By Audrey Scott
For many, the temptation is to take the highway along the northern shore directly from Bishkek to Karakol. But if immersing yourself in unspoiled nature while engaging with Kyrgyz tradition and nomadic culture is what you are after, then we’d recommend taking the southern route to an area known affectionately as “The Southern Shore.”
The Southern Shore area of Lake Issyk-Kul stands unique, aided by a twist of history. As the Soviet Union developed other parts of Kyrgyzstan and the region, it more or less left the Southern Shore untouched, to its own. It wasn’t commercialized for tourism or built up for industry as the northern shore had been. As adherence to traditional Kyrgyz culture was discouraged and considered backward in the rest of the country during the Soviet era, many pockets of Kyrgyz life and culture along Issyk-Kul’s Southern Shore remained as they were. In a way, protected. A visit today feels as though you are experiencing living history.
We’ve visited the Southern Shore a couple of times over the last ten years. Each time we have, it has yielded some our most memorable experiences in the country, even inspiring one of our earliest posts, entitled A Perfect Day in Kyrgyzstan.
If local, real, and authentic Kyrgyzstan is what you are after, then spend a few days along the Issyk-Kul Southern Shore between Kyzyl-Tuu village in the west and Barskoon in the east.
And here’s what to look for when you go.
1. Sleep in a Yurt Under the Stars
During our first visit to Kyrgyzstan in 2007, we visited the Southern Shore of Issyk-Kul and spent the first night there in a yurt. The panorama: the red rocks of Manjyly in the foreground, the peaks of the Tian Shan mountains in the distance. The skies that day were crystal clear, there was little else around to distract us in our peace and silence. We were hooked.
If you think that sleeping in a yurt means roughing it, think again. Not only are yurts supplied with ample blankets and bedding, but they are stylish and colorful inside. These days, you can even find yurts with a bathroom and sauna attached.
Yurt camps along the Southern Shore. All include home-cooked meals:
- Altyn-Bulak Yurt Camp, Manjyly-Ata: This is the yurt camp we originally stayed at in 2007 and it’s still in operation. Beautiful setting amidst the red rocks. Contact CBT Bakonbaevo to book.
- Bel Tam Yurt Camp: A handful of yurts set just back from the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. We haven’t slept here, but we did enjoy a delicious home-cooked lunch served up by the sisters who operate the camp.
- Almaluu Ethno-Village: A yurt camp in Ton (Tong) village about 6km outside of Bokonbaevo offering standard yurts and VIP yurts with attached private bathrooms. Some even come with an attached sauna. The latter are especially impressive. Since Almaluu has equipped several of its yurts with heaters, they are also available in the winter months. The food served here is also top notch and fresh, much of it grown in the nearby gardens.
2. Learn Everything You Wanted to Know about Yurts but were Afraid to Ask
The village of Kyzyl-Tuu, between Bishkek and Bokonbaevo has fast become known as the epicenter of yurt craftsmanship in Kyrgyzstan. It’s THE place to have your yurt built. People from all over the world place their yurt orders here, as local craftsmen are known to construct well-made yurts that can last as long as 100 years. Several families work together for almost a month to build all that’s needed to assemble the yurt, including the wooden frame, felt covers, and decorative interior shyrdaks.
Learning how the wood is treated and shaped to create the various segments of a yurt frame is far more engaging than it sounds. The hours we spent with Turusbek Kalykov, a fourth-generation yurt craftsman, helped us appreciate the genius and timelessness behind Kyrgyz yurt design and construction. Traditionally, all the components of a yurt were traditionally intended to be carried on the back of a single camel (nowadays, the back of a truck), and are designed for assembly without the need of nails or screws.
How to do it: Contact Tulosun in Kyzyl-Tuu to arrange your own yurt-building experience by mobile (+996 700411011) or email.
3. Experience Game of Thrones, Kyrgyz Edition, with Salbuurun (Traditional Hunting)
Hunting with golden eagles, falcons, and hunting dogs, standing archery, archery on horseback – all with a cinematic backdrop. Salbuurun, as the tradition is referred to, is intended to demonstrate how Kyrgyz nomads once moved and hunted across the mountains. The knowledge of these techniques and the culture embedded within them is kept alive through the Salbuurun Federation, based on the Southern Shore of Issyk-Kul.
The founder of the federation, Almas Akunov, learned traditional hunting from his grandfather when he was a child. However, Soviet ways discouraged such ethnic expression. Since Kyrgyz independence, Almaz has focused his efforts in researching and learning the traditional methods of archery, hunting with eagles and dogs, nomadic dress, and the call of drumbeats. Talk with Almaz and you’ll find his passion palpable and his interest in passing along this revived culture and knowledge to future Kyrgyz generations genuine.
