by Audrey Scott & Daniel Noll
Lake Issyk-Kul South Shore, Kyrgyzstan Experiential Travel Guide: 20 Ideas to Get You Started If you travel to Kyrgyzstan, it’s almost impossible to miss Issyk-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world (after Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca). But Issyk-Kul is large with two long shores, each a different personality. So where to focus your effort? For many, the temptation is to take the highway along the northern shore directly from Bishkek to Karakol. But if immersing yourself in unspoiled nature while engaging with Kyrgyz tradition and nomadic culture is what you are after, then we’d recommend taking the southern route to an area known affectionately as “The Southern Shore.” The Southern Shore area of Lake Issyk-Kul stands unique, aided by a twist of history. As the Soviet Union developed other parts of Kyrgyzstan and the region, it more or less left the Southern Shore untouched, to its own. It wasn’t commercialized for tourism or built up for industry as the northern shore had been. As adherence to traditional Kyrgyz culture was discouraged and considered backward in the rest of the country during the Soviet era, many pockets of Kyrgyz life and culture along Issyk-Kul’s Southern Shore remained as they were. In a way, protected. A visit today feels as though you are experiencing living history.
Southern Shore between Kyzyl-Tuu village in the west and Barskoon in the east. And here’s what to look for when you go.
1. Sleep in a Yurt Under the Stars
Almaluu Yurt Camp on the Southern Shore of Lake Issyk-Kul.
During our first visit to Kyrgyzstan in 2007, we visited the Southern Shore of Issyk-Kul and spent the first night there in a yurt. The panorama: the red rocks of Manjyly in the foreground, the peaks of the Tian Shan mountains in the distance. The skies that day were crystal clear, there was little else around to distract us in our peace and silence. We were hooked. If you think that sleeping in a yurt means roughing it, think again. Not only are yurts supplied with ample blankets and bedding, but they are stylish and colorful inside. These days, you can even find yurts with a bathroom and sauna attached.
A wise shepherd we met on our first trip to Lake Issyk-Kul Southern Shore.
We’ve visited the Southern Shore a couple of times over the last ten years. Each time we have, it has yielded some our most memorable experiences in the country, even inspiring one of our earliest posts, entitled A Perfect Day in Kyrgyzstan. If local, real, and authentic Kyrgyzstan is what you are after, then spend a few days along the Issyk-Kul
Yurt camps along the Southern Shore. All include home-cooked meals: Altyn-Bulak Yurt Camp, Manjyly-Ata: This is the yurt camp we originally stayed at in 2007 and it’s still in operation. Beautiful setting amidst the red rocks. Bel Tam Yurt Camp: A handful of yurts set just back from the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. We haven’t slept here, but we did enjoy a delicious home-cooked lunch served up by the sisters who operate the camp. Almaluu Ethno-Village: A yurt camp in Ton (Tong) village about 6km outside of Bokonbaevo offering standard yurts and VIP yurts with attached private bathrooms. Some even come with an attached sauna. The latter are especially impressive.
Since Almaluu has equipped several of its yurts with heaters, they are also available in the winter months. The food served here is also top notch and fresh, much of it grown in the nearby gardens.
3. Experience Game of Thrones, Kyrgyz Edition, with Salbuurun (Traditional Hunting)
Meiman Ordo Yurt Camp: This is the newest yurt camp in Tong village outside of Bokonbaevo. We haven’t visited or stayed there yet, but have heard good things from others who have. Jaichy Yurt Camp: For sleeping in a yurt up high on the jailoo (high pasture) about 27km from Bokonbaevo with panoramic views of the Teskey Ala-Too mountains, give Jaichy Yurt Camp a try. We haven’t stayed here ourselves, but have met the owner several times. In addition to offering accommodation, Jaichy Yurt Camp also offers horse back riding, trekking and other outdoor activities. They can also organize a local kok boru (goat polo) game if you so desire. The owner also grows his own organic food at the garden and his wife can offer cooking courses/demonstrations.
2. Learn Everything You Wanted to Know about Yurts but were Afraid to Ask
Almas Akunov, founder of the Salbuurun Federation, with his golden eagle.
Hunting with golden eagles, falcons, and hunting dogs, standing archery, archery on horseback – all with a cinematic backdrop. Salbuurun, as the tradition is referred to, is intended to demonstrate how Kyrgyz nomads once moved and hunted across the mountains. The knowledge of these techniques and the culture embedded within them is kept alive through the Salbuurun Federation, based on the Southern Shore of Issyk-Kul. Archery may look easy from afar, but try your hand at it and you’ll likely develop a whole new respect for the sport. To make matters even more impressive, members of the Salburun Federation take off on horseback, quiver in hand, shooting bullseyes as they gallop across the field. Respect.
