Discovery Kyrgyzstan
Discovery Kyrgyzstan travel guide #10/2008

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Circumnavigating Issyk-Kul

The history of Russian geographical names in today's KyrgyziaAn old Hindu story tells of six blind men who meet an elephant for the first time. Each of them encounters a different part of the elephant and consequently each describes the elephant in very different terms. The blind man who feels the squirming trunk of the animal believes the elephant is like a snake, the man who grabs the long smooth tusk believes it is more like a spear, the one who grabs its swinging tail believes it is similar to a rope, and so on. Limited by their narrow encounter with the elephant, none of the men is able to understand what an elephant is really like.

Although the story about the elephant has a deeper meaning, I couldn't help but think about it as I began my recent - and first - trip to Issyk Kul. This 180 by 60 kilometer "warm" lake in northeastern Kyrgyzstan is situated at an elevation of 1,600 meters and is surrounded by mountains on three sides: the Kunghei Ala Too, which stretch northward into Kazakhstan, the Terskei Ala Too, which form a high wall on the southern side of the lake, and the Central Tien Shan, some of which rise over 7,500 meters to the east of the lake. Issyk Kul is vast and I knew that a two-day visit wouldn't be enough to form an accurate impression of the lake and its environs. Because I was visiting in the autumn, when the leaves were turning red, the skies gray, and the grass brown, my experience would be very different to that of summer visitors who spend most of their time relaxing along the sandy northern shores of the lake. With only two days, I didn't have enough time to hike up the deep gorges that lead from the northern plain of Issyk Kul into the Kunghei Ala Too mountains. And even if I had had the time, the weather was too cold for the longer treks into the Central Tien Shan.

I was intrigued by the tales I had heard of drowned cities such as the ancient town of Chi-gu, built by a tribe driven from China by the Huns, and destroyed sometime after the 5th century. My original goal, when I hoped I planned to visit Issyk Kul in August, had been to go scuba diving in the lake and perhaps see some of the traces of these lost cities. But my plans had failed and now the mid-October temperatures were far too cold for me to even consider putting my foot in the water. In the end, limited by both time and weather, my traveling companion and I decided to hire a car and driver and circumnavigate the lake, stopping at some of the sites that seemed most interesting and that would fit into our two-day schedule.

A Drive-By View of the Northern Shore

The trip began in the classic fashion: a three-hour drive from Bishkek and a decision to begin the loop along the northern shore of the lake. It was a cold afternoon, and the lake's surface reflected the steely gray of the clouds that blanketed the Kunghei Ala Too. Our first stop was just north of Cholpon Ata, the well-known resort town, where a large rocky field boasts petroglyphs that have been dated to between the 5th and 1st centuries BC. I turned up the collar of my jacket against the wind and traipsed around the site, trying to find discernable rock art. With the help of the local archaeologist, who was one of the few other people out on this chilly Saturday afternoon, we located some of the better rock drawings, including one filled with leaping ibex that is particularly striking from a distance. We also spoke with him about some of the problems he faces in his day-to-day work. One problem was quite evident: the fence that once protected the site from vandalism has been carted off piece by piece and the area is now completely unmonitored.

We moved on quickly, knowing that we still had a long drive to Karakol, where we planned to stay the night. Along the way we were treated to an autumnal Issyk Kul sunset. For a few brief moments the mountains glowed a fluorescent pink and the lake turned to liquid gold. Though the spectacle didn't last long, it left a lingering hope of other good things to come.

Valley of Gumbez

Circumnavigating Issyk-KulWe spent our second night in the home of a family near Bokonbaevo, stopping first in Bokonbaevo to eat dinner and buy a few shyrdak souvenirs at the Altyn Oymok (golden thimble) community store. The next day, after much verbal sparring with our driver, we finally reached Kongor Olon Valley, southwest of Bokonbaevo. Our route was a good dirt road that turns off the main highway between Kara-Kor and Kyzyl-Tuu leading to Dun Talaa and other villages in the Kongor Olon Valley.

Somehow, entering this valley seemed like a step backward in time or perhaps a step sideways into another, slightly magical, dimension. The wide valley stretched in both directions, offering a panoramic view with few motor vehicles or other signs of 21st century life. A road led west to an ancient burial ground, but we opted to drive through the villages and stop at a couple of more recent cemeteries with some medieval-looking mausoleums or gumbez. The brown pasturelands, which would be green and flower-filled in summer, were filled with flocks of sheep, grazing horses, and shepherds on horseback. Over the low range that separates the valley from Issyk Kul, we glimpsed the snow-capped peaks of the Kunghei Ala Too. We asked some locals about the location of additional old ruins, but they looked at us as if we had dropped out of the sky and seemed not to understand the question.

Too soon, it was time to head back to Bishkek. As we drove back toward Issyk Kul, two boys on horses and one on a donkey moved over to let us pass. Beyond them lay the brown plains, the blue waters of Issyk Kul, and the white Ala Too. I thought about the blind men and the elephant and decided that the only way I would ever discover the true nature of Issyk Kul would be to return - many times.

by Konnie W. Andrew

Discovery Kyrgyzstan #4

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