Over 170km long and 70km across, Lake Issyk-Köl (Ysyk-Köl, Issyk-Kul, Озеро Иссык-Куль) is the world's second-largest alpine lake. The name, meaning ‘hot lake’, comes from a combination of extreme depth, thermal activity and mild salinity, which ensure the lake never freezes even in the fierce Central Asian winters – despite lying at an altitude of over 1600m. Visitors who swim in the vivid blue waters find views framed not by palms but by the remarkable backdrop of the snow-dappled Ala-Too mountains.
Indeed, while beach 'resorts' attract Kazakh visitors and can make for amusingly discordant photos, the main attraction for Western travellers tends to be the accessible mountain hiking. The central Tian Shan range accessible from the lake settlements comprises some of the finest trekking in Central Asia, with the best routes hopping between the spectacular valleys stretching from the Kazakh border near Jyrgalan past Karakol and on along the southern shore.