How to do it: Although some local guest houses and yurt camps can organize a Salbuurun demonstration for you on their premises, we suggest heading to the Salbuurun Federation jailoo (high pasture) outside of Bokonbaevo. Not only is this location where members practice, it’s also offers a more authentic, natural backdrop to the exhibitions you’ll witness…and try for yourself. You can contact Mir of the Salbuurun Federation to arrange this by mobile (+996 779182834), email or Facebook page.
4. Release your Inner Child and Roam Skazka Canyon
From sunrise to sunset, the various layers, landscapes and canyon formations along the southern shore of Issyk-Kul run the eyes around the color wheel. One of the best locations to experience this color and contour is Skazka Canyon (aka, Fairytale Canyon), just east of Bokonbaevo.
Climb to the top of the first canyon summit for a panoramic view of red cones set agains the deep blues of Issyk-Kul and surrounding peaks of the Tian Shan. It makes for a good selfie spot, too.
How to get there: Many local accommodation providers offer half- and full-day tours that include Skazka Canyon. Otherwise, you can hop on one of the mashrutkas (minibus, shared public transport) that run along the main road, and get off at the service road that leads to Skazka. Taxis are also easy to hire from Bokonbaevo and cost 200-300 Som ($3-$4.50) for one way or 500-600 Som ($7-$9) for return where the driver for a short time.
5. Take a Dip in the 2nd Largest Alpine Lake in the World, Lake Issyk-Kul
With a spread of snow-covered Tian Shan Mountain peaks surrounding it, the setting of Lake Issyk-Kul is dramatic. Although the northern side of the lake is more well-known for swimming and spas in towns like Cholpon-Ata, the lake’s southern shore features warmer temperatures and more pristine surroundings due to the lack of commercial development and industrialization.
The mineral-filled waters of Issyk-Kul carry purported healing powers. This, along with the presence of underground thermal springs prevents the lake, the second-largest alpine lake in the world, from ever freezing, even in the coldest of Kyrgyz winters.
How to do it: Last time we visited was winter so we didn’t go swimming ourselves. However, locals tell us that “Uch Chunkur,” a natural, undeveloped beachfront, is the best place to go swimming. Taxis from Bakonbaevo cost 300 Som ($4.50) for one-way or 600 Som ($9) return where the driver waits for you.
6. Shop for Traditional Felt Shyrdaks and Tush-kiyiz, Learn Their Symbolism
The outside of a yurt may usually features a functional, yet somewhat bland, gray or off-white felt cover. In fact, the Kyrgyz term for a yurt boz üy means, quite literally, “gray home.” However, a yurt interior is where the Kyrgyz show off their best and brightest adornments and decorations. A typical yurt is lined with shyrdaks covering both the floors and walls. Not only do these heavy felt wool rugs keep you warm and lend a cozy feel, but they are visually beautiful, their bright colors and designs harkening of ancient peoples who lived from — and together with — nature. You’ll also find tush-kiyiz, embroidered decorations into which it was said that grandmothers would stitch they dreams they had for their grandchildren.
The designs you’ll see carry specific meanings. Shyrdaks from different regions in Kyrgyzstan feature different symbols and colors to represent a shared story, their local history. Whenever a shyrdak strikes you, whether in a yurt or a store, ask the owner or salesperson whether there’s a special meaning behind the symbols and colors. You’ll appreciate the beautiful design even more.
Where to shop and learn more about shyrdaks and tushkiz:
- Golden Thimble (Altyn Oimok) in Bokonbaevo: Janil Baishova, the founder of the organization, is passionate about learning traditional Kyrgyz handicraft techniques from elder masters and passing these techniques on to younger generations. The shyrdaks produced by Golden Thimble are very high quality and have won awards from UNESCO and other organizations. If you don’t have space for a shyrdak in your luggage, the shop also features plenty of smaller items that are easier to carry.
- Almaluu Crafts Center in Bokonbaevo: A wide selection of handmade shyrdaks and other Kyrgyz handicrafts are sold here. An array of traditional herbs and medicines are available for purchase, too. Be sure to go around back to the workshop to see women artisans at work.
7. Get to Know and Love the Taigan, the Kyrgyz Hunting Dog
We realize that we may be a bit biased here, but to our minds the Taigan is among the more remarkable hunting dog breeds in the world. At the very least, they are the cutest and friendliest. Aside from their signature curly tails and shaggy ears, Taigans seem to possess a loyalty magnet whereby they attach themselves and literally lean against their masters and friends, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this. I’m here to protect you.”
