The Kyrgyz Republic, to give the country its official name) lies at the
very centre 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).
the geographical centre 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 centre.
It is a small, landlocked, mountainous country occupying just less than
200,000 square kilometres, 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
The greatest natural feature is the Tien-Shan mountain range (in Kyrgyz
"Tenir-Too") running northeast to southwest.
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 high mountains.
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.
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 travelling 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 travelled from place to place high in the mountains,
whilst the Kazakhs travelled from place to place down around the
steppes. Both nationalities were renowned warriors.
Unlike its neighbours Uzbekistan and China, little evidence of
Kyrgyzstan's noble and ancient history has survived.
country has seen many civilizations and empires rise and fall: the
Saks, the Mongols, the Russians and the Soviet Union. Names such as
Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, 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 travelled through modern-day Afghanistan. Genghis 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 'Genghis 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 Mogul Raj in India, was born and grew up in Osh.
the Kyrgyz themselves at one time had a large empire, this fell into
decline and they became the subject people of a range of empires over
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.