The Kyrgyz people migrated in the 10th to 15th centuries from the Yenisey river basin in Siberia, and in all probability arrived by way of Issyk-Köl. This high basin would be a natural stopover for any caravan or conquering army as well. It appears to have been a centre of Saka (Scythian) civilisation and legend has it that Timur (Tamerlane) used it for a summer headquarters. There are at least 10 documented settlements currently under the waters of the lake and treasure hunters have long scoured the lake for flooded trinkets attributed to everyone from Christian monks to Jenghiz Khan.
The first Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian settlers came to the east end of the lake in 1868. Karakol town was founded the next year, followed in the 1870s by Tüp, Teploklyuchenka (Ak-Suu), Ananyevo, Pokrovka (now Kyzyl-Suu) and a string of others, many of whose Cossack names have stuck. Large numbers of Dungans and Uyghurs arrived in the 1870s and ’80s following the suppression of Muslim uprisings in China’s Shaanxi, Gansu and Xinjiang provinces. Local Kyrgyz and Kazakhs were still at that time mostly nomadic.
The Issyk-Köl region (and in fact most of Kyrgyzstan beyond Bishkek) was off limits to foreigners in Soviet times. Locals mention vast, officially sanctioned plantations of opium poppies and cannabis around the lake, though most of these had disappeared under international pressure by the early 1970s.
More importantly, Issyk-Köl was used by the Soviet navy to test high-precision torpedoes, far from prying Western eyes. An entire polygon or military-research complex grew around Koy-Sary, on the Mikhaylovka inlet near Karakol. In 1991 Russian President Boris Yeltsin asked that it be continued but Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev shut down the whole thing, ordering it to be converted to peaceful pursuits. These days the most secretive thing in the lake is the mysterious jekai, a Kyrgyz version of the Loch Ness monster.
Jokes about the ‘Kyrgyz navy’ refer to a fleet of some 40 ageing naval cutters, now mothballed at Koy-Sary or decommissioned and hauling goods and tourists up and down the lake.