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Kyrgyzstan

There was no single Silk Road - rather, there were a number of different routes used by ancient traders. Some of the main ones certainly ran through Kyrgyzstan, both in the North (coming over the mountains from China and down from what is now Kazakhstan past lake Issyk Kul then down the Chui river), but another variant ran over the Torugart Pass (Tuergate, Torugart) in Central Kyrgyzstan then through Naryn and down the Chui river, while a third (southern) variant came over the Irkeshtam Pass in the South (then through the city of Osh, which celebrates its 3000th, year in the year 2000). A spur of the southern route ran through the middle of the country to joint with the middle route over Torugart Pass. Once in Kyrgyzstan, one route ran down the Chui river and then over the present day pass to Kazakhstan (which is today called “Zhibek Zholu” or Silk Road) and in the South ran from Osh through Uzbekistan and then westwards. No country in central Asia other perhaps than China has a better claim to represent the best of the Silk Routes.

These ancient trading routes which operated 2000 and more years ago, reaching peak use in the second century AD, are called “”Silk” because they transported generally high value non-bulky commodities such as spices, jewellery, and silk, from East (from China) to West (to Rome) and back again. The trade was actively promoted by many of the intermediate kingdoms, such as the Parthians and Persian, which benefitted from tolls and in return helped to maintain and protect the routes. Cities such as Ectabana, Merv, Palmyra, Petra, and Alexandria flourished on the trade. As one writer says “in the end, the horse and the Bactrian camel were the means by which the central Asian steppes were opened up as a great commercial route”. We should not, however, imagine a trader starting in Eastern China and making his way to Rome! Perhaps a few did so and of course we know that a few (such as Marco Polo, rather late on in the show) went all the way in the opposite direction from Italy to China. But most traders would travel along a short part of the route, handing on their goods to the next trader in the next large town, and by such means goods swapped hands and increased in price many times before arriving at their ultimate destination.

Some of the Silk Routes through China skirted the Taklamaklan desert, one of these running to the north and one to the south of this desert. There was also a more northern route towards the Altai mountains. The different routes were used depending partly on climate and also partly on incursions from local tribes. Certainly one of the southern Taklamakan routes went through Yokand (Yarkand, Yarche, Schache) and then through Kashgar (Kashi or Kashi Shi) and these can easily be visited today from Kyrgyzstan. Some other routes also probably went down what is now the Karakoram Highway past lake Karakul and through Taskhkurgan and then either through the huge and dramatic cleft in the mountain range where the Mintaka river links China and Afghanistan or possibly over the 4730 meter Khunjerab Pass into the Indian subcontinent (into what is today Pakistan’s Northern Territory). Tashkurgan is thought by many to be the “Stone Tower” which Pliny wrote about and today there is visible there a large ruined site (the “Stone City”) which dominates the lower valley.

The heyday of the Silk Routes was in the period 1800 years ago, and its use for the transport of rare items between China and the West tended to decline when sea routes later opened up or became more popular (having earlier been bedevilled by piracy). Nevertheless, although the whole Silk Routes from China to Rome may not have been used continuously as a transcontinental route, and parts of it fell from time to time into disuse, other parts remained open continuously, even if used for more local trading. The main threat to the routes were the northern barbarians (Huns, Hsiung-nu and others) who put pressure both on the Chinese - especially in the Tarim basin area where to the south the warlike Tibetans were also a threat - and later, even on Rome itself. But particularly with more bulky cargoes, the sea routes (for example, through the Red Sea and then the Mediterranean, or through the Persian Gulf, and then overland through Persia/Arabia) proved to be a more economical and reliable route - after the suppression of piracy - and this led to a decline in use of the land routes. But because there is not one road but many routes, and trading never ceased along at least parts of them, it is impossible to say that the Silk Road ever ceased to be used.

As for the Kyrgyz (Kirghiz, Khyrghyz) themselves, they perhaps mainly originated from the northern Altai Mountains. However, the word “Kyrgyz” (which means something like “forty tribes”) is one of the oldest in central Asia, being recorded in written documents as early as the third millennium BC. A Kyrgyz Khanate stretched from the Yenisei river to the eastern Tien Shan in the first millennium AD. By the 6th century, a unification of Turkic tribes gave rise to the Western Turkic Khanate (there was later an Eastern version) the capital of which was Suyab situated in the Chui valley (Bishkek lies in this valley). In the 10th-12th centuries, the Kara-Khanid Khanate (or Kara-Khitai Empire - “Kitai” in Russian still means “Chinese”) developed - and one of its main towns was Balasagun, the ruins of which with its impressive 11th. century “Burana Tower”, may still be seen today only an hour’s drive from Bishkek (a field of stone petroglyphs such as those by the hotel doors – called “bal-bals” can also be seen there.) Balasagun, who together with the other Kyrgyz philosopher Muhammad Kashgar is regarded as one of the greatest oriental thinkers of this period.

