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Naryn Province the large central province that links north and south Kyrgyzstan, is, in many ways, the most typically Kyrgyz oblast in the entire country. At around 45,000km2 (slightly larger in area than Issyk-Kul Oblast), it is the largest province in the republic. At an average of just six persons per km2, the population density is the lowest in the country and the total population of the entire province is only around 270,000.

In terms of physical geography, the province is far more homogenous than Chui or Issyk-Kul, being almost entirely made up of mountainous terrain, interspersed with valleys and upland grasslands. The lowest point is at around 1,400m above sea level; the highest, almost 5,000m.

The population of the oblast is more uniform too, with 98% being Kyrgyz. The region is one of the poorest in the country, with a local economy that is dominated by animal herding - mostly sheep but also horses, cattle and yaks. In Soviet times, mining was well established in the province but since independence most mines have ceased production, having been pronounced uneconomical. This removal of employment that was formerly guaranteed has further contributed to the poverty of the region.

Naryn (pop. 40,000 people) is 30 kilometres from Ottuk, through a narrow gorge of rust-red cliffs which open into broader valleys. It is a long, thin town, set between impressive red sandstone cliffs on one side and rolling green hills on the other, and spreads for about 15 kilometres along the broad, rust-brown river of the same name. It's a town you pass through out of necessity rather than choice.

Naryn is rarely cited as one of Kyrgyzstan's 'must see' attractions and, although there are few who can be bothered to write about the town, it still tends to get a bad press. Certainly, it is not the most attractive of places, and there is little to see in the town, but given the harsh reality that most visitors need to stop for at least a night here on their way to the Torugart Pass, Tash Rabat or elsewhere, it seems disingenuous to run it down, as it really could be far worse. Naryn may be a rough, tough sprawl that lacks much genuine charm, but it is an interesting place in a warts- and-all sort of way, and probably more typical oа post-independence Kyrgyzstan than either Bishkek or Karakol.

Naryn makes a convenient base for visits to both Song-Kol and the Tash Rabat caravanserai and from here it is possible to strike westward to Jalal-Abad via Kazarman. This town is often visited by travellers en route to China via the Torugart Pass. The other key town in the oblast, certainly as far as foreign visitors are concerned, is Kochkor, a small market town that locally is best known for its potatoes, but which serves as a departure point for visits to Lake Song-Kol and other destinations in the immediate area. The region's one real claim to fame is that the best quality shyrdaks are said to be made here.

At first glance Naryn looks pretty grim but it gets better as you head further in and becomes a much more attractive town of broad leafy avenues. The town is long and thin, following the course of the Naryn River for several kilometres east to west. Sandstone cliffs fringe the town just beyond the river to the north, while south of the town a wide flat plain gives way to arid pale mountains. The town's linear form is one possible etymology for its name, which may come from the Chinese for 'narrow'. At about 2,000 metres above sea level, Naryn is known as the coldest town in Kyrgyzstan. Temperatures can plummet to minus 40°C and the average annual temperature is minus 6°C; even the swift-flowing Naryn freezes in places in winter and people ski on the slopes above the town. Another suggestion that Naryn is derived from the Mongolian for "sunny" - a rare moment of Mongol irony.

The modern town began life as a Russian garrison in 1868 and still houses an army base (which is why camping on the hills overlooking Naryn is Lake Song Kul forbidden), but it was in the post-World War II period that most of the current town was constructed, and this is characterised by the large number of khrushchevki apartment blocks found throughout the town. In 1920 the town was the scene of a battle between Bolshevik soldiers and White Russian forces led by kulaks from Tokmok and Naryn, who succeeded in killing the local party chairman, Orozbekov, and capturing the communist commander. The counter-revolutionaries were later defeated at battles at the Shamshy and Dolon passes. Since 1927, the town has served as the provincial administrative centre for Naryn Oblast. Before the collapse of the economy, its main local industries were bread-making, meat-packing and dairy production. In Soviet days, mountainous regions such as Naryn received hardship salaries that were 40 per cent higher than in the lowlands. Today unemployment is very high and there is a problem with alcohol. This tinderbox combination of soldiers, drunkenness and grinding poverty means the town can take on an ugly atmosphere after dark.

Perhaps out of resentment at their economic decline since independence, the town's citizens have kept their Lenin statue in the square on the long main street, still called Lenin Street. A flashy but impressive blue and turquoise mosque has been built with Saudi Arabian money on the town's western side.

Naryn oblast (province) was established in 1970 with the town of Naryn as its capital, and is one of the most mountainous and coldest regions in Kyrgyzstan. The population is almost entirely Kyrgyz. More than 70 per cent of Naryn oblast is mountainous and virtually all of it is over 1,500 metres above sea level. The highest sizeable lake in the republic, 3,500-metre high Chatyr Kul, is located in Naryn oblast. The climate here is cold for most of the year. Winter temperatures are particularly bitter; the average temperature in January is minus 17°C and sometimes plummets to minus 40°C. This is the poorest province in the country, with 58 per cent of its population living in what the UN classes as 'extreme poverty'.

A major local industry is hydroelectricity, particularly along the mighty Naryn river, the most important of Kyrgyzstan's 40,000 rivers, which has seven power stations situated on its shores. The Naryn flows from east to west across the region into the Fergana valley where it converges with another major river, the Kara-Darya, to form the Syr Darya, which supplies more than a third of Central Asia's water. The Naryn is also a potential source of friction with Uzbekistan (which utilises the river to feed its cotton fields), because Kyrgyzstan wants to retain more of the water for its own use.

