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.
Osh and the surrounding lowland areas of the Fergana Valley feel sometimes like a different country from the north of Kyrgyzstan. Southern Kyrgyzstan (Южный Кыргызстан) is hotter in terms of climate and of human temperament, the nation's modern bread basket, and a historic Silk Road centre.
With a remarkable five-headed crag leaping out of the very town centre, Kyrgyzstan's second city certainly has a highly distinctive visual focus. While there's little of architectural note to show for 3000 years of history, Osh's (Ош) sprawling bazaar and hospitable citizens provide an atmosphere that is far more archetypically Central Asian than you will find in Bishkek.
The mountainous centre of Kyrgyzstan – Naryn oblast (Нарынская область) – offers travellers unrivalled opportunities to explore jailoos (summer pastures) on foot, horseback or by 4WD. The central gem around which the region's tourism revolves is mesmerising Son-Köl. It's a very special place, but don't overlook the crucial fact that the lake is frozen until late spring.
Multiple competing community-tourism outfits make Kochkor (Кочкорка) an eminently practical base from which to visit Son-Köl and other Kyrgyz jailoos nearby. Do be aware that such activities are generally only practicable in summer and part of the shoulder season, as shepherds move their herds back to the villages during cooler months.
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.
Just at the foot of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range, the broad Chuy Valley (Чуйская Долина) is the gateway to Ala-Archa, Alamedin and dozens of other parallel streams that have created a phalanx of canyons and alpine valleys good for everything from picnics to trekking and skiing to mountaineering.
Wedged into a striking canyon, Naryn (Нарын) is an excellent place to hook up with other summer travellers to ride-share (and thus save money) on crossing the Torugart Pass to China, visiting Tash Rabat Caravanserai, heading up either of two more-adventurous routes to Son-Köl, or heading across the very rough road to Kazarman (for Osh).
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.