LAKE ISSYK-KUL AREA

LAKE ISSYK-KUL

Lake Issyk-Kul (160 kilometers west of Bishkek) is Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake and one of the largest lakes in the world. Located at an elevation of 1,609 meters in the northwestern part of Kyrgyzstan, it is essentially a large valley filled with water. Surrounded by the snowcapped Terskey Alatau and Kungey Alatau ranges, it is a lovely sight and is regarded as a national treasure. One 19th century explorer called it “a blue emerald set in a frame of silvery mountains.”

By some reckonings, Lake Issyk-Kul is the second highest large lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia. Covering an area of 6236 square kilometers, it measures about 180 kilometers (110 miles) from east to west and about 70 kilometers (45 miles) north to south at its widest point and has a 570-kilometer-long (350-mile-long) shoreline.

Lake Issyk-Kul is the forth deepest lake in the world. It has an average depth of 300 meters. Its deepest point is 668 meters. Because the lake is so deep, the salinity is relatively low and it is fed by thermal springs, it never freezes. The lake is relatively shallow on the north side and deep on the south side. It lies at the converging point of two tectonic plates and is expected to be twice as deep as its present depth in a few centuries.

Around the lake poplars line sections of the road that encircles the lake and marijuana grows wild. Grain, apricots and vegetables are grown in the fertile land. The people that live around the lake are pretty much equally divided between Kyrgyz and Russians and other Slavs.

History of Issyk-Kul

Issyk-Kul means “warm water,” a name presumed to have been chosen because the water in the lake never freezes. The name of the lake also has religious significance. The adjective 'issyk' is phonetically modified form of the ancient Turkic word 'ydyk' which means 'sacred.' This unique lake has been considered sacred to the Kyrgyz and indigenous people that have lived around it.

The warm water Of Issyk-Kul creates a microclimate in the area of the lake with relatively high rainfall and relatively warm temperatures. For this reason people have settled around it for centuries. Remains of Scythian settlements have been found. Silk Road caravans stopped here for a breather. Tamerlane reportedly vacationed here. The remains of mysterious ancient cities have been found in the lake’s depths.

Issyk-Kul has great spiritual meaning to the Kyrgyz people. There are many legends about it; tribes pray to its spirits and it is said that divers have found remains of ancient cities in its depths. According to legend, the 40 maidens who gave Kyrgyzstan its name and migrated to Kyrgyzstan from Siberia in ancient times, settled along Lake Issyk-Kul and founded the 40 traditional Kyrgyz clans.

In the Soviet era, Lake Issyk-Kul was used to test naval weapons such as torpedoes. The idea was that the lake had some conditions comparable to that of the sea and the United States could not monitor what the Soviets were doing in the Tien Shan mountains. Most of the facilities were located around Koy-Sary on the eastern end of the lake. Opium was also grown in this area. Russia has expressed interest in reopening a torpedo test range in the lake.

Issyk-Kul Legends

One legend on Lake Issyk-Kul’s origin goes: once upon a time there lived a cruel ruler who fell in love with a girl of great beauty. He ordered his servants to kidnap the girl from her native village and bring her to his palace. The girl loved a common shepherd and so she rejected the Khan’s love. The young shepherd saved his sweetheart riding a magic horse, Tulpar. The khan sent his best warriors after them. The girl was brought back, but the proud beauty preferred death to captivity and committed suicide by jumping from her dungeon window. [Source: advantour]

The khan, however, did not escape punishment for his evil-doings. Clean mountain water rushed down to the valley where his palace was situated and overwhelmed it in flood waters. In its place Issyk-Kul lake formed. Under the lake there is a ruined monastery whose origins is unknown. Some say there may be some connection between it and the khan described above.

According to another legend the great conqueror Amir Timur (Tamerlane) ordered every warrior to place a stone every time they passed Issyk-Kul. So many warriors carried out this orders that they created a stone ridge called Santash on the eastern side of the lake. Another legend is connected with Genghis Khan—the location of whose tomb is unknown. Some Kyrgyz aksakals (old wise men) believe that “The Great Universe Shaker” was buried beside Issyk-Kul.

