Kyrgyzstan is a rugged Central Asian country along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route between China and the Mediterranean. The Tien Shan Mountains, which surround the old caravan route and dominate the country, are home to snow leopards, lynx and sheep. In the south, the millennia-old city of Osh has a huge, busy bazaar that was once a stop on the Silk Road.
"Kyrgyz" is believed to have been derived from the Turkic word for "forty", in reference to the forty clans of Manas, a legendary hero who united forty regional clans against the Enimes, Kyrgyzstan means – The land of Forty Tribes
The 40-ray sun on the flag of Kyrgyzstan is a reference to those same forty tribes and the graphical element in the sun's center depicts the wooden crown, called tunduk, of a yurt – a portable dwelling traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.
Kyrgyzstan lies at the very heart of Central Asia surrounded by the mighty expanses of China, Kazakhstan Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It covers an area of 198,500 sq. km. and its longest borders run 925 km from west to east and 454 km from north to south. The topography and geography of the country lends itself to a North-South divide, with the main concentrations of population/business in the north and south, with an almost uninhabited interior.
The mountainous terrain, distance from the sea and desert outskirts give Kyrgyzstan what can only be described as a harsh continental climate, with a big changes in temperature occuring over short periods of time. The wettest place is the west slope of the Ferghana Range with 1,000 mm, whilst the driest is Balykchy on the western tip of Issyk-Kul Lake with 100 mm of precipitation. The average temperature throughout the country in January varies between - 4°C to - 14°C and in July between + 12°C and + 40°C and there is an average of 247 days of sunshine a year.
The fact that 94% of Kyrgyzstan is covered by mountains produces great variations in the geographical, topographical appearance of the country. The lowest valley floor is itself 500 metres above sea level and the highest peaks soar to more than 7,000 metres above sea level in the mighty Tien Shan Range. These mighty peaks are world renowned and are part of the exclusive list of 7,000 metre plus peaks of the world - Pobeda Peak (Victory Peak) 7,439m, Lenin Peak 7,134m and the legendary Khan-Tengry (7010m) - the white/pink marble pyramid held sacred by Kyrgyz through the ages.
Mountain lakes abound and arguably one of the most beautiful series of lakes anywhere in the world can be found at Sary Chelek in a national park. To see this is to behold the true beauty of nature. The 'Pearl of the Heavenly Mountains' - or Issyk-Kul Lake - is the second largest high mountain lake in the world, second only to Lake Titicaca in size and is so big it has its own unique biosphere. Although forests cover only a small area of Kyrgyzstan the truly unique indigenous walnut tree forests of Arslan-bob are warrant a visit on their own.
The flora and fauna here are both unique and plentiful, ranging from exquisite semi-tropical tulips to stunningly beautiful alpine edelweiss - yes, Kyrgyzstan isn't known as the "Switzerland of Asia" for nothing, and the vitamin content of herbs here isn't bettered by a single country in the world, not even Georgia, whose herbs are much loved by Western medical and perfume companies. There is even a uniquely fir tree - the Tien Shan Spruce.
The number and range of birds of prey has to be seen to be believed and travellers to the more remote parts of the country will be amazed at how close they can get to these animals if they are careful. Although they should probably be counted as domestic animals, it should be noted that camels and yaks are also to be found in the higher areas and plans are afoot to dramatically increase the breeding of yaks.
To do full justice to the wonderful range of flora and fauna would take far more space than is available here - so, again, please come and see for yourself - you will not be disappointed!
The official statistics count about 5 millions inhabitants. Among them are Kyrgyz 66%; Uzbek 14%; Russian 11%; and Other Nationalities 8% (Germans, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Koreans, Tatars, Tajiks Uighirs and Dungans). The average density for the whole country is 21 people per square kilometre, although Ferghana Valley is extremely overcrowded.
The official language is Kyrgyz but the State language is Russian. Recently, a new law was adopted whereby Kyrgyz has become the State language. History has left a legacy, which means that in the North, around Bishkek, Russian is the dominant language, but in the villages and the South, Kyrgyz is the everyday language. Uzbek is widely spoken in Jalalabad, Osh and Batken oblasts
Kyrgyzstan is a very tolerant nation and allows freedom of worship to everyone and there are more than 100 different religious sects/philosophies active in the country. Its interdenominational council is being studied worldwide as an example of how to create and promote religious tolerance and harmony. The Kyrgyz are Muslim but it has to be said that a lot of them practice it in their own way. Official statistics indicate: Muslim 75%; Russian Orthodox 20%; Others 5%.
