Issyk Kul (Kyrgyz: Ысык көл Ysyk Köl, Russian: Иссык-Куль) is a lake in Kyrgyzstan. The name refers both to the lake and the oblast (region) containing the lake. The region is centered around the massive Issyk Kul lake, which is the second largest alpine lake in the world. It is completely ringed by the massive snow-capped Tian Shan mountains that lie between 3000 and 4000 meters.
The Issyk Kul lake reaches to 663 meters deep in the center. The east end of the lake was also once used as a torpedo testing site by the Soviet Navy, making the region off limits to foreigners for a period of time.
Issyk Kul is divided between the more populated and touristy North Shore and the more rugged and less populated South Shore.
Karakol is the largest city and the capital of Issyk-Kul oblast.
Balykchy is a small, dying industrial center on the western shore that you will encounter as you enter the pass from the Chui Valley
Cholpon Ata is the central city for tourism. Most of the resorts are within 50 km of Cholpon Ata.
There are plenty of smaller villages at lake shore, with cheaper accomodation and less tourists. One of the most accessible of these for westerners, owing to its small size, closeness to Bishkek and the fact that it had a CBT, is Tamchy. However getting off at any town along the lake where you see signs (often spray-painted) saying "Комнаты", "rooms", is likely to be rewarding and a way to get off the beaten track - these signs mean there are locals renting out rooms in their houses/ turning them into guest houses for the summer.
Issyk Kul is a slightly saline deep water body. Years of over-fishing have decimated its fisheries and many of the smoked fish sold in the surronding cities come from other alpine lakes. Due to a lack of reasonable control on tourism, many sub-standard and unfinished low quality tourism resorts ring the lake's north shore. Nevertheless, there still remain numerous places to appreciate the true beauty of Issyk Kul.
A mountain pass road being constructed between Issyk Kul and Almaty, Kazakhstan is set to increase the number of tourists in the coming years and without government controls on development, exposing the lake to more tourists will only deplete its natural beauty.
The simplest way to reach Issyk Kul is by minibus from Bishkek western bus station (Западный автовокзал Zapadniy avtovokzal). There are minibuses that goes over northern or southern shore, you can arrange with driver to stop at your desired village. The price is about 250 som to Cholpon Ata or 300 som to Karakol.
You can arrange a van or taxi from Almaty or Bishkek. A hired driver one-way from Bishkek will cost up to $100. Leave from the western bus station (Западный автовокзал Zapadniy avtovokzal) to get to Issyk Kul. A seat in a 4-person shared car to Cholpon Ata will cost about 500–1000 som. Beware that prices may differ largely between different drivers and be prepared to bargain. You may wish to team up with other travelers (or locals) and negotiate a price together, locals often pleased to ensure that you pay the local fare. Prices may be higher on weekends or peak season.
There is also a scenic train ride from Bishkek to Balykchy. The train is slower than bus or car, and there is only one train to Balykchy departing early morning and returning back at afternoon. But the train ride boasts amazing views of the mountain pass. And the tickets are very cheap, for 70 som. Beware that the train cabin will reach high temperatures in summer.
All of the larger cities have bus and taxi stations where you can negotiate rides. If you are in a smaller city, you can just ask around for a car and driver and receive a reasonable rate.
The locally published Spektator magazine has an online guide to circumnavigating Issyk Kul.
There are many routes for hiking into the mountains surrounding the lake. Issyk Kul is also ringed by hundreds of kilometers of beaches popular for swimming and sunning.
Most of the restaurants serve "national and European" cuisine, which amounts to local and Russian food. There are few restaurants catering to western tastes. Most locals pack their own food and prepare in their hotel rooms and on the beach. You can find numerous shashlik stands in the summer serving marinated grilled lamb and beef.
Some locals believe drinking the slightly saline water of Issyk Kul has health benefits. But unaccustomed better not to drink brackish water
There are no lifeguards at any of the beaches.
There are no nudist beaches and women being topless is quite rare, but local custom has no aversion to extremely skimpy swimsuits.
Beware, as the lake sits at 1600 meters above sea level, a few days in the sun can do more damage to your skin than a week at sea level.