Circling strange Lake Issyk–Kul in the off–the–radar country of Kyrgyzstan, Laurence Mitchell encounters a depressing post–Soviet village, legends of the deep, and tales of spies and inland submarines.
It is a dreary day, the sort that Scots call dreich. The low cloud is headache gray, and the rain, a steady drizzle. I pull up my hood and try to dodge the puddles along the cracked road that leads down to the lakeshore, passing boarded–up wooden houses and a welded–steel, framework image of Lenin glowering through the drizzle. Just before reaching the lake I pass by a new, onion–spired Orthodox church, the only building that looks cared for in a neighborhood of quite obvious neglect. Apart from the tin–roofed mosque that I see later on, the church is the only new building in town. It would seem that the only thing worth investing in here is the town's spiritual welfare: Balykchy's material life is already beyond redemption.
Every scrap of information that I had come across––admittedly not very much––had described this Kyrgyz lakeside town as a post–industrial hellhole with an impoverished, vodka–soaked population. On a gloomy, rain–soaked morning such as today, there seems to be little to deny this.
The shore reveals the calm, dark waters of Lake Issyk–Kul with stark mountains stretching to vanishing point along the southern shore and greener, snow–capped, peaks to the north. Due east, the waters stretch unimpeded to the horizon: Issyk–Kul is a big lake and for landlocked Central Asia, a veritable sea. The shore is deserted but for a few gulls searching for scraps and a solitary tern diving for fish. The water has an oily rainbow skin and a polluted look about it but this is hardly surprising given the industry that used to thrive here. Twin railway tracks skirt the foreshore as evidence of a more productive past and lead east to a small dockland area with idle cranes and the rusting hulls of fishing trawlers. The largest of the dock buildings has a clutch of torpedoes attached to its roof along with a hammer and sickle motif, an increasingly rare sight in post–Soviet Kyrgyzstan.
Boom and Bust, Soviet Style
On a map of Central Asia the border of the Kyrgyz Republic circumscribes the shape of an indeterminate animal head, its lower jaw thrusting into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with a convoluted frontier. If Lake Issyk–Kul is the almond eye of this simulacrum then Balykchy is its tear duct. The town takes its name from the Kyrgyz word for 'fisherman' and in Soviet times it was known by its Russian equivalent, Riybachye. A glance at the sign at the town's deserted railway station makes it clear that no one ever really bothered with the name change. Such indifference is a common enough Balykchy trait.
The town may have fallen on hard times but once it was reasonably prosperous, partly because of fishing but also as a result of its position as an important transport hub for shipping goods across the lake. Poor environmental management heralded the demise of the fishing industry and in 1991, as Kyrgyzstan emerged blinking into the dawn of its newfound independence, the withdrawal of the centralized Soviet market sounded the final death knell for the town.
Back in Soviet times, fishing was just one of many activities centered upon Lake Issyk–Kul. Domestic tourism was big in those days: Russian mountaineers were attracted by the unclimbed peaks that surrounded the lake, and Communist Party cadres came for R & R at the sanatoria along the north shore. Even Brezhnev was a fan and regularly visited the spa resort of Cholpon–Ata, while cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, no less, came for a well–earned holiday at Tamga on the southern shore following his pioneering spin in space. For Westerners in those days, Lake Issyk–Kul was a closed area as the Soviet authorities were keen to keep prying eyes well away from the naval installations on the lake's southeast shore. Now times have changed and, although vacationing Kazakhs still throng to the spas and beaches of the north shore in the summer months, most visitors to the southeast of the lake are Europeans and North Americans who come for the trekking that the region has to offer. Few visit Balykchy though and it is easy to see why. Like visiting any other economic disaster zone in the former USSR, it feels rather voyeuristic, an indulgence of the schadenfreude felt in being lucky enough to live somewhere else.
I head inland from the docks in search of a town center, which I fail to find other than a small bazaar selling cheap clothes, vegetables and, of course, vodka. What I discover instead is a loose grid of streets with Russian–style wooden houses, many with peeling paint and optimistic 'for sale' signs. Many of the streets bear names still redolent of the Soviet past––Gagarin, Komsomol, Pioneer––and there are also fragments of statuary that attest to this bygone age. A long closed–down cinema, its windows cemented up with breeze blocks, has a Lenin bust displayed on a plinth in front of it. It is not unusual to find such memorials still standing in Kyrgyzstan but here in Balykchy it feels as if the passing of that period is mourned more than elsewhere in the country. Perhaps this is why the railway station sign was never changed?
The rain abates slightly and I head towards the bus station where I find a minibus ready to leave for Cholpon–Ata along the lake's north shore. As we drive off, a group of women wave strings of smoked fish at us from the roadside. More than a simple sales pitch it somehow seems like an unspoken plea for us to take them away from all this.
