Kyrgyzstan- Keeping It Real

September 3rd to September 12th. Orange line from Kashgar to Naryn to Koshkor was the planned road of travel however because of the Chinese border closure, the Kyrgyzstan journey began in Bishkek, to Koshkor, around Issyk-Kul Lake to include Jyrgalan, Chon-Kemin, Toktogul, and Osh.


It was difficult to select a title for this post. But as this journey is about the Silk Road…a road of communication, of exchange. I found it fascinating that there are no glaring Starbucks or McDonalds signs on any city street in Kyrgyzstan. There may be ‘fingers in the pie’ from all corners of the world but so far, the people of Kyrgyzstan honour their traditions…eagles, felt, horses, yurts, national dishes and national dress… are keeping it real.

Kyrgyzstan is in the heart of Central Asia; a country with breathtaking scenery dominated by  the natural beauty of snow-capped peaks and craggy ridges of the Tien Shan range (meaning mountains of heaven).


crossing the Tien Shan range


hydro-electric dam

The semi-nomadic Kyrgyz is still a way of life. Jon Thompson explains in his book Timbuktu to Tibet:

Nomadism is an organized form of existence that uses the terrain to support life at all times of the year. Two or more sets of terrain are combined to provide a livelihood; nomadic people move between them with their livestock. To achieve this requires that all the equipment necessary for daily life is portable, housing being the most important, and that suitable transport animals be available to carry it all. To own everything necessary for a mobile life and to have all the animals needed calls for a certain level of material wealth, if nomads become impoverished they are obliged to settle.


DSC_0700Leaving China and coming to Kyrgyzstan is like going from a disco with flashing lights and high energy to the slow, slow countryside. Kyrgyzstan is a country of exceptional beauty, whose people are reserved yet friendly.  The country, however, has only 6 million people (about the population of Shobra and Imbaba in Cairo) and is 94 percent mountainous. Their national resource is water with around 13 hydro-electric dams and some gold. The national language is Kyrgyz but Russian is spoken by most everyone. Kyrgyzstan is surrounded by resource-rich neighbours – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. It borders with China, another powerhouse. And, of course, Russia is deeply involved in the countries politics, economy and emotions. Russian intermarry with Kyrgyzstan people and apparently this was encouraged by Stalin, in particular.

Meet some Kyrgyz people:

DSC_0272Kyrgyzstan counts 40 nomadic tribes in their history that goes back 2000 years, at least.


Although geographically isolated by its mountainous location, caravan routes played an important role in trade along the Silk Road (here, they call it the Great Road), particularly from Osh to Uzgen to Kashgar (China) was a major caravan route. Chinese trade with Central Asia dates back to before the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BCE, when trade missions and Chinese diplomats were sent through this area to Samarkand. This area now called Kyrgyzstan before 1876 was ruled by empires such as Uyghur Empire, Mongols and Uzbeks and Turkic and Iranian tribes.  Islam first appeared in Central Asia with the Arabs between the 7th and 8th century.  In 751 CE, the Chinese, Tang Dynasty forces, fought an iconic battle of the Talas River against the Arabs, not far from Bishkek, and lost. This was one of the events that lead to the spread of Islam as Buddhism receded. In Central Asia, influences of Persian, Indian, and Chinese waned between the power struggles of the Arabs, Tibetans, Uyghur and Chinese. With the decline of Central Asian Buddhism, Islam became a dominate cultural force. However tribes in the area of Kyrgyzstan retained their strong nomadic identity and traditions that are still apparent today.

The area called Kyrgyzstan today became part of the Russian Empire in 1876. After the Tzars fell in 1917, the Bolshevik took over and formed the USSR. In 1926 it became Kirghiz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic. Stalin trying to keep the Central Asian countries from breaking away, drew the boundaries for the existing  ‘Stan’ (meaning ‘the place of’) countries. Stalin drew the lines through ethnic groups so as to separate them and keep the groups weak, much like a father who keeps his sons jealous of one another so he will remain the authority-figure.  For example the Fergana Valley populated by ethnic Uzbek was divided into Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Then when the USSR broke up, Kyrgyzstan declared independence from Moscow in 1991. However, my guide, Farhat,  explained the history in a little different way than the history books.  Farhat said that it was true Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991, but the reality   when the USSR collapsed, Kyrgyzstan was abandoned like a child to make its own way. The results destabilised the country resulting in two coup d’etats within twenty years. On October 15th of this year, Kyrgyzstan will hold an election to decided the country’s road forward.


