Kyrgyzstan

Terskey Alatoo Mountains Soar Above Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

Bordering Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China, Kyrgyzstan is a welcoming oasis in a remote, always fascinating, sometimes volatile, and oftentimes misunderstood part of the world. With an average elevation of 3000m (9,840ft), and 30% of its landmass buried under permanent ice and snow, the country’s landscape and people are defined by a ruggedness utterly unique to the highlands of Central Asia.

The Daily Grind

A weekly bazaar attracts villagers who have come to buy bread, onions, and potatoes – maybe even a sheep, a pair of galoshes, or a traditional felted hat. Young men on horseback gallop down icy streets, already displaying the remarkable horsemanship that is central to Kyrgyz identity. The ritual call to prayer blares over a loudspeaker as men hurry to mosque, small rugs tucked under one arm. Women in colorful scarfs sell steaming stacks of fresh lepeshka flatbreads out of Soviet Era baby carriages. Children laugh around the neighborhood water pump, filling huge metal containers to be pulled home on their small iron sleds.

Kyrgyzstan gained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. A product of its times, the country is a remarkable kaleidoscope of tradition, language, religion and progress. Today, native Kyrgyz make up around 70% of the country’s population, with the remaining percentage made up mostly of Uzbeks and Russians. Russian remains one of the country’s two official languages, but Kyrgyz is the main, and many times only, language spoken outside urban areas.

In Kyrgyz culture, a family’s “wealth” is more so measured in the number of animals owned and tended rather than household income. Many Kyrgyz today follow the nomadic traditions of their ancestors, erecting hand-crafted yurts in the high mountain pastures, or jailoos, above their villages, where they graze their animals and live for the summer.

Winter, however, is a different time: heavy snowfall, sub-zero temperatures, an incredible supply of cheap vodka, and few opportunities for income. For many families, just subsisting through the winter season can be a struggle year after year.

Tien Shan Mountains, Kyrgyzstan - Satellite Image Dec. 2003
Image Credit: NASA/MODIS, captured December 3, 2003

Our travels have allowed us to become acquainted with some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring places in the country, both on and off-the-beaten track. We invite you to take a virtual tour of some of our favorite spots by exploring the interactive map below.