Monday, 25 July 2011

The Lake Issyk-Kul (A weekend in Cholpon-Ata)

                              <<Have you been in our Issyk-Kul?>>

With the exception of the gold standard; ‘What the hell have you come to Kyrgyzstan for?’ query, this is the most common question asked by locals to foreigners visiting or coming to live in Kyrgyzstan.  Lake Issyk-Kul has (since their arrival in the area around about the 14th century) become the spiritual home of the Kyrgyz people and is their pride and joy.
And indeed they have much to boast about; with a length of
182 kilometres (113 miles), a width of up to 60 kilometres (37 miles), and covering an area of 6,236 square kilometres (2,408 sq mi); it's the tenth largest lake in the world, the s
econd largest mountain lake after Lake Titicaca in South America and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea.
Located in the north-east of the country, perched between the stately peaks of the Teskey Ala Too range in the south and the Kungey Ala-Too range in the north (both offshoots of the great Tien-Shan mountains); its name,
Ысык – Көл, means ‘hot lake’; referring not to the waters' balmy temperature (I can assure you) but to the fact that even though it’s at an altitude of 1,607 metres (5,272 ft)
in the middle of a bloody great load of mountains, it never freezes, not even in the depths of winter.
Since Soviet times, it's been a popular seaside holiday destination (or as seaside as you can get in a landlocked country) and during the summer it seems like the entire population of Kyrgyzstan decamps to its azure and highly culturally-charged shores.  With this in mind I've been holding off going to visit until the weather improved to the point when I could get the typical Issyk-Kul experience (I even looked the other way on the bus rides to and from Karakol so I wouldn't see the lake...yes, I am indeed that sad).
But summer is getting into full swing now, and what better location to expeience the typical Issyk-kul from than its most popular resort; Cholpon-Ata.    
And so at the end of a weary week, myself, Dan and The Big Ian dusted off our workday cobwebs, grabbed a bite to eat at the Vefa Centre and then hopped a cab for the 5 hour drive to Cholpon-Ata.
Except it did not take 5 hours, no nor 4 neither, nor 4 neither.  In fact it took a little over three hours.  Why was this, I hear you ask? (is it you, my dearest reader?  Or is that the voices in my head?   Nevermind, its all much of a muchness).  The answer was that the taxi-driver turned out to have a Michael-Schumacher complex and drove like a fecking lunatic.  Still, we arrived all in one piece, just after 1am, in time for a few bevvies with those of the advanced guard who were still awake (i.e. Rhys and Eve).

So, who was the company, all told, and what was our purpose at Issyk-Kul's sacred shoreline.  Our party was 8 in total; The Big Ian (veterean tefler, Edinburgh born, ironist, sometime philosopher, man of many wisdoms), Dan (Merseysider, speaker of outrageous wrynessess, pathological nickname creator), Cole (soft spoken Oregan gent, dryly humourous, sometimes too generous for his own good), his fine fiancé Кызжыбек (pron. something like Koozj'bek) an affable and petite Kyrgyz lady, Eve (sharp tongued Massachusett, fond of the telling of jokes and of rambling, nonsequitous anecdotes), Miranda (a recently-arrived Melbournite, maker of gentle acoustic guitar pluckery, talker in tangents, currently saving the world one borrower at a time through the mystical art of microfinance), Rhys (an understated Canadian who, recklessly fanning the flames of stereotype, used to work at an ice-hockey rink) and your (relatively) humble narrator.  Our stated aim was twofold, to thoroughly relax body and mind, and to celebrate Cole's last weekend in Kyrgyzstan before his return to the States.   
And now, the company and its purpose introduced, it's time for bed... 

The next morning we rose and shone for a breakfast of tea, freshly made pancakes (courtesy of Cole, fine gent that he is) and laid-back acoustic guitar accompaniment (courtesy of Miranda, Cole and myself)  

Stomachs sated, we made our way down to the beach.  There's something unnervingly surreal about seeing a typical beachfront resort in a country about as far away from the sea as you can possibly get,  But Cholpon-Ata has the typical trimmings, complete with people selling ice-creams and candy floss//fairy floss/cotton candy (plus dried fish, savoury pastries and beer), big beach parasols, slides and diving boards, giant gerbil balls you can trundle across the water in, parasailing and one particularly disgruntled-looking camel giving rides to kids along the longsands. 

- Cholpon Ata's Camel -
With all the charm, amiability and job satisfaction one would expect from a worker in the tourist industry

Parasailing - looks like much fun.  Unfortunately, I'd forgotten the thing
that holds my glasses on so I couldn't bloody do it.  Grrrr!
(shakes fist in impotent frustration at own damn stupidity!)

