Issyk-Köl Northern Shore
Mid-summer weekends on Lake Issyk-Köl's Northern Shore (Северный берег) see the main road transformed into a veritable tourist conveyor belt, but out of season it remains a quiet, mostly charming drive with mountainscapes rising directly to the north and like apparitions across the lake away to the south.
In mid-summer, Cholpon-Ata (Чолпон-Ата) awakens from its long off-season slumber to become the epicentre of an improbable northern Issyk-Köl beach scene: by day there's tanning bods, zipping jet skis and ice-cream licking tots; by night it's open-air cafes, thumping discos and young lovers breaking social mores.
Issyk-Köl Southern Shore
There's much dispute as to whether the Northern or Southern Shore (Южный берег) of Issyk-Köl is the more scenic. Traditionally Western visitors have tended to err in favour of the quieter southern road, especially in summer when it is spared the heaviest tourist traffic en route to the Cholpon-Ata resorts.
By far the easiest way to get deep into the appealing alpine landscapes behind southern Issyk-Köl is driving up Barskoön Valley (Ущелье Барскоон) along the wide, well-maintained, unpaved truck road that leads all the way to the controversial Kumtor Gold Mine, turning south off the coast road at Km140/80.
Counterpointing striking red-rock bluffs, pine forests, upland jailoo meadows and a soaring Alpine backdrop, the Jeti-Ögüz (Джеты-Огуз) area makes a charming day trip from Karakol or a good starting point for summer-only hikes, including taxing multiday treks to Altyn-Arashan and Ala-Köl.
Founded as a coal-mining village but finding new life as an ecotourism base, welcoming little Jyrgalan (Жыргалан) is equally attractive for insight into Kyrgyz village life or as a launching point into the mountains that start just outside your guesthouse door. Come for a few days, linger for a week, and before you know it you're basically a local.
Rich pastures fill the immense, silent Karkyra ('black crane') Valley (Ущелье Каркыра) that straddles the Kyrgyzstan–Kazakhstan border. Attractions include the eponymous migratory birds that stop here in June and again from August to September, as well as a large stone monument known as San-Tash.
This small lakeside village 35km west of Cholpon-Ata has a pretty beach, which is much quieter than the main tourist centres. Tamchy's (Тамчы) appeal to tourists is mostly as a laid-back alternative to Cholpon-Ata, especially handy for a lazy day before or after a flight at the international airport on the outskirts of town.
Just 25km from Karakol, the mouth of Jergez Valley (Ущелье Жергез) beckons enticingly from the highway. Visit as a day trip to the Köl-Tör Lake, overnight at the lovely Kara-Kyz Yurt-Camp, or head all the way up and over passes for Boz-Uchuk to the east or Ak-Suu and Altyn Arashan to the west.
Due south of Karakol lies the beautiful Karakol Valley (Ущелье Каракол), a national park for which a 250som entry fee per person and 50som per vehicle is collected from foreigners at the gate. The valley offers some fine hikes, although you really need to invest in a tent, stove and a day or more of hiking before the area reveals its charm.
A wide mountain pasture at the conflux of three valleys 15km north of Semenovka village, Kyrchyn (Кырчын) jailoo (summer pasture) is an excellent base for day hikes or horse treks into the surrounding mountains. There's a 100som fee to enter the valley, which in theory goes towards conservation activities.