Issyk Kul Lake Travel Guide
Where to stay and things to do around Issyk Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan
Most people travel to Kyrgyzstan to take in the gorgeous natural scenery and hike or horse trek in the stunning mountains, where you can experience the fascinating nomadic culture and even stay in yurts with local shepherd families, and enjoy the waters of Issyk Kul Lake.
90% of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous so its a paradise for trekkers. Another one of Kyrgyzstan’s star natural wonders is Issyk Kul Lake, at over 180 kilometres long and 60 kilometres wide it’s the 2nd largest alpine lake in the world and one of the most popular places to visit in Kyrgyzstan.
In Summer the crystal clear blue waters of the lake are warm enough to swim in and the shores have sandy beaches where you can relax and enjoy the stunning views over the lake to the UNESCO listed Tian Shan mountain range beyond.
Kyrgyzstan is only just developing as a tourist destination and is still very offbeat, which was one of the most exciting things for me.
Read More: Why I Loved Traveling in Kyrgyzstan
Most people travel to Kyrgyzstan for the trekking but not so many people know that there are also a lot of alternative things to do around Issyk Kul Lake including many interesting and unique community based tourism (CBT) projects including homestays, trekking and horse riding with local guides, yurt stays, craft workshops and cookery classes that will give you a better insight into the local culture and history of this relatively undiscovered country.
Here’s some of the best things to do and places to stay around Issyk Kul Lake that you can enjoy before or after trekking and exploring the mountains.
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Issyk Kul Lake is easy to access from the capital Bishkek. It takes about 6/7 hours to reach Karakol from Bishkek in a taxi or marstruka (shared minivan they don’t really have buses in Kyrgyzstan) A marstruka should cost about 300 som to Karakol.
On the way, if you can, don’t miss the chance to stop and check out the Burana Tower, one of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous sites, which is located about 80 kms from Bishkek near Tokmok.
The Burana Tower
Ok, this one is not really so near Issyk Kul Lake but is an easy stop to make on the way there when coming from Bishkek and something you shouldn’t miss.
Because Kyrgyzstan was traditionally a nomadic culture there are not many historic buildings so the Burana Tower is of great importance to Kyrgyzstan and was one of the first of its type in Central Asia.
It’s an 11th century Muslim minaret (that used to be 45 meters tall but now only 25m) which is all the remains from an ancient capital called Balasagun. The city was the capital for the Karakhanid people who were the ones that bought Islam to Kyrgyzstan. Islam is still the main religion now.
You can climb up to the top and enjoy great views over the countryside and the mountains and there some more ruins and artifacts to see. I liked the interesting face shaped historic tombstones here which they call ‘Balbal’ – the face represents the person and each one is different.
Where to Stay Around Issyk Kul Lake
Issyk Kul Lake really is huge, its almost more like a sea, but on a clear day you can enjoy gorgeous views of the mountains on the other side.
You could spend 1 or 2 weeks exploring all the things to do around Issyk Kul lake and the mountains beyond. To do this you’ll probably want to travel around and base yourself in the 3 main towns – Choplon Ata, Karakol and Bokonbayevo.
The Northern shore around Choplon Ata is the most developed and a little commercial with lake side beach resorts and discotheques that attract holiday makers from Kyrgyzstan, neighbouring Kazakstan and Russia.
There are not so many cultural sights to see here but the ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings) are worth a look. Officially called the Issyk-Kul Provincial State Historical Cultural Museum Reserve, its basically a field full of these historically significant rocks located just outside of Choplon Ata.
You can wander around and see the rock carvings, the oldest are over 3,500 years old, that predate the silk road. Most of the carvings depict scenes from ancient nomadic life and there are lots of goats and other animals as well as some Turkish inscriptions. Read more about the petroglyphs here.
Choplon Ata is also the home of a fancy new stadium built for the World Nomad Games – the next ones should be in Autumn 2018. I just passed through and didn’t stay here overnight myself but I heard good things about Apple Hostel.
Karakol on the far North Eastern shore of Issyk Kul Lake is a small town by global standards but is actually Kyrgyzstan’s fourth largest city. Karakol is a great base for heading into the mountains (one of the most popular treks from here is the Ala-Kul lake and Altyn Arashan hot springs.)
I was told that, in Winter, Karakol is one of the best places in Kyrgyzstan for skiing and its much more affordable than the Alps so I hope I get the chance to return in Winter!
Things to do in Karakol
But Karakol is not just a trekking and skiing base, its also quite a multicultural town with some interesting attractions and colonial Russian architecture.
You can take a free Karakol City Tour and visit the lovely wooden Russian Orthodox Church that dates back to 1872. You’ll also visit the interesting and unique Dungan Mosque. Karakol is very close to China and in the 1880s Dungans (Chinese Muslims) fled persecution and came to Karakol and built this colourful and unique mosque in 1910. It was constructed entirely without using any nails and looks more like a Chinese temples than any other mosque I’ve ever seen.
To learn more about Dungan culture you can also attend a Dungan cooking experience in the village of Yrdyk about 20 mins from Karakol. You’ll visit the Dungan museum and learn about the culture, heritage and cuisine of the people before tucking into a feast of 8 dishes that are an interesting fusion of Chinese and Kyrgyz cuisine.
This is one of the best things to do in Karakol, you can book through Destination Karakol. You can also do a Lagman noodle cooking class in an Uyghur home.
