Kyrgyzstan is the perfect destination to go trekking and to enjoy many enigmas: the country has many legends, mesmerizing mountains and untouched nature. One of our favorite hikes brings you to the mysterious Merzbacher Lake, nestled on the Inylchek (or Engilchek) glacier, a few miles away from the famous Khan Tengri and Pobeda summits.
Located at around 3500 meters (11483 ft) above sea level, at the meeting point of the north and south branches of the Inylchek glacier, the Merzbacher Lake is known throughout the world for being very mysterious. This immense glacial lake empties suddenly once or twice per year, showing off white icebergs, perfectly preserved by the water that usually covers them.
The lake, which was discovered in 1903 by the German alpinist and geographer Gottfried Merzbacher, still attracts many explorers and scientist today, curious to understand the mechanisms behind this natural phenomenon. As Gottfried Merzbacher was trying to reach the Khan Tengri Peak (6995 m, or 7010m with the glacier) on a first expedition on the South Inylchek glacier, he noticed a mountain lake. But on the way back, just three days after, the lake was empty and replaced by terrifying blocks of ice. He went back to the glacier the next year to see the lake once again full: that’s when he understood that this was an annual cycle. Other explorers were able to see the phenomenon live, and said that the lake emptied very fast, unexpectedly, and that the process was frightening and very noisy. Some even thought the glacier would fall off!
The mystery still hasn’t been solved by science to this day. The lake is around 3.5 km (1.9 miles) long and 1.2 km (0.6 miles) wide. It empties suddenly once it’s full. Several theories were advanced by science: either the ice blocks serve as a damn and break when there is too much water; either the water deforms the ice and makes its way through crevasses; either the water is aspirated by an underground canyon…
In any case, this phenomenon attracts a lot of curious tourists, but it’s very rare to witness it. It usually happens mid-August each year, although these past years, the lake empties earlier, in July. Some alpinists have said that the lake emptied twice in the past years, in July, before filling up again, then at the end of August, although scientists say that the lake only fills up in the spring… The water disappears somewhere inside the glacier before reaching the rivers.
It only takes a few hours for the lake to empty. At that moment, the glacier shakes and becomes very noisy, and the rivers Sary Jaz and Inylchek fill up and become very violent and dangerous.
Going to the Merzbacher Lake is a great idea for your trip in Kyrgyzstan. The Merzbacher Lake is located in a very isolated region of Kyrgyzstan. Nestled in the mountains at the border zone between China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the lake is far from any settlement. Locals don’t come here; only experienced alpinists make their way on the glacier. The region is famous for its two wonderful summits: the Khan Tengri, considered the most beautiful of the 7000m summits, and the Pobeda (Victory) or Jengish Chokusu, the most difficult of the 7000m summits.
To get to the lake, you’ll have to adventure yourself onto the imposing Inylchek South glacier, one of the world’s most famous glaciers. Surrounded by mountains towering over 6000 m, 60 m (37 miles) long and up to 540 m (1771 ft) deep, the glacier in itself is worth every effort. You’ll be able to walk on the moraine, but beware of crevasses. It’s also one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, and you’ll hear it, especially at night.
It takes around four days to reach the lake, and you’ll have to cross the glacier. You can then turn back or continue your trek to the Khan Tengri base camp to observe this “King of the spirits”. In any case, you’ll have to get a border permit to see this beautiful scenery.