you along the cracked tarmac of thoroughfares with heroic names like Gagarin, Frunze, Komsomol and Pioneer.