Lakes on the roof of the world
1. Namco (Namtso), the heavenly lake of Tibetans
Namco is the largest lake in Tibet and, at an altitude of 4,740 meters above sea level, the highest lake in the world. The lake is 70 km long and 30 km wide. Its name means “heavenly lake” in Tibetan.
The spiritual significance of the lake to Buddhists is extraordinary. Every year thousands of pilgrims from Tibet, Qinghai and Sichuan come here to walk around the lake and decorate the holy stone pillars with colorful prayer flags. Both younger and older pilgrims are subjected to incredible exertions. The circumambulation of the lake takes 20 to 30 days.
The Tashi Dor monastery is built in a rock cave at the southeastern corner of Namco Lake. Another place of worship, the famous Zhaxi monastery, is located on a peninsula projecting deep into the lake.
The term depression may sound strange at an altitude of 4,700 meters, but the lake marks the lowest point of a huge high plateau. Lush grasses grow here, which makes for the best pastures in North Tibet. Most of the wild animals and birds have their habitat here too.
The film presents one of the most beautiful places in Tibet – rugged mountain ranges, steppe grasses shining in unreal colors in the sunlight, and exotic animals. Unusual features of this landscape include a stalactite cave, a karst forest, and a naturally built stone bridge.
The people by the lakeside also play an important role in the film: the Tibetan nomads with their yak herds, the fishermen in their canoes made of leather, the pilgrims on their ritual walk, and the monks in their colorful robes who watch over the heavenly lake and its spirits.
2. Marakol, the pearl of East Kazakhstan
Kazakhs say that Marakol, a lake that lies 1494 meters above sea level, rivals Lake Baikal in beauty. If you look at the Internet pages of Russian or Kazakh hobby anglers, the lake should not fear competition.
The largest and most picturesque mountain lake in East Kazakhstan has a legendary reputation, and not only among anglers. Fed by the water of about 100 rivers and creeks, Marakol, unlike most mountain lakes, has an outlet, the Kalzhir River, which flows through Lake Zaysan further downstream and from there into the Irtysh River. The Irtysh then merges with the Ob River and flows into the Arctic Ocean.
“This is the actual secret of the lake’s abundance in fish”, says Marat Beknasarov. “Millions of fish come here to spawn. The lake is a nursery for countless fish species”. Beknasarov possesses the fastest boat on the lake, but he is one of the few locals who don’t live from fishing – he is a gamekeeper. His patch comprises Lake Marakol and the nature reserves surrounding it.
For Beknasarov, these reserves are at least as spectacularly beautiful as the lake itself, with magnificent taiga areas, and crystal clear mountain streams and sources. They are home to maral deer, bears, ibexes, wild boar, marmots, black storks, and numerous birds of prey. Beknasarov lives in Urunkhayka, the largest settlement by the lake. Living from tourism is the dream of many village inhabitants, and our gamekeeper, too, likes the idea of more visitors coming to this area, provided they treat his natural paradise with respect. The actual problem is not poachers, but “anglers and hunters who don’t know what they’re doing”. The disregard of close seasons as well as poorly extinguished campfires are the gamekeeper’s main concern.
Marat Beknasarov will escort us during the shooting of the film on and around the lake. He will show us the impressive panorama of the Sarimsakti ridge with the snow-capped mountains Berkutaul (3,773 m) und Aksubas (3,308 m) and the diverse flora and fauna of the nature reserves. Needless to say, he will also introduce us to the people who live by Lake Marakol.
3. Uvs Nuur, the eye of God in Mongolia
“Uvs Nuur is the lake with the most interesting weather in the world”, says Bahadur, our guide. He should know, for he is a meteorologist, and has moved away from the capital to the small meteorological station by Uvs Nuur only because of the area’s extreme climate.
The lake is located almost exactly in the center of the land mass of Asia, at an altitude of 759 meters above sea level. The climate here is as continental as it gets – the Uvs Nuur basin exhibits the most extreme temperature fluctuations in the world. In the winter, temperatures of -40° C are common, while the lowest value measured was -58° C. In the summer, however, the lake basin warms up and reaches temperatures of +40° C and above. Accordingly, Uvs Nuur is both among the coldest and the warmest mountain lakes worldwide depending on the season.
“Because of its ecological constancy, the Uvs Nuur basin is also used for measurements towards the evaluation of global warming”, says Bahadur. As a matter of fact, human influence on the local climate is negligible. The nearest factory chimney is over 1,000 kilometers away.
With an area covering over 3,350 km² Uvs Nuur is the largest lake in Mongolia. Its northeastern tip stretches into the autonomous Tuva Republic of the Russian Federation. Unique marshland areas exist in the massive basin. “On a trip around the lake I can show you all ecosystems of Central Asia”, promises Bahadur, “marshlands, deserts, various steppe formations and forests, rivers, freshwater lakes, alpine meadows and fields of eternal snow”. Bizarrely weathered and often pincushion-distorted mountains, cliffs and granite boulders are another visual characteristic of the Uvs Nuur basin. The grass-covered areas have been used by nomads with their herds and yurts for thousands of years.
The various ecosystems are home to many endemic plants and invertebrates. The saline lake Uvs Nuur and the freshwater lake Tere Khol offer a habitat to water birds and seals. In spring and fall, the lakes serve as a stopover for migratory birds. In 1977 the Uvs Nuur basin was listed as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.
Lakes play an important role in the religious beliefs of Mongolians, which are influenced by shamanism – they are believed to be the eyes of Earth-Mother. Fishing is therefore taboo for many, and for some even bathing.