From the Altai mountains, the Kyrgyz displaced the Uighurs, who themselves moved south to the steppes of western China (later Turkestan) and in turn displaced the local Turkish peoples. In the 13th century, the Kyrgyz were in turn conquered and the Kara-Khanid Khanate was destroyed by the Mongol empire, while in China the Mongols used the more settled Uighurs as their allies to form the bureaucratic and administrative class needed to administer the Chinese territories conquered by Genghis Khan (a fact which led to Chinese resentment of the Uighurs which persists to this day). After the death of the Great Khan Mongke, the Mongol Empire split into different Khanates, and modern day Kyrgyzia became part of the Chagatai Khanate. Later, this became the Kokand Khanate, dominated by Uzbeks from the south, but following an uprising in 1873-1874, the Kyrgyz were finally brought into the sway of the Russian Empire following the expansion of the latter in the later half of the 19th. century. At the site of what is now Bishkek (in Soviet times Frunze, after the famous general) the Kokand Khanate built a fortress in 1825, but this is known to have been built on the site of an older Kyrgyz fort, called Pishpek. Probably Pishpek was a modest trading post at the time. (“Pishpek” has the meaning of a large stirring spoon or plunger used in making cream or cheese). The city was captured by a joint Russian-Kyrgyz force in 1862 and was essentially demolished, with a new fortification being planned by Russian military engineers. In 1878 the city of Pishpek was designated as a district centre, and in 1924 it became the administrative and political centre of the Kyrgyz Autonomous Region, being renamed Frunze in 1926 after the famous local general whose reward for great competence was to be assassinated by Stalin (or rather, by his doctors) - and the city was then renamed as Bishkek after independence, in 1991. (There is a museum to General Frunze in central Bishkek inside, which is his original house, preserved as a kind of shrine).

Bishkek has a population of about 1,000,000. The city is said to be one of the greenest in central Asia with the highest number of trees per head of population. It lies in the Chui river valley, only 30 km from the border with Kazakhstan (which is marked by the river) and one hour’s drive or less from the impressive 14,500 feet peaks of the Kyrgyz Krebet. Its airport is Manas, about 30 minutes way by car, and it is only 3 hours or so by car from Alma Aty, the former capital of Kazakhstan (the capital was fairly recently switched to a more northern city called Astana).

The present day borders of Kyrgyzia (Kyrgyzstan, Khyrghyzstan, the Kyrgyz Republic) were drawn up by the new Russian conquerors and rewritten in part under the Soviet Union (for example, part of the Ferghana valley near Osh was ceded by Stalin to the Uzbeks). Even today there remain some border disputes, particularly in the south where enclaves of Uzbek land are totally encompassed within the borders of Kyrgyzstan. Talks are going on to resolve these.

The Kyrgyz people themselves, formerly nomadic, were - like others in central Asia - subject to a brutal campaign of settlement and collectivization under the Soviet Union in its formative period, which left a large percentage of the population dead from starvation and disease. However, it cannot be denied that in later years the Russian presence led to many benefits in the forms of heavy subsidies enabling the relative modernisation of the country and its infrastructure. The country was one of the most favoured holiday destinations for Soviet citizens, who flocked especially to the many resorts on Lake Issyk-Kul. Literacy rates are high though with the withdrawal of subsidies in the post-Soviet period, the infrastructure (roads, hotels, electricity supply, telephone system, etc.) is at the end of the 20th, century crumbling. Stalin moved sizable populations of other minorities here: these include Koreans, Germans and some Chinese (though there was already a Chinese population called Dunghans or Dongans in residence. Many Germans have now emigrated to Germany leaving some smaller towns practically empty. About 150,000 Russians have emigrated since 1991. Kyrgyzstan unfortunately has the reputation of being perhaps the most corrupt country in the former Soviet Union and this perhaps reflects a long disdain of official Soviet practices and a tradition of paying lip service to the rules while disobeying them in practice. Somebody once said of Russia that the severity of the legislation was matched only by the extent to which it was not observed: Kyrgyzia today has many of the most forward looking laws in the CIS but unfortunately, because the courts are corrupt and not independent, the laws do not work very well, if at all. This is unlikely to affect the traveller apart from the occasional meeting with a (usually friendly) policeman who is looking for a small bribe to mind his own business. But it has a definite effect on business practices. Many foreigners contrast the relative friendliness with the extent of bribery and refer to it as “corruption with a smiling face” which is perhaps close to the truth.

