Early People. The earliest recorded residents were Sakas (Scythians) with rich bronze and gold relics from the 5th and 6th centuries. Then Turks lived around Lake Issyk-Kol. In 751, the Turks with Tibetans and Arab allies, drove out a large Tang Chinese army out of Central Asia. The Turks ruled from the 10th to the 12th centuries bringing Islam.
The ancestors of today’s Kyrgyz people, after Mongol incursions, came from Siberia and were part of the inheritance of Chinggis’s second son, Chaghatal. In 1685, the Mongol Oyrats drove vast numbers of Kyrgyz south. The Chinese Qing defeated them in 1758 but left the Kyrgyz to their nomadic ways.
Russians. In 1862, Russians occupied Bishtek and Russian settlers started to arrive. Kyrgyz men were recruited into the Russian army in WWI, they revolted and 120,000 died (1/6th of the population). A similar number fled to China. By 1926, it became a full Soviet Republic known as Soviet Kirghizia. Collectivism was introduced, the Kyrgyz rebelled and many more died in Stalin’s purges. Soviet uranium mining has left a legacy of environmental problems.
Independence. In 1991, Kyrgyzstan was the first independent Soviet country. Liberal political and economic reforms were instituted. Islamic terrorists were a threat in 1999-2000.
Tulip Revolution. Democracy was threatened by corruption and civil unrest. Civil unrest resulted in the election of Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2005. Corruption continued, the Kyrgyz revolted, riots ensued and the Uzbeks, the source of the problems, fled.
Today. Kyrgyzstan has been walking a tightrope between China, Russia and the US over the Manas Air Base. From 2001, it was used by the US to conduct fuel and cargo sorties to Afghanistan and was the main gateway to withdraw US troops but was scheduled to close in 2014. Meanwhile, Russia’s main base at Kant, 20km east of Bishtek still functions, a geopolitical victory for Russia.
Kyrgyzstan has good relations with China. Endless trucks carry goods into Kyrgyzstan but most return empty. Kazakhstan owns 40% of the countries banks. Relations with Uzbekistan are tense over water, energy and ethnic tensions. The national economy is overly reliant on the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine producing 12% of its GDP. At 4200m, it is the 8th largest gold field in the world. Protests have happened over several issues.
PEOPLE. Of 80 ethno-linguistic groups, 66% are Kyrgyz, 14% Uzbek and 10% Russian. Notable minorities are Ukrainian, Uyghur and Dungan (Hui Muslims originally from China). Kyrgys remain the most Russified Central Asian people. Russian is the lingua franca in Bishtek and most of the north. About ⅕th of adults work outside the country, most in Russia. ⅔ live in rural areas. Differences between regional clans and with Uzbeks can cause tension.
RELIGION. Overwhelmingly Muslim, but strict Muslim doctrine is not followed much in the north. Russian Orthodox is important mainly in Bishtek and Karakol.
ENVIRONMENT. Kyrgyzstan is an important bird migration site. There are a few hundred snow leopards. Fresh water, most locked up in glaciers is one of its greatest natural resources. Overgrazing, especially near towns is a problem. Uranium mining, left over the Soviet days cause some issues.
FOOD & DRINK. Finding vegetarian food is a tall order (best accomplished in Chinese or Italian restaurants.
Laghman – Mildly spicy, fat noodles served in soup with numerous variations.
Beshbarmak – Large flat noodles topped with lamb and/or horsemeat cooked in vegetable broth.
Keeme – Thick noodle soup with small bits of potato, meat and vegetable.
Mampar – Tomato-based meat stew with gnocchi-like pasta.
Shorpoo – Mutton soup.
Jurkop – braised meat and vegetables with noodles.
Hoshan – Fried and steamed dumplings.
Ashlyanfu – Cold rice-noodles, jelly, vinegar and eggs.
Fyntyozi – Spicy, cold rice noodles.
Gyanfan – Rice with a meat and vegetable sauce.
Kymys – fermented mare’s milk, the national drink.
Bozo – thick, fizzy drink made from fermented millet or other grains.
Boorsok – Empty ravioli-sized fried dough parcels to dunk in drinks or cream.
Kurut – Small, very hard balls or tart and dried yoghurt, a favorite snack.
Kazy, karta or chuchuk – Horsemeat sausages, a popular vodka chaser
Jusai – Steamed buns made with jusai, a mountain grass of the onion family.
Tea – Liquid hospitality, traditionally made very strong in a pot, then diluted when served. Cups should only be half filled – adding more suggests that one is in a hurry to get away.
Bread – Should not be thrown away nor placed upside down on a trable.
Homestays. The majority of accommodation in rural Kyrgyzstan. Most have an outside toilet.
Yurtstays. Best around SongKol and Tash Rabat.
Hostels. Present in Bishtek, Osh and Karakol. Nomad in Bishtek is very nice but expensive. Karakol has Yak Tours (cute but no wi-fi or hot water) and Teskey GH (very nice with good English-speaking host and good hiking info)
Hotels. Soviet-era hotels are decrepit and best avoided. Local hotels are often treated as dorm rooms if there are two beds. The main cities have mid-range hotels.
Horse Riding. This is the best place in Central Asia at cheap prices. It is easy to purchase your own horse if you want a month or two of riding. Buy only well-trained animals.
Mountain Climbing. With three 7000m peaks and many unclimbed mountains, there are many opportunities. Peak Lenin, on the Tajikistan border is the world’s most accessible and least expensive peak to climb. The granite walls of Karavshin are world class (subject of Greg Child’s book “Over the Edge”.
Rafting. The season runs from late June to mid-September. Wetsuits are mandatory in the glacial water.
Skiing. Despite 90% of the country being over 2700m, skiing is still in its infancy and available only around Bishtek and Karakol. There is heli skiing.
Trekking. There are unrivalled opportunities. Check out any CBT office.
DANGERS & ANNOYANCES.
Kyrgyzstan is pretty safe to travel in. When driving check the sobriety of the driver. Theft is rare but could happen at night in Bishtek or Karakol. Police trouble could take the form of shake downs from corrupt cops wanting an excuse to fine you or reappropriate some cash (don’t hand over your passport to plain-clothes officers until you have reached an official station. Tick-borne encephalitis is rare.
FESTIVALS. The best and mos authentic are the horse games at the end of July and August. Nooruz, on March 21, has numerous sporting events, traditional games and music festivals. The Birds of Prey Festival held in early August in Bokonbeyovo sees eagle hunters and falconers compete.
MONEY. Moneychangers are everywhere and there is no blackmarket for currency transactions. Moneygram has services in post offices and Western Union works through most banks. ATMs are common and Visa is the most accepted.