The oblast is overwhelmingly rural and more than 80 per cent of people work in agriculture, mainly sheep breeding. Horses are the major form of transport in the area, which again is hardly surprising when you consider the difficulty of building-and maintaining-roads in such a mountainous area, especially with the havoc wreaked everн winter by the weather.

Various stories about Naryn have been handed down over the generations, including one which tells how Naryn and a couple of other towns in the area got their names. Returning, exhausted, from having sold his cattle in Andijan (Uzbekistan), a herder settled down for the night on a jailoo, turning his horse loose to graze. The horse wandered off and ate at a place called Arpa ('Barley'). When the herder tried to retrieve it the next day, however, it ran away. The herder chased it and eventually caught it. He killed the horse and cooked its meat, leaving the head at a place he called At-Bashy ("Horse's Head'). As he continued his journey, he ate the meat until it was all finished.

The herder's last meal was a bowl of naryn, a traditional soup dish made with thin slices of meat, which gave the town and region its name.

Orientation - Dusty brown Naryn is strung along the milkyblue Naryn River for 15km. The road from Bishkek forks north of the town, each branch of the fork leading to one end of town. A trolleybus and minibuses run along the main street, Lenina. The hakimyat (municipal administration)on Lenina is the designated centre of town. Other landmarks are the small bazaar on Orozbaka, and the bus station, 800m east of the hakimyat on Lenina. 

Sights & Activities - Naryn is a long sprawling town with few opportunities for sightseeing. The centre of the town revolves around the main square that faces the municipal administrative building, the Hakimyat, where there is a tall, modern statue of a Kyrgyz couple holding an eagle aloft, which is meant to represent Kyrgyz youth. This area was redeveloped in 1999 and the statue of Lenin that used to stand here has been moved a couple of blocks west to the leafier surroundings of a park.

The square is also home to a new, purpose-built art gallery, which is worth a visit. The gallery has the work of several Kyrgyz artists on display, like Torobekov Kojogulov, who paints scenes from Kyrgyz life and semi-abstract landscapes and still-lifes. There are also some evocative charcoal drawings, attractive ceramics with Saimaluu-Tash petroglyph designs and, naturally, a plushly decorated yurt. The main building of the recently established University of Central Asia stands opposite the art gallery. A little further west stands the Naryn Drama Theatre, with a small plaza in front of it that serves as a location for meeting friends and eating ice creams in summer. The central bazaar lies immediately north of this.

At the far eastern end of the town, close to The English Guest House and the regional museum, is Victory Park, a pleasant, wooded park that has a Soviet tank as its centrepiece, which faces a line of seven arches that frame the arid mountains beyond. The park is pretty-much deserted most of the time, but on summer nights it is sometimes used as the venue for drunken outdoor discotheques.

In the rest there’s little to see except the town’s regional museum and garish but striking mosque, 2.5km west of the centre – completed with Saudi money in 1993. The museum is located just across the bridge over the Naryn River, at the eastern end of town close to The English Guest  House. The different rooms here include ethnological displays of the Kyrgyz nomadic way of life, a dissected yurt, traditional costumes, which include some interesting headgear, a room devoted to the life of local revolutionary hero Jukeev Tubaldy Pudovkin, and the obligatory display of stuffed animals. There is also artwork by local artists and a few of the excellent shyrdaks for which the province is famous.

The new mosque at the western end of town, a couple of kilometres from the centre, is both a dazzling and incongruous sight: a rare splash of colour - blue, turquoise, white - against the khaki-brown hills that form its backdrop. The mosque was built with the help of Saudi money in 1993 and has a number of different architectural elements in its design that combine together in a post-modernist sort of way. There is, without doubt, a definite Arabian element in its design, and the irregular, patterned frieze that frames the doorway resembles a Kyrgyz traditional shyrdak pattern to some extent. In contrast, the wooden cupola that tops the pepper-pot minaret seems to be at odds with the rest of the building, and devalues the integrity of the design with its Arabian Nights appearance.

Don't be surprised if people stop and stare in Naryn; foreigners are still relatively few and far between. Horse treks can be organised in the hills south of Naryn. The treks range between two and seven hours, and offer views over Naryn, the At-Bashy range and local farmland. Herds of yak graze these parts so watch your step.

Getting There & Away - There are several direct minibuses daily from Bishkek's West Bus Station that run in the mornings and take at least 6 hours to reach Naryn by way of Tokrnok and the Chui valley, and Kochkor and the Dolon Pass. Most minibuses bypass Balykchy and take a shortcut via the Orto-Tokoy reservoir. A similar number leave in the reverse direction from Naryn's main bus station on Lenina, mostly in the morning.

Buses to Kazarman (seven hours) depart at 8am on Tuesday and Friday. The daily bus to Kurtka(Jangy Talap) leaves between 2pm and 3pm (2,5 hours) and in winter at 1pm. Buses also go to At-Bashy to the south. Shared taxis are a good alternative but the sharklike taxi drivers outside the bus station go into a feeding frenzy at the sight of a foreigner.

Naryn to Jalal-Abad - The high road between Naryn and the Fergana Valley makes for an adventurous overland route across one of the most remote parts of the country. The route (along with the Suusamyr Valley road) is a good way to connect the western and eastern halves of Kyrgyzstan, without having to double back through Bishkek. The road passes through Kazarman (220km from Naryn), a rough and-ready gold-mining town in the middle of nowhere. The mountain pass to the Fergana Valley is closed from November to late May or early June.