Karakol also has a beach on the shores of Issyk Kul Lake where you can swim and chill for the day with local holidaymakers. You can also enjoy the beauty of the clear, calm lake surrounded by mountains on a sunset boat cruise. The local boys were diving off the top but I thought I just enjoy a beer and soak up the views.
There’s also a small museum with some interesting 1930s photos of the region, a Russian bathhouse, an interesting antique shop with kitschy old Soviet memorabilia and, on Sundays, a big market is held just outside Karakol selling livestock and used cars in case you need a horse or Lada for your trip! Even if you’re not looking to buy it’s an interesting taste of traditional Kyrgyz life.
Where to stay in Karakol
Karakol has a good number of decent backpacker hostels and hotels. I stayed at Tagaytay Hotel, a smart, centrally located, clean and new hotel.
I also know people who’ve stayed at Happy Nomads Yurt Camp and Hostel Nice in Karakol and had only good things to say about it. It’s cool because you can stay in dorms or yurts there and there are big, sociable communal areas.
Traditionally Karakol is the main base for travellers in the area but only about 1 hours drive away is the gorgeously green, offbeat and untouched Jyrgalan Valley. This was one of my favourite places in Kyrgyzstan but hardly any tourists know about it yet!
The village here used to be a coal mining town in the Soviet times but is almost abandoned now. Jyrgalan village is charmingly rustic and surrounded by lush green valleys and mountains perfect for hiking and horse trekking.
I did some wonderful 1 day treks and horse rides into the mountains to the waterfalls and lakes, check out this post for more on my experience horse trekking in Jyrgalan. There is also a new 3 day trekking route that bloggers Nomadasurus went on.
I stayed at a homestay called Salmat Guesthouse, my hosts were really friendly. You can also stay at the Ala Kol Guesthouse which is also the office for Destination Jyrgalan who can arrange hikes and activities for you.
Around Karakol and on the way to Bokonbayevo
There are several things you can visit either as a day trip from Karakol or Bokonbayevo or you could also see them on the way between the two like I did. If you went straight from Karakol to Bokonbayevo it would only take about 2 hours but you can also see these sights on the way and make a day of it.
About 25km west of Karakol is Jeti Oguz Valley which is home to some interesting huge, red sedimentary rock formations called The Seven Bulls and The Broken Heart. There’s also a Kok-Jaiyk (meaning Valley of Flowers) jailoo (summer pasture) nearby from where you can take a short trek to the waterfall.
When I was looking for a better angle for a photo of the Seven Bulls I stumbled upon a large crumbling Soviet Sanatorium. It was pretty dilapidated but interesting people were still coming there to bathe in Radon water (a radioactive gas from Uranium!) as apparently Radon is good for your health! It was really interesting having a look around this pretty bizarre place but didn’t fancy a dip myself.
You can also make a stop at Barksoon waterfall, it’s a steep but short climb upto the first part but a few hours trek to the bigger falls.
The Southern shore of Issyk Kol Lake is the least developed and the small town of Bokonbayevo makes the best base. The landscape around the lake here is almost desert like but even in high Summer you can see the snow topped mountains from all over this small, dusty town.
There is not much to do in Bokonbayevo itself but there are some interesting places to visit nearby, including the lake of course.
Things to do around Bokonbayevo
My favourite place around Bokonbayevo was Skazka Canyon, also known as Fairytale Canyon because of all the magical shapes and colours you can make out in the red hued rocks – from the Great Wall of China, castles, dragons, gnomes etc – the only limit is your imagination.
I visited at sunset and it was incredible seeing the colours, shadows and shapes change as the sun went down. You can climb all over the rocks but take good shoes and be careful because some places are quite steep and it would be easy to slip down. See more tips for visiting Skazka Canyon here.
There’s also some cool craft displays that you can see, including the Kyzyl Tuu Yurt workshop where you can see how they build a yurt. You’ll also see lots of pretty felt rugs called shyrdaks all over Kyrgyzstan and you can watch a demonstration how this traditional, quintessential Kyrgyz craft is handmade from wool. You can also see an eagle hunting demonstration.
About a half hour drive into the mountains is Boz Salkyn Jailoo yurt camp. It’s a lovely green summer pasture where you can stay with a family in the yurts, some people come here to stay for 10 day health retreat to drink fresh kymys (fermented horse milk) every 2 hours.
You can also take a short hike or horse trek from here to Shatyly Panorama where you’ll get a stunning view looking down over Issyk Kul Lake. I did this at sunset on my last day and it was the perfect way to end my time explore Issyk Kul Lake.
You can arrange all of these experiences at the Bokonbayevo CBT office in the centre of town. This was also my base for my 3 day Panorama Tour horse trek – an amazing adventure where I climbed to 3,500 meters, enjoying amazing mountain views and staying in sheperds yurts. (Read more here)
I stayed at the awesome Bel Tam Yurt Camp – a cute and rustic collection of yurts right on the shore complete with a private beach, bar, restaurant, hot showers and playground.
There’s no wifi or 3G signal at Bel Tam so when I needed to get work done I stayed at a super plush homestay called Ulukbek Guesthouse in Bokonbayevo organised through the CBT Kyrgyzstan office which had the best (only decent) wifi I’d had in Kyrgyzstan.
My incredible trip to Kyrgyzstan was made possible by Discover Kyrgyzstan with the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) The contents of my blogs are, as always, my own opinions and experiences and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.
Have you been to Issyk Kul Lake? Did you do any other cool things to add to this guide?
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