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Lake Issyk-Kul - A view from our expert author


Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan by Novoselov, Shutterstock
Issyk-Kul is the second-largest lake in the world © Novoselov, Shutterstock

The second largest in the world, the waters of this unique alpine lake can never freeze.

Lake Issyk-Kul, the second-largest alpine lake in the world (Lake Titicaca in Peru/Bolivia is the largest), gives its name to the oblast that surrounds the lake’s shoreline and extends across the high Tien Shan range south to the Chinese border. Issyk-Kul Oblast, which in area makes up around 20% of Kyrgyzstan’s territory, has a population of less than 500,000, the vast majority of whom live around the lake’s shores.

The lake’s name, which is also spelled Ysyk Kol or Issyk-kol, means literally ‘warm lake’ in the Kyrgyz language, as does its Chinese equivalent, Ze-Hai. There is good reason for this: in a part of the world where winter temperatures can plummet to -25°C or worse, the shores of the lake have a microclimate that is relatively balmy and, even more aptly, its waters never freeze. This is all the more surprising considering the lake stands at considerable altitude – 1,606m above sea level. Scientists have long debated the precise mechanics of this, and it would seem it is down to a combination of deep-water physics, slight salinity and underground thermal activity. Most locals are less questioning and are merely grateful for the respite the lake offers, assuming it is because the water is warmed by heat wafting up from the earth’s core.

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