Understand the genius behind yurt design.
The village of Kyzyl-Tuu, between Bishkek and Bokonbaevo has fast become known as the epicenter of yurt craftsmanship in Kyrgyzstan. It’s THE place to have your yurt built. People from all over the world place their yurt orders here, as local craftsmen are known to construct well-made yurts that can last as long as 100 years. Several families work together for almost a month to build all that’s needed to assemble the yurt, including the wooden frame, felt covers, and decorative interior shyrdaks.
The founder of the federation, Almas Akunov, learned traditional hunting from his grandfather when he was a child. However, Soviet ways discouraged such ethnic expression. Since Kyrgyz independence, Almaz has focused his efforts in researching and learning the traditional methods of archery, hunting with eagles and dogs, nomadic dress, and the call of drumbeats. Talk with Almaz and you’ll find his passion palpable and his interest in passing along this revived culture and knowledge to future Kyrgyz generations genuine. Although some local guest houses and yurt camps can organize a golden eagle demonstration for you on
Learning how the wood is treated and shaped to create the various segments of a yurt frame is far more engaging than it sounds. The hours we spent with Turusbek Kalykov, a fourth-generation yurt craftsman, helped us appreciate the genius and timelessness behind Kyrgyz yurt design and construction. Traditionally, all the components of a yurt were traditionally intended to be carried on the back of a single camel (nowadays, the back of a truck), and are designed for assembly without the need of nails or screws.
How to do it: Contact Destination South Shore to arrange your own yurt-building experience, including tea and snacks afterwards in the yurt you just built.
Almas, founder of the Salbuurun Federation shows off his archery skills.
their premises, we suggest going with the Salbuurun Federation in Bokonbaevo for a more encompassing experience that includes not only a golden eagle demonstration, but also how the eagles work together with taigan dogs and hunters on horseback in traditional Kyrgyz hunting.
How to do it: Contact Destination South Shore to arrange a Salbuurun Experience (45 min-1 hour) or to find out when the next one is taking place so you can join a group.
4.Release your Inner Child and Roam Skazka Canyon From sunrise to sunset, the various layers, landscapes and canyon formations along the southern shore of Issyk- Kul run the eyes around the color wheel. One of the best locations to experience this color and contour is Skazka Canyon (aka, Fairytale Canyon), just east of Bokonbaevo. Climb to the top of the first canyon summit for a panoramic view of red cones set against the deep blues of Issyk-Kul and surrounding peaks of the Tian Shan. It makes for a good selfie spot, too.
Skazka Canyon, wandering and wondering.
How to get to Skazka: Many local accommodation providers offer half- and full-day tours that include Skazka Canyon. Otherwise, you can hop on one of the mashrutkas (minibus, shared public transport) that run along the main road, and get off at the service road that leads to Skazka. Taxis are also easy to hire from Bokonbaevo and cost 200-300 Som ($3-$4.50) for one way or 500-600 Som ($7-$9) for return where the driver for a short time.
We’re not quite brave enough to jump in during winter.
industrialization. The mineral-filled waters of Issyk-Kul carry purported healing powers. This, along with the presence of underground thermal springs prevents the lake, the second-largest alpine lake in the world, from ever freezing, even in the coldest of Kyrgyz winters.
6. Shop for Traditional Felt Shyr daks and Tush-Kiyiz, Learn Their Symbolism The outside of a yurt may usually features a functional, yet somewhat bland, gray or off-white felt cover. In fact, the Kyrgyz term for a yurt boz üy means, quite literally, “gray home.” However, a yurt interior is where the Kyrgyz show off their best and brightest adornments and decorations. A typical yurt is lined with shyrdaks covering both the floors and walls. Not only do these heavy felt wool rugs keep you warm and lend a cozy feel, but they are visually beautiful, their bright colors and designs harkening of ancient peoples who lived from — and together with — nature. You’ll also find tush-kiyiz, embroidered decorations into which it was said that grandmothers would stitch the dreams they had for their grandchildren. The designs you’ll see carry specific meanings. Shyrdaks from different regions in Kyrgyzstan feature different symbols and colors to represent a shared story, their local history. Whenever a shyrdak strikes you, whether in a yurt or a store, ask the owner or salesperson whether there’s a special meaning
5. Take a Dip in the 2nd Largest Alpine Lake in the World, Lake Issyk-Kul With a spread of snow-covered Tian Shan Mountain peaks surrounding it, the setting of Lake Issyk-Kul is dramatic. Although the northern side of the lake is more well-known for swimming and spas in towns like Cholpon-Ata, the lake’s southern shore features warmer temperatures and more pristine surroundings due to the lack of commercial development and
A brightly-colored shyrdak at Golden Thimble in Bokonbaevo.
behind the symbols and colors. You’ll appreciate the beautiful design even more.
