Far-flung Kyrgyzstan is the setting for cut-price spa holidays.
Can’t face one more hot-stone massage? No desire for another body wrap? For anyone suffering from spa fatigue (and that could be many of us, given that every corner of the planet seems to boast a Thai-style treatment pavilion or Ayurvedic retreat), Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul should come as an intriguing discovery. Or perhaps that should be “rediscovery,” since travelers on the Silk Road knew of the lake’s therapeutic value for centuries. Soviet apparatchiks were also fond of it, holidaying in one of the 40 workers’ sanatoria built by the communist state around the lake’s 600 km of shoreline. Today, many of these facilities- now privately run- are luring holidaymakers from further afield with cheap accommodation and treatment packages.
West Europeans have been the first to catch onto this bargain, particularly young budget travelers- they make up almost half of the guests at the 143-room Aurora sanatorium ((996-39) 4373389). Situated outside the town of Cholpon-Ata, Aurora offers full board and a range of treatments for just $60 a night. When not taking baths in sulfur-rich mud hauled up from Lake Issyk-Kul’s shore (the mud is said to be good for skin disorders and arthritis), or breathing the air in one of the salt rooms (therapeutic, apparently, for people with asthma and other respiratory complaints), guests relax in the sanatorium’s gardens or at the nearby beach.
Naturally, at these prices you’ll have to jettison some preconceptions. At Aurora, there are no teakwood salas staffed by smiling, sarong-clad maidens bearing ginger tea. Instead, the babushkas who greet you will show the way to clean but basic accommodation that still has the faint whiff of an institution hanging over it, despite a recent face-lift. The solution is to lie back and think of the bragging potential- your friends may have done chakra balancing in Bhutan, or chromotherapy in Bali, but Kyrgyzstan?
If there’s any other dissonant note, it’s the knowledge that Lake Issyk-Kul was a top-secret testing site for Soviet torpedoes in the period after World War II. To this day, it remains unclear how many were exploded or what, if anything, their warheads contained. While visitors will want to be aware of Lake Issyk-Kul’s history, there is no evidence that the testing has caused any lasting damage to the lake’s ecology, and both Russian families and avid anglers have happily vacationed there for many years. The Kyrgyz authorities also insist that the lake is perfectly clean and safe. In fact, the only booms you’ll come across today will be the sounds of the area’s spa industry taking off.