Issyk-Kul: The Big Mountain Lake Kyrgyzstan: Karakol & Issyk-Kul Region

The Karkara border crossing between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is only open during the summer months. This is not surprising considering its remote location in the mountains. There are no facilities, shops, or money changers, and the road on both sides of the border is unpaved and at times in bad shape. Thanks to this place’s remoteness though, there are no queues and the whole procedure took less than half an hour. If you cross by car, they will want to inspect it, so you have to get out but leave everything except your passport inside the car.

Arriving in Kyrgyzstan

Kazakhstan is the richest Central Asian country, whereas Kyrgyzstan is the second poorest. The difference is immediately noticeable, at least in this region. The roads in Kazakhstan may not always be in perfect shape but here, on the other side of the border, they’re so bad at times, that people drive beside the road on the grass. This was what we did shortly after the border when a guy on a horse stopped us. He just wanted to talk to us, he said, and ask if we wanted to ride his horse. Free of charge of course, just for the fun of it.

Of course we wanted to. So Hossam sat on the horse, the guy let go of the reins, and gone was the horse, and with it Hossam. The animal galloped away at full speed to where other horses were grazing and it didn’t seem to have any intention to stop. Somehow, with a lot of pulling on the reins, Hossam managed to get it to turn around and reluctantly trot back to its owner. Then it was my turn and again, the same happened. It was a lot of fun riding at full speed through the Kyrgyz steppe but to be honest, I was a bit worried the horse would carry me back across the border and just never stop galloping.

After that wild ride we visited San-Tash, which is basically a large pile of stones of uncertain origin. A popular story attributes the stones to Tamerlane, or Timur, a Turco-Mongol conqueror who lived in the 14th century. Allegedly, he instructed his soldiers to each bring a stone on the way to the battle and then take it with them again on the way back and leave it in that location. The legend is most likely just a tale (the stones are far too large and there are just too many of them) but for the time being there’s no better explanation or more interesting story. It’s a good place to stop, climb on the stone pile and absorb the beautiful landscape around you.

The main road to Karakol


Karakol is a pretty town with colorful old houses, a beautiful wooden mosque and a wooden church. It’s also a tourist hub and there’s no shortage of (good!) accommodation. The city is a starting point for activities in the Tian Shan mountains which offer excellent hiking, skiing, mountaineering, and trekking opportunities.

We had dinner in a restaurant in the center and tried all kinds of traditional dishes, all delicious. However, we also had a cold soup as a starter and the next day all three of us woke up sick. The soup was good but as always: cook it, peel it, etc. You know the drill.

Issyk-kul region

Karakol is on the eastern end of 182 km long Issyk-Kul lake, the world`s second largest mountain lake. This saline lake is at an altitude of 1600 m above sea level and reaches almost 700 meters in depth. It’s a popular tourist destination in summer as the lake’s clear waters are perfect for swimming.

Snow capped mountains rise high on both sides of the lake. The Tian Shan mountain range rises to 7000 meters above sea level but on the southern shore of Issyk-Kul lake, those mountains, though visible, seem very far away. The landscape is dominated by red sandstone hills, occasionally interrupted by green valleys. The small village of Kaji-Say, where we spent two nights, lies in one of those valleys and in summer, the flowers are in full bloom and the apricot trees heavy with the small orange fruits that taste like heaven. In late August, you can buy buckets full of apricots and apples from vendors on the street, or pick sea-buckthorn from the many bushes at the side of the road.

East of Kaji-Say there’s an abandoned uranium mine which we went exploring a bit. An old woman we me there told us that she used to work at the mine 50 years ago. The mine has been closed for decades now.

Fairy Tale Canyon

On the way eastwards from Kaji-Say, before the village of Tosor, is the turn-off to Skazka or Fairytale Canyon. Here, the landscape has been formed by the elements into bizarre shapes and forms and the rock is red, yellow, orange, and violet. Water forms mud pools of a deep orange color. The area is quite large and you can walk around and climb on top of the rocks for hours on end if you want. Every step, every angle offers new wonders and the lake in the background, with the snow-capped mountains just visible on the northern shore, completes the fairy tale. Just be sure to wear good shoes as there are no trails and the rocks are covered in loose gravel and are very slippery.

Seven Bulls Rocks

A bit closer to Karakol are the Seven Bulls Rocks at Jeti-Ögüz, huge red sandstone cliffs rising high above the green valley below. The colors, the contrast between the red of the stone and the green of the surroundings, are amazing. To really appreciate it, it’s best to climb or drive on top of the hill on the opposite side of the valley.

If you have a good car or think it’s good enough for the road ahead, you can drive up the valley. On the way, there’s a “cave”, for which you have to pay entrance. They give you a very weak torch, which you won’t need, and the whole thing is nothing more than a tourist trap. Don’t go.

Further up the road you cross the stream and from there, you can start the hike to a waterfall. There are also a few yurt camps in the area; one on a clearing with beautiful views of the valley. Old shipping containers serve as small shops. I love how the Kyrgyz use shipping containers for everything, they even build bridges and houses with them.  The waterfall itself is not very spectacular, but the hike and especially the views when going back down are nice.

As everywhere here, there are no signs apart from the signs that say that there is a waterfall (somewhere). The trails are not marked, so you just have to ask other tourists or the locals or you just walk and enjoy the scenery and maybe, surprise, you’ll end up at the waterfall.

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