Where to shop and learn more about shyrdaks and tush-kiyiz: Golden Thimble (Altyn Oimok) in Bokonbaevo: Janil Baishova, the founder of the organization, is passionate about learning traditional Kyrgyz handicraft techniques from elder masters and passing these techniques on to younger generations. The shyrdaks produced by Golden Thimble are very high quality and have won awards from UNESCO and other organizations. If you don’t have space for a shyrdak in your luggage, the shop also features plenty of smaller items that are easier to carry. Almaluu Crafts Center in Bokonbaevo: A wide selection of handmade shyrdaks and other Kyrgyz handicrafts are sold here. An array of traditional herbs and medicines are available for purchase, too. Be sure to go around back to the workshop to see women artisans at work.
7. Get to Know and Love the Taigan, the Kyrgyz Hunting Dog
8. Drink the Healing Waters at Manjyly-Ata, the Valley of the Sacred Springs
Snow-covered Tian Shan Mountains as beautiful backdrop for Manjyly-Ata.
Do you have stomach problems? Bad nerves? Anxiety? Then take thee to to Manjyly-Ata to what is known as the Valley of the Sacred Springs, a pilgrimage site whose network of natural springs possess all manner of purported healing powers. Even if healing springs can’t draw you, perhaps the Manjyly-Ata dramatic backdrop of rolling red rock cones and valleys can. As you explore the area – informal hiking paths and marked natural springs — expect to get a little lost, or perhaps purposely take a wrong turn as you find the perfect angle for a photo. From one hill to the next, one healing spring to the next, it’s all part of the fun.
Where to stay: For a full experience, consider spending the night at the Altyn-Bulak Yurt Camp located nearby. You can book this through CBT Bokonbaevo.
9. Behold, Up Close, a Kyrgyz Cemetery
Taigan hunting dogs, a true best friend.
It might sound odd to put a cemetery on one’s itinerary, but Kyrgyz cemeteries are something truly special. It’s likely that your first encounter will be to see them glide by your roadside field of view as you make your way around Lake Issyk-Kul. At first glance, they look like mysterious sculpture gardens
We realize that we may be a bit biased here, but to our minds the Taigan is among the more remarkable hunting dog breeds in the world. At the very least, they are the cutest and friendliest. Aside from their signature curly tails and shaggy ears, Taigans seem to possess a loyalty magnet whereby they attach themselves and literally lean against their masters and friends, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this. I’m here to protect you.” The Taigan dog breed bloodline supposedly dates back several thousand years, and is said to be genetically predisposed not to fear wolves. We can’t be certain about this claim, but they are impressive to watch when they are on the hunt (or hunting demonstration, as it were), particularly when teamed with a golden eagle.
A Kyrgyz cemetery. Unusual beauty and peace.
adorned with elaborate miniature yurts and castles set against the backdrop of dramatic hills and mountains. Take a closer look and you’ll realize that this is how local Kyrgyz honor those who’ve passed. Fascinating and beautiful, mausoleums and burial sites in Kyrgyzstan are a testament to the connection between how a culture honors its dead and celebrates the living.
10. Become One of the Family in a Kyrgyz Homestay
to do with the colorful, cozy, plush décor of a yurt’s interior that complements the food. There are few structures whose warmth and color envelop ones senses the way a yurt does. If you have the option for a candlelight dinner in a yurt, take it. It’s perfect. Romantic, too.
12. Take a Kyrgyz Cooking Course Nomads aren’t typically known for their high cuisine, but that should not put you off from fully exploring the national cuisine of Kyrgyzstan and its regional variations. The reality of Kyrgyz cuisine is that it is traditionally heavy on meat. However, the surrounding regional influences, especially as you head east towards China, introduce a wide range of vegetables, herbs and spices. Through your travels in Kyrgyzstan, you might become familiar with dishes like beshbarmak or laghman, each with their special hand-made noodles, or manti (dumplings). However, when inquiring about cooking courses, be sure to ask about special dishes like oromo, dymdama, or one of the many tangy shredded carrot and cabbage salads.
