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Kyrgyzstan is a Central Asian country of incredible natural beauty and proud nomadic traditions. Landlocked and mountainous, it borders Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the southeast. Annexed by Russia in 1876, it achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
According to recent historical findings, Kyrgyz history dates back to 201 B.C. The early Kyrgyz lived in the upper Yenisey River valley, central Siberia. The discovery of the Pazyryk and Tashtyk cultures show them as a blend of Turkic nomadic tribes. Chinese and Muslim sources of the seventh to the twelfth centuries A.D. describe the Kyrgyz as red-haired, in addition, blond-haired with a fair complexion and green or blue eyes, indicating an Indo-European element in their ancestry.
The descent of the Kyrgyz from the indigenous Siberian population is confirmed on the other hand by recent genetic studies. Remarkably, 63% of the modern Kyrgyz men share Haplogroup R1a1 (Y-DNA) with Tajiks (64%), Ukrainians (54%), Poles (56%) and even Icelanders (25%). Haplogroup R1a1 (Y-DNA) is believed to be a marker of the Proto-Indo-European language speakers.
The Kyrgyz state reached its greatest expansion after defeating the Uyghur Khanate in 840 A.D. Then Kyrgyz quickly moved as far as the Tian Shan range and maintained their dominance over this territory for about 200 years. In the twelfth century, however, the Kyrgyz domination had shrunk to the Altay Range and the Sayan Mountains as a result of the Mongol expansion. With the rise of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century, the Kyrgyz migrated south.
In the early nineteenth century, the southern part of what is today Kyrgyzstan came under the control of the Khanate of Kokand. The territory, then known in Russian as "Kirgizia", was formally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1876. The Russian takeover was met with numerous revolts against tsarist authority, and many of the Kyrgyz opted to move to the Pamirs and Afghanistan. In addition, the suppression of the 1916 rebellion in Central Asia caused many Kyrgyz to migrate to China. Since many ethnic groups in the region were (and still are) split between neighbouring states at a time when borders were more porous and less regulated, it was common to move back and forth over the mountains, depending on where life was perceived as better; this might mean better rains for pasture or better government after oppression.
Soviet power was initially established in the region in 1919, and the Kara-Kyrgyz Autonomous Oblast was created within the Russian SFSR (the term Kara-Kirghiz was used until the mid-1920s by the Russians to distinguish them from the Kazakhs, who were also referred to as Kirghiz). On December 5, 1936, the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic was established as a full republic of the Soviet Union.
During the 1920s, Kyrgyzstan developed considerably in cultural, educational and social life. Literacy was greatly improved, and a standard literary language was introduced by imposing Russian on the populace. Economic and social development also was notable. Many aspects of the Kyrgyz national culture were retained despite the suppression of nationalist activity under Stalin, and, therefore, tensions with the all-Union authorities were constant.
The early years of glasnost had little effect on the political climate in Kyrgyzstan. However, the Republic's press was permitted to adopt a more liberal stance and to establish a new publication, Literaturny Kirghizstan, by the Union of Writers. Unofficial political groups were forbidden, but several groups that emerged in 1989 to deal with the acute housing crisis were permitted to function.
In June 1990, ethnic tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz surfaced in the Osh Oblast, where Uzbeks form a majority of the population. Violent confrontations ensued, and a state of emergency and curfew were introduced. Order was not restored until August 1990.
The early 1990s brought considerable change to Kyrgyzstan. By then, the Kyrgyzstan Democratic Movement (KDM) had developed into a significant political force with support in Parliament. In an upset victory, Askar Akayev, the liberal President of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, was elected to the Presidency in October 1990. The following January, Akayev introduced new government structures and appointed a new government composed mainly of younger, reform-oriented politicians.
In December 1990, the Supreme Soviet voted to change the republic's name to the Republic of Kyrgyzstan. (In 1993, it became the Kyrgyz Republic.) In February 1991, the name of the capital, Frunze, was changed back to its prerevolutionary name of Bishkek. Despite these aesthetic moves toward independence, economic realities seemed to work against secession from the Soviet Union. In a referendum on the preservation of the Soviet Union in March 1991, 88.7% of the voters approved the proposal to retain the Soviet Union as a "renewed federation."