Xuanzang

In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Chinese dynasty capital for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to Central Asia and then south and east to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip inspired the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” by Wu Ch'eng-en, a 16th century story about a wandering Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit. It is widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf); See Separate Article on Xuanzang]

Xuanzang was as philosopher, educator and translator as well as being a monk and traveler. Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “ Xuanzang was a leading Indophile of ancient China. The Chinese monk not only promoted Buddhist doctrines and the perception of India as a holy land through his writings, he also tried to foster diplomatic exchanges between India and China by lobbying his leading patrons, the Tang rulers Taizong (reigned 626–49) and Gaozong (reigned 649–683). In fact, the narrative of his pilgrimage to India, The Records of the Western Regions Visited During the Great Tang Dynasty, was meant for his royal patrons as much as it addressed the contemporary Chinese clergy. Thus, Xuanzang's work is significant both as an account of religious pilgrimage and as a historical record of foreign states and societies neighboring Tang China. In fact, in the work Xuanzang comes across both as a pious pilgrim and as a diplomat for Tang China." [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]

According to Silk Road Seattle: Xuanzang was a Chinese Buddhist monk and translator who traveled across the Tarim basin via the northern route, Turfan, Kucha, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bactria, then over the Hindu Kush to India. He departed the Tang capitol (Chang'an) in 629 and returned via the southern route in 645. The remainder of his life was spent translating into Chinese the sutras which he had collected in India. At the request of the Tang Emperor Taizong (r.626-649) he composed a description of the lands through which he traveled. After his death, his travels and story became fantastic legends which were used in plays and novels."Source: Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad ]

Xuanzang on Aksu and Eastern Kyrgyzstan

Tian Shan mountains

Xuanzang reported: “The kingdom of Poh-luh-kia (Aksu, border of China and Kazakhstan, formerly called Che-meh or Kih-meh) is about 600 li from east to west, and 300 li or, so from north to south. The chief town is 5 or 6 li in circuit. With regard to the soil, climate, character of the people, the customs, and literature (laws of composition), these are the same as in the country of g'iu-chi. The language (spoken language) differs however a little. It produces a fine sort of cotton and hair-cloth, which are highly valued by neighboring (frontier) countries. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]

“There are some ten sangharamas here; the number of priests (priests and followers) is about one thousand. These follow the teaching of the "Little Vehicle," and belong to the school of the Sarvastivadas (Shwo-yih-tsai-yu-po). [p.25] Going 300 li or so to the north-west of this country, crossing a stony desert, we come to Ling-shan (ice-mountain). This is, in fact, the northern plateau of the T'sung-ling range (Tian Shan mountains) and from this point the waters mostly have an eastern flow. Both hills and valleys are filled with snowpiles, and it freezes both in spring and summer; if it should thaw for a time, the ice soon forms again. The roads are steep and dangerous, the cold wind is extremely biting, and frequently fierce dragons impede and molest travellers with their inflictions. Those who travel this road should not wear red garments nor carry loud- sounding calabashes. The least forgetfulness of these precautions entails certain misfortune. A violent wind suddenly rises with storms of flying sand and gravel; those who encounter them, sinking through exhaustion, are almost sure to die. |::|

Going 400 li or so, we come to the great Tsing lake (Lake Issyk-kul in Kyrgyzstan). [p.26] This lake is about 1000 li in circuit, extended from east to west, and narrow from north to south. On all sides it is enclosed by mountains, and various streams empty themselves into it and are lost. The colour of the water is a bluish-black, its taste is bitter and salt. The waves of this lake roll along tumultuously as they expend themselves (on the shores). Dragons and fishes inhabit it together. At certain (portentous) occasions scaly monsters rise to the surface, on which travellers passing by put up their prayers for good fortune. Although the water animals are numerous, no one dares (or ventures) to catch them by fishing. Going 500 li or so to the north-west of the Tsing lake, we arrive at the town of the Su-yeh river. This town is about 6 or 7 li in circuit; here the merchants from surrounding countries congregate and dwell. The soil is favourable for red millet and for grapes; the woods are not thick, the climate is windy and cold; the people wear garments of twilled wool." This area refers to Suyab, also known as Ordukent (modern-day Ak-Beshim), an ancient Silk Road city located some 50 kilometers east from Bishkek, and 8 kilometers west southwest from Tokmok, in the Chui River valley, present-day Kyrgyzstan.

Tourism at Lake Issyk-Kul

Issyk-Kul was a major tourist area in the Soviet era. People came from all over the U.S.S.R. and eastern Europe to relax and enjoy the scenery. Communist party members stayed in fancy resorts, health spas or had luxurious villas built. Khrushchev had a favorite villa here . In the post Soviet era this tradition has continued. The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev has a villa here.

