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Issyk Kul

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Lake Issyk-Kul
From space, September 1992
Coordinates 42°30′N 77°30′E
Lake type Endorheic
Mountain lake
Primary inflows Glaciers
Primary outflows Evaporation
Catchment area 15,844 km²
Basin countries Kyrgyzstan
Max. length 182 km
Max. width 60 km
Surface area 6,236 km²
Average depth 270 m
Max. depth 668 m
Water volume 1,738 km³
Shore length1 688 km
Surface elevation 1,606 m
Settlements Cholpon-Ata, Karakol
1 Shore length is not a well-defined measure.

Issyk Kul (also Ysyk Köl, Issyk-kol; Kyrgyz: Ысыккөл, Russian: Иссык-Куль) is an endorheic lake in the northern Tian Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan. It is the ninth largest lake in the world by volume and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. Although it is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it never freezes; hence its name, which means "warm lake" in the Kyrgyz language. The lake is a Ramsar site of globally significant biodiversity (Ramsar Site RDB Code 2KG001) and forms part of the Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve. It was also the site of an ancient metropolis 2500 years ago, and archaeological excavations are ongoing.


Southern shore of lake Issyk Kul

Lake Issyk Kul has a length of 182 km, a width of up to 60 km, and covers an area of 6,336 km². This makes it the second largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca in South America. Located at an altitude of 1,608 m, it reaches 668 m in depth.

About 118 rivers and streams flow into the lake; the largest are Djyrgalan and Tyup. It is fed by springs, including many hot springs, and snow melt-off. The lake has no current outlet, but some hydrologists hypothesize that, deep underground, lake water filters into the Chu River. The bottom of the lake contains the mineral, monohydrocalcite: one of the few known lacustrine deposits.

The lake's southern shore is dominated by the ruggedly beautiful Tian Shan mountain range. The lake water has salinity of approx. 0.6% (less than 20% that of seawater) and its level drops by approximately 5 cm per year.

Administratively, the lake and the adjacent land are within Issyk Kul Province of Kyrgyzstan.


During the Soviet era, the lake became a popular vacation resort, with numerous sanatoria, boarding houses and vacation homes along its northern shore, many concentrated in and around the town of Cholpon-Ata. These fell on hard times after the break-up of the USSR, but now hotel complexes are being refurbished and simple private bed-and-breakfast pensions are being established for a new generation of health and leisure visitors.

The city of Karakol (formerly Przhevalsk, after the Russian explorer Przhevalsky who died there) is the administrative seat of Issyk Kul Oblast (Province) of Kyrgyzstan. It is located near the eastern tip of the lake and is a good base for excursions into the surrounding area. Its small old core contains an impressive wooden mosque, built without metal nails by the Dungan people, and a wooden Orthodox church that was used as a stable during Soviet times (see state atheism).


Lake Issyk Kul was a stopover on the Silk Road, a land route for travelers from the Far East to Europe. Many historians believe that the lake was the point of origin for the Black Death that plagued Europe and Asia during the early and mid-14th century. The lake's status as a byway for travelers allowed the plague to spread across these continents via medieval merchants who unknowingly carried infested vermin along with them. A 14th century Armenian monastery was found on the northeastern shores of the lake by retracing the steps of a medieval map used by Venetian merchants on the Silk Road.

On the beach at Koshkol'

In December 2007 a report was released by a team of Kyrgyz historians, led by Vladimir Ploskikh, vice president of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, that archaeologists have discovered the remains of a 2500-year-old advanced civilization at the bottom of the Lake. The data and artifacts obtained, which are currently under study all suggest that the ancient city was a metropolis in its time. The discovery consisted of formidable walls, some stretching for 500 meters as well as traces of a large city with an area of several square kilometers. Other findings included Scythian burial mounds, eroded by waves over the centuries and numerous well preserved artifacts including bronze battleaxes, arrowheads, self-sharpening daggers, objects discarded by smiths, casting molds, and a faceted gold bar, which was a monetary unit of the time.

Articles identified as the world's oldest extant coins were also found underwater with gold wire rings used as small change and a large hexahedral goldpiece. Also found was a bronze cauldron with a level of craftsmanship that is today achieved by using an inert gas environment.

Issyk Kul beach (2002)


The lake contains highly endemic fish biodiversity, and some of the species, including four endemics, are highly endangered. In recent years catches of all species of fish have declined markedly, due to a combination of over-fishing, heavy predation by two of the introduced species, and the cessation of lake restocking with juvenile fish from hatcheries. At least four commercially targeted endemic fish species are sufficiently threatened to be included in the Red Book of the Kyrgyz Republic: Chebak (Leuciscus schmidti), Chebachok (Leuciscus bergi), Marinka (Schizothorax issyk-kuli), and Sheer or Naked Osman (Diptychus dybovskii). Seven other endemic species are almost certainly threatened as by-catch or are indirectly impacted by fishing activity and changes to the structure and balance of the lake's fish population.

Sevan trout, a fish endemic to Lake Sevan in Armenia, was introduced into Issyk-Kul in the 1970s. While this fish is an endangered species in its "home" lake, it has a much better chance to survive in Lake Issyk-Kul where it has ravaged the indigenous species.

The Legend of its Creation

In pre-Islamic legend, the king of the Ossounes had donkey's ears. He would hide them, and order each of his barbers killed to hide his secret. One barber yelled the secret into a well, but he didn't cover the well after. The well water rose and flooded the kingdom. The kingdom is today under the waters of Issyk-Kul. This is how the lake was formed, so legend says. Other legends say that four drowned cities lie at the bottom of the lake. Substantial archaeological finds indicating the presence of an advanced civilization in ancient times have been made in shallow waters of the lake.

Russian Navy test site

During the Soviet period, the Soviet Navy operated an extensive facility at the lake's eastern end, where submarine and torpedo technology was evaluated. In March 2008, Kyrgyz newspapers reported that 866 hectares around the Karabulan peninsula on the lake would be leased for an indefinite period to the Russian Navy, which is planning to establish new naval testing facilities as part of the 2007 bilateral Agreement on Friendship, Cooperation, Mutual Help, and Protection of Secret Materials. The Russian military will pay $4.5 million annually to lease the area.

Issyk Kul at sundown (2002)

Lakeside towns

Towns and some villages around the lake, listed clockwise from the lake's western tip:

  • Balykchy (the railhead at the western end of the lake)
  • Koshkol'
  • Tamchy
  • Cholpon-Ata (the capital of the north shore)
  • Karakol (the provincial capital near the eastern end of the lake)
  • Tyup, the port for Karakol
  • Barskon
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