N.A. Khalfin writes in Russia’s Policy in Central Asia 1857- 1868:

Russia’s policy in regard to Central Asia was powerfully affected by events in the 50s and 60s of the 19th century. Defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) obliged the Tsarist Government to suspend action for the time being in the Balkans and the Near East and to switch attention to the countries of Middle Asia. The khanates of Bukhara, Kokand and Khiva were already in close commercial relationship with the Empire and commanded a lively interest among the governing classes of the day. The geographic proximity and the complementary economies of these khanates and Russia during the first half of the century explained the attraction.

FullSizeRenderFor a patriotic but well documented movie about the history of Kyrgyz people through the life of , Kurmanjan Datka (1811 – 1 February 1907), stateswoman in Kyrgyzstan who fought to keep the Kyrgyz tribe in tact under duress when Tzarist Russia colonised the region.



It was an early morning arrival into Bishkek from Urumchi, China.  I felt something oddly familiar when entering Bishkek’s  wide, shady, tree-lined boulevards of beech, willows and maple trees. The map showed the city streets in a grid pattern,with broad open squares. The air was light, cool and fresh and with déjà vu; a recollection of northern Colorado (Loveland) in the 1960s where one-story, box-like houses with brightly framed window  and two-story apartments with the family owned grocery store line the street and above the trees stretches the high, snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains. In Bishkek, the snow covered mountains are the Tien Shan, and the houses that line the street are of the same construction. I asked Farhat about the people who built these houses.  He explained that Bishkek was under Russian influence during the time of the Tsars and then the Soviet era and many Russians and Volga Germans came to Bishkek to settle.


The German presence in the Russian Empire goes back to the late 18th century when Catherine the Great invited farmers from Saxony and Prussia to help populate territories in southern Russia, the Volga basin and the Crimea. In the late 19th century , when Russia conquered Central Asia, Germans from the Crimea and Ukraine were offered free land in present day northern Kyrgyzstan. Still villages with German names like Luxembourg still exist.

This information had my head swimming! My great Auntie Maude told me many a time that the Loveland area developed swiftly in the early 1900 when hard-working Ukrainians and Russians (possibly Volga Germans) came to the area as sugar beet farmers and workers. Those people built houses in northern Colorado similar to the houses found on the streets of Bishkek.  So it is with a feeling of familiarity that I began the journey through Kyrgyzstan.DSC_0549

Starting in Bishkek, Farhat, my guide,  introduced me to Kyrgyzstan history through the statues in the city…Lenin, Kurmanjan Datka.

Bishkek was minor trading settlement along the Silk Road one of the caravan routes through the Tien Shan mountains, Bishkek got its name Pishpek (also there are other meanings but I could not confirm).We visit a local business, Studio Bukon, who makes special orders for American and Swiss clients. In a small second story room they produce high quality items for Fair Trade exhibits and European fashion

In the evening, the 4th World Epic Festival opened on September 4th at the Bishkek Philharmonic Theatre. An ethnographic village “Kyrgyz koch”, was opened, where an exhibition of arts and crafts and folk art was organised in yurts. In the evening, a concert with the participation of epic storytellers from the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Kalmykia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Bashkortostan, Kyrgyzstan. This day set the standard for the remainder of the journey, which turned into experiencing Kyrgyzstan’s traditional art, crafts, music, and sports.

4th World Epic Festival:

The drive to Kochkor is not far from Bishkek on the way to Naryn. It is about 200 kilometers from Bishkek to the western end of Lake Issyk Kul, (meaning warm lake). The hills and mountains began to close in on both sides and we descended a deep, narrow, and arid valley with rugged mountains and a high wind was blowing. Issyk Kul is the second largest lake mountain lake in the world. Surrounded on all sided by towering snow-clad mountains, it has proved an oasis of travellers and inhabitants of the region for thousands of years. After traveling through desert and mountains, this body of water must have been a great relief for travellers along the Silk Road and provided a welcome stopover, whether making their way from Xinjiang  Province to Osh, Samarkand and beyond.P1020057 Petroglyphs

Kochkor’s was once named after the Russian Tzarist Prime Minister Stolypin, the town has lost its former German population and today is largely home to working class Kyrgyz. In this small city are many opportunities to take advantage of Community Based Tourism (CBT) programs that aim to promote each region’s best attractions. CBT is supported by Swiss Helvetas and has helped small tourism, home stays, and artisans develop their market. We drive 10 minutes outside of Kochkor to visit a woman, Guljan, who makes felt in the traditional way and teaches younger people and foreigners the craft.


