Issik Kol, Kyrgyzstan
On most people’s list of must-sees in Kyrgyzstan, this is a pretty impressive lake. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, and a two-day drive to circumnavigate, the views across it, and the geography surrounding it are spectacular. Looking over the water, you’ll see the snow-capped mountains in the distance, and because of the sheer size, you’d assume they’re clouds – it feels like you’re looking over ocean, not a lake.
It is the second biggest saline lake in the world (we’ll get to the first in my next blog ), and is also the second largest alpine lake in the world, after Lake Titikaka which is in the Andes, on the border of Peru and Bolivia. It is also the seventh deepest lake in the world, and the tenth biggest by volume (not by surface).
Issik Kol literally means “Warm Lake”, though it’s a bit confusing as to why it was named that – at an elevation of 1,607m, and a depth of 700m, it’s in an area subject to severe winters, spends a lot of the time surrounded by snow, and even in the heights of summer, I assure you, is not a warm lake! Despite all of that though, it doesn’t freeze because of the salt content.
Some of our favourite spots to visit in Kyrgyzstan are found on the shores of Issik Kol – an abandoned uranium mine, an abandoned Soviet Pioneers camp, an abandoned heavy water factory that is now the site of a super hipster music festival, not one but two Yuri Gagarin monuments, a Soviet meteorology station, not to mention some of the more famous things like Fairytale Canyon and the Valley of the Flowers.
Check out our Kyrgyzstan tours if you’d like to see it for yourself.
Song Kol, Kyrgyzstan
Song Kol is another on most people’s to do list when they visit Kyrgyzstan. It’s about a six hour drive from Bishkek, so realistically can be done as an overnight trip for those with a limited amount of time. Most people stay for one or two nights, as part of a bigger Kyrgyzstan trip.
Much higher than Issik Kol, it sits at 3,016m ASL, but is also much smaller (though still pretty big!), about 29km across at the widest point, and 13m deep. And unlike Issik Kol, this is a fresh water lake. Although it’s not that big in surface area, it takes a long time to drive around. There are no made roads anywhere near the lake, and there’s no road near the shore, so you actually have to drive quite far away from the lake to get anywhere, and go off the tracks to get near the water.
During the summer months, roughly May-September, this is not only a popular place for those visiting the country, but this is a genuinely nomadic area, and families and communities migrate to the shores of this picturesque lake, setting up yurt camps, and settling in with their families and livestock. Over winter, these same people inhabit modern (ish) buildings in regular towns and villages in lower areas, most of the kids go to school, and the adults have “regular” jobs. So it’s actually quite an interesting, and in my opinion rational and productive, combination of traditional nomadic ways of life, with modern comforts and commodities, and all the positives that both styles of living bring.
Have a look at our Kyrgyzstan tours if you’re interested in visiting Song Kol.
This is a pretty cool one. Ok let’s get the bragging out the way first – biggest lake in Central Asia, fifteenth biggest in the world, third biggest in Asia. But never mind about that, most importantly – half of it is salty, and half of it is fresh! And you can see the line between where the two sections join.
It’s a very long, thin lake, spanning about 600km in length, but only about 9km wide at the narrowest point, not like your average roughly circular lake, so a lot of it is actually very shallow, averaging about 6m in depth overall.
Unfortunately, like the Aral Sea, the waters of Lake Balkhash are also receding, though thankfully not as dramatically. Partly it’s thanks to climate change and other natural factors, but it’s certainly not helped by the irrigation and diversion projects that drain the fresh part of the lake.
Kow Ata, Turkmenistan
This one’s a bit different – no claims to fame here with the biggest this type of lake in this region, or that kind of lake over here, none of that. But this one is underground, inside a cave, so that’s pretty cool. About 1.5 hours outside of Ashgabat, we visit Kow Ata on most of our tours, and we reckon it’s a great place to go and spend an hour or two.
The lake itself is about 37 degrees Celsius, and is supposedly full of all sorts of healthy minerals. Judging by the smell, sulphur is prevalent. There are 168 leading down into the cave from the main entrance.
So what we usually do is go down for a swim for about half an hour, then after hiking back up the stairs, sit down at one of the shashlik stops set up near the cave entrance. This is a wonderful place to chill and have a damn tasty bit of meat, in a completely different atmosphere to what you’ll have become used to in Ashgabat.