Length – 185km

Width – up to 60km

Depth – up to 702m

Area of the Lake: 6,200 sq. km



Lake Issyk-Kul, which means “the hot lake” in the Turkic languages of Central Asia, holds the title as one of the largest alpine lakes in the world. At an altitude of 1,609 meters above sea level it is exceeded only by Lake Titicaca in Bolivia as highest of the large mountain lakes. Two mountain chains of the Central Tien Shan Range border the lake – in the north the Kungei-Alatau (in Turkic: “facing the sun”), and in the south the Terskei-Alatau (in Turkic: “turned away from the sun”). About one hundred large and small rivers flow down into the lake from these peaks, carving gorges and canyons into the mountain flanks. The largest of these rivers, the Tyup and the Jergalan, empty into the lake in the east. In the south, the largest rivers are the Karakol, Kyzyl-Suu, Juuka, Barskoon and Ton; in the north, there are two rivers called Aksu and three rivers called Koisu (Chon “Big” Koisu, Orto “Middle” Koisu and Kichi “Small” Koisu). There are no outlets for the waters of Lake Issyk-Kul, so the lake has a high salinity, actually tasting salty to bathers.

The climate of the Issyk-Kul valley is moderately continental, due to the presence of the huge water reservoir. Summers are relatively cool, as compared to the neighboring Chu valley, and winters are mild with less snow. The surprising transparency and cleanliness of the lake’s water, which near the coast warms up to 26°C in August, make Issyk-Kul a popular vacation spot, not only for the inhabitants of Kyrgyzstan, but also for visitors from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Siberia. This inland Kyrgyz “sea” is often referred to as the pearl of the Tien Shan. From a satellite “bird’s-eye” view, the lake appears as a huge dark blue eye rimmed with sharp snowcapped peaks – the gaze of the gray-haired Tien Shan eternally looking up into space. Surprisingly rich clusters of stars crowd the night sky, while the track of the sun across the heavens paints unique sunrises and sunsets on the canvas of the lake’s surface, transmuting lead into molten gold with sapphire and diamond sparks.

Since ancient times the coasts of Lake Issyk-Kul have attracted people. Everything around the lake is permeated with history: the caves of Stone Age people, the stone burial mounds of cattle breeding tribes, the art galleries of petroglyphs stretching for hundreds of kilometers around the lake, the stone roads and huge burial mounds of the Scythian kings, silent stone statues guarding the repose of perished civilizations. The ruins of ancient and medieval cities which prospered in the times of the Great Silk Road now lie buried underwater, vanished from memory without a trace after centuries of war and conquest. Numberless caravans of heavily-laden camels, horses, and donkeys that once plodded their way from China across the high mountain passes and along the lake shore to distant Europe, no longer ply these routes. The few written sources that survived speak of this golden age of culture, literature and art. The remnants of ceramic utensils thrown up onto the shore by the restless waves of Issyk-Kul remind us of these cities, swallowed up by the stormy waters of life.

The most ancient mention of Lake Issyk-Kul can be found in Chinese chronicles. Chang Ch’ien, a Chinese explorer, set forth on a journey to the West in the year 138 B.C. He was captured by the Hsiung-nu (possibly the same people known by European historians as the Huns). During his captivity, he visited Central Asia and the mysterious tribes of the nomadic Yueh-chih, who at that time inhabited the lands around Lake Issyk-Kul. The traveler wrote that the land was rich in pastures and coniferous forests. In 629 A.D., Hsuan-zhang, a Chinese Buddhist monk on a pilgrimage to India, reached Lake Issyk-Kul after an arduous crossing of the Tien Shan mountains. The Chinese called the lake Zhehai “the warm lake”, as the lake never freezes, which completely corresponds with the Turkic name. “The color of the water is greenish-black,” wrote Hsuan-zhang, “its taste is salty and bitter at the same time. Wide waves either run in huge billows, or rise up and rush forward with uncontrollable force. In the lake dragons and fish dwell together, and unusual monsters sometimes appear from its depths. This is why travelers pray for their safe passage.


Legends of Issyk-Kul

The Kyrgyz retell many legends about how the lake was formed, about ancient cities and the catastrophe that drowned them, when water poured out of the mountains and flooded the valley.

One legend claims that Alexander the Great flooded the valley to comply with the desire of a Persian hero, Rustem, who reigned in Andijan and possessed the lands around Issyk-Kul. Before his death Rustem wished that the bones and relics of his companions-in-arms and ancestors should be inaccessible forever. After the conquest of the lands around Lake Issyk-Kul, Alexander decided to execute the last will of the hero. From a girl who had fallen in love with him, he learned of a well that could flood the whole valley. His beloved gave Alexander a casket with a key to the door that covered the entrance to the well. Opening the door, the well bubbled over with flood waters which submerged the surroundings. There is also a legend stating that it was Tamerlane in the 15th century who decided to destroy the rebellious cities around the lake.

According to another of the legends, in the city was a spring from which water flowed out with such a force that each person coming for water, after filling a bucket, hurried to cork up the well’s throat with a heavy stone. It happened that a young man met a young woman at the spring and they tarried too long with love chatter. Forgetting to replace the stone on the fountain, the rushing water flooded not only the city but the whole valley as well.

Kyrgyz legend about tragic love and Issyk-Kul Lake

Once upon a time, so long ago that people have forgotten when, there was a city by Lake Issyk-Kul. A fortress of a powerful khan dominated the city. The terrible governor learned that one poor nomad had a daughter of incomparable beauty. The khan sent his jigits to bring the girl to him. However, the girl had a beloved young man, who, before leaving for distant lands, put his ring on the beloved’s finger and asked her not to remove it until he came back. “It will protect you from any misfortune!” the young man said. The khan’s envoys brought generous gifts to the girl’s parents, but she rejected the gifts stating: “I love another and cannot become a wife of the khan!” When the khan’s jigits grew more insistent, the girl escaped to the mountains in an attempt to hide herself from them. All of a sudden, with horror she found out that the ring on her finger had disappeared. The girl came back to the village in the hope of recovering the lost ring, but the servants of the khan seized her and took her to his camp. The khan imprisoned the intractable girl in the fortress and tried various means of persuasion to woo her for himself. His efforts were all in vain. “I love another and I shall never be yours!” This was the beauty’s answer. Having failed to enjoy the girl’s favor by gifts, the khan decided to possess her by force. Like a beast, he charged towards the girl intending to overpower her. But she rushed to the open window and threw herself out. Suddenly the unassailable walls shook, the earth split and water gushed out of a crevice washing away the fortress and the whole city, continuing to pour out until the whole valley disappeared under the lake.

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