Although this summer's visitors included former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Issyk-Kul now draws a more mixed crowd. "The best kebabs in Central Asia, then the discos and, in the morning, the beach" is how my city-slicker friend Aidai described the lake's attractions as we set out. By late afternoon we were lolling on cushions in a garden café, munching on skewers of delicious grilled meat.
Passing on Issyk-Kul's Soviet-era resorts, we opted to rent rooms with a local family for a few dollars. Besides, Aidai pointed out, why shell out for hotel rooms when we'd be out all night? Come evening, Aidai took me on the local disco crawl. Consisting of tracksuited Slavic youths throbbing to Russian and Turkish pop, the scene was not exactly sophisticated. One place offered little more than loudspeakers on an outdoor basketball court and a projector showing Britney Spears videos in reverse. Luckily, the cheap Moldovan wine flowed copiously.
We spent the next morning recuperating on the sand beneath fraying umbrellas, approached occasionally by children selling sour cherries. On the water, aging catamarans laden with bikini-clad teens drifted lazily by.
At my prodding we also paid a visit to the famous Aurora spa, hoping to experience one of Issyk-Kul's other attractions: the mud bath. But it was not to be. On offer instead were such dubious delights as "lavage of the stomach" and "urological prostate massage." This might be Boris Yeltsin's cup of tea. But for us, the beach beckoned.