We got set up with a parasol, found a choice spot on the beach and then headed in for a dip.  The water is bracing but refreshing (it's got nowt on swimming in the North Sea) and not overly salty, approximately 0.6% salinity compared to 3.5% for average seawater, so it doesn’t give you that familiar seaside feeling of your eyes stinging as if a jellyfish has crawled into them and invited all his friends along for a big party.   It does, however, provide a gentle, bobbing, buoyancy.  This buoyancy might be one reason to explain how, despite spending every summer bumming around at a beach resort, none of the people in Kyrgyzstan can actually bloody swim.

Kyrgyzstan's entry for the Turner Prize

For lunch, I decided to opt for the generally lauded choice of beer and dried fish.  Now, bear in mind that  not a morsel of fish had crossed my lips in almost a year, and I love seafood.  The result was a display of barely restrained savagery for which the word 'devour' only begins to cover. 

After we'd popped back to our lodge for a wee siesta, we made our way out to the petroglyphs that lie to the north of the town.

A relaxing evening stroll to go see some ancient stuff

We found a large, open-air site with about 2000 or so petroglyph in various states of clarity and fade-age, dating from 800 BC to 1200AD. 
The word Petroglyph comes from the Greek words Petro ‘rock’ and Glyphein ‘carve’, and refers to images carved or incised into a rock (not to be confused with a Pictogram where the image is painted onto the rock)

The Cholpon-Ata petroglyphs are widely spread around a several hectare site, which also includes a number of stone circles and burial chambers.  Many of the stones depict animals, particularly ibex, goats, wolves and horses.  A number of the stones depict hunting scenes in which hunters on horseback are hunting with the assistance of tame snow-leopords (which is, quite frankly, pretty damn bad-ass).

Rock and Rhys

Another common image on the stones is that of the sun, and this, along with the south-east/south-west orientation of many of the stones and stone circles, has led a number of archaeologists to postulate that this used to be a large open-air temple dedicated to the worship of the sun.  A lot of the glyphs have suffered from the effects of weathering and also a little bit of more modern petroglyph work (mostly people’s names scrawled in a strong, clear cyrillic hand).  Nevertheless, a fair number of impressively well preserved examples remain and it provided an extremely interesting hour or so's wander.

But, as always seems to be the case in this blog, every cultural insight must be paid for with a drunken revel and so, after an incredibly tasty tea of fresh, sizzling hot trout on a platter, we made our way down to the beachfront armed with a plentiful supply of beer and fizzy wine.
The champagne, direct from the champagne region of Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan/Moldova (I'm not quite sure which), was provided courtesy of The Big Ian and turned out to be for the purpose of toasting his 35th birthday, the fact of which he'd been keeping under close wraps all day, the sly dog.  So we all drank a toast to his good health, and he extolled his hopes for the second half of his life.  These ran as follows:

              1) to gain respect
              2) to have some of them bairns (that's children to the uninitiated)
and         3) not to become a hope-bereft, washed-out, lecherous, old drunkard
                  wandering vaguely from country to country because he's too socially
                  inept to survive in his half-recalled homeland, sipping vodka and
                  coke from a colourful plastic cup during lessons he no longer has any
                  enthusiasm to give, to an endless treadmill of students, ever-changing
                  but always the same, for whom he is at best utter indifferent,
                  schlepping his way through a series of trainwreck relationships
                  with a thickly-made-up procession of initally enthusiastic but
                  switly dissilusioned, nubile, young golddiggers.
                  This is the great fear and potential fate of all long-term

The Big Ian divvying up the bubbly

As his pièce de résistance, Ian whipped out the by now legendary Admiral Ackbar mask for a photo opp.

Return of the Ackbar
After a while Miranda, being sensible, decided to lay her head down and have a snooze, the rest of us, not being sensible decided up and polish of a large quanitty of beer and shoot the shit into the wee small hours.
And so, the next day dawned, as dull and heavy as our hangovers  Overcast. windy and gloomy,  our enthusiasm for the beach lasted barely an hour.  A quick meal in a cafe with waitresses as speedy and enthusiastic and mathematically acute as the Cholpon-Ata Camel later and I was in a marshrutka heading back to Bishkek, with Miranda introducing me to the wonders of Aussie hip-hop.  And what finer end to a fine weekend at the lakeside could there be than that.

A hearty thank you must again go out to master Dan Mahony for allowing me to use his fine photographs. 


  1. Hi. I'd like to mention your weblog in my German blog and I'd like to use one of your photos (petroglyph+%252B+rhys.jpg) in this post. If this is ok with you, please send me a short note to post[at]

    Thanks Richard
    (I didn't find any contact on your blog, thus this message)

  2. Hi, I have been visiting your blog. Congratulations for your work!I love all your stories and the way you write...Have fun in your stay in Kyrgyz and make sure you are covered with an International Medical Insurance .

  3. Thank you for the interesting and informative article. I also want to invite you to Truskavets. Do please informative article about the city resort town and write on his blog. On all the resort Truskavets with pool can be found at санатории Трускавца с бассейном