Kyrgyzstan has its own Constitution, President, Prime Minister, Cabinet of Ministers and Parliament (Jogorku Kenesh).
The President holds the reins of power via the President's Administration and can dissolve the Cabinet of Ministers at will, while the Prime Minister has very limited, almost token powers.
The country is still divided under the system laid down in Soviet times.
Oblast - Kyrgyzstan is divided into 7 Oblasts (provinces) each with its own Gubernator (Governer) and each oblast is further subdivided into Rayons, (districts), with 40 of them in total.
The capital Bishkek is recognised as a separate entity, and has its own independent city administration.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the economy has undergone massive changes and is still evolving. The Centralized Command Economy has been totally replaced by a free market economy. This has entailed several distinct phases, which have all had their pluses and minuses. Agriculture was and still is the largest employer of people in the Kyrgyz economy. Land reforms in Kyrgyzstan have progressed further and faster than anywhere else in the CIS and the result has been a bit of a mixed bag. Kyrgyz citizens meeting certain clearly defined criteria have received land shares (plots of land) as private property. Since the collective farms were broken up and people formed their own flocks, a great number of the national flock of sheep have been killed but now numbers are increasing again as the value of the flock as a source of income is becoming more and more apparent. This also applies to other farm animals such as horses.
There are natural resources, in particular water and that has led to the development of the hydro electricity industry. Several substantial plants are due to be completed in the next few years. Electricity exports continue to grow every year and are really only restricted by the limited load capacity of the HT lines from the country. However, unlike the other Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan does not have large reserves of oil and gas. There are large coal reserves but at present access is very difficult and transport costs make them impossible to market. However, when the projected China - Iran - Europe Railroad is built these resources should become much more exploitable. Gold is one resource much in demand and there are currently 130 plus mining companies active in the country. A major resource, uranium, is no longer in such great demand on the world market.
The Kyrgyz people are a mix of the clans who migrated from the banks of the Siberian Yenisei River, with Mongols and smaller tribes whom they absorbed over the centuries.
The Kyrgyz people are real nomadic people with a strong nomadic tradition and prefer to live in the mountains, in contrary to the Kazakh people, they prefer to live in the steppes (also in a yurt).
For centuries the nomadic people lived in portable dwellings, yurts. The yurts are very suitable for transportation and it is not difficult to assemble them. They are also good for living because they are warm in the cold weather and cool in the summer. The Kyrgyz put felt rugs ("koshma") on the ground of yurts and decorate walls with felt shyrdaks (carpets). The rich people make their yurts beautiful with brightly colored shyrdaks and use richly embroidered woven strips. The left hand side of the yurt is for men and contains horse or hunting gear, and the right hand side with the stove and cooking utensils is for women and the most honoured place in the yurt is opposite of the entrance, 'for the guests'.
Traditional clothing of Kyrgyz men consists of a padded or sheepskin coat, boots, and a white felt hat with black or red flaps ("kolpak"). Married women also put on often a white turban made of a long scarf. Marriage for the Kyrgyz people was always very important. Earlier and also very often now in the villages an arrangement is usually made between parents. Poor men had to wait for years to save enough before being able to marry. The young woman's dowry to her new family included the yurta, household equipment, etc. All of it could then have her children (polygamy was common). A woman could divorce her husband and, if he died, she had the right to remain single. When her husband was not at home and after his death, she was the chief at home.
It is important to mention that in Kyrgyzstan they export wool, meat and cotton. Farming and livestock raising are about one-third of the country's production, the most part of workers are employed in this sphere. Sheep, yak and horse breeding for wool, meat, milk and fat are the basic occupation of the Kyrgyz. The sheep is also used for the wool to make felt. The Kyrgyz like to make clothes, yurts and rugs using felt. Since privatization the livestock herds diminished from 8.7 million in 1992 until 3.8 million in 1998, mostly sheep and goats.
Farming is not everywhere possible, only on 60 % of the land. Most of the land is suitable for hayfields and pastures, total 7% of the land is arable, and the major crops are grains, fruit, vegetables, cotton and tobacco.
In the north of the country there are mostly small farm enterprises (mainly livestock raising) and in the south, where a big percentage of the Uzbek people live, they are involved into growing of cotton, tobacco, grains, rice etc.
After independence many of the state farms became agricultural enterprises and some cooperatives or individuals also became owners of the land. But because of less of experience many sold off their property again. Also the machinery that was in work in the Soviet period was partly sold by farm managers or hired out to some small farmers. Although there are many economical obstacles and problems in the country agricultural production is growing at the present time.
