Cholpon-Ata, Where Nomadic Culture Meets Soviet Tourism

Cholpon-Ata, Where Nomadic Culture Meets Soviet Tourism


I was in Cholpon Ata, on the beautiful shores of Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk Kul Lake, just as the third edition of the World Nomad Games was about to begin in earnest at the local hippodrome. This was the biggest event in the calendar, an event that celebrates nomadic culture and Central Asian traditions, and an event that brings thousands of competitors, fans and travellers from across the world to Cholpon-Ata every two years to watch events as far ranging as horseback archery and eagle hunting.

Although I was visiting at a particularly busy time of the year when the streets of Cholpon-Ata were filled with visitors looking to immerse themselves in a nomadic culture, this resort town is, I was told, just as busy anytime throughout the summer season. Cholpon-Ata, although an almost unknown name to western tourists, is well known throughout the former Soviet Republics, as this was one of the USSR’s most popular summer retreats.

The town is full of old Russian Sanitoriums and newer guesthouses that compete for the many tourists that still flock here during the long, scorching Kyrgyz summer to bathe in the salty waters of Lake Issyk Kul. While the World Nomad Games were in full swing, horses and people alike were down at the lakeside, enjoying the cooling waters in the bright sun, while at night, the lake was lit up with the bright lights of small cruise ships entertaining guests.

For a region of the world that is almost entirely landlocked, Cholpon-Ata offers citizens from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and even as far away as Siberia, and other parts of Russia, a beach style resort like no other in Central Asia.

At Cholpon-Ata, I found a strange mix of nomadic culture and Soviet-style tourism, as during the day the events of the World Nomad Games took precedent, while at night, the bars and restaurants filled, before in the early hours of the morning the beaches would become lined with visiting tourists looking for some sunshine and sand.

Although I visited at the right time of year for the games, any other time, Cholpon-Ata offers travellers the chance to experience a piece of old Soviet relaxation in Central Asia’s premier beach resort, while on the doorstep there are always horse races in the Hippodrome and the mountains are just a short drive away.

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SEE – Photos & Videos

WSE Travel - Cholpon-Ata, Where Nomadic Culture Meets Soviet Tourism - Issyk Kul Lake.

Issyk Kul Lake.

WSE Travel - Cholpon-Ata, Where Nomadic Culture Meets Soviet Tourism - Horses by the Lake

Horses by the Lake

WSE Travel - Cholpon-Ata, Where Nomadic Culture Meets Soviet Tourism - Kyrchyn Gorge Yurts.

Kyrchyn Gorge Yurts.

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GO – Getting There

Cholpon-Ata is found on the northern shores of Lake Issyk Kul, one of the largest alpine lakes in the world. The town has no real flight connections, as the small airport is impractical and only lands the odd charter flight of package tourists in the summer months. The best way to travel here is overland from Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, Bishkek.

International travellers can easily fly into the capital from many destinations abroad, with direct and one-stop routes available across Central Asia and much of Europe and the Middle East. There are also overland connections to Bishkek from nearby Almaty in Kazakhstan, as well as many other Central Asian cities, with train lines even reaching as far away as Moscow on the old Soviet routes.

From Bishkek, there are regular Marshrutkas making the 260-kilometre journey throughout the day. Overall journey time depends on traffic, but you can expect it to take at least 3 hours, if not more, from Bishkek to Cholpon-Ata. Marshrutkas depart from the western bus terminal and are inexpensive, however, they do only leave once full, which in the summer is no problem at all, but outside of the peak season, you may be hanging around longer.

WSE TRavel - Cholpon-Ata, Where Nomadic Culture Meets Soviet Tourism - Map

Cholpon-Ata, Where Nomadic Culture Meets Soviet Tourism – Map

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Do – Activities & Attractions

Sunbathing Soviet Style

Cholpon-Ata has always been a hugely popular resort getaway and during the Soviet-era the hotels and beaches here would attract visitors from across the Union looking to explore the warm climes of Issyk Kul during the summer months. These days, it’s mostly local Kyrgyzs and neighbouring Kazaks that travel here, but they come in their thousands to fill the old resorts and to pack the beaches. For a first time visitor to Kyrgyzstan, it’s a completely unexpected sight. Most people associate the country with mountains and snow, not sunshine and beaches lined with parasols. Join in the fun though, and lay back on the white sand beaches in the sunshine.

Swim in Lake Issyk Kul

Local tradition holds that anyone visiting Cholpon-Ata must bathe in the lake when the sun rises on each morning of their stay. While you may not want to get up at the crack of dawn every day to jump in the cold lake – yes, even in summer it’s still frigid! – at least once during your visit to Cholpon-Ata, it’s worth taking a dip in the refreshing waters.

