Bokonbayevo, which takes its name from a Kyrgyz poet, with the mostly Kyrgyz population of 12,500 people is the largest administrative centre on the southern part of the lake. It is about half way between Balikchy and Karakol. It has fallen on hard times, having gone from full employment in Soviet days to 70 per cent unemployment today. Though people are returning to traditional farming livelihoods, confusion over decollectivisation and a lack of capital and training is restricting success. The light industry that existed during Soviet times is a distant memory and this is one of the poorer towns in the region. There is little to see in the town itself but trips into the nearby mountains or a visit to a local eagle hunter can be arranged upon your wish.
Despite its dusty, unprepossessing appearance, Bokonbaevo is not a bad place to stay over for a night. It has some comfortable places to stay and the town serves as a suitable base for hikes into the largely unexplored hinterland of peaks and valleys that lie to the south.
Most of the town’s activity is centred along Bolot Mambetov, from where the local minibuses and shared taxis arrive and depart. There is a string of shops, a small bazaar, a smaller police office, and a mosque all within this block. If you are not eating at your homestay, the cafe, serves up a fine laghman along with other Kyrgyz staples.
Sights & Activities -There are few specific sites in the town itself, apart from a museum and a few reminders of the recent Soviet past - a Lenin bust with a hammer and sickle, and an abstract concrete war memorial. In contrast to these Soviet-era reminders, there is a recently built mosque at the corner of Atakan and Turusbekova.
The small Bokonbaeva Museum, next to the war memorial in the town centre, has a collection of paintings by local artists depicting manaschi, eagle hunters and other local scenes. The curator will proudly show off landscapes creatively painted onto oddly shaped stones.
Bokonbayevo is also home to a couple of craft cooperatives that make shyrdaks and other felt products. It is well worth a stop to visit the innovative handicrafts co-operative, Altyn Oymok (Golden Thimble). It was set up as a community development project and receives funding from the Central Asian Handicraft Association, which promotes the production of local handicrafts throughout the region. There is a felt making workshop and a sales area selling good quality handicrafts. Altyn Oimok can be found at 69/70 Kyrgyzskaya.
The local eagle hunter, Talgar, and his eagle, Tumara, put on a deadly demonstration in a field on the outskirts of town. A sacrificial rabbit is used, rather than a piece of meat tied to a string. The Birds of Prey Festival is worth a visit if you are in the area in August, when falconers from around Issyk-Kul compete here with their eagles, hawks and falcons.
Getting There & Away - Three buses for Bokonbaeva leave from Bishkek's West bus station between 8am and noon, taking three to four hours. It's best to get there early to get a seat and because the bus will leave as soon as it is full, rather than stick to its schedule. Make sure your bus goes along the southern side of the lake ('yuzhnaya doroga' in Russian). The same buses continue to Karakol. Buses leave Bokonbaeva from the bus station for Bishkek in the morning. Shared taxis also run the route.
Around Bokonbaevo This is a fairly unexplored region of the lake's hinterland. The Terskey Ala-Too to the south form an almost an unbroken ridge of 4,000m plus peaks, there for the taking for enterprising mountaineers, many of which remain both unclimbed and unnamed.
The pickings are good for trekkers too: just southwest of the town lies the Kongur-Olon valley, a beautiful and surprisingly populated valley at around 2,200m. This wide, 40km-long swathe of meadows, marshes and gentle slopes offers excellent, uncomplicated trekking opportunities. There is a road running the whole length of the valley from east to west. The valley's eastern end is reached by taking the road south from Bokonbaevo that loops around to the west at the valley's start. The main village at the eastern end is Temir-Kanat.
To reach the slightly lower, western end of the valley, there is a road that leads south from the main coast road at Kara-Koo to climb to the village of Don-Talaa. The road south of here turns east towards Kongur-Olon, the village at the western end of the valley, where there are two gumbez (mausolea) just west of the village. There are said to have been 40 of these in the valley originally: one for each warrior that fought alongside a local leader to secure the valley in the 18th century.
A complex of ancient ruins that date from the 10th-12th centuries has been found at the valley's western end at Bar-Bulak. About 10km east of Kongur-Olon is Toguz-Bulak, the principal village of the valley's western end. A single daily bus leaves Bokonbaevo for the valley each afternoon; otherwise, a taxi can be hired for around 400-500som.
Immediately south of Bokonbaevo, close to the village of Tuura-Suu, are the remains of an 8th-century settlement, Khan Debe. Although there is little to see other than a gateway and a 1km stretch of fortifications, a large amount of pottery has been found at the site that dates between the 8th 12th centuries. A taxi from Bokonbaevo can be easily arranged.
East of Tuura-Suu, about 20km from Bokonbaevo, is the 3,847m peak of Tash-Tar-Ata, which is considered sacred by many locals. The top of the mountain has a small flat area where Manas is said to have lived whilst protecting the Kyrgyz from their enemies. There is a stone pot in the ground here and it is believed that in order for young men to be strong they have to climb the mountain and drink from the vessel, asking for Manas's blessing. Surrounding the area are stone pillars known as the Forty Soldiers of Manas. The best way to reach the top is to walk up the grassy slopes on the mountain's southern side rather than approach from the north, which is densely forested.