Issyk Lake – Enbekshikazakh District, Kazakhstan - Atlas Obscura
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Enbekshikazakh District, Kazakhstan

Issyk Lake

The lovely lake that was naturally dammed, then naturally destroyed, then unnaturally saved. 

A 20-minute drive from the town of Issyk, Kazakhstan rests a stunning lake, its turquoise-blue-green waters contrasted against the shades of the surrounding flowers and trees. But it is the lake that almost wasn’t.

The lake was originally formed around 8,000 years ago when a rockslide clogged up the gorge into which the water used to flow. For thousands of years, the picturesque turquoise waters sat, relatively unknown and unremarked upon other than by locals or explorers. In the 1930s, the region around the lake finally saw some development intended to bring tourism to the lovely body of water.

In the late 1950s, the USSR established the area as a park and built a hotel and restaurant inside it. Issyk Lake was placed on the Almaty-visit list and itinerary for Moscow’s elite when they came for visits. It’s rumored that Nikita Khrushchev enjoyed coming to the lake. A picture of Lenin was carved into the rocks in the park and is still present today.

The burgeoning tourism industry was dealt a major blow in the 1960s when a massive mudslide wiped out much of the infrastructure that was being built, as well as the natural dam that had clogged the gorge for thousands of years.

It was reported that more than a hundred people were killed in the tragedy, but officials now say the number was closer to 2,000 or 3,000 lives lost, and the lake flooded out down the gorge. The dam was eventually rebuilt in the 1990s, and the lake restored, but this new humanmade body of water ended up being almost twice as small as the previous lake. Nature tourists have since returned to the site, but many of the locals who remember the tragedy know it doesn’t look the same.

This being said, the waters of Issyk Lake, while smaller, still range into all kinds of stunning blues. The town of Issyk is around a one-hour bus ride from Almaty, Kazakhstan’s most cosmopolitan city. There are some small markets, mosques, and churches to poke around while in town. From anywhere in Issyk, the snowy Tianshan Mountains can be seen posing in the distance.