Bahadu doesn’t see it as a problem. During an excursion to Saryg Khol on the Tuvan side of the lake, he and some of his friends from there go fishing. On this occasion, we are faced with a peculiar picture. We cannot tell Mongolians and Tuvans apart, neither by their looks nor by their clothing. We can however hear when they speak that Mongolian and Tuvan are two totally different languages. The good thing for us is that they all speak Russian.
Unfortunately, our film cannot adequately illustrate the extreme fluctuations in temperature in the region. But the images of the unreal-looking dark blue waters of the lake and the various ecosystems are all the more compelling: of the wetland areas, the steppes and deserts, the forests and streams, the alpine meadows and the fields of eternal snow. With some luck, the film will also feature footage of the heraldic animals of the UNESCO biosphere reserve: the Mongolian desert mouse, the Polar cat, the endangered snow leopard, the wild sheep, and the Asian ibex. And, of course, the Mongolian herders and the Tuvan fishermen will both have a prominent role in our film.
4. Issyk Kul, the sea of the Kyrgyz
"This is my white steamer", says Sergey Ilchishin, as he steers his fishing boat along the Northern shore of the lake. "And over there is where Aitmatov used to spend his summers". Ilchishin points at a large wooden house on the waterfront. He obviously takes it for granted that everyone knows who Chingiz Aitmatov is and what books he’s written. "The White Steamer" is one of his best known novels.
Lake Issyk Kul played an important part in Aitmatov’s life and featured prominently in his work. After all, there are plentiful Kirghizian legends surrounding this extraordinary lake in the Tian Shan mountains – stories about the sunken city of “Lyesh”, the “tears of the snow leopard” that lend the water its salinity, and finally about the name of the lake itself: Issyk Kul means “hot lake”, because despite being at an altitude of over 1,600 meters it never freezes, not even in the coldest of winters.
Sergey Ilchishin is already looking forward to the cold season. “Once the last of the tourists have left and the pleasure boats stopped cruising the lake, then the lake will belong to us fishermen again. In the winter you can sail out one hundred kilometers without coming across a single person – it‘s only then that you can realize just how big the lake really is.” With a length of almost 200km and a maximum depth of just under 700 meters, Issyk Kul is the second-largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca.
On clear days one can appreciate the unique location of Issyk Kul. To the North the lake is surrounded by the mountains of the Kungey-Alatau range, while along its southern edge tower the 5,000 meter-high peaks of the Terskey-Alatau range.
Because of its ecologically intact landscape, the high mountain region surrounding Lake Issyk Kul has been declared a biosphere reserve. Large populations of ibexes and Marco Polo sheep live here, while the reserve is also a retreat area for endangered species, such as the Tien Shan deer, the Turkestan fox and the snow leopard.
Just like Aitmatov the author, Sergey Ilchishin is convinced that there is some truth behind many of the old legends. Only three years ago, Kyrgyz and Russian archeologists discovered the remains of a 2,500-year-old city on the bottom of the lake. The finds are sensational: coins that have survived over thousands of years, and a bronze cauldron with a level of craftsmanship that cannot be explained by experts. It is possible that this ancient city was home to the legendary monastery about which a Spanish atlas dated from the 14th century says: “The place is called Issikol. It has an Armenian Brothers’ monastery, in which are located the remains of Apostle Matthew.”
The film will show a section of the old Silk Road and the ravine of the Chui River with its impressive waterfalls. We climb on treacherous paths to the mountain villages of the Terskey-Alatau range and discover the traditional way of life of the Kyrgyz shepherds, but above all we learn about the life of the people living directly by Lake Issyk Kul and live from growing fruit, tourism, or, as in the case of Sergey Ilchishin, from fishing.
5. Karakul, the crater lake in Tajikistan
Karakul in the Tajik language (which is almost identical to Persian) means “black lake”. The higher up the mountains one is looking down at the lake, the darker its water seems, say the inhabitants of the region. The first time we catch sight of it below us from the mountain pass at an altitude of over 4,000 meters, the lake certainly lives up to its name. “No other lake in Asia is as difficult to reach as Karakul”, says Marina Perekrestova, a well-known Kyrgyz journalist who also works for ARTE. She accompanies an international group of scientists to this unique mountain lake. It lies at an altitude of 3,900 meters and is surrounded by numerous high peaks of the Pamir mountain range, the tallest of which is Ismoil Somoni Peak (7,495 meters above sea level), formerly known as Communism Peak. The easiest way to reach the lake leads across Kyrgyzstan, through the Kyzyl Art pass (4,270 meters) and the so-called Pamir highway. This must be the reason why the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Karakul village are of Kyrgyz origin. By car the village is only a day’s journey away from Osh in Kyrgyzstan’s Fergana Valley. Adventurers who prefer to start their journey from Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe need to travel in the canyons along the Afghan border for six or seven days.
“The lake gives experts two different riddles”, says Marina Perekrestova. “The lake basin is supposed to have been created some five million years ago through the impact of a huge meteorite, yet no remains of the meteorite have been found to this day. And there’s also this mysterious layer of ice on the bottom of the sea, for which no convincing explanation has been offered either.”
Gorno-Badakhshan, the Tajik province Karakul belongs to, is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the whole of Asia. Although the province makes up over 40% of the land area, it is home to only 3% of the country’s population. A mere 20 mm of rain at the most fall here per year. The lake is saline and hardly any fish live in it.
Our film will attempt to penetrate the secrets of Lake Karakul. We accompany a group of geologists around the lake, and visit glaciers, bizarre waterfalls and gorges through which the water from the mountains streams into the lake. The unbelievably beautiful landscapes around Karakul, with snow-covered mountains against the dark blue sky, have never before been captured on film for television.
Of course, the people of the village of Karakul and the stock breeders who come to the highland meadows around the lake with their yurts in the summer also play a prominent role in the film.