If you’re like most people casually interested in geography, you know there are a bunch of countries in Central Asia that get somewhat dismissively referred to as “the Stans.” All their names end in “…stan,” and except for the ones that end up on a map behind the news anchor (Afghanistan, Pakistan), they don’t make a big impression on the general public. The “stan” part of their name means “land of,” and the first part of the name identifies the people who live there. Hence Afghans live in Afghanistan, Uzbeks live in Uzbekistan, etc. One of the smallest of these countries, which are mostly former Soviet republics, is Kyrgyzstan. It might also be the trickiest to spell out of the whole group, which also includes Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Its borders interlock in a fiendish convolution with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—it’s pretty clear that natural physical boundaries and a long history of sorting out local power have defined today’s borders.
So all wrapped around each other, how does Kyrgyzstan stand out? Much of the region is mountainous, but Kyrgyzstan is the one which has been called “the Switzerland of Central Asia.” The Tian Shan mountain chain which laps across China’s far west, continues west to cover 80% of Kyrgyzstan, a country slightly smaller than South Dakota. The range’s highest point, Pobeda Peak (or Jengish Chokusu), is on the border with China. At 24,406 feet, it’s just a few thousand feet short of Everest, so these are some serious mountains, deep in snow and ice. The world’s sixth-largest, non-polar glacier sits atop the border.
Another notable feature amongst these mountains is Kyrgyzstan’s massive lake, Issyk-Kul. It’s almost 2,200 feet deep, 113 miles in length and 37 miles wide, making it second only to Peru’s Lake Titicaca for high-altitude size. Set in a lowland between two arms of the Tian Shan ranges, the waters of this huge, internally drained basin are fed by some 50 rivers and streams. Because the waters don’t flow through, they are brackish from the high mineral content that has built up. Still, the lake supports 20 species of fish, some of which are commercially caught. And though it sits at about 5,300 feet, it never freezes over; in fact the name Issyk-Kul means “hot lake.” Its temperate waters—up to 70 degrees F in the summer—have made the area a popular tourist destination.
In contrast to the beautiful and inspiring natural wonders of Kyrgyzstan, its economy is something less enviable. Not unlike other former Soviet republics, the country is struggling economically and politically since the breakup. They rank only 182nd out of 230 countries and dependent states worldwide in GDP per capita. Their population of just over 6 million is small, even for a small country. Its density works out to be less than 30 people per square kilometer. Most of the country’s thin purse comes from gold mining and money sent back home from workers who have migrated to Russia. The economy also includes the export of tobacco and cotton, and production of wool and meat. Unfortunately, ethnic strife and corrupt government have combined with organized crime and insufficient police strength to make conditions difficult.
Despite these problems, the people of Kyrgyzstan have long endured. Their history goes way back, and includes its role as part of the Silk Road. Ancient city sites can still be found, and indeed the city of Osh, second largest after the capital city of Bishkek, dates back to the days of traders carrying treasures by horse and camel between China and Europe. Bishkek is a city of nearly a million in the far north of the country which itself began as a fort charged with protecting latter day traders of the early 1800s. It was destroyed during military clashes, but a city was rebuilt there during the Soviet years, named Frunze in honor of a military hero. When Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, the city became Bishkek, their word for the stick with which one beats koumiss, the national beverage—fermented mare’s milk. Bishkek features a lot of monuments and buildings in the ponderous Soviet style, as well as some well-preserved examples of graceful pre-Soviet architecture. But the attraction of Kyrgyzstan isn’t really to be found in enormous cement celebrations of Communist power, however impressive and historic. For the adventurous traveller, more inspiration is likely to be discovered in the wild landscapes and multi-ethnic inhabitants of this small and out-of-the-way country.
And as for “hello” in Kyrgyz? It’s pronounced “salam,” which isn’t too surprising for a majority Muslim country.