A beginner's guide to Kyrgyzstan
Culture and traditions
The Kyrgyz people were originally a group of nomadic tribes, among whom hospitality was often a matter of life and death. Guests are still treated as well as the host can afford, and most travellers return from Kyrgyzstan with epic stories of the warmth and generosity they meet.
Horses remain central to the traditional way of life and a riding tour is among the very best ways to experience the countryside. During the summer, you’ll often see horse riders engaged in the national sport of Kok Boru (“Blue Wolf”). With origins in the constant battle that the tribes once fought to protect their flocks against wolves, it pits two teams of fluid size against each other in a fierce fight for a goat carcass. Horsemanship and bravery are a prerequisite to taking part, never mind winning.
Kok Boru, Kyrgyzstan’s national sport © RelisaGranovskaya/Shutterstock
Food & drink
With large flocks of sheep and horses, meat-eating has been a major part of the local diet for centuries. The most popular dish is still a stew of mutton or horsemeat, served with noodles and onion sauce. It’s traditionally eaten with the hands - hence its name of beshbarmak (“five fingers”).
Vegetables remain a poor cousin to meat in the countryside, although Kyrgyzstan’s booming cities now offer many types of modern cuisine, including Italian, Thai and fast food outlets.
With every traditional meal comes a circular flat loaf of the “non” bread you find throughout Central Asia. Green or black tea is also on the menu, made strong and served in small cups that keep coming until you have had enough. Kumis (fermented mare’s milk) is a different experience again, tasting like a slightly fizzy cow’s milk and considered a great health drink in Russia.
You’ll find a number of other interesting drinks, based on yoghurt, millet or wheat and, of course, vodka (“arak”) is a constant at any celebration.
A traditional Kyrg spread including beshbarmak, mutton served with noodles © iPostnikov/Shutterstock
The colourful markets of Kyrgyzstan are filled with goods that also reflect nomad life, from felt rugs and wool-stuffed quilts to leatherwork including bridles, saddles and whips. The variety of silver jewellery also recalls the metal's former importance as a way for women to transport family wealth.
The market at Osh is famous for such crafts, as well as an eclectic assortment of Soviet-era oddities and a food section of spices, dried fruit, nuts, honey and bread. Bishkek also has the multi-storey Tsum Centre – still reflecting its Soviet-era roots – and with its top floor given over to a wide variety of souvenirs.
Colourful spices on display at Osh market © Curioso/Shutterstock
Bishkek, the capital, is a lovely city of tree-shaded avenues, large public parks and grand public buildings in Soviet style. Don’t miss the State Museum of Fine Arts and the equally interesting State History Museum. Outside this last is the photogenic statue of Vladimir Lenin that once stood in Ala-Too (formerly Lenin) square. The city also has enough restaurants, clubs and other attractions to keep any visitor entertained.
Just outside Bishkek is the 200-sq-km Ala Archa National Park. It’s a lovely spot to hike if you don’t have time to go further afield, with waterfalls, forests and even glaciers among peaks that reach almost 5,000 metres.
Manas equestrian monument in Bishkek © Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock
Hiking and horse-riding are the best ways to explore Kyrgyzstan outside its major cities, and an efficient network of homesteads and community tourism projects make this an easy option. Among the best hiking areas is the Tian Shan (Heavenly Cloud) mountain range, of which Ala Archa is a small part. These majestic mountains extend from Uzbekistan into China and reach their highest point of almost 7,500m at Jengish Chokusu (Victory Peak) in Kyrgyzstan.
The range envelopes the azure-blue alpine waters of Issyk-Kul (“Warm Lake”), the world’s second-largest mountain lake after Lake Titicaca. Its saline water means it never freezes despite being at an altitude of 1,600m and also makes it a popular spot for spa beach resorts such as Cholpon-Ata. There are also natural hot springs at Altyn Arashan, reached after a two-day trek over the 4,000m Ala-kul Pass. One highlight of this trek from Karakol are the herds of wild horses you’ll see.
Song Köl is another beautiful remote lake, famous for its stargazing, thanks to its distance from any major human habitation and altitude of 3,016m. Summer pastures surround it, where horses, sheep, cows, and even yaks graze amid groups of yurts.
No visitor should miss the chance to spend at least one night in these cosy, felt-covered homes that are central to the nomadic way of life. Log fires keep you warm, while folk tales and those endless stars provide the evening entertainment.
Top image © Rastislav Kostelny/Shutterstock