One of the ‘stans’, Kyrgyzstan is a Central Asian country and a former Soviet state, home to breathtaking natural scenery composed of sweeping valleys, meadows and mountains. In fact, over 90% of the country is covered in mountains, making a trip to Krygyzstan an adventure through an often challenging, yet beautiful, landscape.
Many of its 6.2 million inhabitants live very simple lives outside of the cities and continue their national tradition of semi-nomadic cattle herding. Kyrgyzstan is a magical place to visit and a truly off the radar travel destination where you can get back to basics and immerse yourself in the unique local culture.
The snow-capped Tian Shan mountains that dominate much of the country’s landscape contrast with the Soviet-era buildings of the capital, Bishkek, home to cultural institutions such as an Opera and Ballet Theatre. Many choose to travel to Kyrgyzstan to experience a traditional way of life, which has escaped the pressures of modernity unscathed.
Here you can stay in a yurt, the traditional nomadic dwelling, herd wild horses and witness some of the most unique folkloric rituals in the region. Landlocked by Kazakstan, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikstan, the country is a great choice for the most intrepid explorers of Central Asia as here you can truly witness nature in its purest and wildest forms, from glacial rivers to expanses of untouched wilderness; Kyrgyzstan is a country that captivates all who visit. Summer is the prefered time to visit, as winter temperatures and snowfall can be particularly brutal, making a tour of Kyrgystan somewhat challenging.
History of Kyrgyzstan
The history of Kyrgyzstan encompasses the stories of many different cultures and empires. The country played an crucial role in the days of the Silk Road when it's Central Asian location ensured a steady flow of merchants and traders between Europe and Asia. Relics of this time still remain in the country, such as the Tash Rabat Caravanserai, located in a remote valley in the south of the country and a highlight of any package tour of Kyrgyzstan.
Before Russian involvement in the country, it was inhabited and ruled by different tribes and clans. The Scythians are thought to have been early settlers in Kyrgyzstan. In the 10th-century, Kyrgyz communities had migrated as far as the Tian Shan mountains and held dominion over the region for 200 years until Mongol expansion shrunk their territory and it eventually became absorbed into the Mongol Empire.
Throughout the following centuries, Krygyzstan was part of the Silk Road route and the shores of great Lake Issyk Kul were a hive of activity and settlements. In the 19th-century, parts of the country came under the control of the mighty Russian Empire and in 1919, Soviet Krygyzstan was established, a pivotal moment that would change the nations cultural life forever. Inhabitants were forced to become less nomadic and take up roots in the cities for factory work and manufacturing roles.
It was not until 1991 that Kyrgyzstan would announce its independence, along with its Central Asian neighbours. Since independence, clashes between ethnic groups and widespread poverty has affected the country, although today many communities are able to hold on to their nomadic traditions whilst using modern technology to boost their economic stability.
Nature in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is well-known for its rich natural resources, such as gold, but its landscapes are equally as precious. Most holidays to Kyrgyzstan focus on its untouched natural environment and its breathtaking mountains, with so many unique geological wonders and picture-perfect views.
The Tian Shan dominate the country, covering 80% of the land and home to a number of diverse and unique ecosystems. The higher you climb in the mountains, the more amazing and rare wildlife you’re likely to discover, such as eagles, hawks, falcons and snow leopards. The highest peak in the country is the Jengish Chokusu, a staggering 7,439 metres tall and an icon of Kyrgyzstan; it even appears on postage stamps! Aside from the lofty heights of the Tian Shan, you can expect rolling valleys, lush meadows and snaking rivers.
Kyrgyzstan is known for its wild weather, ranging from subtropical summertime lowlands to prolonged subzero temperatures in the winter. Sometimes the temperature can remain below zero for up to forty days at a time, so keep this in mind when planning a tour of Kyrgyzstan. One of the country’s biggest natural attractions is Lake Issyk Kul, the second largest mountain lake in the world after Titicaca.
Known as the ‘Pearl of Central Asia’ it shores are dotted with holiday resorts. Another unmissable stop on a trip to Kyrgyzstan is Djety Oguz, an amazing red sandstone rock formation, just south of the great Issyk Kul Lake. The area is home to resorts, waterfalls and unique geological attractions, but the most famous is the amazing ‘Seven Bulls’ formation. In the far south of the country, the diversity of Krygyzstan becomes evident, as here you can find the fertile Fergana Valley, known for its thriving farming industry and fields of sunflowers.
Culture in Kyrgyzstan
Approximately 80 ethnic groups make up the population of Kyrgyzstan, giving it a rich and diverse national culture. Kyrgyz and Russian are the official languages and Islam is the dominant religion, followed by the majority of the population. You’ll notice, if you travel to Kyrgyzstan, that the culture is very distinct; most people live semi-nomadic lifestyles and share a yurt with up to three generations of their family.
Daily life often revolves around tending livestock and leisure time is occupied with traditional folklore dance, music or sport. Folkloric stories and poems are told around the campfire at yurt camps and in the most remote parts of the country, it is as if time has stood still, without the urgency and technology of modern life.
Horseracing is the national sport and communities often organise events focused around this favourite pastime. Falconry is another popular hobby. Traditional dress is widely worn, particularly the iconic ‘kalpak’, a tall, natural felt hat, worn by almost all men, as it has been for centuries. There is even a national ‘kalpak’ day!
A trip to Kyrgyzstan is an adventure like no other. If you are willing to explore off the beaten path into the wilds of the Tian Shan you’ll be generously rewarded by warm hospitality, unbeatable culture and inspiring landscapes.