Holidaying in Cholpon Ata

Friday 3rd to Saturday 4th October

A promise of an overnight home stay and the opportunity to see the most popular holiday resort in Kyrgyzstan.  The resort is also a popular destination for Kazaks and Russians who enjoy the cool mountain air of Lake Issyk-Kol.  The lake at 1500m is the second largest alpine lake after Titicaca, more than 170km x 70km. Issyk-Kol means hot lake, which really isn’t true, however salinity and thermal activity ensures the lake never freezes, despite the fierce winters.

The 4 hour drive was interrupted with a visit to the Burana Tower, the only remnant of the ancient citadel of Balasagun from the 11th century.  The tower was rebuilt in the 70s following earthquake damage. At 24m it is a little more than half of its original size and would have provided a formidable beacon over the flat valley. A rather scarey climb up its incredibly steep and dark steps provided us with an awesome view over the valley and to the mountains that nearly surround it.

Many archaeological artefacts have been unearthed in the area. There were some totem like gravestones, called balbals fromthe 6th to 10th centuries, and some local petroglyphs in a small outdoor display. A tiny museum housed a few other artefacts demonstrating the level of sophistication in an otherwise nomadic area.

At Cholpon Ata our first stop was to see more petroglyphs particularly of the local ibix and goats. Petroglyphs are images scratched into rock that has discoloured, probably due to oxidisation. The images we saw dated back 700 to 1400 years, but their purpose and meaning is not clearly understood.

Our next stop was to the Rukh-Ordo museum cum cultural centre. It is dedicated to Kyrgyrzstan’s favourite author, Nobel prize winner Aytmatov Chingiz. Set on the waterfront with beautifully manicured gardens it is home to a number of conference halls richly decorated in local style and five small chapels that represent the five faiths of Kyrgyzstan: Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Russian Orthodox and Muslim.

The day had finished bright and sunny and the autumn colours were stunning. Two bridal parties were enjoying their moment of fame with family and photographers hovering.

Our home stay could best be described as basic. A bedroom with en suite – and just that. After an early dinner we found ourselves holed up in our room, computers on laps reviewing the days activities as we had recorded them on our cameras.

We woke up to rain. Our promised walk in Grigorevskoe Gorge was a wet slippery drive through this gorge to reach 2340m and down through Cemenovskoe Gorge. It was beautiful scenery in spite of the rain, and our driver Vitali demonstrated his amazing off road driving skills through the bumps, puddles, twists and turns.

The area around Lake Issyk-Kol is a winter grazing area for numerous cattle, sheep, goats and horses. These are tended by one or two people on horseback who ride between the various herds to keep them in check. Countless times our driver had to slow or swerve to miss a wandering animal. In summer when the animals are in the high pastures such as the gorges we had visited, the lakeside land is cropped. As it was autumn the animals were fattening up on the stubble before being confined to stable life during the winter snow season.

The houses we drove past were Russian in style, very small wooden houses with pretty window frames often painted blue or turquoise. Most houses are built close to the road with extensive back gardens. Most households would be self sufficient with numerous fruit trees and vegetables on their plot of land.

We drove back to Bishkek and were given a suite with bedroom and sitting room, which seemed luxurious after the home stay. Pity this was only a one night stay.