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Three Days side trip to Lake issyk, Kyrgyzstan
Monday May 5, 2014 - 42.426° N, 78.052° E
In mid April, while waiting for our Tajik and Afghan visas in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and before we could start cycling south, we had the opportunity to be able to go and tour the glorious Lake Issyk. Over 170 kms long and 70 kms across, it is the second-largest alpine lake in the world, after Lake Titicaca in South America. Its name Issyk-Köl, means "hot lake": a combination of extreme depth, thermal activity and mild salinity ensures the lake never freezes. Its moderating effect on the climate, plus abundant rainfall, have made it something of an oasis through the centuries, a force of nature! We first went directly to visit our NABU friends on the northern side of the lake, near the kyrgyz village of Anan'yevo, In January 1999, the NABU established an anti-poaching unit for the conservation of the snow leopard: the "Gruppa Bars". It has already confiscated scores of snow leopard skins and bones and freed three living snow leopards from foothold traps. Dozens of poachers have been arrested and convicted. In the patrol area of the "Gruppa Bars", poaching has declined significantly since then.

Our NABU friends were very kind to invite us to spend one night at their "Rehabilitation Center of wild animals", where they operates the world's largest outdoor enclosure for snow leopards. The two snow leopard ladies Alcu and Bagira have been at home here since 2002. In the following year, they were joined by male snow leopard Kunak. All three were saved by the "Team Snow Leopard", but the injuries they had suffered from the poachers' foothold traps made it impossible to return them to the wild. At an altitude of 1,850 metres and on an area of about 7,000 square metres, the three snow leopards now have enough space to roam. In 2009, they even gave birth to two cubs, Kolyuchka and Fialk.

One interesting fact we learnt was how the increase in cashmere production directly impacts the life of snow leopards. National Geographic recently stated: "A new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Snow Leopard Trust suggests that the booming trade in cashmere is causing Central Asia's goat herders to expand their stock in search of increased profits. This creates a welcome economic boost, but an array of rare or endangered species like snow leopards, Bactrian camels, and Tibetan antelope are paying the price. Wild habitat is shrinking dramatically, and the animals are increasingly coming into conflict with humans and their livestock."

We had the pleasure to spend two meals with guards/caretakers kyrgyz Assubek and russian Sergey, learning about what their lives and dangerous work entail as well as listening to them reminiscing the Soviet days when Lake Issyk was off limits to foreigners, while guests from all over the USSR used to come and rest in health spas, lined along its shores.

It was especially interesting to learn from Viktor Kulagin, the director of this rehabilitation center, the struggles he constantly faces from the local population, not fully comprehending the necessity of an ecological center in a country where a section of the population is itself, not very well nourished.

After having spent 24 hrs at the rehabilitation center, Viktor offered us to drive us over to the nearby hot springs in the village of Chong-Uryukty , (чон орукту горячие источники) where we were able to alternate between dipping into the hot springs and enjoying a swim in the "refreshing" nearby majestic Issyk lake.

We spent the next day, visiting Karakol and its surroundings. Karakol, a bustling town, is the administrative capital of Issyk Kul Province where Kyrgyz, Chinese muslim Dungans and orthodox ethnic Russians have cohabited since 1864.

While in Karakol, we also had the pleasure to visit Nikolay Przhevalsky's Museum and Memorial, where the great Russian explorer was rested in peace. An intriguing place where we could further acquire knowledge on his great travels, research and exploration throughout central asia and far eastern russia.

Near this museum, we were able to spot in the Mikhaylovka inlet, an entire polygon or military-research center complex where the Soviet navy used to test high-precision torpedoes, far from prying western eyes.

On our third and final day, we were hiked around the Jeti-Ögüz Rocks, and extraordinary formation of red sandstone cliffs.

Finally, we were able to hike in the magnificent Fairy Tale canyon "сказка каньон" before returning to Bishkek.

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