As part of the cultural program offered to SRAS students studying in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, we visited Lake Issyk Kul. The weekend included various activities including learning to build a yurt (a form of traditional housing). One of the highlights of this trip, however, was having the opportunity to go on a horse trek to the top of a mountain for a few hours. Horseback riding is a large part of Kyrgyz culture, especially in the more rural areas, and in more recent years has become a tourist activity. With a group of six students led by two guides and with two SRAS staff accompanying us, we got settled on our individual horses and began the hour-and-a-half-long trek up the mountain.
The Horse Trek
Getting to the place where we would begin horseback riding was in itself a challenge. We drove an hour on the highway before making a turn onto a more local road. After about twenty minutes and two small towns later, we transferred from our marshrutka to a smaller mini-van, which drove about thirty minutes up a grassland littered with huge rocks. A couple of times, we could hear a large rock hit the bottom of the car. It was, without a doubt, the bumpiest car ride I’ve ever experienced.
Earlier that morning, we had signed a waiver, acknowledging that we had watched a video and were now aware of how to behave safely on a horse. Once we were assigned our horses and mounted them the way we were taught in the video and instructed by our accompanying guides, we were taught the commands for how to tell the house to go and stop. Go was “choo,” and stop was a rolled “r,” sound, which is difficult for some Americans to pronounce. The horses seemed to just go with the pack more than they listened to our commands. Some of the horses, such as mine, kept stopping to bend down and graze. I was instructed to not let my horse do this and to yank his reigns back up when he started to bend down.
Despite the fact that the horses were probably used to doing these tourist trips, a couple of the horses did not get along very well with each other. For instance, my horse tended to kick the horse behind it when it got too close. It must have done this about three times. Another horse with personal space issues actually lifted both of its hind legs up off the ground, swinging them around its side, kicking its offender out of the way. After that happened twice, the guides did their best at keeping that horse away from the others.
Towards the end of our trek, once we were back down at the bottom of the hill, my horse kept moving its head up and down, which I was told was part of its attempt to get flies out of its eyes. My horse also kept trying to trot, which it shouldn’t do going downhill, because it could hurt its legs. Another safety precaution for the horses was traveling with a dog. This purpose of this dog was to “protect” the horses. One instance of this was when the dog ran over to some nearby grazing cows and barked at them, chasing them away a little. This made way for the horses and eliminated the threat of the cows coming on to the path that the horses were using.
When we had reached the top of the mountain, we dismounted our horses, sticking metal prongs tethered to their saddles into the ground to prevent the horses from running away. From the top of the mountain, you could clearly see three small towns down below. Our one guide said that he lived in one of them and he had been working as a horse guide the past five years.
Once we reached the end of our trek, we continued on with our day.
Swimming at Issyk Kul
The horse trek was just the beginning of the slew of activities we had ahead of us that weekend. We had a couple of opportunities to go swimming at the lake. At the end of August, the water was refreshing and not overly cold. Where we were staying said no swimming in the lake. Our curiosity got the best of us, and we decided to give swimming a try anyway. Our section of Issyk Kul has rocks for its “beach” and is lined with them at the bottom. After the agonizing pain of walking out to where the water was deeper, yet still being surrounded by jagged rocks, we finally decided to go back, and we finally understood why the sign said no swimming. The next day we entered the lake where there was actually more of a beach that attracted tourists. Entering the lake here was a much less painful experience than it had been the day before.
Similar to the way that American families may go to Florida every summer for vacation, Issyk Kul is a vacation spot of choice for many Kyrgyzstan natives, especially those living in the capital, where it can become absurdly hot in the summer. Because Issyk Kul has been receiving an influx of foreigners, average prices to vacation in the region are rising. This has made it a little more difficult for local Kyrgyz families to continue their annual vacations to Issyk Kul.
Issyk-Kul means “warm lake” in Kyrgyz. While surrounded by the snow-capped Tian Shan mountains, the lake never freezes due to its depth, salt content, and the fact that water from local hot springs feed into it. It is the seventh deepest lake in the world. About 118 rivers and streams flow into it. At Lake Issyk Kul, there is a lake, known as the Dead Lake, or Tuk Zol, a salt water lake formed from a decrease in water level from Issyk Kul. It is believed by locals to cure all sorts of skin-related ailments through use of the mud from the lake. The Dead Lake is located 300 meters from Lake Issyk Kul, and is accessible through the village of Kyzyl Tuu.
Issyk Kul in Local Culture
Lake Issyk Kul has long been a centerpiece of local culture and has folktales surrounding it that date back to pre-Islamic times. For example, there is a myth about its formation that says that it started with a local king who had donkey ears. Whenever he would go to get his hair cut, he would have to remove his hat and reveal them to his barber. He threated to killed his barbers if any of them revealed his secret. One barber, unable to contain the explosive secret within himself, yelled the secret into a well, but he didn’t cover the well afterwards. The secret caused the well water to rise and it flooded the kingdom. Today, the ruins of the kingdom lie under the waters of Issyk Kul.
During the time of Soviet Union, the Soviets favored the north shore of the lake, which lead to industrialization of some areas. This created economic prosperity on the north shore, but discouraged traditional Kyrgyz culture there. The south shore remained more rural and traditional. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the southern shore became a cultural attraction, having held onto its nomadic cultural heritage.
Today, numerous guesthouses throughout the region serve the tourists who now come to the area for hiking and to view the area’s natural beauty and unique geological formations. Some of these include the Skazka (Fairy Tale) Canyon and the lush, green Barskoon Waterfalls, both of which our group had the opportunity to see.
Arranging a trip to Issyk Kul is worth the effort. Marshrutkas leave for the south shore from Bishkek numerous times a day via Bishkek’s bus station. In addition, travel groups organize these types of excursions, too. Regardless of whether you go to Issyk Kul on a program, with a tour group, or on your own, it is not a natural wonder you want to miss out on.