No BS Guide to Lake Issyk Kul (Kyrgyzstan)
By Mike Tyson (@IronMike on the Forum)
This is the No BS Guide* to swimming in the second largest alpine lake in the world, lake Issyk Kul, in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Where is it?
Issyk Kul is about 200 kilometers east of the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, Bishkek.
How to get there
Major airlines (Aeroflot, Turkish Air, Fly Dubai) fly into Bishkek’s Manas International Airport (FRU). Most fly into Bishkek from Istanbul, Turkey or Dubai, UAE. Once in Bishkek, you need to arrange a taxi or marshrutka (small bus) to the lake. A taxi to the closest swim crossing from Bishkek (“Historical,” see below) can run you anywhere from 300-500 som (about $4.45 to $7.50 as of July 2016), depending upon how much foreigner tax the driver adds. You should agree on a price prior to getting into the taxi; there are few metered taxis here.
There are also direct flights from Almaty, Kazakhstan, to both Bishkek and into the Issyk Kul airport, located approximately 20 miles (32 km) west of Cholpon-Ata.
There are community-based tourism companies in several parts of the country. Kyrgyz Concept is one such company which can help you with hiring cars, finding lodging and even with flights. The Kyrgyz Concept in Bishkek can be contacted at +996312900883 or on their Whatsapp at +996709900887. Tell them you’re swimming the lake and they’ll find a Kyrgyz Concept close to the village you’re starting from. They are also at www.concept.kg/eng.
What routes are available?
There are three recognized routes for crossing lake Issyk Kul. Distances range from 13 kilometers to 60 kilometers. To date, only three people have crossed the lake.
Historical route (~13km)
This route has historical significance to the Kyrgyz. The traditional route is from the village of Kara-Talaa in the south to the village of Toru-Aygyr in the north. I was the first person to swim this route (6:02). Peace Corps volunteer Sarah D’Antoni was the second person to cross, the first woman, and the fastest (4:43).
Eastern route (~33km)
This route has been swum once in 1982 by Akhmed Anarbaev, member of the 1968 USSR Olympic swim team. The route is between Ananyevo village in the north and Boz Beshik in the south.
The Big Cheese (~60km)
This route is the widest part of the lake, between Kormudu in the north and Barskoon in the south. No solos have been done over this route, although a 4-person relay (including Akhmed Anarbaev) completed this swim in the early 1990’s.
Issyk Kul in Kyrgyz means hot lake, thus named due to the lake never freezing. Water temperature May - September ranges from 12C to 23C. The lake is slightly salty, from mineral content in the water. Due to the mountains surrounding the lake, swimmers can expect sudden weather changes, bringing winds and rain with little notice. The lake is at approximately one mile (5269 feet) above sea level, so make sure you prepare with that in mind.
The lake has strong currents depending upon where you are on the lake. I found the following picture from a paper entitled “Currents and Vertical Water Exchange in Lake Issyk Kul” which can be found here.
There are few boats available on the lake, but mostly due to the infrequency of swimming events on the lake. For help in finding boat pilots willing to escort you, contact the Lake Issyk Kul Swimming Federation at SwimIssykKul@gmail.com. You can also contact Kyrgyz Concept (see above for contact information).
Kayaks, incredibly, are almost unheard of here in Kyrgyzstan. If you intend on using a kayaker along with a boat, you should bring an inflatable kayak. There is a company in Grigorevka (about 35km east of Cholpon-Ata on the northern shore of the lake) called Bel-Zhan that rents kayaks. Their contact information is: +996 652405467 and http://www.belzhan.org/ .
Grocery stores here stock plenty of water and other food, but you will not be able to find any sort of feed powders here.
For the historical route, I recommend you stay in Balykchy in the Hotel Aliya (link goes to FB). Tell the staff you’re swimming across the lake and they will be terribly excited. As with the taxis, negotiate on the room prices prior to agreeing to book the rooms. The hotel is wonderfully equipped, with an indoor and outdoor sauna, small breakfast room and a larger room which can be reserved. They can arrange meals with enough notice (morning notice for evening dinner is usually sufficient, depending upon time of the year), or walk a couple of blocks to Smak (link also FB), a great restaurant featuring Kyrgyz food. The hotel has a pier on the lake where the boat Appak (captained by Kurbat) can pick you up the morning of your swim.
