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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[21.11.23] Issyk-Kul Out of Season

Lake Issyk-Kul lies on a plateau that opens out suddenly between the mountains. The shore and surrounding land are so flat that looking across to the opposite side created the illusion that the lake was nestled right at the foot of the mountains, but in fact they are several miles away. Over the centuries the lake's volume has fluctuated, at one time covering the entire valley, and at other much smaller than it is now, so the remains of Medieval houses have been found over 20 meters underwater.
During summer it attracts upwards of half a million tourists that flock to the lakeside resorts and health spas that line its shores. Travelling along the shore in late autumn, I found only local people with little to do in the 'off-season', and a few hunters on weekend breaks.
The first stop along the lakeshore was Balychy, where Kyrgyz fisherwomen surrounded the bus, offering bunches of herrings, some natural colored, others cured to a bright yellow. They wore silk headscarves with fluorescent visors shading their faces but in spite of these their skin was weathered dark brown from the glare.
People crowded onto the bus, women with round red-cheeked faces and brightly colored headscarves, men in felt hats and waistcoats. The man next to me had a shiny face burnt to a deep mahogany, and he smiled to reveal two gold eye-teeth in an otherwise empty mouth. The land was bare here, with scrubby grass dying on the parched soil. The lake's proximity did nearby farmers no good - the water was too salty for irrigation - but apple orchards in the villages were flourishing.
After the crush, the silence of Cholpon-Ata was startling, just leaves rustling in the soft breeze and the thunk of a distant hammer on wood. In spite of the bunting still strung along its main street, this was clearly a town designed for the summer. All along the streets were boarded up kiosks - samsi, kebabs, coffee - every one shut down for the winter.
"We're not open yet," said one man doing some home improvements on his patio.
"What time will you open?" His cafe looked inviting.
"In April."
The cinema and nightclubs were shut, the bars were empty and in the post office, tiled in cool whites and blues, I could see my breath when I exhaled. With no diners, the cafes seemed painfully shabby with faded Formica tacked onto rickety tables. In the dark, it wasn't possible to see the lake, just to smell the pine needles and decaying leaves, and listen to the water lapping delicately at the shore.
Rather than staying at a hotel we looked around for a guesthouse. Most of the holiday homes built in Cholpon-Ata let out rooms over the summer when the hotels are sold out (it's also much cheaper). At this time of year it was a question of knocking on doors to find one that was still open. When we did, it was to find our new landlady had been in the process of varnishing the bedroom walls and the bathroom had been locked up for the winter. I couldn't help wondering how much fun it would be to spend the night in an icy wooden lean-to full of varnish fumes, but managed to sleep very well - perhaps the fumes had a narcotic effect.
In daylight the deep blue water stretched to the horizon, with gentle waves and the faint smell of salt making it feel like the seaside. Cholpon-Ata is near the widest part of the lake where it measures 38 miles across. The deserted shore was idyllic - except that everywhere you looked were concrete and jagged metal structures rusting on the beach.
I asked about these and was told variously: "it's a volley-ball court", "it's for launching catamarans", "it's a dustbin", but they all looked broken and useless. It was the same driving up through the mountains, and even though Kyrgyzstan is a country with a lot of empty space, it's sad to see rusty metal and broken concrete strewn across some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
Spa tourism
Cholpon-Ata is famous for its sanatoriums, offering baths with mud and mineral water from the lake, and I was curious to see the most famous of these, the Aurora, which is a 15-minute drive to the east. The Aurora is a rather imposing concrete building set among slim beech trees and gardens that extend to the lake itself. Again, the beach was deserted. So empty in fact that while we were tilting our faces to the sun, a man charged down the beach, tore all his clothes off and leapt naked into the water - in full view of one of the smartest hotels in Kyrgyzstan.
Back in the lobby, the receptionist sadly refused to be drawn on which famous people had stayed in the hotel and what treatments they had received. "Come tomorrow and talk to the manager," she said. But I didn't have a summer holiday to idle on the beach and soak up the sun in outdoor cafes; I was just there for the weekend, and before long was standing on the main road looking for a lift back to the city.
By Clare Nuttall, TCA staff writer,
The Times of Central Asia, November 21, 2003

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