As in the U.S., people in Kyrgyzstan take special trips after their weddings. In Russian, it’s called a honey month. We didn’t have a whole month at our disposal, but were grateful to have the opportunity to take a short honeymoon trip to the famed Lake Issyk-Kul in the North.
Issyk-Kul means “warm lake” in Kyrgyz. But despite what all the local people say, the lake is not warm. I’ve been there three times now and it has never lived up to its name in my opinion. I understand that the name may come from the fact that this mountain lake never freezes in the winter. But in fact it’s evidently the high salt content of the lake that keeps it from freezing.
Nevertheless, there is no denying the beauty of Lake Issyk-Kul. In the tourist destinations, like the town of Cholpon-Ata where we honeymooned, the beaches are soft and sandy. The lake emanates a vibrant blue in the day and a range of subtler colors and moods in the morning and twilight. Perhaps best of all, the lake is surrounded by the mountains of the Ala Too range. On the north shore, the mountain chain separating Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan is close enough to watch as the changing sunlight and shifting clouds bring out different colors and shapes in its undulating forms. The white peaks of the southern chain appear across the lake on the distant sky like an impression from a monolith print.
Having now spent two summers in Osh, I’ve had lots of exposure to the local (I’m assuming originally Russian) appreciation for time spent in cold water. Besides frequenting the chilly local swimming pool with Stas’s aunt, I’ve even taken to having cold showers as a way to beat the summer heat.
In addition to providing relief from the heat, the temperature of Lake Issyk-Kul is part of the fun, making splashing and pushing and other forms of forced entry all the more wicked and voluntary ablutions all the more daring. We enjoyed many hours on the beach and even had the benefit of a blue star-shaped inner-tube after a family abandoned it on their last day of vacation.
We stayed in a rented room behind a private house. But there is a very large, very popular sanatorium near the beach with extensive grounds and facilities, including a movie theater, which provided another special experience during our vacation.
Some of the things I enjoyed the most about being in Cholpon Ata were the tiny and subtle differences. For example, it was extraordinary to feel free to wear shorts in public. I never do so in Osh. And while you will see some girls and a few women in swim suits at Osh’s swimming wholes, I felt really relaxed among all the women shamelessly sunning in their two-piece suits on the beach at Cholpon Ata. It was also novel to not stick out so much in a place that sees a lot of tourists and a larger than usual percentage of Russians as pale-skinned as myself.
And then there was the food. On the beach, vendors sold apricot-filled rolls and corn on the cob, neither of which I’ve ever seen in Osh. There are a lot of vendors selling fish, and best of all, there are both doughnuts and real potato chips for sale in the bazaar! A few weeks back I really wanted some good potato chips, but aside from one brand that I can never find for sale in my neighborhood, all of what they call potato chips in Kyrgyzstan are these strange air-puffed aberrations of genuine potatohood. Not a few of my vacation meals happily consisted of doughnuts and potato chips.
Novelty really is a big sell, and that must be the reasoning behind another attraction on the beach – live animals. There is a small circus near the beach and perhaps that accounts for the men who walk around with a camel, a parrot, a snake, and a hawk, offering tourists the opportunity to ride, hold, and take pictures with their furry, feathered, and fork-tongued friends.
If you’ve got a full wallet and an empty stomach, there are more daring things to enjoy on the beach, like parasailing and banana boat rides. But we were content to enjoy the simpler pleasures of freezing blue water, warm soft sand, fresh mountain air, genuine potato products, and the enjoyment of each other’s company.