On August 19, 1991, when the State Emergency Committee assumed power in Moscow, there was an attempt to depose Akayev in Kyrgyzstan. After the coup collapsed the following week, Akayev and Vice President German Kuznetsov announced their resignations from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and the entire bureau and secretariat resigned. This was followed by the Supreme Soviet vote declaring independence from the Soviet Union on August 31, 1991.
Dry continental to polar in high Tien Shan; subtropical in southwest (Fergana Valley); temperate in northern foothill zone.
Entirely mountainous, dominated by the Tien Shan range; many tall peaks, glaciers, and high-altitude lakes. Highest point: Jengish Chokusu (Pik Pobedy) 7,439 m.
Kyrgyzstan's capital, like many places in the former Soviet Union, has an extensive network of minibuses, known as Marshrutkas. They typically have around 14 seats, with standing room for around ten extra people during busy periods. Marshrutkas are easily identifiable and display their number and basic route information (in Russian) on the front. To flag one down, simply hold out your right hand, parallel to the ground. Once you get on, pay the fare to the driver (typically five som; sometimes seven som for longer journeys). When you want to get off say, "ah-stah-nah-VEE-tyeh" (Stop!). Note that although there are bus stops, Marshrutkas can be hailed anywhere and will drop you off at any point on their route.
Bishkek also has a trolley bus system which is less extensive and generally slower. They only stop at designated bus stops. Travellers enter at the back door and leave at the front, paying the four som fare on the way out.
There are several private taxi firms in Bishkek that you can easily reach through their three digit numbers including: 150, 152, 154, 156, 166, and 188. Daytime taxis throughout the city are a flat rate of 75 soms and 100 soms past 10PM. There are also numerous "gypsy cabs" situated at nearly every intersection. While most travelers and long-time expats report no problems, you are cautioned to be aware , especially at night and near nightclubs.
The languages of Kyrgyzstan are Russian and Kyrgyz, a Turkic language related to Uzbek, Kazakh, and, of course, Turkish. Kyrgyz is more common in rural areas whereas Russian is the urban language of choice (in fact it's not uncommon to meet ethnic Kyrgyz people in Bishkek who cannot speak Kyrgyz). English, while becoming more popular, is still rarely spoken so in order to effectively communicate one must at the very least learn a few basic words (yes, no, please, thank you, etc.) in Russian or Kyrgyz, depending on the location.
Like most of the rest of the former Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which can present a problem for Western travellers. However, the characters are not too hard to learn and once that is done you'll find that many of the words are familiar. For example, "????????" is pronounced, "rest-o-ran," which means, "restaurant."
The official currency in Kyrgyzstan is the Som (written as 'com' or abbreviated as 'c' in Cyrillic). It comes in 0.1, 0.5, 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000 som notes. They began producing coins in the past year.
Changing money is relatively straightforward. Banks will accept a variety of major currencies while the money-changing booths that are ubiquitous in urban areas will typically only deal with US Dollars, Pounds, Euros, Roubles and Kazakh tenges. Note, however, that neither banks nor money changers will accept any foreign currency that is torn, marked or defaced in any way, or is excessively crumpled, so be sure to carefully check any notes you intend to bring into the country for defects.
Credit Cards & ATMs
Like other Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan is overwhelmingly a cash economy. Credit cards are rarely used. It is therefore advisable to enter the country with an adequate supply of cash in a major foreign currency - US Dollars are the most practical choice since they are more widely accepted.
There are a growing amount of ATM's connected the major services like Cirrus. Both Kazakkommerz Bank and Halyk Bank have several ATM's throughout the city. You can either withdraw USD or Kyrgyz Som. If withdrawing som, you will receive the interbank exchange rate, which is better than what the local exchange offices will give you.
Kyrgyz food is the product of a long history of pastoral nomadism and is overwhelmingly meat-based. Those with vegetarian fixations may wish to revise their habits or purchase their own fresh fruits, vegetables, and fresh bread from one of the many small stands or food bazaars that are ubiquitous in every city. While people from the West are programmed to think of large vegetables as desirable, small and flavorful is the rule here. Washing vegetables before consumption is recommended.
