In Pictures: The Landscapes and Locals of Issyk Kul Lake
Issyk Kul Lake is the second largest, high altitude lake in the world. Found at a height of over 1600 metres, this is a destination that’s surrounded by alpine-esque mountains and snow-capped peaks that stretch far towards the borders of Kazakhstan and China.
With Discover Kyrgyzstan, I explored the valleys, mountains and towns that are found around the long length of this extensive lake, hiking new trails, eating local delicacies and uncovering the unique multicultural makeup of a land that has long been at the crossroads of Central Asian trading routes.
This photo essay is dedicated to the landscapes and to the locals of Issyk Kul, but most of all, it’s dedicated to an enthralling way of life that’s long been lived out along the shores of one of Kyrgyzstan’s most captivating destinations.
Mountains and Valleys in Rural Jyrgalan
After spending the week on the beaches of Cholpon-Ata watching the World Nomad Games, I travelled across to the remote, but increasingly accessible Jyrgalan Valley to experience both the mountains and rural life in an old coal mining village; a village that thanks to tourism, is slowly finding its place in a modern Kyrgyzstan.
During the Soviet Union, Jyrgylan was the site of a coal mine that provided employment for much of the region. When the coal mine collapsed, so did the local economy, and locals left in droves to find work in the cities of Bishkek or Karakol.
For years there were few opportunities in rural Jyrgalan, but now, thanks to a growing tourism scene around Issyk Kul Lake, the village is beginning to exploit its other great natural resource: its alluring mountains and attractive scenery.
I hiked through two of the valley’s best walking routes, reaching the high altitude of 3200 metres on the first day, before trekking along an unmarked route that had never even been walked by our local guide, Ulugh Beg.
Wild horses, flocks of sheep and the occasional yurt camp were all reminders of the nomadic way of life that has ruled these mountains for centuries. Today that nomadic lifestyle is in many ways making a resurgence, as Kyrgyzstan struggles with its identity after years of Soviet rule.
The resurgence of tourism too has turned Jyrgalan into a small success story in Issyk Kul, a feat that many other, remote and equally stunning rural villages will be looking to emulate too.
The City Life in Karakol
At the far eastern end of Issyk Kul is Karakol, a small city, but a sprawling metropolis in comparison to the rural mountain villages. Karakol has long played an important role in the trade routes that crossed their way through the mountains and across the lake, and although the city itself only dates back to 1869 when Russian explorers began to chart the region, the multicultural nature and diverse ethnic makeup that exist today represent centuries of trade, war and cultural and ethnic diffusion across the region.
Karakol has an interesting history of Russian settlement in a region that has long been inhabited by Kyrgyz nomads. The buildings and the relics across the city are decidedly Russian in character and feel, but beneath this Slavic exterior, there are influences from across Central Asia to be found.
In Karakol, I learnt how Uzbek workers from southern Kyrgyzstan are employed to make the local bread, a skill which the locals have either lost or become disinterested in. These men work in steaming, hot conditions through the night to produce bread that’s ready to be sold at the market in the morning.
On the streets of the city, Russian Orthodox Churches are to be found close to Chinese influenced, Dungan mosques and Soviet-style apartment buildings.
Exiles and Excellent Food At A Dungan Family Dinner
One of the minorities that have played an integral role in the history of Karakol are the Dungan people. The Dungans of Karakol trace their heritage back to what is now western China. During the 19th century, the Dungan Muslims rebelled against the Chinese, and after losing this war, many were forced to flee over the mountains to Karakol. In Krgyz, the name Dungan loosely means ‘people from the east’.
The Dungan people were instrumental in the growth of Karakol, as the Russian Empire welcomed the refugees to settle. Today, despite being a small percentage of the population, their influence on the culture and cuisine is astounding.
At a small village outside of Karakol, Mr Luke Lee told stories of his people’s culture and history and their Islamic religion, explaining their exile from China after a failed rebellion, and how even today, after years of assimilation, the Dungan language is still very similar to other Chinese dialects, even if now it is written in Cyrillic.
At a local home, I was given a crash course in Dungan cuisine and prepared a bowl of their most famous and popular dish, Ashlan Fuu, a meal of cold noodles that is said to be the perfect hangover cure, and that consequently, has become popular across Kyrgyzstan. I soon realised, that the tale of the Dungan people, is, however, not only a tale of exile but a tale of the multicultural and welcoming nature of Karakol.
Eagle Hunters on the Shores of Issyk Kul Lake
Leaving Karakol behind, the next stop around Issyk Kul was the southern shore, a place that’s fringed by high mountains and where traditional Kyrgyz life and traditions are seeing a renaissance in the villages and towns that line the pebbly beaches.
I stayed just a few hundred metres from the shore, at Bel-Tam Yurt Camp, a place that although set up for tourists still embellishes the nomadic ideals of Kyrgyzstan.
As the sun set over Issyk Kul Lake, locals skilled in the art of Salburuun came to the Yurt Camp to give us a demonstration of their ability to hunt with eagles. They had been participating in the World Nomad Games just the week before, in eagle hunting and in archery, and here by the calm waters of the lake, they showed off their skill and prowess while putting on a very photogenic photoshoot for the tourists.
The eagle hunters train their birds from birth, forming close bonds and attachments, but when they reach the age of twenty, if not before, these mighty birds of prey are released into the wild.
The eagle hunters also train Taigans, a fearsome breed of dog that despite their fluffy and happy outlook, are actually bred to take down wolves in the mountains. They gave a demonstration of the speed and agility of these dogs by the yurt camp.
The Yurt Builders of The Southern Shore
My final stop along the south shore before returning to Bishkek was to visit a local Yurt builder named Turusbek, a gentle giant whose family have for generations been handcrafting yurts to order.
Turusbek showed us around his home, which also doubles as his workshop, and where he constructs traditional yurts from scratch.
He took us through the process and demonstrated the skills required to construct what has become an emblem of Kyrgyzstan and that since the country’s independence has seen a huge resurgence in popularity, as locals try to rediscover roots that were lost for decades.
My journey around Issyk Kul gave me an insight into both the culture and the scenery that is steadily attracting tourists to this remote part of the world, year after year. Issyk Kul Lake is truly a spectacular part of Kyrgyzstan, but more than just the landscapes, it really is the local people that make this place so unique.
This article is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Competitiveness, Trade, and Jobs Activity in Central Asia. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Travel Tramp and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.
All Words and Pictures by Richard Collett