South of Issyk-Kul
Balykchy Travel Blog› entry 18 of 25 › view all entries
By now it was nearly mid-day, so we had to start making a serious effort to get home to Bishkek. However, it was also almost lunch-time, and so, about half an hour after leaving the Jeti-Oguz valley, we stopped at what I think was the little town of Kyzil-Suu to buy bread, after which we set off along the road that follows the south shore of Issyk-Kul right back to Balykchy at the western extremity. Along the way there were few towns or villages, and the climate here was clearly harsher than on the northern side, with much of the landscape already baked dry and brown by the searing heat; one can see why, in Soviet days, the south side of Issyk-Kul was far less favoured than the north by visiting Russians on holiday.
Particularly evident in the bare landscape were many Muslim cemeteries, usually within half-a-mile or so of the road; the sight of stars and sickles outlined on the skyline became a familiar one. For about 100 miles we also tracked a broken-down concrete conduit that ran between the road and the lake: once part of a Soviet-financed irrigation scheme, it has fallen into disrepair and disuse through lack of funding. Also evident along the shore was the strange and unexplained drop in the level of the lake; Irina's father pointed out cattle grazing on land that, a couple of decades ago, was completely under water. And I was intrigued by occasional concrete ramps at the side of the road, apparently provided so that if your car starts to malfunction you can manoeuvre it onto a ramp and then get underneath it, presumably to effect vital repairs with a hammer or monkey-wrench.
This was a very beautiful drive: on the right, the shining blue of Issyk-Kul, "the pearl of Central Asia"; on the left some scrubby fields, often full of wild flowers, against a backdrop of the baked foothills of the Terskey Ala-Too range; while behind us much higher snow-clad peaks separated us from China.
After about three hours we arrived back in Balykchy, from which, on the outward journey, we had begun to follow the north shore of Issyk-Kul. Here Irina's father pumped up the punctured tyre, which had gone very flat, and we admired the modern memorial to Piotr Semionov, a Russian military explorer who, in the mould of Nikolai Przhevalsky, was in the middle of the nineteenth century the first European to penetrate into the Tien-Shan range, of which Terskey Ala-Too forms a part.
Then we passed for a second time through the concrete edifice that guards the entrance to the Issyk-Kul region and set off on the last part of the drive back to Bishkek.