The tourism industry around Lake Issyk-Kul has largely collapsed. Few people in the Soviet Union have the money take a vacation here. Most of the 115 spas and resorts on the lake have closed down. Those have remained look pretty shabby. Dusty towns spread out along the road that circles the lake. Local people walk along the beaches selling beer, dried fish and occasionally hashish.

Still there are some nice beaches. People go boating and sail in the open waters. Angler pull up fat trout. There are enough fish to support a fishing industry. Many towns have home stays where visitors can stay cheaply. Often all you have to do is get off the bus and wander around for a while with a backpack and people will approach you with accommodation.

The south sides is much less developed than the northern side but there is less accommodation and transportation is less frequent. As one move from west to east the landscapes get progressively greener. This is result of the rain blocking effect of mountains in the west and the moist winds and rain catching effect of the Tien Shan mountains in the east.

The coast is famous for its exceptional landscape and particular maritime climate.It is also the largest health resort zone in Central Asia, with numerous health resorts, hotels, and private guest houses, making it a top destination.

North Side of Issyk-Kul

Balykchy (160 kilometers miles east of Bishkek) is the first Lake Issyk-Kul town you come to if are coming from Bishkek. It is not a very appealing place. There is some run down industry and it doesn't even seem to be near the lake. Few people stop here except to change buses or taxis.

Tamchy is the first real tourist town when coming from Bishkek. Locals rent out rooms in their houses and offer meals to their guests in improvised kitchens. It is charming, and not a bad place to stop over for a night to relax on the beach.

Örnök Petroglyphs (on the outskirts of Örnök village, 20 kilometers west of Cholpon Ata) is home to a valuable assemblage of monuments, such as petroglyphs and burial mounds. More than 2000 stone blocks have engraved images of wild and domestic animals and life-scenes (such as hunting, war, rituals, etc.) of ancient inhabitants of these lands, representing different time periods - Skythian, Usun, and Turkic.

Cholpon Ata

Cholpon Ata (250 kilometers east of Bishkek) is the main Lake Issyk-Kul resort town. Located around the midway point of the northern shore, is a sprawling town with 4,000 people, some nice beaches and a variety of recreation opportunities, including waterslides that go straight into the lake. Worth checking out are the bazaar, some Scythian petroglyphs of wolves and ibex that dates as back as the 5th century B.C, and a small region museum with some Scythian gold jewelry and other ancient artifacts.

Sailing and fishing trips can be organized at the boatyard about a half miles from the bus station. The prices are kind of steep though. There are beaches south of the boatyard, two kilometers south of the bus station and four kilometers east of the bus station. There are nice beaches on the east side of the islet. You can also use the beaches of Dom Otixat. Some Soviet-era resorts are still open. Lots of families offer homestays.

Ruh Ordo Cultural Center, inspired by the famous Kyrgyz writer Chyngyz Aitmatov, was founded in 2002 in Cholpon Ata on the shore of Issyk Kul Lake. The center combines elements of various cultures and religions. Sculptures and portraits of famous people who left their mark in the history of mankind can be found here. One may also visit the Buddhist, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish churches that sit next to each other, symbolizing the unity of faith of all people on Earth. Ruh Ordo means 'spiritual center' in Kyrgyz.

Near Cholpon Ata

Ananyevo (35 miles east of Cholpon-Ata) is the home of nature reserve along Lake Issyk-Kul. The main attractions are birds and good scenery. There are cheap homestays in a nearby town. Horseback riding and boating outings can sometimes be arranged.

Belovodsk (30 miles east of Ananyevo) contains some Scythian burial mounds that have yield bronze jewelry and vessels, The famous Golden Man was found not far away at a sight just across the Kazakhstan border.

Ak-Suu Gorge (40 kilometers from Cholpon-Ata) is about 30 kilometers in length. Kichi Ak-Suu river runs through the bottom of the gorge. The slopes of the gorge are covered with Tien Shan fir trees and fragrant mountain herbs. Among the main destinations are waterfalls near the source of the Kichi Ak-Suu river, the Kyrchyn mountain pasture, where the cultural part of the first World Nomad Games took place, and Süttüü-Bulak lake, formed as a result of an earthquake. Ak-Suu Gorge is also called the Semenov Gorge.

