Exploring the Southern Shores of Issyk Kul

After spending five days in Bishkek and stocking up our car with the necessities for the rest of our trip, we finally headed out to begin our Central Asia adventure. First stop: Issyk Kul Lake.

Lake Issyk Kul is the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan and the second largest alpine lake in the world. This area is one of the most popular travel destinations in Kyrgyzstan, and an area that the Kyrgyz people are really proud of. When you tell a local that you are travelling around the country, you would most probably be asked if you've been to Issyk Kul. If you answer no, they will highly recommend that you visit this region. And based on experience, you definitely should.

Taking a Dip at Lake Issyk Kul (Kel Morales)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 PRO: 1/1250 sec at f/5, ISO 320, 44mm

The lake’s northern and southern shores are quite different to each other in terms of scenery and activities. The north shore features a larger population and is a lot more touristy. There are many hotels and resorts, and is a great place to visit if you want to relax at the beach, swim or do water sports. If you are after a calmer atmosphere and in search of adventure, the southern shore is the place to explore. The southern shore offers a lot more cultural Kyrgyz experience such as sleeping in yurt camps, interesting cultural events and festivals. There is also many outdoor mountain activities like horseback riding and trekking. Given the time constraints, we were only able to visit one area and ultimately we chose the south shore. Kyrgyz cultural experience and adventure? There was no contest. 😊

Bel-Tam Yurt-Camp

Bel-Tam Yurtcamp is situated at the quaint town of Bokonbaevo in Southern Issyk Kul. Originally, we weren’t supposed to stay in this area (because we didn’t know about it :P ). However, after talking to the amazing folks from CBT Kyrgyzstan, we decided that this was the best area to stay in the south shore. And we were so glad that we did. The place was nothing short of amazing. The yurtcamp is right beside the shore and is run by a local family.

Bel-Tam Yurt Camp During Sunset (Matt Horspool)

DJI Mavic Pro + Polar Pro CPL: 1/25 sec at f/2.2, ISO 146

Bel Tam Yurtcamp (Kel Morales)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 PRO: 1/320 sec at f/5.6, ISO 250, 12mm

It was the first time that we’d ever been hosted by a Kyrgyz family and it was a such great experience that set the tone of our cultural experiences for the coming weeks. Aida and her children were really gracious, helpful and hospitable during our stay there. The food they served was delicious and authentic. They also arranged an eagle hunting show for us (I’ve written about this in the previous post. Go check it! :) ) which was a great way to understand part of the Kyrgyz culture.

Aida and her son Adilet (Matt Horspool)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 17mm f/1.8: 1/8000 sec at f/1.8, ISO 200, 17mm

Adilet Entering the Yurt (Kel Morales)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 7-14m f/2.8 PRO: 1/40 sec at f/2.8, ISO 200, 7mm

Dinner Fit for a King (Matt Horspool)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 17mm f/1.8: 1/10 sec at f/1.8, ISO 640, 17mm

Since this is a yurtcamp, naturally we slept in one of the yurts. We were so excited for this because it was our first time sleeping in a yurt and experiencing part of their nomadic culture.

Yurts are the traditional dwelling places of the pastoral nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. They are portable, sturdy, round felt-covered tents which are light enough for nomads to carry and flexible enough to fold and pack. Staying in a yurt is actually quite comfortable and an experience that shouldn't be missed when travelling to this part of the world.

Amazing Sky Over Bel Tam Yurtcamp (Kel Morales)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 7-14m f/2.8 PRO: 1/16000 sec at f/3.5, ISO 00, 7mm

One of the Most Serene Sunsets Imaginable (Matt Horspool)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 PRO: 1/30 sec at f/7.1, ISO 640, 100mm

Painted Mountain Layers (Kel Morales)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 PRO: 1/8 sec at f/4, ISO 64, 47mm

Capturing the last light (Matt Horspool)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 PRO: 1/60 sec at f/5, ISO 640, 18mm

Beautiful Sunrise Over Issyk Kul (Kel Morales)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 PRO: 1/250 sec at f/22, ISO 640, 40mm

Remnants of Old Soviet

After staying for the night in Bel-Tam Yurtcamp, we bid goodbye to our hosts and headed east along the southern shore. We were supposed to stay in Tosor but that plan fell through due to some miscommunication over the phone. Mobile reception is pretty tricky on this area so I recommend to sort out all the details of your accommodation beforehand to avoid any issues. We were getting desperate to find a place to stay as we were losing light and a massive storm was approaching. The last thing we wanted was to get caught in a storm in the middle of the road. Fortunately, we were able to secure a last minute booking at Hotel Natalia in Kadji Say.