Guljan at her home in Koshkor

Kyrgyz use felted wool to cover their yurts, and to make rugs, bags, slippers and hats.  In 2012, the art of making these felt rugs was included on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.  The people who know how to make them are mostly older women.  As the nomadic lifestyle is lost, and synthetic rugs become cheaper and more available, the demand for the shyrdak (appliqué) and ala-kiyiz (rug) may be waning but there is a push by the government to highlight Kyrgyz traditions.

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The next day, we went to an all day festival, Salbuurn (meaning hunting), high on a mountainside at Bokonbaev. The festival was sponsored by USAID, Qatar and another European foundation, which I could not clarify. The festival gathered people of the area to compete in the skills of their forefathers: hunting with eagles, hunting with falcons, horse polo and to show how traditional crafts are made and food is prepared.

Hunting with eagles competition:

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Kok- boru is a brutal game,but may be the original game of polo. My friend, Stefano, who lives in Kazakhstan writes, ” a Kokpar is Kazakh for Kok Boru, still better known internationally under its Dari name Buzkashi.” It starts with a slaughtered goat and traditionally ends in a feast of goat meat.  There are eight horses and riders at a given time fighting over the headless, hoofless 70-plus-pound goat carcass.

Highlights from the Festival:

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Karakol is a well-kept secret for hikers, skiers, and mountaineers unless from Central Asia and Russia. Karakol, formerly named Przhevalsk after the Russian explorer, Nicholay Przhevalsky who died in Karakol of typhoid while preparing for an expedition to Tibet. Przhevalsky’s grave, a memorial park and a small museum dedicated to his and other Russian explorations in Central Asia are some 9 kilometres (5.6 mi) north of Karakol at Pristan Przhevalsky, overlooking the Mikhailovka inlet of Issyk Kul Lake where the former Soviet torpedo testing facilities were located.

Two religious institutions, Dungan (Dunhuang) Mosque and a Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church have fascinating history. During the Soviet era both institutions survived by being used for coal storage and schools.

The Dungans are a Muslim people of Chinese ethnicity that can be found in most parts of Central Asia and Mongolia, but have settled predominantly in Kyrgyzstan. Read about the Dungan people here. The Central Mosque was built by Ibrahim Aji who invited Chou Seu and 20 carvers from Beijing to build the mosque with traditional Chinese architecture. No nails were used in the building of the mosque. Construction began in 1904 and completed in 1910. There are 42 pillars and encircling the building is a wooden cornice decorated with images of grapes, pomegranates, and other fruits.


The Russian Orthodox Cathedral was built of stone in 1872 when Karakol was a garrison town as an outpost during the Tsarist Russian Empire. It was destroyed in 1890 by an earthquake. It was reconstructed using wood in 1895. During the period of construction, a yurt served the congregation as a church. In 1916 during the Bolshevik uprising the monks were brutally murdered. DSC_0190There is still so many more highlights of my journey in Kyrgyzstan but I will end with an evening with the Epic of Manas, a Kyrgyz epic poem with a million lines. Mirbek recites manas, a saga that tells of Kyrgyzstan history and culture that has survived a thousand years.  Mirbek began reciting manas at the age of 12. He says he knew this was his calling and dedicates himself to honing his recitation. As the manaschi becomes deeper into the poem, he crosses into another realm that is sometimes difficult to bring the one who recites out of that space.


Mirbek, the Manaschi

Many thanks to my Kyrgyz super guide, Farhat!P1020216 Farhad.jpg

(all rights reserved, copyright 2017 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

All Photographs and text are under international copyright laws. No re-use without the written permission of Lesley Lababidi 2023.

4 thoughts on “Kyrgyzstan- Keeping It Real

  1. This journey just keeps getting better and better, Lesley! So colorful and full of great descriptions. I feel like I am there with you!!! Thanks for your efforts to post these! Lynn

    • Thanks Lynn, I have a full day and then come back and try to keep up with notes and then usually late into the night to post…but it keeps the journey fresh for me and I love sharing. So thank you for reading! L.

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