Besh barmak (“five fingers”) is the national dish of Kyrgyzstan. For preparation, a sheep or horse is slaughtered and boiled in a large pot. The resulting broth is served as a first course. The meat is then divided up between those at the table. Each person in attendance receives the piece of meat appropriate to their social status. The head and eyes are reserved for guests of honor. The remaining meat is mixed in with noodles and, sometimes with onions, and is traditionally eaten from a large common dish with the hands, although nowadays more often with a fork or spoon.
Most other dishes encountered in Kyrgyzstan are common to the other countries of Central Asia as well. Plov or osh is a pilaf dish that at a minimum includes julienne carrots, onion, beef or mutton, and plenty of oil. Manti are steamed dumplings that normally contain either mutton or beef, but occasionally pumpkin. Somsa are meat (although sometimes vegetable) pies that come in two varieties: flakey and tandoori. Flakey somsa are made with a phyllo dough while tandoori somsa have a tougher crust, the bottom of which is meant to be cut off and discarded, not eaten. Lagman is a noodle dish associated with Uyghur cuisine. The basic ingredients of lagman (plain noodles and spiced vegetables mixed with mutton or beef) can be fried together, served one on top of the other, or served separately. Shashlik (shishkebabs) can be made of beef, mutton, or pork and are normally served with fresh onions and vinegar.
Almost any Kyrgyz meal will be accompanied by tea (either green or black) and a circular loaf of bread known as a lepeshka. The bread is traditionally torn apart for everyone by one person at the table. In the south of Kyrgyzstan, this duty is reserved for men, but in the north it is more frequently performed by women. Similarly, tea in the north is usually poured by women, while in the south it is usually poured by men.
At the end of a meal, Kyrgyz will normally perform a prayer. Sometimes some words are said, but more often the prayer takes the form of a perfunctory swipe of the hands over the face. Follow the lead of your host or hostess to avoid making any cultural missteps.
Tea and vodka are the primary drinks of many Kyrgyz residents. There are numerous different varieties of teas and vodkas. In addition, you can find many western soda brands including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, all authentic.
Kyrgyz have their own cognac distiller, which produces excellent, albeit highly sweet cognac, with the preferred brand being "Kyrgyzstan Cognac", which the locals sometimes call Nashe Cognac, meaning "our cognac".
No trip to Kyrgyzstan wouldn't be complete without trying Kymyz, pronounced "Kee-mees" (don't mix it up with Komus, a traditional music instrument) made of fermented horse mare's milk. Many roadside stalls in the spring sell this sour beverage to passer-byers. Most Kyrgyz will claim outrageous health benefits to drinking it.
You can also find an excellent selection of local and imported beers as many Kyrgyz have been taking to drinking beer versus harder liquors. Locally produced beers include Arpa, Nashe Pivo, and Karabalta. Arpa is highly recommended by beer connesseiurs. While being considered a common person's beer, it's style is somewhat similar to an American Pale Ale (less hoppy than it's Indian counter-part).
There are also a multitude of bottled waters (carbonated or still) from various regions of the country. Especially popular with southerners is the slighly saline "Jalalabad Water". There are also numerous stands selling non-alcoholic fermented grain drinks highly popular with the locals, called Shoro.
Western norms of respect are standard. Though nominally a Muslim country the Kyrgyz people are highly westernized. No special dress codes are in effect. Although standards of dress in Bishkek are Western and often revealing, in the south of the country women would be advised to dress more conservatively or risk attracting unwanted male attention. Evenings can be charged as alcohol intoxication can be quite prevalent at this time. Proceed with caution.
Currency Kyrgyz som (KGS)
Area 198,500 km2
Language Kyrgyz, Russian (both official)
Religion Muslim 75%, Russian Orthodox 20%, other 5%
Electricity 220V/50Hz, European plug
Calling Code +996
Internet TLD .kg
Time Zone UTC +5
Hotels in Kyrgyzstan
Hotels of Bishkek
Hotels of Osh