Date: Wed, 8 Jul 98 12:46:45 CDT
From: Mark Graffis <>
Article: 38600
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Famed Kyrgyz lake fights aftermath of chemical spill

By Christina Ling, Reuters, 7 July 1998

LAKE ISSYK KUL, Kyrgyzstan (July 7, 1998 1:15 p.m. EDT—Until recently, a long trip by the Kyrgyz environment minister to take a drink from a river feeding one of the world's deepest, most pristine lakes would have attracted little attention.

The area around the lake, with a distant cloud-capped mountain range in the northeast of the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, is renowned for unspoiled natural beauty. It is an unlikely scene for a public demonstration.

But on May 20, a truck belonging to Kyrgyz-Canadian gold venture Kumtor Operating Co. crashed into a river feeding into the lake, spilling more than 3,520 pounds of sodium cyanide. So Environment Minister Kulubek Bokonbayev's drink was aimed at backing up statements by scientists and officials that neither the lake nor the river contained any trace of the poison.

Lake Issyk Kul is alive and well and is waiting for people to come and improve their health there, President Askar Akayev said after the water had been declared safe.

The campaign to show the safety of a lake that rivals South America's Lake Titicaca in size appeared aimed not only at worried locals but at international tourists who Kyrgyz officials hope will one day flock to the remote setting.

Tales of romance and woe

The Kyrgyz-Canadian venture responsible for the spill said tests showed the cyanide presented no threat to human health or the environment, but Kyrgyzstan says two people have died from cyanide poisoning and health ministry officials say 2,533 people, most from the local village of Barskaun, have been poisoned.

For centuries Lake Issyk Kul enjoyed fame of a different kind, with locals envisioning tears, not chemicals, in the lake. One popular belief is that once upon a time a great city stood in the valley now covered by the huge lake.

According to one version of the legend, the fabulously wealthy but cruel khan who ruled the area fell in love with a beautiful girl of lowly origins who refused to marry him. The girl, who loved another, began to weep and eventually her tears filled the whole valley.

The variety of endings to the story is great. Among harried Kyrgyz trying to scrape together a living in a difficult period of economic transition, memories of stories their grandparents once told have grown hazy.

Instead, dreams abound of capitalizing on the mystique of the lake, an exclusive holiday resort during Soviet times, and developing it into an world-class resort. Turning the Warm Lake, its name in English, into an international tourist resort is not the least or the newest of Kyrgyzstan's dreams.

The lake, which remains ice-free year-round despite its exposed location, is said by some to have been used by medieval conqueror Tamerlane as his summer camp. Issyk Kul also appealed to Soviet authorities as an ideal rest spot for worn-out revolutionaries. After World War II, spas and sanatoriums mushroomed along the lake's hospitable northern shore.

It was also prized by the pragmatic Soviet military leadership as a secret testing ground for torpedoes.

Little Switzerland: just wishful thinking?

With its striking landscape, the area—which borders western China and is cut off from the distant capital by an imposing range of mountains—has come to be known half-jokingly by locals as little Switzerland.

Tourism dropped off after the breakup of the Soviet Union but locals say sightseers and hikers are now coming back. For now, only those bent on wilderness solitude are likely to make the arduous journey to reach the remote spot.

For adventurous visitors from outside the former Soviet Union, a common route lies via Almaty in neighboring Kazakhstan, served by several international airlines. A new road to cut directly across the mountains from Almaty to the lake is on the drawing board, but until time and funds allow, it is a bumpy eight-hour drive across the border and several mountain passes to the westernmost tip of Issyk Kul.

Weather-bleached signs point to lakeside sanatoriums and guest houses down a pot-holed side road and the empty hulk of an unfinished complex is a sad commentary on the fate of one of a number of ambitious plans to develop the area. But such abandoned projects, eyesores as they may be, are in other ways comforting for those who fear the tourist business may already be disrupting the ecosystem of the lake.

I'm a witness—I have seen it with my own eyes, said one avid angler, who says he and his friends were puzzled for a long time by why fish were sure to bite in just one spot along their route. Eventually we discovered there was a big waste pipe there leading from one of the resorts: the fish gathered around it and at a certain time of day they would pump out all the rubbish and kitchen scraps. The fish gobbled it up.

Deputy Environment Minister Timur Kulumbayev said sanatoriums were obliged to dump waste in special storage tanks regularly serviced and inspected by the authorities, although tight funds may have strained the system in recent years.

Environment Minister Bokonbayev said the cyanide spill had scared off many potential investors and visitors in resorts around Barskaun. But voices are already being raised to defend the area from even the possibility of a future of Swiss chalets or other trappings of mass tourism.

Switzerland already exists, wrote one enraptured visitor in the Russian weekly magazine Ogonyok. But how many virgin corners of nature can you find like Issyk Kul?