Chong Ak Suu (60 kilometers from Cholpon-Ata) is located on the northern shore of the Issyk-Kul Lake, on the slopes of Kungei Alatau. Also called Grigoriev Gorge, it is covered with lush green grass and pine forests. The gorge is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Issyk-Kul area. Three beautiful moraine lakes are among the main attractions here.

Western Tien Shan and the Zailiy Alatau

Western Tien-Shan was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in. 2016. According to UNESCO: “The transnational property is located in the Tien-Shan mountain system, one of the largest mountain ranges in the world. Western Tien-Shan ranges in altitude from 700 to 4,503 m. It features diverse landscapes, which are home to exceptionally rich biodiversity. It is of global importance as a centre of origin for a number of cultivated fruit crops and is home to a great diversity of forest types and unique plant community associations. [Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2016]

Zailiy Alatau is an impressive mountain range which defines part of the border between southeast Kazakhstan and northeast Kyrgyzstan. A spur of the Tien Shan, it boasts many 4,000 meter-high peaks that are snow-capped year round, glaciers, wild rivers and refreshing pine forest. Mountains from this range form a backdrop for Almaty and provide high altitude pastures for shepherds and herders. There are numerous hiking routes.

The central part of the Zailiy Alatau is the home of Talgar peak (4979 meters), the highest point of the Talgar plexus of mountains. One peculiarity of the Talgar and Issyk rivers is they are shallow but are so fast-flowing and turbulent they grind away surrounding rocks and wash away huge boulders.

Kungey Alatau and Treks Between Kazakhstan and Lake Issyk-Kul

Kungey Alatau is a spur of the Tien Shan that extends from the Zailiysky Alatau into northern Kyrgyzstan and defines the part border between southeast Kyrgyzstan and northeast Kyrgyzstan. It feature snowcapped peaks, wild rivers, pine forest, high altitude pastures and numerous hiking routes. Semyonovka (45 kilometers miles east of Cholpon-Ata) is the main jumping off point for treks across the Kungey Alatau and the Zailiysky Alatau to Almaty.

Some of the most popular trekking routes are between southern Kazakhstan and Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. Some of these routes traverses passes that not to steep and have some patches of snow but otherwise present only minor challenges. Others traverse glaciers with crevasses and require special equipment and mountain climbing skills. Hikers are advised to hire a guide. It is easy to get lost and there are occasional attacks by bandits. Also be prepared for cold, wet or snowy weather. The main trekking season last from late May to early to late September.

There are two main trekking routes in the Zailiysky Alatau between southern Kazakhstan and Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. Each takes about five days and is difficult to negotiate without a guide or good maps and map-reading skills.

The route is between 2500-meter-high Bolshoe Almatinskoe Lake in southern Kazakhstan and Grigorievka on Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. This route crosses 3507-meter-high Ozyorny Pass on the Zailiysky Alatau and 4052-meter-high Aksu Pass on the Kungey Alatau. The trail ascends and descends between passes, ridges and rivers and passes through Chong-Kemin valley, used in the summer by yurt-dwelling herders and described as one of the loveliest spots in this region.

The second route is between Kolshoky southern Kazakhstan and Chong-Sary-Or on Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. This route crosses 3600-meter-high Almaty (Prokhodnoy) Pass on the Zailiysky Alatau and 3889-meter-high Kok-Ayryk Pass on the Kungey Alatau. The trail ascends and descends between passes, ridges and rivers and passes by lakes and summer pastures.

The route is between 2500-meter-high Bolshoe Almatinskoe Lake in southern Kazakhstan and Grigorievka on Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. This route crosses 3507-meter-high Ozyorny Pass on the Zailiysky Alatau and 4052-meter-high Aksu Pass on the Kungey Alatau. The trail ascends and descends between passes, ridges and rivers and passes through Chong-Kemin valley, used in the summer by yurt-dwelling herders and described as one of the loveliest spots in this region.

South Side of Issyk-Kul

Kyzyl-Suu (southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul) is not so nice in itself but there are some nice hikes and hot springs in the area. One of the primary charms of the southern shore is that there are not so many people around.

Fairy Tale Canyon (southern shore of Issyk-Kul Lake, 4 kilometers from Tosor village) is an impressive natural wonder. Water, wind, and sun have produced whimsical, fabulous shapes here. While some resemble mythical creatures (dragon ridge), others look like other ordinary animals (camels, hippos, and elephants), while others portray amazing intricate structures such as castles, towers, and even China’s Great Wall. Due to particular nature of the soil, it is recommended to visit the canyon in dry weather.

