Central Asia's lake in the clouds Oasis: Suspended above the vast territory between China and Europe, and lying in the shadow of a towering mountain range is Lake Issyk-Kul -- one of the deepest mountain lakes in the world.

Sun Journal

September 09, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LAKE ISSYK-KUL, Kyrgyzstan -- Three hours down the old Silk Road from Bishkek, the land seems incapable of offering more than rugged hills and scrub. The road winds and climbs, giving glimpses of the formidable Tian Shan Mountains, their glittering peaks signaling that China is near.

But before they drop into the deserts of western China, the alpine lands of Kyrgyzstan offer a last detour. They open into a 120-mile-long valley filled with one of the deepest mountain lakes in the world: Issyk-Kul.

Issyk-Kul is indigo blue, fed by brackish spring waters warm enough to keep it always ice-free, though the lake is a mile above sea level. Flanked on one side by the Tian Shan Mountains, on the other by russet-colored foothills, the 3,000-square-mile lake was one of the Soviet Union's premier health spas.

The peak season is mid-July to mid-August. And for those few weeks one could imagine that the Soviet era had returned, when rooms were booked for the season and when the people of communist Kyrgyzstan could easily afford a month at this high-altitude beach.

A gem in the wilderness

Now, Issyk-Kul lies quietly suspended above Central Asia, a microcosm of the vast, unsettled swath of the world sprawled between China and Europe. The empire is gone and many of the locals now are too poor to afford a holiday here. Small towns dot the northern coastline, but the shore has quiet, eerie stretches, and one's gaze is drawn to the dark lake and the range of snowy peaks 40 miles away.

Children and old people on the shore hawk pickled herring; a dozen fish cost the equivalent of a dollar and change, the fish held together with wire piercing the eyes. The people seem to wait at their stalls for entire days, hoping that not everyone will yell, "Too expensive." Farther along the shore is a camp that used to be for Young Pioneers -- the Soviet-era boy and girl scouts.

The sun has scorched this land, but the Young Pioneers camp is irrigated by a mountain stream to lush perfection. Long rows of poplars lead to the lake. The heat and irrigation seem to leave the lake unperturbed: While Central Asia's other great lakes are drying up, Issyk-Kul's underwater springs keep it full.

Ludmila and Zhanya have just arrived at the camp after a four-hour drive from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital. Their daughter is in the middle of a one-month stay; all but $15 of the $100 price paid -- as in the old days -- through Ludmila's job at the government-run telephone company.

"Look around," Ludmila says with a measure of pride. "It's just like when I was a child 30 years ago."

The camp is not only unchanged but also a replica of all the other Soviet-style children's parks in the world, from Ulan Bator in Mongolia to East Berlin. Concrete dinosaurs sit in a weedy field, and a small statue of Lenin looks out over an open-air stage.

Vacationing on a budget

In the past, people like Ludmila and Zhanya would have been practically guaranteed a month at Issyk-Kul; now, they struggle to afford two weeks. While the daughter sleeps in a dormitory, the couple has rented an abandoned guardhouse that barely holds a couple of beds and a table.

Zhanya, a great automobile enthusiast, unloads gear from his 12-year-old German-built Ford. After the salary for his old job driving an ambulance was cut to irrelevance, he quit and hopped a flight to Germany, where he bought the Ford for $750. He drove it through 4,000 miles of Eastern Europe, Russia and Kazakstan, repairing it along the way. He hopes to use the wreck as a taxi.

"The old days were more stable," Zhanya says. "Life for us was actually better. We had more and could enjoy more."

Even though the Young Pioneer camp is going to pot, Ludmila's enthusiasm is contagious. Here was where she slept as a girl and there is where she ate. Hours spent swimming in the lake's reputedly healing waters, and after a month going home tanned: a true and uncomplicated summer vacation.

An hour farther along the lakeshore is a bustling town called Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyz for "father of the stars." At night, Issyk-Kul's thin dry air makes the stars so sharp and clear that they seem to pop out of the sky.

The rich and well-connected

Beyond an anonymous gate guarded by cigarette-mooching soldiers is the former leadership sanitarium, now open to anyone who can afford $22 a night. The guests are from the thin layer of nouveau-riche business people and well-connected officials.

Zaryema, a 35-year-old ethnic Kyrgyz, is an entrepreneur -- a crafty businesswoman who has opened an English school, even though she doesn't speak English very well. She used to be an official in the education department, but decided to open her school based on what she calls modern educational methods.

Besides work, her favorite topic of conversation is men, or at least how bad most men are. Zaryema is divorced, one of many women who since the fall of communism have helped push Kyrgyzstan's divorce rate up 50 percent.

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