Lakes of Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan bodies of water. History and pictures of Kyrgyzstan nature

Water is a defining feature of Kyrgyzstan. In winter it freezes on glaciers and buries the land deep in snow. In summer it melts into cascading streams, tumbling waterfalls and ferocious torrents which carve their way through jagged cliffs and rocky gorges. This annual snow-melt is vitally important to the landlocked Kyrgyz, supplying water for drinking, agriculture and hydroelectricity. 

Each August the ice-locked Merzbacher Lake on the Northern Inylchek Glacier bursts through its ice wall, sending a dramatic plume of water into the air. The run-off from this and 6,500 other glaciers feeds the trickling streams, which meander through lush mountain pastures before converging noisily in mighty rivers such as the 720 km long Naryn and the Chui. Their furious white water attracts rafters and kayakers from around the world.

Pristine mountain lakes such as lovely Song Kul provide a summer refuge for shepherds and their herds, and pilgrims flock to holy springs in search of cures for ailments and troubles. But if the lush mountains are tuned to the constant rush of water, the parched lowlands burn hot and dry, and in the south, fields of sunflowers turn their faces to the sun.


Lake Issyk-Kul

Length - 185km

Width - up to 60km

Depth - up to 702m

Area of the Lake: 6,200 sq. km

Lake Issyk-Kul, which means "the hot lake" in the Turkic languages of Central Asia, holds the title as one of the largest alpine lakes in the world. At an altitude of 1,609 meters above sea level it is exceeded only by Lake Titicaca in Bolivia as highest of the large mountain lakes. Two mountain chains of the Central Tien Shan Range border the lake - in the north the Kungei-Alatau (in Turkic: "facing the sun"), and in the south the Terskei-Alatau (in Turkic: "turned away from the sun"). About one hundred large and small rivers flow down into the lake from these peaks, carving gorges and canyons into the mountain flanks. The largest of these rivers, the Tyup and the Jergalan, empty into the lake in the east. In the south, the largest rivers are the Karakol, Kyzyl-Suu, Juuka, Barskoon and Ton; in the north, there are two rivers called Aksu and three rivers called Koisu (Chon "Big" Koisu, Orto "Middle" Koisu and Kichi "Small" Koisu). There are no outlets for the waters of Lake Issyk-Kul, so the lake has a high salinity, actually tasting salty to bathers.

The climate of the Issyk-Kul valley is moderately continental, due to the presence of the huge water reservoir. Summers are relatively cool, as compared to the neighboring Chu valley, and winters are mild with less snow. The surprising transparency and cleanliness of the lake's water, which near the coast warms up to 26°C in August, make Issyk-Kul a popular vacation spot, not only for the inhabitants of Kyrgyzstan, but also for visitors from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Siberia. This inland Kyrgyz "sea" is often referred to as the pearl of the Tien Shan. From a satellite "bird's-eye" view, the lake appears as a huge dark blue eye rimmed with sharp snowcapped peaks - the gaze of the gray-haired Tien Shan eternally looking up into space. Surprisingly rich clusters of stars crowd the night sky, while the track of the sun across the heavens paints unique sunrises and sunsets on the canvas of the lake's surface, transmuting lead into molten gold with sapphire and diamond sparks.

Since ancient times the coasts of Lake Issyk-Kul have attracted people. Everything around the lake is permeated with history: the caves of Stone Age people, the stone burial mounds of cattle breeding tribes, the art galleries of petroglyphs stretching for hundreds of kilometers around the lake, the stone roads and huge burial mounds of the Scythian kings, silent stone statues guarding the repose of perished civilizations. The ruins of ancient and medieval cities which prospered in the times of the Great Silk Road now lie buried underwater, vanished from memory without a trace after centuries of war and conquest. Numberless caravans of heavily-laden camels, horses, and donkeys that once plodded their way from China across the high mountain passes and along the lake shore to distant Europe, no longer ply these routes. The few written sources that survived speak of this golden age of culture, literature and art. The remnants of ceramic utensils thrown up onto the shore by the restless waves of Issyk-Kul remind us of these cities, swallowed up by the stormy waters of life.

The most ancient mention of Lake Issyk-Kul can be found in Chinese chronicles. Chang Ch'ien, a Chinese explorer, set forth on a journey to the West in the year 138 B.C. He was captured by the Hsiung-nu (possibly the same people known by European historians as the Huns). During his captivity, he visited Central Asia and the mysterious tribes of the nomadic Yueh-chih, who at that time inhabited the lands around Lake Issyk-Kul. The traveler wrote that the land was rich in pastures and coniferous forests. In 629 A.D., Hsuan-zhang, a Chinese Buddhist monk on a pilgrimage to India, reached Lake Issyk-Kul after an arduous crossing of the Tien Shan mountains. The Chinese called the lake Zhehai "the warm lake", as the lake never freezes, which completely corresponds with the Turkic name. "The color of the water is greenish-black," wrote Hsuan-zhang, "its taste is salty and bitter at the same time. Wide waves either run in huge billows, or rise up and rush forward with uncontrollable force. In the lake dragons and fish dwell together, and unusual monsters sometimes appear from its depths. This is why travelers pray for their safe passage.


