Kyrgyzstan (or The Kyrgyz Republic,
to give the country its official name) lies at the very center of the
Eurasian continent, bordering China (to the east), Kazakhstan (to the
north and west), Uzbekistan (to the south and west), and Tajikistan (to
the south west and south).
Actually, the geographical center of the Asian
continent lies about 1,000km further north but the term Central Asia is
widely used for this region and if you look at a map of the two
continents together Kyrgyzstan does lie more or less in the center.
It is a small, landlocked, mountainous country
occupying just less than 200,000km2, about the size of Portugal,
Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands put together, or a little less
than the UK.
The northernmost part is on the same latitude as
Rome, but because it is landlocked its winters are much colder (and the
height above sea level makes many areas even colder - our guest house
in Naryn fairly often experiences temperatures of -35° С in
winter). Summers are both drier and hotter (45° С is not
unusual and 50° С was recorded in 1998 near Bishkek).
93% of the surface area is over 1,500m in height
and therefore counts as mountainous, although not all of it consists of
peaks there being numerous plateaus and wide inter-mountain valleys,
and 41 % is over 3,000m high.
The greatest natural feature is the Tien-Shan
mountains (in Kyrgyz "Tenir-Too") running northeast to southwest.
The second most famous feature is Lake Issyk-Kul
('warm lake1), which is 1,600m above sea level and 668m deep in places.
It never freezes hence its name. The lake lies in a basin surrounded by
It is not far by road (about three hours) from the
second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, Lake Son Kul, which lies at 3,000
meters, a remote but beautiful wildlife sanctuary.
The river Naryn runs from north east to south west
joining with the Kara-Darya to form a river which even in antiquity was
called the Syr-Darya and which runs from Kyrgyzstan out into the
Ferghana (Fergana) valley and on into the Aral Sea (though it is mainly
diverted or exhausted before then). This is the second largest river in
central Asia after the Amu-Darya. It is possible to visit its source,
above the city of Naryn.
The Kyrgyz are reckoned to be one of the oldest
distinct nationalities and are mentioned in old Chinese chronicles.
They were basically a pastoral, nomadic people traveling from jailoo (a
high mountain pasture, the lower pastures are called kyshtoo) to jailoo
with their flocks. For a long time they were confused with the Kazakhs
who were called Khirghiz, whilst the Kyrgyz themselves were called Kara
Kyrgyz. It is said that the two nations are closely related but that
the Kyrgyz were nomads who traveled from place to place high in the
mountains, whilst the Kazakhs traveled from place to place down around
the steppes. Both nationalities were renowned warriors.
Unlike its neighbors Uzbekistan and China, little
evidence of Kyrgyzstan's noble and ancient history has survived.
The country has seen many civilizations and
empires rise and fall: the Saks, the Monguls, the Russians and the
Soviet Union. Names such as Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Ghengis
Khan, Tamerlain, Babur...are all associated with the region. The
connection is stronger in some cases than in others. We are not quite
sure exactly how far north Alexander the Great reached, but it is
thought by some that he conquered the Chui valley and ousted the
existing ruler, Prince Shu, and made it to Issyk Kul where he left
hostages, (mainly noble families from Iran) in a settlement on the
southern shore which later became Barskoon. As far as we know Marco
Polo never came further north than Kashgar having traveled through
modern-day Afghanistan. Ghengis Khan and his horde of Mongol warriors
did travel through the region sacking towns and cities which defied him
but sparing others like Balasugan which opened their gates to his army.
One of his wives is reputed to be buried on the 'Ghengis Khan Highway',
a track high in the mountains in the Talas region. Tamerlane was born,
grew up and based his empire on the Uzbek city of Samarkand but came
through the territory of Kyrgyzstan on his campaigns against the
Chinese and there are several stories relating to him including a few
archaeological sites. Babur, who founded the Moghul Raj in India, was
born and grewupinosh.
Although the Kyrgyz themselves at one time had a
large empire, they fell into decline and were the subject people of a
range of empires over the centuries.
Some cities such as Osh, (which claims a 3,000
year history of continuous human settlement), may have a long history
but only isolated remains of man's early settlements in the region can
be seen, and most of the great cities of the past are now little more
than archaeological sites. It is possible to get a feel of the past at
such places as Burana, near Tokmak, the Manas Gumbez (mausoleum), near
Talas, the Uzgen complex, and the Tash Rabat caravanserai in the Naryn
province on the road to Torugart and the Chinese border.