Suitcase and World: The Beautiful & Mysterious Lake Issyk Kul.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Beautiful & Mysterious Lake Issyk Kul.

Issyk Kul  (Photo from

When I first got the detailed itinerary for this tour, the words *Issyk Kul* caught my eye.  I read on...."Issyk Kul, the second largest mountain lake in the world...."  That sentence most certainly caught my attention!  Of course, curious me, I had to find out more about Issyk Kul and that started with looking at images of the lake. The lake is ringed by the Tian Shan mountains which I hope that when we are there, will still be snow capped.  It would be so beautiful.  In the warmer months, Issyk Kul is popular retreat, appreciated for its warm, sandy beaches, thermal mineral springs and spas, alpine meadows, and parks.  Looking at one image after another, my initial reaction was just how nice and relaxing it will be to spend a day and a night on the shores of this lovely lake.

With all the other seemingly more interesting places to learn about, I wasn't going to bother with doing any reading up on Issyk Kul.  After all, a lake is just a lake. Right?  Wrong!

A few days ago, I watched a video on YouTube.  It was a documentary featuring a Japanese actor, Ken Ogata (now deceased) recounting his journey along the Silk Road from China to Turkey.  It was quite a journey!  His first stop in Kyrgyzstan was Lake Issyk Kul.  As the frames of the video roll by, I saw a train traversing along a snow capped mountain.  In the words of the narrator, "The next destination is the legendary Lake Issyk Kul where the remains of a mysterious, ancient culture sleep beneath the waters."  Culture....asleep under water?  What?

And then, I see stone statues....on a snow covered field.  Whoa!  Rewind.  "Enroute to the lake, we found a field littered with stone statues.  Stone stautues?  Yes!  Apparently, the small statues were erected by a race of people known as the Göktürks, a nomadic group of Turkic peoples who once called this region home.  There are ancient tombstones here?

As the video played on, Issyk Kul became a more mysterious place - especially when Ken Ogata picked up bones and part of a human skull, as he was walking along the beach.   Yikes and where did the bones come from?

Now..., this lake is no longer just a lake for relaxing.  I was curious to learn more about it and the more I read, the more intrigued I got.  It was like the proverbial peeling back the layers of the onion.

But, let's start with some basic facts about the lake.

Satellite view of Issyk Kul. (Photo from
Issyk Kul means *hot lake* in the Turkic languages of Central Asia.  The lake holds the title as one of the largest alpine lakes in the world and at an altitude of 1,609 meters above sea level, it is second largest mountain lake in the world, only surpassed by Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. 

Two mountain chains of the Central Tian 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*).

Although Issyk Kul lake is fed by dozens of rivers, large and small, that flow down from the mountain peaks, it does not have an outlet, making it an endorheic lake.  Thus, it also holds the distinction of being the world's second largest salt lake after Caspian Sea.

Kygystan is one of the countries where you can see
petroglyphs in situ.  (Photo from
Despite the fact that it sits at 1609 meters above sea level and the ground around it freezes in the winter, the waters of the lake never freeze.  I  presume that the high level of salinity in the water is what keeps it fluid throughout the year.

While the geology of the lake is interesting, it doesn't hold a candle to the archaeological aspects of the least not for this traveler.

In ancient times, Issyk Kul was a strategic point along the Silk Road and it was a place that was vied and battled for over the millennia. Countless traders, caravans and nomadic tribes and armies traveled along the  long lake, leaving a remarkable archaeological legacy behind.

Since the nineteenth century, Russian scientists and, subsequently, Soviet archaeologists and researchers from the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences have studied the ancient remains around Issyk Kul, which range from petroglyphs and 3,000-year-old kurgans (nomadic burial mounds) to early Christian monasteries and medieval cities.

Burana Tower (Photo from
Kygystan is one of the countries where you can see petroglyphs in situ.  Very cool!

Another of Issyk Kul's archaeological landmarks we'll be visiting is Burana Tower.

The Burana Tower is a large minaret that, along with grave markers, some earthworks and the remnants of a castle and three mausoleums, is all that remains of the ancient city of Balasagun.   The tower was originally 45 meters  (148 ft) high but over the millennia, earthquakes have caused significant damage to the structure.  Today, the entire site is a museum and visitors can climb the narrow, winding steps to reach the top of the tower.  I wonder what the view is like from up there!

Doing more reading, I learned that the stone statues that Ken Ogata happened upon, his way to the lake, are known as balbal; stone stelae that are placed atop, within or around kurgans.

Balbals.  (Photo from
Balbal often depict a warrior - either holding a knife in one hand and a cup in the other.  The knife signifies that the man died as a warrior and the cup, with clean water in it, means that he died a courageous death - trying to save his family, people and land.

But what about that statement, in the Ken Ogata video, about the remains of an ancient culture sleeping beneath the water?  I had to find out what the narrator was alluding to.

I searched on to learn that Issyk Kul has long drawn the attention of researchers searching for the remains that lie beneath its waters. Over the centuries, the water level has fluctuated dramatically over the centuries, submerging settlements, buildings and even entire cities that had been established on earlier shorelines.  In 2012, National Geographic set up a base camp, on the north shore of the lake, to participate in efforts to locate the remains of a sunken palace that was, according to medieval accounts, built by Timur.  I was not able to find any information on the results of the search so I am guessing it is either still ongoing or there was nothing found.

So, there's no chance of us seeing the remains of a sunken palace but nonetheless, we'll get to see some very amazing and interesting archaeological artifacts!  I started out thinking that a visit to Issyk Kul would just be a trip to soak in some lovely mountain scenery but it's turning out to be much more than that and I'm very excited to be going!