It is an azure mountain lake with a tragic history.
The lake sits nestled in the Issyk Gorge of the Ile Alatau Mountains at an altitude of 1759 meters (5770 ft) above sea level, about 40 km (25 mi) east of Almaty. The name Issyk originates from the Kazakh word esik – a door, a gorge.
After World War II, this picturesque lake, surrounded by deciduous and spruce forests, became one of the favorite vacation spots for Almaty residents and even the leaders of the country. Once, there was a restaurant and a bus station near its shore. However, in 1963, a powerful mudflow completely destroyed the lake, broke through a natural dam and caused significant damage to the entire gorge.
The dam was restored and the drainage structures were built only by the beginning of the 1990s. Although today's lake is three times smaller than the previous one, it hasn’t lost its charm. It is distinguished by the striking turquoise color of its water and lush forest along the banks, which is especially beautiful in autumn. At the bottom of the lake, there are boulders sticking out of the water – a great photography spot.
The gorge is still mudflow-prone. However, now the lake is protected by a mudflow dam and a spillway system. If you have a couple of hours, you can walk along the dirt road up the gorge to see the dam. Also, on the lake’s right shore you will see a vertical rock called the Kremlin Wall. Until 1963, climbing championships of the Soviet Union were held there several times.
In 2008 and 2019, two hydroelectric power plants were built on the river flowing out of the lake. It caused the water level to drop dramatically. Fortunately, this issue has been resolved, and now the water level has stabilized. The most beautiful lake still welcomes tourists, having become one of the centers of ecological tourism.
Useful tips for 2021-2022
Lake Issyk is located in the Ile-Alatau National Park, so you’ll need to pay an ecological fee at the entrance.
How to get there
A trip to Lake Issyk is a wonderful weekend hike and an opportunity to immerse yourself in the unique nature of the Northern Tien Shan Mountains. You can get there either by your own car or with a tour. Nowadays, driving up close to the lake is prohibited and the shores are noticeably cleaner. There is a parking lot at the bottom of the dam, about half a kilometer (approx. 547 yd) away from the lake.
If Almaty is the starting point of your journey, take the Kuldjinsky Tract. Then, after about 30 kilometers (19 mi), turn right to the village of Issyk. When you reach the village, on your right you will see the famous Issyk burial mounds and a museum. Stop by and take a look – they’re really worth visiting. To get to the lake, you need to drive through the village of Issyk and then turn left onto the road that runs along the mountains. After you cross the bridge over the Issyk River turn right at the second traffic light. Then follow the road up the gorge to the lake.
Food and accommodation
There are no dining or accommodation options on the lake so be sure to stock up on food in Almaty or the village of Issyk. You can spend the night in a tent and admire gold sunrise and sunset in the mountains.