Kyrgyzstan - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Kyrgyzstan: the Bradt Travel Guide


Flag, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan by Tim BrauhnKyrgyzstan officially became independent with the breakup of the Soviet Union © Tim Brauhn

In October of 1990, the same year as the Uzbek-Kyrgyz interethnic strife in the south, Askar Akayev, a physicist academic in favour of reform, was elected by the legislature to the newly created post of president.

Akayev had been elected as a compromise candidate in a role that was designed to be wholly symbolic and without any serious political clout but, responding to the zeitgeist of glasnost and perestroika that was taking place in Moscow, he immediately introduced new government structures and appointed a new government of fellow reform-minded members. In December of the same year, the republic was renamed Kyrgyzstan (it had been known as Kirgizia in Soviet times and would be re-titled the Kyrgyz Republic in 1993). Wishing to extend this new Kyrgyz identity a stage further, the capital Frunze was renamed Bishkek in February 1991.

Just as the August putsch was taking place, unsuccessfully, in Moscow, a coup attempted to remove Akayev from power on 19 August 1991. This failed, and the following week both Akayev and his vice-president German Kuznetsov announced they would be resigning from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; the entire politburo and secretariat immediately followed suit. The Supreme Soviet declared independence from the USSR on 31 August. Akayev announced that Kyrgyz would become the new official language of state and dissolved the Communist Party, seizing its assets and declaring it, temporarily at least, illegal.

In October 1991, Akayev was voted in for another presidential term, with 95% of the vote in an election in which he ran unopposed. On 21 December 1991 Kyrgyzstan acceded to the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the following year Kyrgyzstan became a member of both the United Nations and the OSCE.

Shortly after the initial period of independence, Akayev started to come under scrutiny because of allegations of corruption against some of his close associates. This required him to dismiss his first government in 1993 and call upon a former communist prime minister, Apas Djumagulov, to form a new one. Several referenda followed over the next couple of years that made changes to the constitution.

In December 1995, Akayev was re-elected for a further five-year term in elections that were considered fair overall. However, the parliamentary elections that took place in early 2000, and the presidential one that occurred later that same year, were seen as badly flawed and declared invalid by international observers.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Kyrgyzstan: the Bradt Travel Guide


Kyrgyzstan has at least 4,500 species of plant in total, of which 125 species are endemic and 300 are considered to be endangered. The country’s extensive forests are particularly noteworthy, with large tracts of spruce, juniper (archa), pine, maple, poplar-willow, rowan and birch. Jalal-Abad Oblast has the greatest percentage of forest cover (9%), which includes a large expanse of walnut forest in the region of Arslanbob; this is followed by Osh (5.1%), Talas (3.6%), Issyk-Kul (2.7%), Naryn (2.2%) and Chui (2.1%). Overall, 4.2% of the country (about 843,000ha) is estimated to be covered by woodland.

Kyrgyzstan’s natural forests contain a total of 120 woody species. On the northern mountain ranges the most significant species are spruce (Picea schrenkiana), Tien Shan fir (Pinus schrenkiana), several junipers (Juniperus spp), rowan (Sorbus tianschanica) and birch (Betula spp), along with bushy scrub of barberry (Berberis spp), wild rose (Rosa spp) and buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), among others. In the western Tien Shan range, in the more protected, drier areas, pistachio (Pistacia vera) is present in significant quantities, as is wild almond (Prunus amugdalus communis). In the wetter mountain areas, particularly on the southern slopes north of the Fergana Valley in Jalal-Abad Oblast, stand some of the world’s most significant relic forests of walnut (Juglans regia), along with stands of wild fruit trees such as apple (Malus spp), cherry and plum (Prunus spp) and hardwoods such as maple (Acer turkestanica).

Unfortunately, some of Kyrgyzstan’s forests, particularly its relic walnut forests in the south, are ageing faster than they are regenerating and the over-mature forests are susceptible to damage from pests and diseases.

As well as its forests, Kyrgyzstan is also well known throughout central Asia for the variety of valuable medicinal herbs that are found in its meadows and valleys – around 200 in all. These include plants such as plantain (Plantago spp), Jerusalem sage (Phlomis spp), wormwood (Artemesia spp) and Ephedra species. Some of the most spectacular flora is found at altitudes of 3,000m or higher, where, in high alpine meadows, edelweiss (Leontpodium alpinum) is common, as are crocuses, anemones, asters, gentians, orchids, wild onions (Allium spp), tulips including Greig’s tulip (Tulipa greigii) and Kaufmann’s tulip (Tulipa kaufmanniana), and poppies (Papaver spp).


Kyrgyzstan has well over 500 species of vertebrates and more than 3,000 types of insect, which include 60 species of dragonfly, 86 of butterfly, 33 of bee, 86 of ant and 250 of cicada. Reptiles are well represented, too, with 28 species of tortoise, snake and lizard. Seventy-five different species of fish can be found in the various lakes, reservoirs and rivers of the country, with many of these in Kyrgyzstan’s largest body of water, Lake Issyk-Kul, which has carp, trout, osman, bream, pike-perch and many other species. Many of the species are endemic either to the central Asian region or to Kyrgyzstan in particular.

People and culture

Traditional Kyrgyz culture

Hunters, Kyrgyzstan by Maximum Exposure PR, ShutterstockKyrgyzstan's nomadic history continues to be a formative influence in the present day © Maximum Exposure PR, Shutterstock

Kyrgyz nomadic society is traditionally organised into various clans and tribes with clan leadership coming from a bai (or manap), a chief who makes decisions following consultation with a council of aksakals who represent each village (or ail – collection of yurts) within the clan. An aksakal, quite literally, means a ‘white beard’, ie: an aged and presumably wise, village elder. The bai is not elected but usually earns his position by being the most senior of the aksakals, a role in which respect has to be earned for the bai’s decisions to carry any weight. Sometimes the position is hereditary but the son would always be required to earn the respect of the clan members, lest his position be usurped by a rival. Any petty tyranny by the bai would be to the chief’s detriment as the various ails that constitute the clan are always free – as nomads not tied to a particular location – to join another tribal group with a less autocratic leader.

Although in traditional Kyrgyz society women have rarely held positions of power, there have been exceptions. The most notable of these was Kurmanjan Datka, who took on the leadership of the southern Kyrgyz tribes when her husband, Alymbek Datka, died – there is a statue of her in the centre of Osh. Kurmanjan Datka’s place in Kyrgyz history is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, as women in patriarchal Kyrgyz society generally have little influence on decision making other than within the home, and only a small percentage of the members of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament are women. The exception to this pattern, of course, is Roza Otunbayeva, formerly ambassador to the UK and foreign minister, who took over as president of the transition government following the 2010 uprising. Her term, however, came to an end in December 2011.

In the pre-Soviet period, women had a subordinate status that depended exclusively on their fathers, until the time came for a potential husband to offer a dowry or kalym for them to become a wife. In some cases, the ritual of bride kidnapping took place and there are well-documented accounts that these incidents continue to occur quite frequently, even in recent times. The kalym was, and still is, usually paid in livestock and is viewed as promoting both financial and social ties between the would-be groom and the family of his prospective wife. On some occasions, in order to raise the necessary capital for the kalym, a young man will work for his prospective fatherin- law for a specified period of time, thus cementing the social bond between the two families even further.

In standard jailoo life, everyday tasks are shared between men and women, while domestic duties such as cooking, cleaning and milking are always performed by women. However, given the liberating nature of the nomadic Kyrgyz lifestyle, women are usually equal partners in practice, even if they are not in status in the eyes of Kyrgyz society.

The long period of Soviet rule brought about far more equality for Kyrgyz women, raising educational levels and life expectations enormously. While many women still have access to higher education and achieve important positions in society, economic pressures and a reversion in some quarters to pre-revolutionary chauvinistic values have meant there has been a slight reversal of this trend since independence.

The average age for marriage between Kyrgyz is around 25 for men and 22 for women. Providing he is not planning to commit ala kachuu  when a man decides to marry he goes with his family to visit the home of his prospective bride, where his intention is made known and negotiations begin regarding the kalym required to marry the girl.

Traditionally, once the kalym has been agreed between the groom and the bride’s family, the groom gives a present of golden earrings to his future bride and they are considered to be engaged. The wedding takes place as soon as possible afterwards, although it is normally traditional for older brothers to marry before their younger siblings, and a younger brother may have to wait for his older brothers to marry before he can get wed himself.

On the day of the wedding, the bride’s female relatives erect a white yurt from which the bride is collected by the groom’s party. A ritual called arkan tosuu is frequently performed before the ceremony takes place, in which a rope is strung across the road and a ransom demanded for the bride, accompanied by wailing from the bride’s female relatives and friends. The ceremony itself usually takes place at a registry office or a wedding palace – a secular inheritance of Soviet times – after which the couple may go to the mosque for a blessing, although sometimes a mullah is invited to the wedding itself in order to bless the union. The ceremony is normally followed by a group promenade, in which frequent stops are made for photographs and video recordings at scenic or historically important spots such as war memorials or sculpture parks. The party then proceeds to the reception where everyone present takes turns in expressing their good wishes to the newlywed couple.

After the ceremonial proceedings are completed the groom’s family blesses the bride by placing a scarf over her head. The bride customarily spends three days with her new family, a period in which she receives visits from well-wishers.

Following this, the married couple move to their own home, apart from occasions where it is a youngest son who has married, in which case they will stay with his parents because, as the most junior male offspring, it is his responsibility to care for his parents in old age. The bride herself is not permitted to visit her parents on her own until a preliminary visit has been made, in which she is accompanied by her new in-laws who offer a present to the bride’s mother as recompense for the trouble she went to raising the daughter. After marriage, a daughter-in-law is expected to be subservient to her new family and serve her new parents as dutifully as her husband.

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