Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan (or The Kyrgyz Republic, to give the country its official name) is in the very middle of the Eurasian continent, bordering China (to the east), Kazakhstan (to the north and west), Uzbekistan (to the south and west), and Tajikistan (to the south west and south).

(Actually, the geographical center of the Asian continent lies about 1000 kilometres further north – but the term Central Asia is widely used for this region – and if you look at a map of the two continents together Kyrgyzstan does lie more or less in the center.)

It is a small, landlocked, mountainous country occupying just less than 200,000 square kilometres – about the area of Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands put together, or a little less than the UK.

The northern most part is at the same latitude as Rome, but because it is landlocked its winters are much colder (and the height above sea level makes many parts even colder – our guest house in Naryn fairly often experiences temperatures of -35 degrees C in winter). Summers are both drier and hotter (45 degrees C is not unusual and 50 degrees C was recorded in 1998 near Bishkek).

Ninety three percent of the surface area is over 1500 meters in height – and therefore counts as mountainous, although not of it would recognizable peaks there being numerous plateaus and wide intermountain valleys – and 41% is over 3000 meters high.

The greatest natural feature is the Tien-Shan mountains (in Kyrgyz “Tenir-Too”) running through the country from the northeast to the southwest.

The second most famous feature is Lake Issyk-Kul (which is Kyrgyz for “warm lake”).  It lies 1,600 meters above sea level and is668 meters deep in places. It never freezes, which is the reason it was given its name, the water isn’t that warm. The lake lies in a basin surrounded by high mountains.

It is not far by road (about 3 hours) from the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, which lies at 3000 meters – Lake Son Kul – a remote but beautiful wildlife sanctuary.

The river Naryn runs from north east to south west joining with the Kara-Darya to form a river which even in antiquity was called the Syr-Darya and which runs from Kyrgyzstan out into the Ferghana (Fergana) valley and on into the Aral Sea (though it is mainly diverted or exhausted before then). This is the second largest river in central Asia after the Amu-Darya. It is possible to visit its source, above the city of Naryn.

The Kyrgyz are reckoned to be one of the oldest distinct nationalities and are mentioned in old Chinese chronicles. They were basically a pastoral, nomadic people – traveling from jailoo (a high mountain pasture, the lower pastures are called kyshtoo) to jailoo with their flocks. For a long time they were confused with the Kazakhs – who were called Khirghiz, whilst the Kyrgyz themselves were called Kara Kyrgyz. It is said that the two nations were closely related – but that the Kyrgyz were nomads which traveled from place to place vertically in the mountains, whilst the Kazakhs traveled from place to place horizontally on the steppes. Both nationalities were renowned warriors.

Unlike its neighbours Uzbekistan and China, Kyrgyzstan has little evidence of its noble and ancient history which has survived.

The country has seen many civilizations and empires rise and fall: The Saks, the Monguls … the Russian and the Soviet Union. Names such as Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Ghengis Khan, Tamerlain, Babur, …  are all associated with the region. The connection is stronger in some cases than in others. We are not quite sure exactly how far North Alexander the Great reached, but it is thought by some that conquered the Chui valley and outsed the the existing ruler – Prince Shu – and made it to Issyk Kul where he left hostages, (mainly noble families from Iran) in a settlement on the Southern shore which later became Barskoon. As far as we know Marco Polo never came further north than Kashgar having traveled through modern-day Afghanistan. Ghengis Khan and his horde of Mongol warriors did travel through the region – sacking town and cities which defied him – but sparing others like Balasugan which opened their gates to his army. One of his wives is reputed to be buried on the “Ghengis Khan Highway” – a track high in the mountains in the Talas region. Tamerlain was born and grew up and based his empire on the Uzbek city of Samarkand – but he came through the territory of Kyrgyzstan on his campaigns against the Chinese and there are several stories relating to him including a few archaeological sites. Babur – who founded the Moghul Raj in India was born in Andijan and grew up in nearby Osh.

Although the Kyrgyz, themselves, at one time had a large empire, they fell into a decline and were subject peoples of a range of empires over the centuries.

Some cities, such as Osh, (which claims a 3000 year history of continuous human settlement), may have a long history – but only isolated remains of man’s early settlements in the region can be seen, and most of the great cities of the past are now little more than archaeological sitites. It is possible to get a feel of the past at such places as Burana, near Tokmak, The Manas Gumbez (mausoleum), near Talas, The Uzgen complex, and the Tash Rabat caravanserai, in the Naryn province on the road to Torugart and the Chinese border.

At the end of the 19th century they fell under the influence of the Russian Empire as it moved to colonize the Eastern hinterland of the continent. When the Russian Empire gave way to the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It declared Independence from the USSR in 1991.

During the most part of the Soviet period, it was closed to foreign visitors. Special permits were needed to travel here and foreigners were extremely rare.

Since Independence the country has opened up and many new and interesting destinations have become accessible to Westerners.

The country is a Presidential democracy with a single chamber parliament (the Jogorku Kenesh).The economy is relatively weak – mainly because the domestic market is small, the great distances to foreign markets for exports and the influence of the mountains in breaking the country into small, remote, distinct geographic units. Since independence it has followed a path of economic and political reform.