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Little-known Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan is poised to become Central Asia's most famous tourism destination. Popular among citizens of the former USSR, the new and refurbished resorts and health spas of Issyk Kul are now open for business and beckon all those with an adventurous spirit to the second-largest high-altitude lake in the world. Sailing, swimming, sun bathing and mineral spas attract visitors to Lake Issyk Kul; the well-kept Soviet secret holiday venue is secret no more. Everyone is invited to enjoy the independent Kyrgyz Republic's greatest national treasure.
One of earth's most ancient lakes, Issyk Kul is estimated to have existed for about 25 million years. Located in the north-eastern corner of Kyrgyz Republic, or Kyrgyzstan, Issyk Kul has watched human history progress throughout the millennia. Signs of ancient civilizations have been found both on the mountain terraces above the lake and on submerged beaches below the lake's surface. The lake was a regular stopping point for travelers on the Old Silk Road trade route to China and to this day still supports an eclectic mix of cultures and religions. Issyk Kul has undoubtedly influenced the world far beyond its shores: many historians are convinced the Black Death that decimated Medieval Europe in the 14th century likely was transported from the region via the old trade routes.
With the downfall of the USSR, the region has experienced a reduction in employment and most Russians have left. However, tourism is poised to become the bright spot for the local economy. Visitors are drawn to the deep blue, slightly-salty lake that never freezes: Issyk Kul means 'hot lake' due to this phenomena. Under the Soviets a number of health spas and resorts were developed to take advantage of the water rich in minerals. Soviet cosmonauts were sent here to recuperate from the rigors of space flight. The sanatoriums and spas are being refurbished, and more are opening for business every season. Whether visitors come for healthful baths and massages or simply to enjoy sandy beaches and lake breezes, Issyk Kul is becoming a popular destination for increasing numbers of vacationers.
Issyk Kul is a terminus lake: it has no outlet, and water is only reduced by evaporation (and possibly underground permeable aquifers, so scientists say). The 2,407 square mile lake (1.54 million acres) has over 80 rivers and streams contributing glacial run-off to its volume, along with both hot and cold springs. Because the added minerals don't evaporate, the lake is slightly salty and never freezes despite an elevation over a mile high. Salt density in Issyk Kul is considerably lower than sea water, so the lake acts as an important stop-off point for a huge number of migrating birds. The lake is bordered by Kyungey Ala-Too of the Tian Shan - or Celestial Mountains - on the north shore. The beautiful Teskey Ala-Too Range runs along the south shore. Sheltered between the mountain ranges, the climate remains temperate year round. In order to monitor and protect the lake, the Government of Kyrgyzstan has created the Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve, run by a Directorate General. Mining, herding and subsistence farming remain the main means of employment in the region.
Visitors to Issyk-Kul enjoy swimming, boating and water sports of all types. Sailing is a new-found favorite; the Kyrgyz Republic will be sending competitors to world championship sailing competitions for the first time in the near future. Although a landlocked country, Issyk-Kul's climate and ice-free state allow sailing teams to train for a full nine months of the year. Other water sport competitions held at Issyk-Kul include rowing, canoeing, diving and wind surfing competitions. The large lake also holds cruising yacht races and a variety of other regattas. Issyk-Kul is central to industrial and passenger transportation in the region; ferries transport industrial goods and ores down the lake to the railhead at Balykchy at the lake's west end. Most towns of any size have passenger service via ferry on a regular schedule.
Most beaches are on the northern shore; popular resort towns include Cholpon Ata and Bosteroi. Fishing is always popular, although commercial fishing has declined in recent years as overfishing and invasive species have taken their toll. Some of the unique and endemic species of fish, primarily several types of dace, are now endangered due to the introduction of other species for sport purposes. Oddly, one of those species, the Sevan trout, endangered in its home in Sevan lake in Armenia, has thrived here to the point that it threatens the survival of several unique Issyk-Kul species. Other sought-after fish are zander, whitefish, naked soman, chebak, little chebak, common carp and marinka. Motor boats can be rented at several of the resort facilities, and fishing charters can also be arranged. Visitors should always check local regulations regarding fishing; moratoriums on fishing are put in place on occasion to allow for species recovery.
The huge lake isn't the only attraction at Issyk-Kul. Hiking the mountain paths is also a favored pastime. In winter, skiing is available at a ski facility outside of Karakol, the administrative center of the Issyk-Kul region. In summer, the ski lifts still operate when there is enough demand for its services, taking hikers up to appreciate the view and to visit the nature preserve there. The nearby Altyn Arashan Valley is a hiker's dream, with a great many hiking trails and beautiful views. Karakol visitors may also enjoy the Przhevalsky Museum, immortalizing the work of one of Russia's most famous explorers and naturalists.
Cholpon Ata is the largest village on the northern shore of Issyk Kul. Visitors enjoy the lake, the view, the health and spa treatments offered at many of the resort hotels, and petroglyphs found around the lake. In Cholpon Ata, the ethnographic museum is filled with ancient curiosities and old photographs of the Issyk Kul region. There is also a good photographic display of the many petroglyphs found locally. And, shyrdaks (patterned felt carpets made by local craftsmen) can be purchased here as well. The ethnographic museum is a good way for visitors to understand the many cultures present in the region and glimpse a tiny sliver of past and ancient civilizations that have lived at Issyk Kul.
Barskoon and Tamga are twin Kyrgyz and Russian villages at the mouth of the Barskoon valley. About seven miles up the valley, adventurous sight-seers will find the first of three beautiful waterfalls. A 30-minute hike farther up the mountain brings trekkers to two more lovely waterfalls where one can stand in the cool spray to cool off. Yurts nearby offer authentic local cuisine usually based on the sheep seen grazing peacefully within view. Other local tours can be arranged at the resort towns circling the lake.
Guest houses, bed-and-breakfast establishments, sanatorium rooms and standard resort hotel accommodations will provide exactly the kind of holiday rental every visitor seeks. A number of private homes and apartment rentals are also available for the family who wishes to stay for a week or a month. Real estate may be available; however, land reforms are not yet complete, so only the extremely savvy buyer should attempt a deal since much land is still owned by the government. If you hanker for the vacation few have experienced, then a trip to Issyk Kul will fulfill your urge to take the path less trodden. Come to the Celestial Mountains and visit Issyk Kul!
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