The Taigan dog breed bloodline supposedly dates back several thousand years, and is said to be genetically predisposed not to fear wolves. We can’t be certain about this claim, but they are impressive to watch when they are on the hunt (or hunting demonstration, as it were), particularly when teamed with a golden eagle.
8. Drink the Healing Waters at Manjyly-Ata, the Valley of the Sacred Springs
Do you have stomach problems? Bad nerves? Anxiety? Then take thee to to Manjyly-Ata to what is known as the Valley of the Sacred Springs, a pilgrimage site whose network of natural springs possess all manner of purported healing powers.
Even if healing springs can’t draw you, perhaps the Manjyly-Ata dramatic backdrop of rolling red rock cones and valleys can. As you explore the area – informal hiking paths and marked natural springs — expect to get a little lost, or perhaps purposely take a wrong turn as you find the perfect angle for a photo. From one hill to the next, one healing spring to the next, it’s all part of the fun.
9. Behold, Up Close, a Kyrgyz Cemetery
It might sound odd to put a cemetery on one’s itinerary, but Kyrgyz cemeteries are something truly special. It’s likely that your first encounter will be to see them glide by your roadside field of view as you make your way around Lake Issyk-Kul. At first glance, they look like mysterious sculpture gardens adorned with elaborate miniature yurts and castles set against the backdrop of dramatic hills and mountains. Take a closer look and you’ll realize that this is how local Kyrgyz honor those who’ve passed. Fascinating and beautiful, mausoleums and burial sites in Kyrgyzstan are a testament to the connection between how a culture honors its dead and celebrates the living.
10. Become One of the Family in a Kyrgyz Homestay
As the Southern Shore naturally develops its tourism, many of the accommodation options are homestays that involve a stay in a Kyrgyz home. A homestay experience is intimate: as you meet the family, you learn a bit about their day-to-day lives and enjoy their home-cooked meals.
We have done homestays numerous times throughout Kyrgyzstan and Issyk-Kul Southern Shore, whether it’s been for an overnight, for a meal, or even for afternoon tea with a local family. It’s one of the things that makes traveling in this region unique and feel more personal.
11. Relish a Candlelight Dinner in a Yurt
Some of the best meals we’ve had in Kyrgyzstan have been in yurts and we firmly believe there is a connection. First, the food is always fresh and homemade. More importantly, perhaps, it has something to do with the colorful, cozy, plush décor of a yurt’s interior that complements the food.
There are few structures whose warmth and color envelop ones senses the way a yurt does. If you have the option for a candlelight dinner in a yurt, take it. It’s perfect. Romantic, too.
12. Take a Kyrgyz Cooking Course
Nomads aren’t typically known for their high cuisine, but that should not put you off from fully exploring the national cuisine of Kyrgyzstan and its regional variations. The reality of Kyrgyz cuisine is that it is traditionally heavy on meat. However, the surrounding regional influences, especially as you head east towards China, introduce a wide range of vegetables, herbs and spices.
Through your travels in Kyrgyzstan, you might become familiar with dishes like beshbarmak or laghman, each with their special hand-made noodles, or manti (dumplings). However, when inquiring about cooking courses, be sure to ask about special dishes like oromo, dymdama, or one of the many tangy shredded carrot and cabbage salads.
Where to do it:
- El-Nuru Guest House, Kyzyl-Tuu village: The owner, Dinara Abatbekova, offers cooking classes upon request for classic Kyrgyz dishes like beshbarmak or laghman. You can book her guesthouse through CBT Bokonbaevo.
- Golden Thimble (Altyn Oimok) in Bokonbaevo: They offer basic cooking classes in the summertime, separately or in tandem with a felt-making workshop. You can book through CBT Bokonbaevo.
- Almaluu Ethno-Village in Ton Village: Cooking classes are available upon request.
13. Imagine the Story Behind the 1,000+ Year-Old Female Balbal
Balbals, ancient stone statues found across Central Asia, still puzzle archeologists and historians. It’s believed that ancient nomadic tribes used them to mark the graves of the elite and village leaders some 1,500 years ago. Experts continue to speculate as to why many of these figures sit cross-legged and hold a tea cup. Some say the cup holds poison on which leaders would swear truth or allegiance.
Balbal (or Kurgan Stelae) figures are typically male, which makes the female figure found near Tuura-Suu village and museum near Khan-Dobo Citadel especially remarkable. She is believed to have been an ancient female nomadic leader from around 1000 years ago.
14. Accept Bread from Each Home as a Gesture of Hospitality
One of the traditional offerings of hospitality in Kyrgyzstan is bread, often brought out when you depart a family home. A round of bread is typically broken into small pieces and placed on a tray. As a guest, you take a small piece, one that symbolizes your acceptance of the good wishes of the host for your journey.