Our gracious host in Kyzyl-Tuu, also from a family of yurtbuilders.
As the Southern Shore naturally develops its tourism, many of the accommodation options are homestays that involve a stay in a Kyrgyz home. A homestay experience is intimate: as you meet the family, you learn a bit about their day-to-day lives and enjoy their home-cooked meals. We have done homestays numerous times throughout Kyrgyzstan and Issyk-Kul Southern Shore, whether it’s been for an overnight, for a meal, or even for afternoon tea with a local family. It’s one of the things that makes traveling in this region unique and feel more personal.
11. Relish a Candlelight Dinner in a Yurt Some of the best meals we’ve had in Kyrgyzstan have been in yurts and we firmly believe there is a connection. First, the food is always fresh and homemade. More importantly, perhaps, it has something
Learn how to cook laghman and other Kyrgyz specialties.
Where to stay: El-Nuru Guest House, Kyzyl-Tuu village: The owner, Dinara Abatbekova, offers cooking classes upon request for classic Kyrgyz dishes like beshbarmak or laghman. You can book her guesthouse through CBT Bokonbaevo. Jaichy Yurt Camp: Cooking courses with ingredients fresh from the garden and pastures are available upon request. You can request and book this through Destination South Shore. Almaluu Ethno-Village in Ton Village: Cooking classes are available upon request.
13. Imagine the Story Behind the 1,000+ Year-Old Female Balbal
Breakfast in a yurt is wonderful, too.
Balbals, ancient stone statues found across Central Asia, still puzzle archeologists and historians. It’s believed that ancient nomadic tribes used them to mark the graves of the elite and village leaders some 1,500 years ago. Experts continue to speculate as to why many of these figures sit cross-legged and hold a tea cup. Some say the cup holds poison on which leaders would swear truth or allegiance.
Balbal (or Kurgan Stelae) figures are typically male, which makes the female figure found near Tuura-Suu village and museum near Khan-Dobo Citadel especially remarkable. She is believed to have been an ancient female nomadic leader from around 1000 years ago.
14. Accept Bread from Each Home as a Gesture of Hospitality
next morning did not really sound pleasant, but the draw and curiosity of this panoramic view won over. Turns out that was absolutely the right decision. Although it’s possible to do this short trek (4km round trip) any time of day, we thought the early morning light was rather special. This also allowed us to get up and back into Bakonbaevo by breakfast as we had a full day planned ahead of us. Alternatively, bring your breakfast with you and enjoy it at the panoramic viewpoint.
How to do it: The start of the trek is about 11km from Bokonbaevo town so you’ll need to arrange a transfer to get out there and bring you back to town. CBT Bokonbaevo organized our transportation and guided us. It’s also possible to do this trip by horseback. It took us about 2-2.5 hours total to get to the viewpoint and back to Bokonbaevo, but if you have more time you can keep walking past the viewpoint and extend it into into a half-day or full-day trek. Alybek at CBT knows all the local treks in the area. A cup full of poison or tea?
One of the traditional offerings of hospitality in Kyrgyzstan is bread, often brought out when you depart a family home. A round of bread is typically broken into small pieces and placed on a tray. As a guest, you take a small piece, one that symbolizes your acceptance of the good wishes of the host for your journey. As you take bread, do not feel compelled to take the whole loaf, for even a very small piece will do to seal this gesture of hospitality. And if you are allergic to gluten, just take a piece and tuck it away in your hand.
15. Take a Morning Hike up to Shatyly Viewpoint After one of our workshops in Bakonbaevo, Alybek Osmoev from CBT Bokonbaevo, pointed up to one of the hills surrounding the town. “From up there you have a 360-degree panoramic view of Lake Issyk-Kul and the
16. Visit the Bokonbaevo Babushka and Cure What Ails You A visit to a local babushka (traditional healer) had never been in our itinerary. However, when talking with some Kyrgyz people about traditional medicine, we heard about the local belief regarding the connection between the placement of one’s heart and prior traumas or shocks in one’s life. We then learned that female healers – known affectionately as babushkas (literally, grandmothers) – are believed to aid or cure these afflictions. Most Kyrgyz towns and villages, including Bokonbaevo, are home to several. After we arrived for our appointment, the babushka employed a combination of stones and what looked like a miniature leather whip to draw and cast out evil spirits. Even with all her years, she was a strong woman, one whose careful hands could detect something as insignificant as a few drops of water in her guest’s stomach. Rather than further describe our session with the babushka, we encourage you to seek out your own experience by asking at your guesthouse whether your host knows of one. Ideally, you’ll have the time and opportunity to visit for multiple sessions, but a single encounter offers a meaningful glance into traditional Kyrgyz medicine, belief and culture. Payment for the treatment is typically by donation.