Barskoon Gorge (southern shore of Issyk Kul Lake, near Barskoon village, 90 kilometers west of Karakol) has a river with the same name that runs through it. The length of the gorge is about 10 kilometers. It is famous for its beautiful waterfalls with unique names, such as ‘Tears of the Leopard,' ‘White Beard,' ‘Splashes of Champagne,’ and ‘The Bowl of Manas’. In 1965, the first astronaut Yuri Gagarin visited this place and enjoyed its beautiful landscape. Two monuments were later installed in his memory. The road that leads to the well-known Kumtor gold mine passes through the gorge. This road was once one of the branches of the Great Silk Road, which passed through the Barskhoon city, a thriving medieval city in the 8th -13th centuries on the site of today’s Barskoon village.

Tuz-Köl (on the southern shore of Issyk Kul Lake, near the village of Kara-Koo) is the saltiest lake in Kyrgyzstan. With a perimeter of 1500 meters and depth of 11 meters, it is relatively small. Also named Kara Köl, meaning ‘Dead Lake’), the lake has been compared to the Dead Sea in Israel and Jordan. The water in the lake is so dense that swimming in it is like floating. According to scientific data, the amount of salt in the lake is 132 grams per liter. The high concentration of salt, it is said, helps cure many diseases, such as psoriasis and other dermatological conditions as well as gynecological and muscular diseases. The silt mud along the coast formed as a result of microorganism activities has long been used for therapeutic and cosmetic purposes. Manjyly-Ata Valley (on the southern shore of Issyk Kul Lake between the Kaji-Sai and Tong villages) is also called the Valley of Sacred Springs. The waters and mud in the springs, which are located among numerous clay hills, are considered sacred and curative, each having a different taste. According to legend, the area is the mazar (burial place) of a once famous old healer whose name was Manjyly. After his death, people kept visiting his mazar hoping to find cures for their ailments, thus making it an object of pilgrimage.

Silk Road Routes of the Southern Issyk Kul

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: This part of the Silk Road, actively functioning throughout all Middle Ages, is known as "Hsuan-Tsang's road", the pilgrim, who passed it in 629 AD. The Chinese records describe this branch from east to west, Arabic and Persian - from west to east. Traditionally, it is considered that it went through Bedel, Seok passes, Ara Bel valley, Sary-Moinok, Barskoon passes, through Barskoon valley and to the southern coast of the lake, then along the southwestern coast went to the West and through Boom gorge passed to the Chui valley. This part of the route is traced by a range of sites and settlements, which are identified with historical cities of the area of Upper Barshan. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]

“Site of Barskoon 2 is located in the heart of gorge, on the right terrace above the floodplain. It has square form with sides 60 x 60m, oriented to cardinal points. Semicircular towers were traced in the corners and in the centre of southern, western and northern walls; entrance was in the centre of the eastern wall. The site functioned as a fortress protecting entrance and exit from gorge and accordingly, the part of the route going through Barskoon and Bedel passes to the area of Aksuu. Excavations are carried out in the middle of 20th century; the settlement is dated from the early Middle Ages till 12th centuries AD.

“To the west of this site, in the natural boundary of Tamga, in 2 kilometers to the south of the settlement Tamga, there are three stones with the Tibetan inscriptions containing the formula "Ohm mani padme hum"; dated back to Jungar times, 15th-18th centuries AD. Burial ground of Turkic time (funeral and burial sites with stone sculptures) is located on a floodplain terrace. According to some researchers, places with Buddhist epigraphics, mark use of Silk Road caravan routes, known from the early and late Middle Ages, by pilgrims to Tibet. Now, the local Kyrgyz population considers this site as a mazar - a sacred place.”