Most of the population now speak Russian at least as a second language, and many as their first, though there is growing reluctance to use Russian especially in more rural areas. In the year 2000 Russian was given the status of an “official” language in order to appease ethnic Russians and to try to stem the continuing exodus of Russians to the Russian Federation. The native Kyrgyz language is classified as a Turkic language, a fact which follows from the Turkic expansions - particularly between the 5th, and 8th. - centuries when two great Turkic Empires (the western and the eastern) occupied much of central Asia and large parts of modern day China including the Altai mountains where the Kyrygyz partly originated. Modern day Kyrgyz is closely related to Uighur (though the latter uses an Arabic script) and to Kazakh and Turkmen and the different peoples can speak to one another without much difficulty. Uzbek is slightly more remote from the Kyrgyz but still very comprehensible, while the language, which is closest to modern day Turkish and furthest from Kyrgyz, is that of Azerbaijan, though with some difficulties Kyrgyz and Azeris can communicate in a general way using their own languages. Turkish, however, is now quite remote from spoken Kyrgyz, though 50% or so of words are recognisably of common origin. In the south are some Tadjiks and their language is not related to Turkish at all but is Persian in origin.

Ethnically, the Kyrgyz tend to resemble somewhat the Mongols or Chinese, while the Uzbeks and the Uighurs (the latter live mainly in China) resemble more the people of Turkey. But there has, of course, been a huge mixing of populations and you will notice a great difference in facial appearances. Most of the population is nominally Moslem, but the state is generally secular in character since the Soviets discouraged religious belief and the building of mosques and in any case the Kyrgyz were never strongly religious. The present government is determined to discourage religious fundamentalism and the country has escaped the worst of the religious ferment which has troubled Afghanistan and (in part) Tadjikistan and which still to some extent causes concern in Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, about 1500 Kyrgyz per year attend the Haj in Saudi Arabia. Further, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others are encouraging the building of mosques and, some allege, are fomenting religious discord and groups, which are hostile to the secular government. Although the majority of people now live in towns or cities, many yurts (felt tents used widely in the region, including Mongolia) are still to be seen dotting the countryside and especially the higher and more remote regions of the country. Around much-visited spots along the road, they often double as restaurants.

Kyrgyzstan is in the very middle of the Eurasian continent, bordering China (east), Kazakhstan (north and west), Uzbekistan (south west), and Tadjikistan (south west and south). Its territory is 198.5 thousand square km, about the area of Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands put together, or a little less than the UK. The northernmost part is at the same latitude as Rome, but because it is landlocked its winters are much colder (and the height above sea level makes many parts even colder - our guest house in Naryn has -35 degrees C fairly often in winter) and its summers are both drier and hotter (45 degrees C is not unusual and 50 degrees C was recorded in 1998 near Bishkek). 93% of the surface area is over 1500 meters in height and 41% is over 3000 meters. The greatest natural feature is the Tien-Shan mountains (in Kyrgyz “Tenir-Too”) running northeast to southwest. The second most famous feature is Lake Issyk-Kul (“warm lake”), which is 1,600 meters above sea level and 668 meters deep in places. This lake contains approximately 1,738 cubic kilometers of water and has no rivers flowing out of it (it is, therefore, slightly salty and because of this and perhaps deep volcanic activity it never freezes. This gives it its name, though it certainly is not warm.) The lake lies in a basin surrounded by high mountains. It is not far by road (about 3 hours) from the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, which lies at 3000 meters - lake Son Kul - a remote but beautiful wildlife sanctuary. To the north west of the great lake, directly over the mountains, is Alma Aty and this city is to be connected to the lake by a high-altitude road which may open in 2000 and which will greatly shorten the travel time (otherwise, 5-6 hours). Apart from the travel time the road gives spectacular views over the lake and runs through dramatic and beautiful mountain scenery. 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.

This Information has been generously provided by the Celestial Mountains Company of Bishkek.
© 2001-2010 STANtours last modified December 5, 2005