As you take bread, do not feel compelled to take the whole loaf, for even a very small piece will do to seal this gesture of hospitality. And if you are allergic to gluten, just take a piece and tuck it away in your hand.
15. Try Archery…Even on Horseback?
Archery may look easy from afar, but try your hand at it and you’ll likely develop a whole new respect for the sport. To make matters even more impressive, watch members of the Salburun Federation take off on horseback, quiver in hand, shooting bullseyes as they gallop across the field.
16. Visit the Bakonbaevo Babushka and Cure What Ails You
A visit to a local babushka (traditional healer) had never been in our itinerary. However, when talking with some Kyrgyz people about traditional medicine, we heard about the local belief regarding the connection between the placement of one’s heart and prior traumas or shocks in one’s life. We then learned that female healers – known affectionately as babushkas (literally, grandmothers) – are believed to aid or cure these afflictions. Most Kyrgyz towns and villages, including Bokonbaevo, are home to several.
After we arrived for our appointment, the babushka employed a combination of stones and what looked like a miniature leather whip to draw and cast out evil spirits. Even with all her years, she was a strong woman, one whose careful hands could detect something as insignificant as a few drops of water in her guest’s stomach.
Rather than further describe our session with the babushka, we encourage you to seek out your own experience by asking at your guesthouse whether your host knows of one. Ideally, you’ll have the time and opportunity to visit for multiple sessions, but a single encounter offers a meaningful glance into traditional Kyrgyz medicine, belief and culture. Payment for the treatment is typically by donation.
17. Take a Felt-Making Course and Create Your own Kyrgyz Souvenirs
Inspired by all the shyrdaks and felt you see inside the yurts and homes? Then try your hand at felt crafstmanship yourself at a handicraft workshop in Bokonbaevo.
How to do it:
- Altyn Oimok (Golden Thimble) offers felt-making courses in the summertime in their courtyard. Janil Baishova, the founder, will take you through the process of how wool is selected and processed, and turned into felt. Then, you’ll make your own pillow mat or placemat with some of the symbols and colors from the traditional shyrdak. Contact CBT Bokonbaevo to book a course.
- Almaluu Ethno-Village & Handicraft offers felt-making courses at its crafts shop in Bokonbaevo town. You can spend the night at its yurt camp just outside town and then learn about how all the decorations in your yurt were made at the handicrafts course. Contact Nuripa, the manager, by mobile (+996 779 854098) or email to learn more or book a course. Prices range from 500 Som ($7.50) for the “Shyrdak” course or 300 Som ($4.50) for the simpler “Ala kiyiz” felt carpet course.
18. Learn What an Elechek (Traditional Kyrgyz Headwear) Has to Do with Posture and Pregnancy
One of the lessons of traditional Kyrgyz nomadic culture is the importance of items serving multiple uses. Since nomads carry everything with them, packing light was key, multi-purpose the watchword.
Consider the elechek, a traditional form of Kyrgyz headwear. At the Felt Museum in Kyzyl-Tuu village, we learned that an elechek begins as a long segment of natural cotton cloth that is then wrapped around a woman’s head fifty times. 50 times! Because wearing an elechek required balance, it was used naturally to improve a woman’s posture. The McGyver trick: if a pregnant nomadic woman goes into labor while out in the fields, the clean cotton cloth of her elechek can be used in child birth and later to swaddle the newborn baby.
Makes modern-day headwear seem a bit one-dimensional.
19. Horseback Ride with Shepherds in the Jailoo (High Pasture)
In summer, shepherds take their sheep, cows, horses, goats and other animals up to the jailoo (high pastures) to enjoy several months of high quality grazing. During this time, Kyrgyz shepherds live a nomadic life as they set up a yurt as a base, ride horseback with their animals to fresh pastures during the day, then return in the evening.
If you take a horseback riding tour into the hills, you’ll not only be surrounded by stunning mountain landscapes, but you might also learn a thing or two from a Kyrgyz shepherd along the way.
20. Breathe Deeply and Take in the Beauty of Where You Are
When we visited the Southern Shore recently in December, I would exit the back door of our guesthouse in Bokonbaevo each morning and be struck by the simple yet incredible beauty of the mountains that seem to surround this area.
Our Kyrgyz hosts found me odd, when morning after morning in the cold of winter, I would take a series of photos of the backyard where a few pieces of laundry hung, backed by a spread of snow-covered mountains in the distance.
For me, this span of the Southern Shore — in its simplicity and its depth — is quintessential Kyrgyzstan.
Have other questions about the Southern Shore of Lake Issyk-Kul? Just ask in the comments below and we’ll incorporate the information in the article so others may benefit.
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