If you were observing Kyrgyzstan from space it would be difficult not to notice a big blue blob in the north eastern corner. This would be Lake Issyk-Kul, the 2nd largest alpine lake in the world after the equally spectacular Lake Titicaca straddling Peru and Bolivia. One would also notice that it is shaped like a giant eye with the eastern and western corner pulled tort and an iris shaped patch of 700 hundred metre deep blue in the centre. At 180 kilometres at its longest point and 60 kilometres at its widest it is staring at you like the eye of T.J. Eckleburg.
The lake itself is somewhat of a focal point in a country which is called ‘the jewel of central Asia’ for its outstanding natural beauty. Adding to its allure is the once believed but now entertaining rumour that a distant relative of the Loch Ness monster – the ‘Issyk-Kul Kraken’ - dwells in it depths. However, he stayed hidden whilst we were there.
Our approach to the lake came from the east down the Karkara Valley from Kazakhstan. In English ‘Karkara’ means ‘Black Crane’ as the bird uses the valley as a resting place between their arduous journey from South Africa to Siberia in June and September. This is an interesting parallel to the history of the Kyrgyz people. The acclaimed Chinghiz Aimatov in his *A Day Lasts Longer Than a Century* has them arriving at the valley from the Yenisey region of Siberia. At Karkara a beautifully broad plain houses herds of cattle which roam freely across the Kazak/Kyrgyz border which dissects it. Seven hundred years ago another is rumoured to have roamed here, Tamerlane, the founder of the Timurid Empire.
Many believe he used the lake as a summer base for his campaigns and had a palace here. Over the past centuries the lake has been increasing in total capacity, (although recently decreasing) swallowing potential archaeological evidence beneath its depths, as recently uncovered settlements suggest. Recent findings have even shown the remains of a 2,500 year old city belonging to a sophisticated civilisation which once sat on the lakes shores.
Rows of poplar’s and a slight incline in the topography marked the most eastern point of the lake, which is also allegedly the coldest point. Before arriving here we passed a seemingly unassuming village called San-Tash, which translates as ‘counting stones’. This indeed was the aesthetic anomaly as my eyes honed in on the peculiar sight of a large pile of stones in the middle of a flat field. They were heaped up in a way that suggested they were not geologically formed as they took on the form of a very large cairn. I was later to find out the importance of this mound.
The legend is that towards the end of the 15th century as Tamerlane led a campaign eastward, leaving from Issyk-Kul, he got each one of his troops to pick up a stone from the beach and drop it in the pile. On the return from the campaign, the weary soldiers were ordered to remove a stone from the pile. The remaining stones functioned as a way of assessing the level of troop casualties. It is hard not to notice when looking at it how unfortunately large the pile is. It is a grimly unintended, self-constructed monument to the fallen soldiers on that campaign in China.
As we passed by the Mikhaylovka Inlet, near the furthest eastern corner, we were passing the legacy of another; the famous Russian explorer and player in ‘The Great Game’, Nikolay Przhevalsky. At first sight, he was astonished by the beauty of the lake, seeing it as a superior to Lake Geneva. He decided to settle here and ended up passing away on its shores, after drinking water contaminated with typhoid during a hot days hunting. He was buried overlooking the Inlet now surrounded by the delicate shades of 80 year old Tian Shan spruce trees. Here we visited a museum dedicated to him as well as visiting his modest grave with the understating words ‘traveller’ on it.
Peering out through the iron railings of the sight, one could see rusting cranes and piers above the tops of trees by the lake. If this was not the sight of a decaying top secret Soviet testing facility one would be able to go down to the beach sprawling with abandoned summer houses (datcha’s) for Soviet holiday makers. This facility housed Soviet naval vessels, many of which are now decaying in bolted warehouses. Torpedoes would be sent jetting through the lake as part of military testing, although perhaps with the less surreptitious objective of killing the supposed Kraken. Unfortunately, the Kraken has not been maimed, let alone located, and instead many of the torpedoes lie unexploded on the lakes bottom.
Over the next two days we cycled around the less developed south side of the lake overlooking Aegean blue water and the panoramic Kungey mountain range on the north side. Orchards, now wild, sat untended since Soviet times and smashed aqueducts have been carted away for other purposes during the years of mass unemployment following the Soviet breakup.
As we reached the lakes widest point at 60 kilometres, we found a massive abandoned and elaborately gated compound with walls painted with scenes for the Kyrgyz epic poem Manas. On the hill top overlooking the spectacle was a 30 foot high figure, seated, with one hand raised in a sort of beckoning motion. With closer inspection of the highly coloured scenes on the walls this man was also present on a large segment of wall in front of the gate. Confused and amused by this large outside space with empty fountains and weeds growing, looking like the unfinished site of some cult gathering, we cycled off pondering its purpose. Twenty kilometres westward at the Tong Bay we discovered that it was an unfinished site to Sayak Bai Karalaev. He was a famous chanter who lived in the region and knew all of the 500,000 verses of Manas, the longest epic poem in the world, by heart.
As we left the lake, though disappointed not to the have found the mythical Kraken, we still certainly found more than we bargained for. Within ten kilometres the landscape went from one of fertility to parched earth not dissimilar to the colour of skin surrounding an eye as the soil dried up. This will be shorted lived as we beat on westward heading towards ‘The Roof of the World - the fabled Pamir Mountains.