The real treasure of Kyrgyzstan is the world's largest natural walnut forest in the south of the country around Arslanbob. About 600 thousand hectares of walnut groves.
Meals of the Kyrgyz often begin and end with prayer. Meals are served on the cloth set on the floor or a very low table. It is necessary to offer or receive food with the left hand. You always should eat a little bit of bread if you are in the house of the Kyrgyz people even if you eat it not much. Tea is also always on the table in the Kyrgyz house. If you eat in the yurt you can see that the guests sit only around the mat opposite the door where it is very warm. All other people sit in order of age or seniority and the host sits with his back to the entrance with his wife on his right side to serve the food.
Sheep is the basic food for the Kyrgyz, most popular dish from sheep is 'beshbarmak' which they eat with their hands. The head of the sheep will be given to the most honoured guest or old people. The eye of sheep is always given to guests or to new friends.
Dairy products, like buttermilk, ayran (a yoghurt drink), cheese and fermented mare's milk 'kymyz' is the second main group of products on the eating table of the Kyrgyz. 'Kymyz', fermented mare's milk, is said to be a treat. They say that kymyz has curative properties and even use it to treat anaemia, tuberculosis, etc.
Shamanism appeared in Kyrgyzstan when the first invades came from the Siberian region. The word shaman is from the word saman with the meaning “he who knows”. In nomadic times the shaman was the central figure to the life of the tribe, because he organized rituals for important life events and solved spiritual and medical problems. The main thing is the belief in many spirits and that our souls belong to a spirit world. The shaman is both medicine man and a prophet, and escorts the soul of the dead into the next world. The spiritual journeys the shaman makes appear in Kyrgyz epics and songs.
Some remnants of shamanist practice are still alive in Kyrgyz life today. Many will say that a shaman is a consulting doctor.
Central of Kyrgyz culture are the songs, poems and stories performed by local bards (akyns).
Akyns were important persons at weddings, anniversaries and other festivals. They were often accompanied by komyz, two-stringed instrument like a lute or guitar. A special group of akyns were Manaschi, the narrators of the Manas epic. Some akyns became famous, such as Toktogul, Tokolog Moldo and Bokonbaeva.
Most important modern Kyrgyz author is Chinghiz Aitmatov. He writes in Kyrgyz and also in Russian, and many of his titles were translated in English, German, French, Dutch and other languages.
The retail market, especially in Bishkek, continues to develop apace and there are now several modern shopping complexes and supermarkets and lots of individual specialist boutiques selling mainly imported food, clothes, footwear, electronic goods etc.
For lovers of the exotic, the bazaars are open 7 days a week.
There are also several bazaars selling literally everything and the Dordoi Bazaar on the northern outskirts of the city is in fact the largest market in Central Asia. Buyers come from all over, including Russia, arrive here to purchase goods for wholesale in their own countries. If you have money it is possible to buy virtually anything you could wish for here.
Aside from ordinary shops, there are a host of specialist stores in Bishkek where you can buy anything you may need, including specialized trekking equipment and clothes.
There are lots of pharmacies in the towns and western drugs and medicines are quite freely available but if you need special prescriptions you would be well advised to bring an adequate supply with you. Opticians are everywhere and offer very good services at very good prices compared to Europe/USA.
In specialized food shops in large cities you can buy virtually all your favorite food and drinks.
The majority of shops are open from 9 a.m. till 5 p.m. and some are open 24 hours a day. Supermarkets work from 10 a.m. till 8 p.m.
You are advised to go shopping and to the markets with Kyrgyz soms only and no other currencies.
The Kyrgyz Som is freely exchangeable and in Bishkek there are literally hundreds of exchange offices where it is possible to exchange most currencies. These usually offer a better rate than the banks. It is possible to use international credit cards in some places in Bishkek and in some banks you can use your credit card to get money from abroad. Whether you do this or bring cash with you, it is advisable to get either new 100 USD notes (a lot of places will refuse to exchange or offer lower exchange rates for old notes) or minimum Euro 50 notes to exchange. Western Union Money Transfers are possible in the cities. Exchange facilities do not exist in the villages.
The Kyrgyz love having their photograph taken but other nationalities are not so forthcoming and so it is always advisable to ask before taking your camera out. Photography is generally banned in Museums but can usually be arranged for a suitable 'fee'. Avoid photographing military objects, airports, police and service personnel.
In accordance with the law of the Kyrgyz Republic please find below the list of the countries whose citizens require no visa to enter Kyrgyzstan up to 60 days:
The list of countries whose citizens can obtain the visa of Kyrgyz Republic upon personal request without any visa support letter: