Few had heard of Kyrgyzstan before the unrest of spring 2010 © Pavel Svoboda, Shutterstock
A visit to Kyrgyzstan is as adventurous as you would like it to be, which can mean everything from lazing on a beach at Lake Issyk-Kul to glacier walking in the Central Tien Shan. The low prices, hospitable people and gorgeous scenery are simply a bonus.
Before the spring of 2010 few had heard of Kyrgyzstan. In that fateful year the country achieved momentary fame for all the wrong reasons when violent protests in Bishkek, Osh and other cities brought this small central Asian country to our television screens for a short while. Thankfully things have completely settled down since then and the country has reverted to its previous state of quiet obscurity.
Say ‘Kyrgyzstan’ to most people and there may be a flicker of recognition, but it is usually for the wrong reason. Sometimes, the country becomes confused with Kazakhstantan in people’s minds, or sometimes even Kurdistan, but it is probably the suffix ‘-stan’ that causes well-meaning friends and family to ask ‘Will it be safe?’ Of course, ‘-stan’ may have a whiff of danger about it, but it just means ‘country of…’ in Persian, in the same way that ‘-land’ does for countries like Finland, Switzerland, England and Scotland. You could always try saying Kyrgyz Republic instead, as that is the country’s official name, but that might bring even blanker looks.
As for describing where Kyrgyzstan is, saying it is north of Tajikistan, west of Chinese Xinjiang doesn’t really help in most cases. In terms of the mental maps that people carry around in their heads, central Asia is pretty much terra incognita for most and Kyrgyzstan might as well be Ruritania. So why is the country so little known? Part of the reason is that just over two decades ago the country did not exist at all, and was merely a far-flung autonomous region of the vast, crumbling USSR. Then, in 1991, just like its immediate neighbours, it found itself suddenly independent and, as no such country had ever existed in the pre-Soviet period, having to invent itself. The present country’s boundaries were drawn up in the 1920s by Stalin, whose aim was to divide and rule in Soviet central Asia. The notion was for an autonomous Kyrgyz republic within the USSR, but what resulted was only an approximation and, although ethnic Kyrgyz currently make up around two-thirds of the population, the country is a mosaic of ethnicities that includes Russians, Uzbeks, Dungans, Uyghurs, Tajiks and Tatars.
All that the visitor really needs to know is that Kyrgyzstan is an outdoors sort of place; that is, if you prefer to spend your time looking at beautiful buildings and drinking espresso in chic cafés then this may not be your ideal destination (although this author could offer a couple of helpful suggestions in this department). If you enjoy trekking, horseriding, birdwatching, camping and visiting remote prehistoric sites, then it most certainly is. The Kyrgyz landscape is magnificent and hugely varied, and Swiss, Scots, Canadians, Italians and even Middle East Arabs and Israelis can all be heard to exclaim that, in places, the scenery reminds them of their homeland. This is no exaggeration as the country has it all – alpine lakes, fast-flowing rivers, arid steppes, snow-capped peaks, conifer forests, agricultural plains, rolling meadows and vast walnut forests. The only ingredient missing is an ocean but even here its largest lake, Issyk-Kul, has sandy beaches and is large enough to give the impression of being a sea rather than an inland body of water. But, if there is one physical characteristic that stands out above all else, it is mountains: 90% of Kyrgyzstan lies above 1,500m and the country’s topography is dominated by the various ranges of the Tien Shan system.
The beauty of Kyrgyzstan for visitors is that it has a bit of everything: nomadic traditions, central Asian mystique, Soviet-era trappings, a few spectacular prehistoric and Silk Road sites and, above all else, a culture that can best be described as a palimpsest, and over the centuries has absorbed the influence of shamanism, Zoroastrianism, Sufism and communism to become something entirely unique.
A visit to Kyrgyzstan is as adventurous as you would like it to be, which can mean everything from lazing on a beach at Lake Issyk-Kul to glacier walking in the Central Tien Shan. The low prices, hospitable people and gorgeous scenery are simply a bonus. Travel to and within Kyrgyzstan has become a little easier over recent years, not that it was ever problematic, and now that there is a visa-free regime and relatively inexpensive daily flights from Europe, there has never been a better time to come and see this beautiful country. For all those who come and see, Ak-Jol!
My first experience of Kyrgyz culture was not in Kyrgyzstan itself but across the border in Xinjiang Province in China, where I stayed in a yurt on the way to Pakistan via the Karakoram Highway. What I discovered when I finally visited the republic a few years later in 2006 was a newly independent country that was far more than just the sum of its parts. If Russia, as Churchill famously claimed, is ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, then Kyrgyzstan is a central Asian matryoshka doll of interwoven Turkic, Mongol and Slavic cultures that has been coloured by successive shamanistic, Islamic and communist traditions. Getting around the country to do research was not always easy.
One fateful shared taxi ride from Talas to Jalal-Abad took around 16 hours, rather than the seven I had been promised. This was partly due to the driver’s insistence on frequent stops for tea and shashlyk, but mostly because of the poor quality, water-diluted petrol that he had filled the car with. At first, the taxi would stall when going up the steeper hills; later on, it could hardly manage on the fl at – in a country where 90% of the terrain is mountainous this is not a good thing. I have vivid memories of pushing the taxi at two in the morning along a coal-black road just north of Jalal-Abad while overloaded trucks whistled past in the dark. My pushing accomplice was a customs officer from Batken Province who kept laughing maniacally into the night and repeatedly shouting ‘Ekstrim turizm, da? Ha! Ha!’ at me. Happy days! Such occasional unpredictability is all part of the experience but, on the whole, things tend to work out and most travel in Kyrgyzstan is as adventurous as you would like it to be.