Updated: Nov 20, 2020
We lived in Kazakhstan for something like fifteen years and in all those years never visited Kyrgyzia. The reason was really that when we went away on holiday, it would be to the UK and the West to breathe the air of freedom (an air that is rapidly disappearing in these woke and now covicious days).
However, Kyrgyzstan with its high-mountain salt-water lake called Issyk-Kul was the 'Riviera' of choice for the Soviet citizens of Central Asia back in Commie days when 'Sovs' had to sadly stay behind their iron curtain and it remains so to this day for lesser folk now the age of oligarchic despotism has taken over. (For example, my wonderful housekeeper, Irina, has had a summer holiday on the lake every year for 29 years without fail, with her record being broken this year by Covid.)
Lake Issyk-Kul had – and still has to a lesser degree – a more secret use. Far from the dread eyes of NATO, the Alma-Ata Heavy Machine Building Factory in Alma-Ata built/builds torpedos for the Soviet submarine fleet and these were tested in the salt waters of of the lake!
So, when the time came that it felt too dangerous for me to stay on in business in Kazakhstan and I decided it was time anyway to retire back to the UK, I suddenly realised that I might be leaving Central Asia never to return and I really ought to see Kyrgyzia and its famous lake.
Thus it came to pass that Arthur and I in 2015 made a quick little out-of-season trip to that country in spring before we moved to the UK. I can't remember why Katya was not with us. (Issyk-Kul has a very short summer season because it is 1800 metres above sea level and it's VERY cold in winter and pretty cold most of the time. The lake never freezes over however because of the saltiness of the water and some hots springs that feed into it – not that one would notice when one gets into the water; the Med it isn't!
So here is a little photo report on the trip, which was a great success. Kyrgyzia was a much more easy-going country than Kazakhstan: no visas required, much less of a police state and also less bureaucratic than Kazakhstan. Although Issyk Kul is a mere 60-70 kilometres from Almaty as the crow flies, it's a more like a 500-kilometre drive because there's a rather high mountain range with glaciers and eternal snow in the way.
Because there are a lot of photos, I'll split the tour into sections that I can write about, followed by a little slide show. When in slide show mode, you can click on the 'enlarge picture' arrows top right, to see the pictures at a better size. (Sorry Paul, the enlarged pictures can only have a white background at the moment. I spent over an hour with my hosting company's tech support and they discovered neither I as user, nor they, can change it. The matter is now on their list for a future upgrade.) For anyone who might be interested, all these pictures here were taken with my Fujifilm X100, a great little camera for travelling with.
Part One - The Drive
So first we drove to Bishkek, where we had booked a stay at Southside Guest House, which we had found on Trip Advisor. It turned out to be a wonderful little place, owned by a very charming Australian married to an equally charming local Russian girl. It being out-of-season, we were the only guests and the owners were having a party in their garden when we arrived. They promptly invited to join the table.
Here we have a road stop while still in Kazakhstan. I love the combination of beautiful view and filth carelessly strewn by previous visitors stretching their legs. This behaviour is typical for all the former Soviet Union.
We wanted to hire a car and driver to do a trip around Issyk Kul and our host volunteered himself for the job. This was lovely as we could then have our holiday in English.
So we set off the next day to drive to Balykchi ('fishtown' in the local language) and to start going round the lake, going anti-clockwise, thus beginning our tour with the less-developed south side of the lake.
Kyrgyzia is poorer than Kazakhstan (no oil) so the roadside stops looked pretty miserable (though the people in them were way friendlier than in Almaty. The roadside amenities were very basic: puncture repair, cafe for sale, cafe, petrol (picture 3). The town of Balykchi was very depressed (no fish in 'Fishtown' due to overfishing) and I couldn't resist the shot of Lenin gazing down on the ruination to which he led.
I should add that quite a few of these pictures were taken through the windscreen of a moving car.
Part Two - Going around Issyk Kul
After that, the journey proper began
Nice empty roads and incredible views and light. In fact, the brightness of the light there is matched by the brightness here in Orkney, but I did not know that at the time.
We stopped in various places and drove up to the lake shore here and there. Issyk Kul is in a basin surrounded by mountains so there were snowy peaks on the skyline wherever we looked.
Round the lake with sightseeing is a minimum two-day trip, so we overnighted in a lodge that in the summer usually hosts walkers or horseback trekkers. The Kyrghyz love their horses (even though they also, like the Kazakhs, eat them as well)
One of the more amazing sights on the next day's drive was a canyon area called, with true Soviet imagination 'Skazka' (= 'Fairytale'). A place of truly weird rock formations which Arthur and I promptly dubbed fossilised dinosaur turds.
A little further down the road, we drove to a hot spring for a bathe. Dusty road, more amazing rock formations, and a very decrepit Soviet era 'station balnéaire' where it took half an hour to wake up the keeper and have a very pleasant swim in warm, slightly sulphurous water.
We reached the town at the Eastern end of the lake. Total post-Soviet depression, but once again very nice people and a perfectly okay snack in a snack bar. This is the former factory that was the town's raison d'être. We never found out what it made. The town apparently survives on servicing tourists during the very short season, so Lord knows how it's doing this year. The proud slogan says: "Dedicating our shock labour to the Motherland!"
The more popular north side of the lake was horrible, all covered with vile, cheap Soviet 'sanitariums' (holiday camps) and miserable-looking cafés. So we drove through, searching for a good place to carry out a task we had set ourselves – to have a dip in the icy cold lake. Issyk Kul is famously hard to swim in ever at the height of summer. In April, when the snow had barely melted, it was going to be icy. But we did. The first possible spot was too rocky but after driving around a bit, we eventually found a sandy spot from where we could run into the water, dunk ourselves to prove we had really done it, and then dash back out again.
And so back to Bishkek. Another night in the nice B&B and then a wander around Bishkek before returning to Almaty the next day. Fountains are only turned on in summer (the pipes could still freeze). A Bishkek tradition I have not seen anywhere else in the Soviet Union is multi-person bicycles for tootling around the central park, which must be lovely in the blisteringly hot summer. If not for the weather, the town could be anywhere in the Soviet Union: a mixture of Stalin and Khruschevo-Brezhnevite styles. The central market – nice fresh food and Chinese tat. We were taken around town by a nice, highly educated Kyrghyz intellectual lady, a friend of our hosts at the B&B whom we chatted with at the patio meal in the B&B on the day we arrived. The two blue bottles are a local refreshment, a liquidy yoghurt that can be made with either cow's or mare's milk. Oh yes, and the local beer was rather nice.
So that was Kyrgyzstan for us. On the return journey we were badly hassled by Kazakhstan immigration and a bribe became necessary. Also on the return journey, I invented the tourist slogan for Kyrgyzstan