Lake Issyk-Kul, the ‘Pearl of the Tien Shan Mountains’ in northern Kyrgyzstan, is one of the world’s highest (1,610 m/5,280 ft) lakes.
Yet despite being fed by the icy water of 118 rivers and streams, and the melt-water of the soaring peaks that surround it, it never freezes, because of the slightly saline springs bubbling up in its centre. This quirk, combined with Issyk-Kul’s huge size (its shore is 700 km/437 mi long), has resulted in a microclimate that has transformed the adjacent mountains. They should be barren, rugged, windswept and bitterly cold. Instead, below a snowline consistently higher than 4,000 m (13,000 ft), the Tien Shan Mountains here are a hiker’s paradise of thick forests, small lakes of vivid colours in rolling alpine pastures, waterfalls and torrents gurgling along valley floors. The lake itself is edged with sandy beaches and the most unlikely of all, flower-filled meadows – and the water’s temperature is 24 °C (75 °F) from June to September.
Issyk-Kul’s extraordinary climate has made it a favourite resort for visitors from Bishkek and Alma-Ata – but only the north shore has been heavily developed. The best trekking routes are based on Karakol (formerly known, and still often referred to as, Przheval’sk, after the Russian explorer), at the lake’s eastern end. Typically, seven to fourteen day treks cherry-pick the region’s best two to three day hikes, driving up to 150 km (95 mi) between the most scenic landscapes. From the Dzhetyoguz Valley you cross the Tilety Pass and clamber up the Karakol and Keldyke gorges to beautiful Ala-Kul Lake, from which you can look along the magnificent 5000 m (16,400 ft) plus peaks of the Terskei Ala-Too range. More remote, and lovelier in all its variety is the Sarydzhaz river valley to Mertsbakher Lake trek. Provided you stay largely on the southern shore, Issyk-Kul offers a pristine wilderness of gentler terrain than you expect in the heart of central Asia.
WHEN TO GO:
June to October
TIME IT TAKES:
7-21 days (including one day’s travel each way from Bishkek/Alma-Ata to Przheval’sk).
Staying In a yurt, the traditional collapsible and portable nomadic dwelling, made of felt stretched over a birch lattice framework, with a hole (tunduk) in the top for ventilation.
The view from Djuuku Pass of Ara-Bel Valley, Djuuku Gorge and Djashyk- Kyol (Green Lake).
Drinking Kymyz (mare’s milk) in a yurt camp, listening to the guide/shepherd’s stories about the beautiful red rocks known as ‘Seven Bulls’ and ‘Broken Heart’ in the Sarydzhaz Valley.
Sunbathing on a sandy beach 1,524 m (5,000 ft) up in Central Asia.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Make sure your papers are In perfect order, especially if you are coming from Kazakhstan.
Difficult access to health and transport facilities on the south side of Issyk-Kul make trekking inadvisable for children under twelve