After sorting out our accommodation, we decided to head out and do a bit of exploration even though the storm was still approaching. Whilst driving earlier, we noticed that there were some abandoned areas along the road and we decided that it would be good location to explore.

Unknown Statue (Matt Horspool)

DJI Mavic Pro + Polar Pro CPL: 1/100 sec at f/2.2, ISO 132

Southern Issyk-Kul (Matt Horspool)

DJI Mavic Pro + Polar Pro CPL: 1/60 sec at f/2.2, ISO 100

Based on the structure and markings on the abandoned places, it seemed that they were used during the time Kyrgyzstan was under the Soviet Rule. One of the areas looked like some sort of place where big events are held. We weren’t able to confirm this as it was closed off and there was no way to enter it.

Another place that we visited was a deserted family recreational centre at the foot of the mountains. A lot of broken down structures and small cottages were scattered all over the place. It was probably a place that families visit during the weekend – but we could only guess. Unfortunately, information was scarce for these places and nothing comes up with online searches.

It was pretty interesting to visit and explore these places. It was quite different from the local cultural experience that travellers often get in Kyrgyzstan but it definitely highlighted a part of the Kyrgyz history.

Remnants of the Past (Matt Horspool)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO: 1/160 sec at f/7.1, ISO 200, 7mm

Grass Courts (Matt Horspool)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO: 1/160 sec at f/7.1, ISO 200, 7mm

Skazka Canyon

Skazka Canyon was high on our list of places to visit and explore in Kyrgyzstan. Even though it was a bit out of the way, we made sure that we included it on our route.

On our last day in Issyk Kul, we got up early to catch sunrise at this place. We originally intended to catch sunset here but due to the storm the night before, we had to change our shooting plans. It was such a treat catching sunrise and exploring this place even though it was really slippery and muddy. I actually slipped and fell down twice whilst exploring this place! But it's totally worth it.

Glorious Sunrise over Skazka Canyon (Kel Morales)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 7-14m f/2.8 PRO: 1/15 sec at f/8, ISO 250, 10mm

The place is amazing.

Skazka Canyon is one of those areas that you thought only existed in your imagination. Transformed by natural elements over many years, this rocky area is full of amazing natural sculptures and formations. Some formations look like snakes, dragons, sleeping giants and castles - thus earning it the nickname 'Fairy Tale Canyon'.

This particular ridge is named "The Chinese Wall" due to its similarity to the Great Wall of China. Can you see the resemblance? Can you also see the castle at the end? It felt like at any moment, a knight riding his horse will arrive to save the princess in the castle. This is a place where you can really let your imagination run wild. :)

The Chinese Wall (Kel Morales)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100m f/4 PRO: 1/160 sec at f/4, ISO 800, 44mm

Skazka Carpark (Matt Horspool)

DJI Mavic Pro + Polar Pro CPL: 1/25 sec at f/2.2, ISO 104

AT the Top of the Chinese Wall (Kel Morales)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100m f/4 PRO: 1/125 sec at f/7.1, ISO 400, 12mm

Matt Admiring the View of the Canyon (Kel Morales)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 7-14m f/2.8 PRO: 1/1250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 250, 7mm

Skazka Star (Matt Horspool)

OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 7-14m f/2.8 PRO: 1/13 sec at f/20, ISO 200, 7mm

After the sun had risen, we headed back down with the intention of going to the other side of the canyon. When we got to the carpark, a couple of locals saw us and invited us for some coffee and bread. Although they didn't speak much English, we were still able to communicate and exchange stories. Who would have thought that we would be having breakfast with locals while we were in the canyon? One of those great moments that just happens spontaneously.

Isskyk Kul is a 'must see' place to visit and explore. No wonder the locals were raving about it. This place had set the tone of what we were about to see and experience in the following weeks of travelling on the road - unbelievable landscapes, amazing people and culture, and moments that would leave us speechless.

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