Lake Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan

Issyk Kul is the second largest and second highest mountain lake in the world. On its picturesque sandy beaches in front of the mighty peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains in north-eastern Kyrgyzstan, migratory birds seek rest and food and holidaymakers rest and relaxation.

Issyk Kul is located in the Tian Shan Mountains in the north-east of Kyrgyzstan and is also called "The Pearl of Central Asia" because of its scenic beauty. Issyk Kul translates as "hot lake". Due to its great depth and high salt content, the Issyk Kul does not freeze over even at winter temperatures of up to -20°C.


PICTURES: Lake Issyk Kul

Photo gallery: Lake Issyk Kul

The impressive lake is framed by mighty peaks, with the Terskej-Alatau in the south and the Kungei-Alatau in the north, Issyk Kul lies at the feet of two imposing mountain ranges. The almost 700m deep mountain lake is also called the "heart of the Tian Shan". It has over 100 tributaries, but not a single outlet, which means that its water level is highly dependent on rainfall.

Records and near-records of the Issyk Kul

With an area of 6,236 square kilometres, it is the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan and the second largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia in South America.

This has also snatched the title of highest lake away from Issyk Kul. With an altitude of 1,609 metres, Issyk Kul is in second place. Issyk Kul is also only second in the world's largest salt lake. Here, the Caspian Sea is ahead.

Breathtaking landscape of the Issyk Kul

Dreamlike sunset at Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan - © Loskutnikov / Shutterstock
© Loskutnikov / Shutterstock

Its vast sandy beaches, incredible sunsets and imposing mountain ranges of the "sky mountains" in the background make Issyk Kul a scenically breathtaking recreation area. The rugged high mountain valleys with the 7,000-metre peaks of the Tian Shan and the flowering meadows, pastures and plateaus convey absolute peace and tranquillity.

Especially when Kyrgyzstan was still part of the USSR, health resorts, guesthouses and holiday homes at Lake Issyk Kul mushroomed. After a period of decline following secession from the USSR, tourism at Issyk Kul was revived.

Journey to Lake Issyk Kul

Due to its great depth and high salt content, the Issyk Kul does not freeze even in winter temperatures as low as -20°C, Kyrgyzstan - © Gaydukov Sergey / Shutterstock
© Gaydukov Sergey / Shutterstock

The towns of Karakol and Cholpon-Ata are located directly on its shores, both of which can be reached from the capital Bishkek by minibus or taxi.


Issyk Kul can also be reached by train, the line runs from Bishkek to the industrial centre of Balykchy. The journey takes you through the beautiful landscape of Kyrgyzstan and takes a little longer than by bus or car, but can be a hot affair, especially in summer.

Near Cholpon-Ata, a popular seaside resort on the north coast, hundreds of prehistoric petroglyphs have been found. Further evidence of the past can be found in the form of ruins of an ancient city at the bottom of the lake. Legend has it that there are a whole four drowned cities in the deep waters of the Issyk Kul. Cholpon-Ata is also where most accommodation is located.

Holidays and best time to visit Issyk Kul

Its sweeping sandy beaches make Issyk Kul a scenically stunning recreation area, Kyrgyzstan - © Elena Mirage / Shutterstock
© Elena Mirage / Shutterstock

The holiday season for Lake Issyk Kul is roughly from June to September, peaking from the end of July to the end of August, when the thermometer climbs to up to 28 °C. At this time, prices are at their highest and many hotels and holiday homes are fully booked. In September, when the leaves already start to change colour and the light and water become clearer, most hikers and photographers are out and about.

Tip: At Ak Saj, an original yurt camp is available for overnight stays, which is completely geared towards ecotourism. Horse or camel rides are also offered here.

Only 200 metres from Issyk Kul is an extremely salty lake similar to the Dead Sea. Its mineral-rich salts are used in the spa resorts at Issyk Kul for salt and mud treatments.

Tip: Since Issyk Kul lies at an altitude of 1,600 metres above sea level, the sun's rays are much more dangerous than on a sandy beach by the sea! Make sure you wear sufficient sun protection.

Sights around Lake Issyk Kul

The town of Karakol at the eastern tip of Issyk Kul is the administrative centre of Issyk Kul Province and is an ideal starting point for hikes around the lake and into the hinterland. Highly recommended are, for example, the northern valleys Gregorievka and Simeonevka and the Barskoon valley in the south.

Seven kilometres south of Karakol is also the most visited ski area in Kyrgyzstan, with slopes up to 4.5 kilometres long. The ski season runs from November to April.

Karakol itself also has some interesting sights, such as the Dunganen Mosque and the Holy Trinity Cathedral, both built of wood without the use of nails or screws.

Breathtaking nature around Issyk Kul

Rugged high mountain valleys, meadows covered with alpine flowers and plateaus where cattle graze convey absolute peace and tranquillity, Lake Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan - © Michal Knitl / Shutterstock
© Michal Knitl / Shutterstock

In order to protect the unique landscape and its animal inhabitants, especially fish and water birds, the Issyk Kul and its surroundings were declared a biosphere reserve in 1948. Thus the first nature reserve in Kyrgyzstan was born.


The Issyk Kul is home to 20 different species of fish, which serve as an important food source not only for the local population but also for a large number of migratory birds. The mountains around the lake are home to snow leopards, brown bears, wild goats, whistling hares and the rare Marco Polo sheep.

Tip: The majestic snow leopards can best be observed in the outdoor enclosure near Ananyevo.

Issyk Kul and the Military

The Kyrgyz SSR conducted its torpedo control tests in the huge Issyk Kul; large parts of the lake were a restricted military area at the time. Today, the Karabulan peninsula is still used by the Russian navy for weapons testing. The lease they pay to Kyrgyzstan is about 4.5 million US dollars per year.