Greener Lands by A Strange Warm Lake
We skirt Lake Issyk–Kul along its northern road: the snow–flecked range of the Kungey ('sunny') Ala–Too to our left, blue water and the occasional glimpse of a beach to our right. The lake is shrouded in mystery and, despite the holiday clamor of resorts like Cholpon–Ata, it genuinely does feel like an extraordinary place. Part of the intrigue lies with the physical properties of the lake itself. Issyk–Kul is big, more like a sea than a lake and, rather freakishly for a region where winter temperatures often plummet into double figures below zero, it never freezes. Issyk–Kul's very name means 'warm lake' and it owes its non–freezing character to a combination of depth, salinity and underground thermal activity. But the lake's enigma plunges even greater depths than quirky science: local legends tell of submerged cities, ancient Armenian monasteries and even a possible burial site for St Matthew along its shoreline. Enough bona fide archaeological evidence exists to at least partially substantiate this and keep the mystery alive.
At the far eastern end of Lake Issyk–Kul, turning its back upon the lake a few miles inland, lies the provincial capital of Karakol. This is where most Western tourists gravitate towards sooner or later, using the town as a base for excursions into the valleys to the south. Karakol was founded at the tail end of the 19th century by Russians––mostly Cossacks from Siberia––along with Ukrainians, Tatars, Uyghurs and Chinese Dungan Muslims. The town's Slavic heritage is all too apparent, with neat wooden houses and garden orchards that groan under the weight of apples and apricots in the summer months. The town center is relatively small––a bazaar, a square of shops, a park, university and a single department store––but beyond this Karakol sprawls for miles in every direction with leafy suburbs of single–story houses built by people for whom living space had never been an issue.
Tribute to an Unloved Spy
Before independence, Karakol was known as Przhevalsk, its name taken from a Russian explorer of Polish descent who died of typhus here whilst en route to Tibet. Nikolai Przhevalsky was a skilled geographer and biologist, as well as a spy, a loyal Tsarist soldier and an enthusiastic Great Game combatant. Unfortunately he was also 'a man of his time', a euphemism for being something of a racist who held the local Kyrgyz population in almost as much contempt as he did the Chinese.
Przhevalsky has a museum dedicated to him at nearby Pristan Przhevalsk, a village that continues to bear his name on the lake's southeast shore. He had built a house for himself here and it was here that he died. A monument was erected a few years after his death and the Soviets went on to build the museum and park nearby in the late 1950s, bulldozing a Kyrgyz cemetery in the process. Perhaps this was apposite, suggesting that, even in death, Przhevalsk was no great friend of the Kyrgyz people.
Along with another traveler, I take a taxi from Karakol's bazaar to the Przhevalsky museum. We are met at the gate by a guide, Olga, who shows us around. Olga is a middle–aged Slavic woman with blue eyes, blonde hair and gold teeth. I assume that she is Russian but I am wrong. 'No, I am from Krim (Crimea). My family all Ukrainian; we here in Kirgizia seventy years,' she informs us. It may have been the architect of the revolution, Lenin, who had all the statues but it was his thuggish successor, Stalin, who undoubtedly had a greater influence on the demographic makeup of today's Kyrgyzstan. Olga's family and many others like her––Ukrainians, Germans, Tatars––had all been forcibly moved here in the despotic years that preceded World War II. Countless others had been even less fortunate.
Inside the museum, Olga shows us a portrait of Przhvalsky. 'He is good look man, da?' And he was, in a virile, slick–haired, army officer sort of way. A wall–sized 3–D map shows the routes of his expeditions criss–crossing Central Asia, approaching but never quite reaching the forbidden Tibetan capital of Lhasa, his personal Shangri–La. There is a display of notebooks belonging to his second–in–command, which contain beautifully drawn sketches of wildlife encountered along the way in addition to unflinching details of the punishments the Chinese imposed on their unfortunate prisoners. As with all ex–Soviet museums, there is a case filled with stuffed birds and also what appears to be a rather flea–bitten donkey. However, it is not a donkey at all, but rather a horse: the unique, short–legged species discovered by Przhevalsky in the wilds of Mongolia and which still bears the explorer's name in its Polish form––Przewalski's Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) .
We leave the museum for a stroll in the surrounding gardens. A tree–lined path leads to a commemorative monument that is topped with a resplendent eagle. A Kyrgyz wedding group has gathered to make a photo call in front of it––the bride in white, the groom uncomfortable in a suit for the first time in his life. Just beyond the monument, there is a fence that affords a glance at the naval base that was used in Soviet times as a submarine testing base. Despite having just a couple of redundant gun boats these days it remains a closed area, firmly off–limits to foreign tourists, although this is clearly not the case for locals who have weekend dachas along the shore here. A submarine baseâ€¦in landlocked Central Asia? You may well ask. But Lake Issyk–Kul is such an oddball sort of place that to find submarines, 5,000 feet up, thousands of miles from the open sea, seems almost like the most natural thing in the world.
Laurence Mitchell is a British travel writer and photographer with a special interest in transition zones, cultural frontiers and forgotten places that are firmly off the beaten track. He is author of the Bradt Travel Guides to Serbia, Belgrade and Kyrgyzstan and a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine. His photographic website can be seen at www.laurencemitchell.com.
Books from the Author: