Travel to Kyrgyzstan
Travellers from the seventh to the 21st century have spoken eloquently of the beauty and hospitality of Kyrgyzstan, the 'jewel of Turkestan". Tourists will find plenty of tall peaks, a stunning natural beauty and also an intriguing semi-nomadic culture to which the visitor is a welcome and honoured guest.
Kyrgyzstan is a nation defined by its topography. Like some kind of Central Asian Shangri-La, the soaring peaks and rugged ranges of this small country form both barriers and borders. And like James Hilton’s mythical landscape, once entered it can be difficult to leave. The Kyrgyz themselves probably thought as much when they arrived some 400 years ago. To a nomadic people from Siberia, the cool mountains and glorious pastures must have seemed like the perfect place to fatten their animals while securing the high ground against invaders. Kyrgyzstan's geographical position has always dictated its history. For centuries it was the gateway to the west for invading warrior tribes and Silk Route traders alike.
Despite 21st century encroachment the Kyrgyz maintain a semi-nomadic existence, as shepherd families move from village to jailoos (summer pastures) with the coming of summer. While Kyrgyz shepherds cling to their centuries-old way of life, their urban cousins are forging a new direction for the country. Periodic revolutions notwithstanding, Kyrgyzstan has built a foundation of solid democratic institutions and is often cited as the freest republic in Central Asia.
Travel in Kyrgyzstan can be a challenge. A modern tourist industry is starting to rise from the ruined Soviet infrastructure but visitors need to approach the country with a spirit of adventure. Those who do will be amply rewarded: Kyrgyzstan offers some of the most dramatic scenery anywhere in the world, from vast sweeping steppes to mighty citadels of ice, from jagged peaks to flower-strewn valleys, from pristine mountain lakes to lush pastures, home each summer to shepherds and their yurts.
The Kyrgyz landscape is magnificent and hugely varied, the country has it all - alpine lakes, fast- flowing rivers, arid steppe, snow-capped peaks, conifer forest, agricultural plains, rolling meadows and vast walnut forests. But, if there is one physical characteristic that stands out above all else, it is mountains: 90% of Kyrgyzstan lies above 1,500m and the country's topography is dominated by various ranges of the Tien Shan system.
The fascination of modern Kyrgyzstan lies in its unique culture, the core values of which somehow survived the enforced Soviet transition from nomadic to settled life. As old and new find their places, you might see a BMW parked outside a yurt or livestock loaded onto a bus.
Kyrgyzstan was closed to foreigners during the Soviet period largely due to its proximity to China and its role as Soviet top-secret military research centre. It was, however, one of the foremost destinations for Soviet workers on their statutory free holidays, thanks to the long sandy beaches of Lake Issyk Kul and the best mountaineering, rock climbing and trekking the Soviet Union had to offer. In addition to these attractions, a vast array of other possibilities have emerged in recent years: the culture and history of the country can be explored and a network of locally owned home-stay, transport and guiding services are available in villages all over the country, offering an introduction to authentic Kyrgyz life and tradition. Where Silk Route caravans traversed Kyrgyz highways between modern-day China and Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Russia, todays travellers wanting to extend their tour of Uzbekistan or cross to China will find in Kyrgyzstan a welcoming and stunningly beautiful land.
The beauty of Kyrgyzstan for visitors is that it has something of everything: nomadic traditions, central Asian mystique, Soviet-era trappings, a few spectacular prehistoric and Silk Road sites and, above all else, a culture that can best be described as a palimpsest that over the centuries has absorbed the influence of shamanism, Zoroastrianism, Sufism and communism to become something entirely unique.
This is an exciting time to visit Kyrgyzstan: relatively unexplored it offers fantastic views, unspoilt nature, great history, genuine culture and hospitable people... what else one need to experience a unique travel adventure? For all those who come and see, Ak-Jol!