Issyk Kul: The 2012 Expedition Wraps Up

Note: For more about the Issyk Kul Expedition, read earlier posts in this series.

After our tour around Issyk Kul, our international team was looking at the final stretch of survey before the end of the season. Almost any archaeologist will tell you that some of the most interesting stuff gets found right about the time you have to leave, and this season was no different: with just a few days to go we found some of the most significant building features we saw all season. Under the gun, we mapped and sampled the area just in time.

Running lines in the newly discovered area. Photo by Brad Vest


Why the rush to leave? The weather on the lake seems to take a real turn for the worse in early October, when a fierce west wind called the Ulan picks up. Like every natural phenomena associated with Issyk Kul, there’s a dramatic story behind it:

Long ago, two warriors mythical warriors named Ulan and Santash competed for the attentions of a beautiful woman named Cholpon. Unable to make up her mind, Cholpon instead ripped out her heart. The hill where she died was named Cholpon-Ata (now the popular resort town), and the Kyrgyz mourned her death by filling the valley below with their tears, creating Issyk Kul.

Team member Anatoly discusses a petroglyph on the hill above Cholpon-Ata, where Cholpon allegedly ripped her heart out. Photo by Brad Vest


After Cholpon’s demise, Ulan and Santash became the fierce winds–from the west and east, respectively– that battle each other over the lake every year.

Just as Anatoly was revving up his talk, the Ulan came roaring out of nowhere and nailed us with gumball-sized hail. This photo of team member Maxim was taken only minutes after the one above. Photo by Brad Vest


There’s even a Tamerlane connection to all of this: on the way to a campaign in China, the conqueror had each of his soldiers each leave a stone in a large pile, which would be picked up upon their return, enabling Tamerlane to calculate his losses. (Tamerlane apparently had a thing for piling things up, most notably the reported 120 piles of severed heads crafted after his seizure of Baghdad in 1401). An enormous stone mound in Santash, on the eastern end of Issyk Kul, is allegedly this monument, a testament to the massive losses his army suffered in the east. Archaeologists have quashed the legend by demonstrating that the massive pile of stones is actually the burial mound of a local khan.

Project director Fred (l), Kristin, Vasily and Shamil review final plans for the season.Photo by Brad Vest


But is our team of archaeologists ready to quash the legend that Tamerlane–or one of his descendants–built an incredible structure on the shores of Issyk Kul? In the six weeks that we’ve worked at the site, we’ve recovered a lot of interesting evidence that needs to analyzed and evaluated in our lab back home. We have a massive amount of GPS and remote sensing data to process, and we’re already planning for next year’s return. In the meantime, we’ll keep you posted on any new developments here on the Explorers Journal!

Again, a very special thank you to our supporters who made this expedition so successful: the Seaver Foundation, the Waitt Foundation, the National Geographic Society, Dr. Fred Starr, and Rob Jutson, as well as to our facilitators in Kyrgyzstan, Asia Mountains Travel. Thanks to all!

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.