Kyrgyz legend about tragic love and Issyk-Kul Lake

Once upon a time, so long ago that people have forgotten when, there was a city by Lake Issyk-Kul. A fortress of a powerful khan dominated the city. The terrible governor learned that one poor nomad had a daughter of incomparable beauty. The khan sent his jigits to bring the girl to him. However, the girl had a beloved young man, who, before leaving for distant lands, put his ring on the beloved's finger and asked her not to remove it until he came back. "It will protect you from any misfortune!" the young man said. The khan's envoys brought generous gifts to the girl's parents, but she rejected the gifts stating: "I love another and cannot become a wife of the khan!" When the khan's jigits grew more insistent, the girl escaped to the mountains in an attempt to hide herself from them. All of a sudden, with horror she found out that the ring on her finger had disappeared. The girl came back to the village in the hope of recovering the lost ring, but the servants of the khan seized her and took her to his camp. The khan imprisoned the intractable girl in the fortress and tried various means of persuasion to woo her for himself. His efforts were all in vain. "I love another and I shall never be yours!" This was the beauty's answer. Having failed to enjoy the girl's favor by gifts, the khan decided to possess her by force. Like a beast, he charged towards the girl intending to overpower her. But she rushed to the open window and threw herself out. Suddenly the unassailable walls shook, the earth split and water gushed out of a crevice washing away the fortress and the whole city, continuing to pour out until the whole valley disappeared under the lake.


Lake Son Kul

Son Kul is a mountain lake in the Central Tian Shan range, virtually in the centre of Kyrgyzstan. One translation of the name is “The Last Lake”. 

At an altitude of 3016m a.s.l.; 29km long and 18km wide and a maximum depth of 13.2m - it is Kyrgyzstan 's second largest lake.The average temperature is about -3.5°C, and in summer it is about 11°C . Winter temperatures can fall as low as -20°C , and there are something like 200 days of snow. In winter is often impossible to reach the plateau. Unlike Issyk Kul( Kyrgyzstan 's largest lake) it does freeze over in the winter – between September and June. It is situated on a treeless, high mountain plateau, and is surrounded by lush mountain meadows (jailoo). As such it is used by the shepherds of the Kochkor, Naryn and At Bashi regions for summer pastures for their flocks. In fact, there is evidence that it has been used for pasture from very ancient times. (There are some strange arrangements of ‘standing stones' and stone circles – nothing on the scale of Stonehenge – but they provide an interesting stimulation to speculation about how they got there and what was their purpose).

The shepherds drive the livestock (sheep and/or horses) up into the mountains, establish a camp where they will live for the summer months – setting up their yurts.

Yurts, round felt tents over a wooden frame are the typical nomadic dwelling found throughout Central Asia , you will see several scattered throughout the plain. Many shepherd will be happy to welcome travelers and serve a cup of Kumyz – fermented mare's milk - and even to let visitors sleep overnight, (usually on mats on the floor), but it may be best to make arrangements beforehand. There are several camps (or ‘Yurt Inns') established during the summer months to accommodate travelers … with kitchens, toilets and washing facilities. It is also possible to arrange horse riding and trekking lasting anything from an hour to a day.

There are four roads up from the valleys. One from SaryBulak in the North East; a second passing through a dramatic sequence of over thirty serpentine, hairpin bends towards Naryn in the South East (if you have time you can take a detour to a beautiful waterfall surrounded by woods); the third goes to Ak-Tal in the South West and the fourth goes past the coal mines of Kara Keche towards Chaek in the North West .

In the winter, however – and often in Spring and Autumn months too – these roads are closed by snow.

It is possible for the visitor to feel that they are experiencing “pristine nature”. Even though there are no trees on the plain … there is abundance of herbs (such as chamomile, sagebrush, lichen, friar's cap and golden root) – many of which are prized for the medicinal qualities, and flowers are plentiful in the spring (especially Edelweiss). There are some 66 different species of waterfowl that make their homes on the shores of the lake or in the surrounding area – about two thirds of all the varieties found throughout Kyrgyzstan . Amongst the ones that a luck tourist might see are: several different species of gulls and ducks; cranes, storks, mergansers, bald-coots, plovers, falcons, golden eagles, shags and the very rare Indian mountain goose. Animals that you might be luck enough to see on the plain include deer, foxes, marmots, Marco Polo Sheep, lynx, leopards and wolves. There were no fish in the lake until 1959 – when fish were specially introduced into the lake and now, fish from the lake could be found on sale in the markets of Naryn and Kochkor.


Lake SaryChelek

SaryChelek means 'Yellow Bucker' or sometimes it translated as 'Golden Hollow'. At an altitude of 2500 meters and the lake is officially 300 meters deep.

SaryChelek is one of about six lakes in the region, it's the biggest. The lake is of ecological importance and that's why it was made a Biosphere Reserve in the 1960s. Since 1978, it has been under the auspices of UNESCO. The area has a surprising beauty, the steep surroundings of the lake heavily forested with nut and fruit trees.

SaryChelek is very special place because it possess more than a third of Kyrgyzstan's flora and fauna types and there are many of the world's rare animal and plant species, such as brown bears, martins, snow leopards, wild cats, deer, and the greater horseshoe bat. Hunting is illegal here. The damage to the reserve, through poaching, deforestation and over-harvesting of nuts, berries, fruit and honey, has been acute during the economically difficult years since independence.


Lake ChatyrKul

At its south-western end, next to the Torugart pass (the Chinese border) situated the deep blue Lake ChatyrKul. The name means 'lake on the roof' in Kyrgyz. The lake is at an altitude of 3530 meters above sea level and it is the highest of the country's main lakes. Its 175 square kilometers provide breeding and resting areas for many migrating bird species, including the Bar-headed goose.






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