View of the lake from the pier at the Hotel Aliya
For the other two routes, starting on the north end you should probably stay in or around Cholpon-Ata (nearby villages of Chong Sary Oy and Sary Oy recommended). There are many “resorts” along the north side of the lake nearby Cholpon-Ata. Karven, Raduga, Kapriz are all recommended. During peak times (July-Aug) one can expect European prices (6-person stand-alone house at Karven in July 2015 ran 430 euros a night).
View of the lake from Karven resort in Cholpon-Ata
Alternatively, there are two guest houses in Cholpon-Ata that I can recommend:
(1) Vera runs a nice guest house featuring two rooms (one 3-bed room and one 2-bed room), a sauna, shower, bathroom, and outdoor eating area. Prices are approximately 1000 som (~$15) per person per night. Breakfast comes in the price and other meals can be arranged with Vera if you give her enough time. (She is a great cook.) The guest house is about 100m walk from a pier on the lake. Vera’s husband swims in the lake every morning at 7:00. Vera’s number is +996 555 678 594 (Russian language).
View of the lake from Vera’s guest house (brick building right after the green sign on the right)
View of the pier (on the right) near Vera’s guest house
(2) Akhmed Anarbayev, the 1968 Kyrgyz Olympian mentioned above, runs a guest house in Cholpon-Ata as well. While I never stayed there, I have friends who have and they say it is wonderful. Luda, Anarbayev’s niece, is the manager of the guest house. Her number is: +996 556 343 460 (Russian or Kyrgyz language).
Unfortunately, I have little to no experience staying on the south side of Issyk Kul. Sarah D’Antoni, first woman and current record holder for the historical route, recommends the resort “Cadaat” in Tosor, about 7 miles (11 km) west of Barskoon.
When to go?
Summer, May to August and into September are the best times to attempt a crossing. Times to avoid are: the end of August (Kyrgyz Independence Day) and even years in early September during the World Nomad Games (check online for dates).
Wetsuit or not?
No one in Kyrgyzstan would be surprised if you swam the lake in a wetsuit. So far, however, all solo crossings already completed have been done according to MSF rules.
Do not drink water out of the tap in Kyrgyzstan. You might want to consider bringing anti-diarheal pills with you. Bottled water (bubbly) is the safest, but of course that is not appropriate for feeds.
Someone on your crew should know Russian or Kyrgyz. You will have trouble finding a boat captain who can communicate with you in English. Alternatively, there are translators available for a price. The following two professional translators come recommended by locals who have worked with them, although they caution their rates are expensive: Kanybek, +996 772 050 172 and Arsen, +996 772 503 771.
Saadat is a translator which lots of experience, professional and voluntary. She is a graduate of the American University of Central Asia, which conducts all classes in English, as well as a participant in a U.S. Embassy-sponsored program where she lived in the U.S. for a year. I’ve met and spoken with Saadat; her English is excellent, and she’s a native speaker of both Russian and Kyrgyz. Her contact information is: firstname.lastname@example.org and +996 551 545 422.
In July 2016, the cost of renting a boat for the historical route (and an approximate 10-hour day) was 25,000 som (~$370), with a 3000 som bonus to the crew. Kurbat, captain of the Appak, will require 5000 som the day prior as a fuel deposit, and the remainder (to include an expected bonus of money and a national gift from the swimmer) to be paid upon return to the pier in Balykchy.
The price of a room in Hotel Aliya during July 2016 was: 2500 som per night for a 2- or 3-bed room, and 7500 for a “family” room containing two separate rooms (one with a queen bed and the other with 3 singles). All rooms have private bathrooms.
Kyrgyzstan uses 220v and European-style plugs. Outside of Bishkek, you won’t get 4G internet, although 4G is promised for lake Issyk Kul sometime in the future (summer 2017?). In the major villages around the lake, 3G is available. In the middle of the lake, the best you’ll get is 2G. For tracking your swim, I highly recommend track.rs and link it to a GPS, not to a cell phone.
Lake Issyk Kul Swimming Federation
The federation is in its infancy and “staffed” with volunteers. Please be patient if emails aren’t responded to for a few days. Akhmed Anarbaev lives in Cholpon-Ata and possibly could be available as official observer if enough notice is given (usually 3-4 months). I am also available but need extremely advanced notice due to my employer (6 months at least). Contact the Federation at their email or FB page.
- This guide is inspired by Nick Adams' "No BS" Guides to swimming the Strait of Gibraltar and Corsica-Sardinia.