Take a Boat Cruise

Regular ferries across the lake and from town to town used to be the local means of transport here, but with the road that now circumnavigates Issyk Kul being the primary mode of travel, the local boats have been reduced to ferrying around tourists. It’s well worth a trip out onto the lake though to see just how wide and long it really is – it’s staggeringly huge – while if you join a cruise at night, you can usually expect lots of bright lights, a local Kyrgyz dinner and plenty of drinks onboard as the sunsets and the lakeside becomes lit up.

Cholpon-Ata Petroglyphs

Long before the Soviet tourism bureau decided that Cholpon-Ata was the perfect location for a holiday resort for their overworked citizens, local people had called the area around the town their home for thousands of years. On the outskirts of Cholpon-Ata, you can find an extensive, open-air site that contains hundreds of unique Petroglyphs, carved into rocks and boulders across a hillside. It’s a remarkable site, that’s all the more remarkable because there’s almost never anybody there, everyone else in town is just interested in the beaches and not in the ancient and only loosely preserved history that’s found right nearby.

The History Museum

If the Petroglyphs pique your interest in local history then head on over to the History Museum of Cholpon-Ata for an insight into the development of the area. Lots of it is in Russian, but you will still find the local archaeological and cultural exhibits fairly intriguing.

Ruh Ordo Culture Centre

The Ruh Ordo Culture Centre is an open, green park that contains a huge amphitheatre on the edge of the lake. Anything such as cultural displays, dances and concerts are held here throughout the year, while the grounds contain lots of interesting statues and some exhibits on local culture and traditions.

World Nomad Games

The World Nomad Games are a cultural and sporting event like no other, a celebration of nomadic culture and traditions that brings together athletes and spectators from across the world to Cholpon-Ata. The first event only began in 2014, and since then it’s been held every two years, in September, although there is talk that it may be held somewhere new for the next edition!

The Hippodrome

The Hippodrome is the centre of the action of the World Nomad Games, but it’s also the town’s big event and sporting space and most weeks throughout the year you can catch a sporting spectacle or nomadic display here.

Kyrchyn Gorge

Found just 45 minutes away from Cholpon-Ata, the Kyrchyn Gorge is a beautiful space in the mountains that is home to wild horses and the odd yurt camp. It’s a great place to escape the beaches for a piece of the more traditional Kyrgyz way of life.

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Stay – Accommodation

Most of the accommodation in Cholpon-Ata is found in outdated Soviet Sanitoriums, which are essentially holiday resorts. While there are a few newer projects, most date back a few decades but can be interesting places to stay for anyone looking to step back in time. If you are after a cheap, but quality guesthouse and hostel, then the best place in town is Apple Hostel.

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Eat – Restaurants

You can find a huge array of restaurants along the main street of Cholpon-Ata, with many local eateries serving very cheap dishes such as Shashlik and Plov. There are some lively bars too, serving cheap drinks throughout the summer holiday season. Most Sanitoriums serve breakfast and dinner, but these can be of dubious quality, so it may be best sticking to the town when eating.

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Time – Seasonality & Schedules

The only time of the year to really visit Cholpon-Ata is the summer season, which is the time of year when most travellers choose to visit Kyrgyzstan for the hiking anyway. From March on through to October, Cholpon-Ata will be open for business, but expect things to be at their most crowded from June through to September.

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Safety – Possible risks

Cholpon-Ata is a safe place to travel to, however just be careful during the peak holiday season late at night if hanging around the bars, as things can get rowdy. Your biggest problem will be local taxi drivers attempting to overcharge you, especially if you don’t speak Russian. Always agree on prices beforehand to be safe.

Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.

Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.

Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).

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Pay – How much does it cost?

Cholpon-Ata can be a cheap, or an expensive destination to visit. This is entirely up to you, however, as there are expensive options and budget options catering for the range of tourists, including wealthy locals and cheaper backpackers from abroad. Meals at local restaurants will cost no more than 5 USD a plate, for midrange quality, while a hostel dorm costs USD 10.

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Responsible Travel – Best Practices

Kyrgyzstan has a unique network of Community Based Tourism offices – CBT – which is based around the country and helps to connect travellers with locals to allow both parties to benefit as best they can. Contact the local office to find out more about homestays in the nearby mountains or to arrange guides or yurt camps around Cholpon-Ata.

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Reality Check – Be Aware

While Cholpon-Ata has long billed itself as a holiday resort destination, don’t expect it to be much like the western idea of a resort, instead, be prepared for nostalgic Soviet-style leftovers that are somehow incredibly charming and unique still. Beaches and sun aside, there’s also a lot of culture to be found here, even when the World Nomad Games aren’t in full swing, but be prepared to have to dig around a little to uncover it.

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JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages

This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!

Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.

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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?

Please feel free to share your stories and thoughts in the comment section below!

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