Sunday, October 11, 2015


About ten years ago, I took a job in a 7th­–8th grade middle school working in the Resource Department (what’s typically called “special education” elsewhere). The students in this program were mostly there for learning disabilities and some behavioral issues. Part of my job was to help the kids with reading their homework and tests, re-explaining directions, and keeping them on task by sitting in on their classes. Geography has changed a bit since when I was in middle school, and although I had a college degree, the first time I truly learned anything about Kyrgyzstan was when I was sitting in on a 7th grade social studies class in 2004. The kids never knew that I had to memorize these countries along with them; yes, these former-Russian countries have been around for over a decade at that time, but I had barely even glanced at them on a map. And now it’s come back into my life. 

If you told me this was Switzerland, I'd full-heartedly believe you.

Kyrgyzstan literally means “land of the Kyrgyz.” The term Kyrgyz is stemmed from the Turkic word meaning “forty,” referring to the forty clans of Manas. Manas was a local hero who brought together forty different clans in order to fight against the invading Uyghurs. If you look at the literal translation of the word “Kyrgyz,” it means “we are forty.” (My daughter asked me, “What happens when you turn 41?”)

Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country located in Central Asia, surrounded by Kazakhstan to the north, China to the east, Tajikistan to the southwest, and Uzbekistan to the west. The Tian Shan Mountains cover roughly 80% of the land with several rivers running off from the mountains. In the northern regions of the country, the Issyk-Kul Lake is not only Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake, but it’s second only to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia as far as largest mountain lakes go.

The mountain regions keep the climate cooler and drier and can vary at different variations. The upper elevations typically experience sub-zero temperatures for over a month during the winter months. However, there are also areas of the country that can reach temperatures of over 100ºF during the summer.

The first people who were thought to move into this area were the Scythians. They united and reached their peak when they collectively defeated the Uyghurs in 840 AD. As the Mongol Empire expanded their boundaries, the Kyrgyz peacefully joined them. Traders between Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East used what was called the Silk Road, a series of trade routes across the land and water that linked major trade cities together. Issyk-Kul Lake was a major resting stop along the way.  Between the 17th–19th centuries, this area was also controlled by the Mongols, the Chinese, and the Uzbeks before Russia moved in and took the land for themselves. Many of the nomadic tribes continued to travel across the mountains between Kyrgyzstan and China. Under Russian rule, the Kyrgyz saw many improvements such as literacy, economic stability, and improvements in infrastructure. They renamed the capital to Frunze. Tensions between the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz in 1990 were the beginning of a larger movement toward independence. In 2005, an uprising known as the Tulip Revolution took place in the capital of Bishkek. Several Parliament members were killed over the course of the next year and were linked to illegal business ventures and organized crime; the city was looted during the riots that ensued. Part of the results and findings of this revolution is what places Kyrgyzstan among the most corrupt countries in the world. Ethnic clashes continue to occur, and at one point Kyrgyzstan asked for Russia’s help in dealing with this, but this was denied and caused a big stink between the two countries. However, Russia did send some humanitarian aid in the end. 

You can see the remnants of Russian architecture.

The capital and largest city in the country is Bishkek. The city was originally founded as a fortress city called Pishpek. According to some historians, the name is thought to have derived from the word for the churn used to make their national drink of fermented mare’s (female horse) milk. (I read about this drink when I did Kazakhstan as well.) The city was later renamed Frunze after Lenin’s close friend who was born in Bishkek. Today, the city has many universities spread throughout it along with sporting venues, a public transit system, traditional markets, shopping centers, and parks. The city is also the center of government and financial services. There are still many Russian-inspired buildings still standing throughout the city.

Kyrgyzstan is the second-poorest country in Central Asia, and it’s also the second-poorest country in the former Soviet countries. Roughly one-third of its people live below the poverty line. Most of their economic woes are due to the break-up of Soviet countries and the subsequent loss of established trading partners. In the past 20 years, a significant portion of the economy comes from remittances from Kyrgyz workers who moved to Russia (or other countries) for work. However, the country is rich in mineral reserves: gold, coal, antimony, uranium, and others and has an established hydroelectric power industry. Kyrgyzstan also exports a large amount of wool, meats, dairy products, fruits, and nuts. 

The vast majority of Kyrgyz people—roughly 80%—are Muslim. The remaining 20% are made up of mostly Russian Orthodoxy and a number of smaller pockets of other religious followings. During the Soviet years, atheism was encouraged, (and by “encouraged,” I mean “mandated”), but today, Islam is more of a cultural practice rather than so much of a devout religious one. 

Saying Hello/Hi in Kyrgyz

Russian remains an official language of Kyrgyzstan along with the Kyrgyz language. Kyrgyz is a Turkic language that is related to Kazakh and a number of other languages. It originally used the Arabic script, later switching to the Latin script in 1928, and switching again to the Cyrillic script in 1941. Although most business and politics are still conducted in Russian, the use of Kyrgyz is becoming a growing trend and is often simultaneously translated along with Russian. Russian, Uzbek, and English are the most common second languages studied in Kyrgyzstan. 

While Kyrgyz culture remains relatively unknown to many around the world, there are things about this country that stick out. For one, it has one of the world’s largest epic poems written (the “Manas” epic comes in at around 500,000 lines). If you’re a fan of walnuts, Kyrgyzstan has one of the largest walnut forests in the world. The glaciers of the Tian Shan are often watched and studied by scientists as evidence of climate change: there is evidence showing they are slowly starting to retreat. The Kyrgyz people are also a horse-loving people like their Kazakh neighbors, and they are famous for the sport of kok-boru (like polo, but played with a headless goat instead of a ball--I found out that it's also called buzkashi in Afghanistan, which I already knew of). And while Kazakhstan is attributed the home of the apple, Kyrgyzstan boasts itself as the home of prunes and cherries. I’m sure there will be more things I discover while researching Kyrgyzstan this week. I’m certain of it.

Up next: Art and Literature

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