17. Take a Felt-Making Course and Create Your own Kyrgyz Souvenirs Inspired by all the shyrdaks and felt you see inside the yurts and homes? Then try your hand at felt crafstmanship yourself at a handicraft workshop in Bokonbaevo. On the way down, with a view of Lake Issyk-Kul and the snow-covered Tian Shan Mountains.
nearby mountains. It only takes about an hour to walk up. Want to go early tomorrow morning?” he asked. Getting ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn the
How to do it: Altyn Oimok (Golden Thimble): offers felt-making courses in the summertime in their courtyard. Janil Baishova, the founder, will take you through the process of how wool is selected and processed, and turned into felt. Then,
you’ll make your own pillow mat or placemat with some of the symbols and colors from the traditional shyrdak. Contact Destination South Shore to arrange a Shyrdak or other traditional Kyrgyz handicrafts workshop, or to find out when the next one is taking place so you can join a group.
headwear. At the Felt Museum in Kyzyl-Tuu village, we learned that an elechek begins as a long segment of natural cotton cloth that is then wrapped around a woman’s head fifty times. 50 times! Because wearing an elechek required balance, it was used naturally to improve a woman’s posture. The McGyver trick: if a pregnant nomadic woman goes into labor while out in the fields, the clean cotton cloth of her elechek can be used in child birth and later to swaddle the newborn baby. Makes modern-day headwear seem a bit one-dimensional.
19. Horseback Ride with Shepherds in the Jailoo (High Pasture)
Colorful designs and patterns of Kyrgyz handicrafts.
Almaluu Ethno-Village & Handicraft offers felt-making courses at its crafts shop in Bokonbaevo town. You can spend the night at its yurt camp just outside town and then learn about how all the decorations in your yurt were made at the handicrafts course. Contact Nuripa, the manager, by mobile (+996 779 854098) or email to learn more or book a course. Prices range from 500 Som ($7.50) for the “Shyrdak” course or 300 Som ($4.50) for the simpler “Ala kiyiz” felt carpet course.
In summer, shepherds take their sheep, cows, horses, goats and other animals up to the jailoo (high pastures) to enjoy several months of high quality grazing. During this time, Kyrgyz shepherds live a nomadic life as they set up a yurt as a base, ride horseback with their animals to fresh pastures during the day, then return in the evening. If you take a horseback riding tour into the hills, you’ll not only be surrounded by stunning mountain landscapes, but you might also learn a thing or two from a Kyrgyz shepherd along the way.
20. Breathe Deeply and Take in the Beauty of Where You Are
18. Learn What an Elechek (Traditional Kyrgyz Headwear) Has to Do with Posture and Pregnancy
Backyard views, Issyk-Kul Southern Shore
When we visited the Southern Shore recently in December, I would exit the back door of our guesthouse in Bokonbaevo each morning and be struck by the simple yet incredible beauty of the mountains that seem to surround this area. Preparing an elechek is an elaborate yet delicate process.
One of the lessons of traditional Kyrgyz nomadic culture is the importance of items serving multiple uses. Since nomads carry everything with them, packing light was key, multi-purpose the watchword. Consider the elechek, a traditional form of Kyrgyz
Our Kyrgyz hosts found me odd, when morning after morning in the cold of winter, I would take a series of photos of the backyard where a few pieces of laundry hung, backed by a spread of snow-covered mountains in the distance. Why? For me, this span of the Southern Shore — in its simplicity and its depth — is quintessential Kyrgyzstan.
About the Authors Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott are the husband-andwife storytelling team behind the award-winning travel and adventure blog Uncornered Market. They are writers, speakers, photographers and consultants. They advise on social media strategy, are digital storytellers for tourism boards, travel companies, social enterprises and community organizations, and speak at TEDx, sustainable tourism, and entrepreneurship conferences worldwide.Together, they have been traveling around the world for more than ten years and 90 countries, telling stories about destinations’ more personal and human dimensions, often challenging stereotypes and shifting perceptions along the way.
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This article was originally published on UncorneredMarket.com, and is reprinted here with permission of the authors. This article reflects the authors’ personal experiences and opinions of the Issyk-Kul Southern Shore and is reprinted here with permission. The trip was organized in cooperation with Discover Kyrgyzstan, and made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government. The authors maintain editorial control and the thoughts contained herein – the what, the why, and the how – are entirely their own.