Kayaking Issyk-Kul: A Paddler’s Journey into the Heart of Kyrgyzstan

7-minute read + 36-minute video

Hugo Desrosiers embarked on an epic 490-kilometer kayak journey around Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul in May 2022. This Canadian's first attempt at a solo kayak expedition in a foreign country proved both a success and life-changing education.

 Hugo Desrosiers paddling his kayak on Lake Issyk-Kul

Hugo Desrosiers on Lake Issyk-Kul

Here’s his story in his own words…

by Hugo Desrosiers

I knew very little about the small, landlocked Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan. Nevertheless, my quest to locate a unique paddling destination had led me to the former Soviet republic and its emblematic inland sea, Issyk-Kul.

Once part of the Silk Road and the second largest alpine lake in the world, Issyk-Kul’s appeal was undeniable. I quickly laid the expedition’s groundwork and purchased my plane ticket.

After just 48 hours in the capital city, Bishkek, I boarded the cramped minibus that took me to Grigorievka, a sleepy village on the lake’s north shore. I caught a glimpse of what would be my playground for the next few weeks—inspiring and intimidating. The lake’s clear turquoise water was surrounded by imposing mountains whose snow-capped peaks were lost in the clouds.

topographical map of Lake issyk-Kul

Issyk-Kul, the second-largest alpine lake in the world

On “D-Day,” looking at the choppy waves and ominous clouds in the distance, a mix of excitement and nervousness sent my heart racing. While I was confident in my abilities and equipment, the reality was I had never attempted anything on such a scale.

Once I took my first paddle strokes, I could finally enjoy the moment. Paddling counterclockwise, the Kungey Ala-Too mountain range, with its emerald hills of tall pines and fir trees, proudly towered over me.

The North Shore: Calm Before the Storm

Around Cholpon-Ata, the lake’s main resort town, the numerous hotels were for the most part deserted, the high season still weeks away. Following a night of unwelcomed disco music and restless sleep, I encountered my first obstacles. A stuck skeg combined with heavy rains reminded me how vulnerable I was.

I caught my first break of the trip by staying in the comfortable home of Aibek and his wife Nazira, who occasionally offer lodging to visitors to help make ends meet. As I was getting ready to leave in the morning, their young son Nurislam approached me for one final goodbye.

“If you need energy,” the boy simply said with a shy smile. He offered me a handful of chocolates and sweets.

Kyrgyz man and son next to Hugo's kayak on shore

A couple of the ever-friendly Kyrgyz people see me off for another day on the water

Back on the water I was greeted with a gentle breeze and warm, sunny rays. But this wouldn’t last long. I was caught in the lake’s legendary winds that blew against each other, my paddle strokes barely strong enough to keep me in place.

I sought refuge in the bay of Toru-Aygyr, the site of a summer youth camp. For now, though, the beach was mine. Pitching the tent proved arduous. As I drove the last peg into the sand, I looked up in relief to find a metal teapot floating above my head.

“To warm you up,” an elderly man living nearby calmly said, after placing the steaming vessel at my feet, along with a clean cup.

The next morning, I set sail for Balykchy, a now defunct fishing port. Thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, the moored vessels were now abandoned. The city is no more than a crossing point for vacationers.

Seeing the shoreline of Balykchy from the kayak

Remnants of the Soviet era in Balykchy

South Shore: Untouched Nature and Rich Traditions

As the southern shore emerged, so did its incredible lunar landscape. The finely-carved arid hills followed one another, as did the herds of wild animals.

But with a near-constant headwind and roughly 35 km to paddle daily, I was burning through my energy supplies at an alarming rate.

Whatever my troubles were, they became those of the Kyrgyz I crossed paths with. In Bar-Bulak, a ghost town-like village, I was invited in for a generous portion of Laghman and an afternoon soaking my bruised body in the nearby public baths.

 Kyrgyz man with his eagle and Hugo

Eagle hunting is traditional in this area

Near Bokonbayevo, the cultural center of the region, I was invited to an eagle hunting demonstration. It was a chance to witness a centuries-old art once vital to Kyrgyz nomadic life. The day ended with a hike up one of the surrounding mountains—a welcome opportunity to stretch my legs after a week of confinement.

I started my second week with optimism. With my kayak gliding effortlessly, I couldn’t help admiring the barren, golden hills looming before me. Only the presence of bright white yurts would occasionally remind me I had not landed on Mars.

 Red, dry canyons and rock formations

Issyk-Kul’s arid south shore

Arguably the most popular attraction in the area, Skazka Canyon was a must-stop for a short hike. I made my way through a maze of orange-coloured ridges and wave-like hills—a spectacular geological masterpiece.

Under the sun, Issyk-Kul was truly magical. Under black clouds, not so much. One night, a violent storm had almost torn my tent from the ground.

I wanted to explore Przhevalsky Bay, which more or less required a green light from the Russian Navy. The Kyrgyz government had struck a lucrative deal with Moscow, allowing their fleet to set up a base on the lake and test their torpedoes in ideal water conditions year-round. Under the alert eyes of an armed guard, I turned off my camera and paddled away from the busy quays.

Fighting Hunger, One Invitation at a Time

From teenagers celebrating the end of classes to local families setting up their colorful summer yurts, I could always count on the generosity of the lake’s residents to help fulfill my missing calories. While exploring Issyk-Kul in the off-season had its perks, it also meant most beachfront businesses I came across were closed.

From the moment I arrived, no Kyrgyz had questioned what I was trying to accomplish on their sacred sea. After all, few things were as universal as man’s need for exploration.

The giant printed map I was travelling with acted as my main translation tool, along with my broken Russian. The quest was self-explanatory, and the door always open.

The Last Stretch

I had less than 100 km to go. I took a moment to admire the snow-filled summits which, in the distance, mingled with the setting sun’s colours. Unless something unforeseen happened, tomorrow would be my last day on Issyk-Kul.

Hugo's kayak on shore next to a yurt

Camping near a traditional Kyrgyz yurt

Though I was thrilled about the prospect of reaching my goal, the very idea of saying goodbye to the lake left a sour taste in my mouth.

In the morning, a bank of dark clouds accompanied by an indomitable headwind raised concerns for the day’s program. I landed on a wild beach, patiently waiting a lull that might never come. But having no intention of spending another night camping, I went through my last sugary provisions and fought my ways through the waves.

Approaching the beach where it had all started 17 days earlier, I contemplated the unique landscape, now lost in thick clouds. I pulled my paddle blade from the water one last time and let my kayak gently glide onto the wet sand of Grigorievka.

After 490 grueling but memorable kilometres, I had done it. I had paddled Issyk-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world, in its entirety.

As thousands of Central Asian tourists set to descend on the region, I thought about how lucky I had been. Issyk-Kul had opened to me its arms, its inhabitants and their hearts. On a last-minute decision and with no reservation, Kyrgyzstan had set me up a table with the best it had to offer.

young Kyrgyz boy in Hugo's kayak on land

A young friend tries out Hugo’s gear

For the next few months, I would finally stop obsessing over the thrill of adventure and the rush of freedom. For now, I had my own story to tell.

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Watch Hugo’s video about his Kyrgyzstan kayak voyage:

All photos courtesy of Hugo Desrosiers. Follow him on Instagram.

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