Issykl Kul: Time to Get Out of Camp

Diving, measuring, plotting: we’ve been at Issyk Kul for more than a month and it’s time to get out of camp! You’ll never understand a phenomenon like this magnificent high-altitude lake on the Silk Road by staying in just one place for the whole time, so we packed our bags and headed out on a four-day tour around the tenth-largest lake in the world to see sites that stretched from the Stone Age to the 21st century.

The team explores a Paleolithic site on the northern shore of Issyk Kul. Photo by Brad Vest.
2,000-year-old burial mounds (kurgans) dot the landscape of a high mountain valley that runs into the lake. Photo by Brad Vest.

Our first stop was the eastern town of Kuturga, where we stayed at a small house on the lake close to the settlement of Chigu, the ancient royal court of the nomadic and powerful Wusun. We planned to dive Chigu, but the steady stream of thunderstorms over the course of two days put a knot in our plans.

Want to know the weather on the eastern end of Issyk Kul? Enjoy the sunshine, and expect a thunderstorm in five minutes. Photo by Brad Vest.

The most important aspect of our trip around the lake was to get a better understanding of what was happening at our site. For instance, we happened upon a modern “brick factory” where residents were extracting clay and mixing it with straw to fashion the sun-baked bricks that are familiar to any archaeologist working in Central Asia.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: Issyk Kul residents craft sun-baked bricks in the same way it was done thousands of years ago. Photo by Brad Vest.

We also visited the site of an ancient Nestorian Christian monastery along the Silk Road believed to be the burial site of St. Matthew, who died along the shore of the lake on his way to India.

Archaeologists don’t only excavate artifacts from the dirt and water: sometimes we have to have to get our vehicles out of the muck as well. At the Nestorian monastery on Issyk Kul. Photo by Viktor Lyagushkin.


And even when the car is running, we may run into the occasional traffic jam... Photo by Brad Vest.

Unlike the verdant landscape of the north coast of Issyk Kul, the southern side of the lake is arid and, in some parts, amazingly reminiscent of the American Southwest. Submerged sites along the southern coast include a city allegedly built by soldiers of Alexander the Great.

Trekking along the southern shores of Issyk Kul. Photo by Viktor Lyagushkin.

We were also incredibly fortunate to be joined by Maxim Menshikov, an archaeologist who often works with Vassily and is currently excavating sites ahead of the 2014 winter Olympic Games in Sochi in the Russian Caucasus Mountains. He has great experience in excavating settlements in the region and is helping us understand the building construction we’re encountering under water. In addition, Viktor Lyagushkin, a leading underwater photographer for National Geographic Russia, and his partner Bogdana Vashchenko met up with us to go diving around the lake.

Following several days of bad weather we were ready for a dive, so we stopped by the submerged settlement of Toru Aigir (ancient Sikul) and were introduced to its remarkable 2000+-year-old underwater remains by Anatoly Kolesnikov, who has been studying the site for 10 years.

Heading out for a dive on ancient Toru Aigir in Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Brad Vest.
Diving over a burial site at Toru Aigir in Issyk Kul. Photo by Viktor Lyagushkin.


It was a fascinating, whirlwind trip that involved everything from trekking high Alpine meadows to diving millennia-old sites, but now it’s time to get back to work at our own site. Maxim and Anatoly have dove in (pun intended) with both feet, and are busy helping to measure and map the enormous amount of construction features that we’re finding.

Maxim and Anatoly document shallow remains at our working site in Issyk Kul. Photo by Viktor Lyagushkin.

We’ll be posting another update soon, but in the meantime have you watched our recent Google+ Hangout?


Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Kristin Romey serves as a consultant for the National Geographic Society, and is the Director of Field Operations for the Issyk Kul 2012 Expedition. She has worked on underwater archaeological expeditions since 1997, and was one of the first Westerners to conduct underwater research in the Black Sea. Since then, she has participated in surveys and excavations ranging from Byzantine shipwrecks to sacred Maya cenotes. Romey is also the former executive editor of Archaeology magazine, and is currently a contributing editor to the Explorers Journal. She was named a fellow of the Explorers Club in 2005.