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Cholpon Ata

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The man on the beach wearing a captain's hat is looking out for something. Maybe one of the vendors selling smoked fish? A falcon is sitting on an aging pedal boat. A banner tied to a yurt advertises immediate top-up for any prepaid mobile number. Children are playing with the sand and young adults are tanning their bodies in the sun.

It is as if the Asian highlands met the Mediterranean: beach life against the backdrop of poplar trees and the barren slopes of snow mountains. This is Cholpon Ata, a settlement at the shores of Issyk Kul, the famous lake in Kyrgyzstan between the two ranges of the mighty Tien Shan.

The lake and the mountains have long attracted all sorts of people and interests from outside. Silk Road traders and Russian imperial explorers passed through. Soviet party cadres came to relax in one of the lakeside sanatoria, while the Red Army used the lake as a testing ground for submarine technology. Now, a Canadian mining company is digging gold in the mountains south of the lake, and the hunting birds – falcons and eagles – are smuggled to the Gulf, where they fetch exorbitant prices.

The restaurants of Cholpon Ata have English menus. However, few Western tourists stop here. They tend to sneer at touristy Cholpon Ata and look for the "real" Kyrgyzstan elsewhere. Domestic tourists fleeing the summer heat of Bishkek and the newly rich from Kazakhstan arriving in their fancy SUVs make the majority of visitors. Russian pop provides the soundtrack to the panorama of the deep blue lake, the parasols, and the snowy summits.

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