Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan

Lake Locations:

Kyrgyzstan -

Also known as:  Ysyk Kol, Issyk-Kol

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!

Things to do at Issyk Kul

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Sailing
  • Swimming
  • Beach
  • Canoeing
  • Wind Surfing
  • Hiking
  • Waterfall
  • Birding
  • Museum

Fish species found at Issyk Kul

  • Carp
  • Trout
  • Whitefish
  • Zander

Issyk Kul Photo Gallery

Issyk Kul Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Not Dammed

Surface Area: 1,540,949 acres

Shoreline Length: 428 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 5,272 feet

Average Depth: 886 feet

Maximum Depth: 2,192 feet

Water Volume: 1,409,025,024 acre-feet

Drainage Area: 6,117 sq. miles

Trophic State: Oligotrophic

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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