Issyk Kul Silk Road Cities of Tun and Dun

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “On the coast, there is the Tosor site on the route, which served as a fortress between two large cities of the area: Barshan and Ton (Тun, Dun). It is on the western end of Tosor village, in 200 meters to the north from Balykchi-Karakol road. It has square form with sides 100х100m, oriented to cardinal points. Semicircular towers were traced in the corners and on the walls. L-shaped entrance is located in the centre of the eastern wall and, the eastern side of the entrance is strengthened by a tower. The topography of the site and materials of excavation of 1960s made a basis for its dating as Karahanid time. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]

City of Dun is identified with Khan-Dobo or Ton settlement, located on the left floodplain terrace of the river Ton, in the entrance to the gorge. It consists of the central ruins and the territory surrounded with two long walls. The citadel has the form of the truncated cone with sides in the basis of 60х60 meters, with the height of more than 10 meters. A platform, limited with low walls, which served as a court yard for the citadel adjoins its northern side. The surrounding area has traces of numerous constructions in the form of mounds of various forms and stone basements of constructions. The Central part is surrounded by a wall with numerous towers in distance of 40-50 meters from each other, 12-15 meters projecting from the side of the wall, height of the wall is 3-5 meters, width in the basis is 10-12 meters. Western and northern walls are well traced where entrances to the city are located. The greatest length of the central part of the site makes 600 meters, width is 500 meters.

“Functioning of the central part is dated back from 7th to 12th centuries AD, the second part of the site adjoins the main site from the south, the east and the north, is surrounded by a ring of walls with towers. Height of the wall is 2-3 m; width in the basis is 10-15 meters. Traces of constructions and cultural layers are detected inside the walls. River Tuura-Suu flows through the territory of this part of the site. Adjoining third part of the site is also surrounded with a ring of wall, constructed on the edge of a floodplain terraces of the river Ton. Small settlements are detected in the vicinity of the site; there are some settlements deeper in a gorge, in the direction to Ton pass, which was on the way connecting Issyk-Kul with Tien Shan and Fergana.

“Remains of the defensive wall indicating western border of the territory of the Upper Barshan in 10th-12th centuries AD is another site of the time of intensive functioning of the Silk Road in this area. It is located on the left bank of the river Ton, to the south from Balykchi-Karakol road, in the cemetery. From Ton to the West the road went along the lake coast, through a number of settlements, some of them have occupation layers of the early Middle Ages, but mainly they functioned in Karahanid period. Transit to Chui valley was made through Boom gorge.

Kumtor Gold Mine

The Kumtor mine in western Kyrgyzstan — 350 kilometers southeast of Bishkek — is the largest goldmine operated by a Western company in Central Asia. It has been ranked at various times as the world’s fifth largest and seventh largest gold mine. Located at an elevation of 4,000 meters in the Tien Shan, it opened in 1996 at a cost of $452 million and is run by Centerra Gold, a Toronto-based mining company. In the early 2000s, it yielded 19 tons of gold a year, generating 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GNP and 40 percent of its export income.[Source: Harry Maurer, Business Week, October 29, 2001]

Kyrgyzstan now owns 33 percent of Centerra Gold Inc. The mine produced 17.66 tons of gold in 2010, generating approximately 10 per cent of Kyrgyzstan's GDP but also has created significant environmental and social threats. The mine was estimated to have reserves of 7.8 million ounces of gold in the 1990s. It was expected to close in 2007 and shut down its milling operation in 2009 but now there are plans to further expand operations. [Source: Bankwatch,org]

The Kumtor mine produced more than 9.9 million ounces of gold between 1997 and the end of 2014. In the early 2000s, the mine employed 1,500 people, 93 percent of them Kyrgyzstanis. The mine also provided 5,000 jobs through subcontractors and purchases from local businesses. The mine produced $200 million of gold a year but earned only $4 million in profits because of: 1) high production costs; 2) production-sharing deals with the Kyrgyzstan government; and 3) money spent on bureaucracy, giving officials perks and providing local people with necessities like medical care and funds to complete their harvests. Profitability has also been hurt by falling gold prices.

Kumtor had an estimated value of US$5.5 billion when was opened the Canadian Metals Company (Cameco, Centerra’s predecessor), a uranium company, in a joint-venture operation. The terms of the agreement for Kumtor exploitation with Cameco, which gains one-third of profits from gold extraction, caused public concern in 1992. To improve control of the mineral-extraction and refining processes, and to address the uncontrolled movement of precious metals out of the country, President Akayev created a new administrative agency, Kyrgyzaltyn (Kyrgyzstan Gold), to replace Yuzhpolmetal, the Soviet-era body responsible for precious metals. In January 1993, Akayev also brought the country's antimony and mercury mines into Kyrgyzaltyn. The latter are especially important because mercury is used to refine gold. Control of the mercury mines makes more likely the realization of Akayev's hope that Kyrgyzstan will become more than just a supplier of raw materials. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Kyrgyzstan Tourism website, Kyrgyzstan government websites, Wikitravel, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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