Cholpon-Ata, literally "Venus-father", the name of a mythological protecting spirit) is a resort town on the northern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan with a year-round population of about 12,000. It is the administrative center of the Issyk Kul District of Issyk Kul Province; this district occupies most of the lake's north shore. To the west west along highway A363 is Tamchy and to the east, Bosteri.

The town contains numerous large and small sanatoria, hotels and guesthouses to accommodate the many visitors who descend upon the lake in summer. During the Soviet era it was much frequented by vacationers brought here in organized mass tours from other parts of the USSR. Holidaymakers now usually visit on their own or in small groups and originate mainly from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Attracting more demanding foreign tourists will require substantial upgrading of the existing facilities, but the location is certainly attractive. The view of the imposing alpine ranges of the Tian Shan across the lake is impressive. There is a good local museum and an open-air site with petroglyphs dating from 1500BC to 1000AD.

There is a small market for everyday necessities, a yacht club, (it is possible to take boat trips on the lake), a hippodrome and a major stud farm. There is also a museum displaying archaeological finds from around the region and the Chui valley, musical instruments, traditional craftwork, and exhibitions devoted to the Manas Epic, Akaev and Chinghiz Aitmatov. The town also hosts a museum dedicated to the Kazakh writer Auezov.

Open Air Museum

There is an Open Air Museum, sometimes referred as a Stone Garden, which covers some 42 hectares and contains a number of prehistoric monumental structures (stone circles, tombs, the remains of a boundary stone wall, balbals) and Petroglyphs (dating from the II millennium BC up to the Middle Ages upto the VI century AD). The stones have plaques giving some information (a short description and a date), and there are several routes marked with arrows around the 'stone garden'.

It is thought that the site was once a gigantic open-air temple, where ancient people worshipped heavenly bodies - especially the sun - and perhaps other gods. The stones vary in size from about 30 cm to 3 meters. Many of the drawings are examples of the Saka-Skythian animal style of art. There are figures of hunters and what appear to be tame snow leopards during a hunt. One appears to depict hunting leopards in motion and is the only one of this kind in Central Asia.

Most of the stones face Southwest and Southeast and it is thought that they are connected to sun worship. It is thought that one of the purposes behind the stone circles was to sarve as astronomical instruments. The Sun (solar) sign, often accompanied by chariots, are drawn on rocks along with images of animals and people, (such as hunters). There are images of deer (interestingly the image of Mother-deer seems to have been wide-spread in the Altai, Semirechye and Southern Siberia.

One of the biggest Kyrgyz tribes, who worshipped Mother-deer, was called Bugu (Red Deer) - although the Kyrgyz, themselves, may have migrated to the region long after these rock paintings were executed. The art of stone inscriptions gradually disappeared with the spread of Islam, which restricted images of animals and human beings, to Central Asia . However many of the forms used in these petroglyphs are still with us - they form the basis of patterns, showing different parts of animals (horns, wings, claws) are used in shyrdaks (Kyrgyz felt carpets) and other forms of traditional arts and crafts.

Legend of Cholpon Ata

There is a legend associated with Cholpon Ata which is often quoted by locals as their favourite of the Kyrgyz legends: Once upon a time, so long ago that the people have forgotten exactly when it happened - under a high mountain sat a city. Above the city towered the fortress of a powerful Khan. The Khan was famous for his riches, but more importantly - for his cruelty. Each day, some citizen was killed and his body thrown into the ground.

The old Khan was lecherous and he heard that one poor peasant had a daughter of inexpressible beauty. The Khan decided that he must have this beautiful girl.

The girl and her father lived in small village, in a velley in the mountains, on the banks of a river. Many young men from all around (Dzhigits) tried to win her heart, but she did not pay any attention. To offers of love and marriage, from even the most courageous Dzhigits, she always answered that she loved another.

Who was this beloved? - nobody knew, and neither did she… It came to pass - one day, when the sun peeped over the top of mountains, a Dzhigit on a white steed came and together they rode off into the sky. A whirlwind blew and took them to a mountain top covered with eternal snow. The strong Dzhigit embraced her, kissed her, then removed from his hand a ring and gave it to her. Placing it on her finger, he said: "I will soon return! Never remove this ring, and unhappiness will not touch you!"

Many days passed, but the Dzhigit did not return. When the Khan's matchmakers arrived in the girl's village with gifts and offers - she rejected them all, saying: "I love another and I shall not be another's wife!"

The girl went up into the mountains, hoping to find once more the Dzhigit. In vain she called his name, only the echo of her own voice returned to her. The girl began to cry and started to make her way back home. She had not yet reached her village, when when she was surrounded, seized, tied up and blindfolded by a gang of youths. When she was released and the blindfold removed she realized what had happened, that she was a prisoner in the Khan's fortress, from which it was impossible to escape. It is better to die, she decided, than to become the wife of the Khan.

Her beauty and youth surprised the old Khan. He showered gifts upon her. But no gifts could win her over and make her change her mind. "I love another and I shall never be yours!", was always her answer.

This "stubborness" displeased the Khan, and he decided to take by force what he could not win with gifts. He again came to the girl, promising her love, everything, … even freedom. "I love another!" - she repeated. The Khan rushed at her like a wild animal and she ran to a window. "I shall not be yours!", she cried and threw herself from the window onto the ground below.

From where she fell at the foot of the high and mighty walls of the fortress, caves opened up and water gushed from them. From them flowed water which was light-blue, pure, clean, crystal clear, and as hot as the maiden's heart, which formed the mountain lake which the people called Issyk Kul.

It is said that if you stand on the shore at Cholpon Ata ("Cholpon's Father") you can see in the mountains opposite the face of the girl's father, whose tears flow down the mountainside to add to the salt waters of the lake as he weeps for his beautiful daughter who threw herself from a window high in the Khan's citadel, rather than succumb to his evil advances and betray her true beloved. And, on quiet summer evenings, when the sun sets, the ruins of a fortress appear under the water and the voice of the girl can be heard.


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