Kyrgyzstan is located at the heart of central Asia; it is a landlocked country that is surrounded by the former USSR territories of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north, west and southwest respectively, with China lying to the east. With an area of 199,000 square kilometres Kyrgyzstan is about the size of Great Britain (minus N.Ireland), is a bit larger than Austria plus Hungary.
94% of the country is mountainous. The altitude ranges from 401 metres in the Fergana valley to 7,437 metres at the summit of Peak Pobeda. Just over 90 per cent of the territory is above 1,500 metres and 41 per cent is above 3,000 metres. Kyrgyzstan's territory extends roughly 900km from east to west and 410km from north to south. About a third of the country is permanently under snow. This mountainous character has led Kyrgyzstan to be known as the 'Switzerland of central Asia' on occasion, although the comparison does not extend much beyond physical geography.
The majority of Kyrgyzstan's mountain ranges belong to the Tien Shan system, the legendary Celestial Mountains of Chinese folklore. This mountain chain stretches west to east well beyond the political borders of Kyrgyzstan, from just to the east of Tashkent in Uzbekistan almost as far as Urumchi in China's Xinjiang Province. The eastern end of the range, made of mostly crystalline and sedimentary rock, is the oldest part of the range, created during the Palaeozoic era 540-250 million years ago; the western end is of softer and younger metamorphic rock. Within Kyrgyzstan itself the Tien Shan system is divided into several subsidiary ranges that include the Kungey and Terskey Ala-Too ranges that frame Lake Issyk-Kul north and south, the Kyrgyz Ala-Too south of Bishkek, the Fergana range in the southwest that hems in the Fergana Valley, and the Chatkal range in the far west that extends into Uzbekistan.
Water covers 4.3 per cent of the land and forest 5.1 per cent. The dominant feature is the Tian Shan ('Mountains of Heaven') range in the southeast, which cover around 100,000 square kilometres and extend some 2,500 kilometres from northwest China through Kyrgyzstan to its western borders with Kazakstan and Uzbekistan. Its maximum width reaches 480 kilometres and its Its crest, the dramatic Kokshal-Tau, forms a stunning natural border with China, culminating at Pik Pobedy (7439m), Kyrgyzstan’s highest point and the second-highest peak in the former USSR.
Many of the mountain peaks are perennially covered with snow and ice in the form of glaciers, the largest being the 62km-long Inylchek Glacier in the Central Tien Shan in the far east of the country near the borders with Kazakhstan and China, which is one of the world's longest. Altogether there are estimated to be 6,500 distinct glaciers in the country that together hold a store of 650km3 of water and cover a total of 4% of the land area: a quantity such that, if it were to melt, would cover the entire surface area of Kyrgyzstan with water to a depth of 3m.
The main mineral resources are antimony, gold, coal, lead, mercury and uranium. Kyrgyzstan is in the north-east of Central Asia and shares borders with China to the east, Tajikistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west and Kazakstan to the north.
Its icy fortress is the Central Tien Shan, where the South Inylchek Glacier, one of the biggest in the world, stretches 62 kilometres. The Tien Shan chains sprawl across Kyrgyzstan; the Terskiy and Kungey Alatau flank Lake Issyk Kul to the south and north respectively; the Kyrgyz Alatau fringe the south side of the Chui valley, and the Fergana range forms the eastern wall of the Fergana valley cul-de-sac, while the Chatkal range forms the northern wall of the valley, extending into Uzbekistan. The eastern end of the Tien Shan is mostly crystalline and sedimentary rock, created when the land folded about 540 million years ago, whereas the softer western end was formed under heat and pressure around 245 million years ago.
Kyrgyzstan's southern border with Tajikislan skirts the northern edge of the Pamir. This dramatic bastion lies mostly in Tajikislan and culminates at the Pamir Knot, a melee of peaks (topped by Kuh-i-Samani, formerly Peak Communism, at 7,495 metres). 'Pamir' in Turkic refers to the high rolling grassland that is a feature of the mountains. The Kyrgyz Alay and Turkestan are sub ranges of the Pamir, and popular with climbers.
Kyrgyzstan has no navigable waterways and the majority of rivers are small, rapid run-off streams and tributaries of the Syr Darya system that flow into Uzbekistan and have their source in the Tien Shan near the Chinese border, the exception to this being the Chui River of northern Kyrgyzstan, which arises in northern Kazakhstan. The River Naryn is Kyrgyzstan's longest river at 535km in length, flows almost the full length of the country, rising in the At Bashy Range and joining the Kara Darya in the Fergana valley to become the Syr Darya, which waters Kazakstan. The Naryn river supports seven power stations. The Chui river is channelled into a major irrigation canal along the Kazak border, before fanning out into the arid Kazak steppe. The Sary Jas, Inylchek and Ak Shyrak rivers flow east to China's thirsty Tarim basin.
None of these rivers flow into the country's principal lake, Lake Issyk-Kul ('warm lake') in Kyrgyzstan's northeast, which is the third largest body of water in central Asia after Lake Balkash and the rapidly shrinking Aral Sea and, standing at an altitude of 1,606m above sea level, qualifies as the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in Peru/Bolivia. One of the deepest (702 metres) and largest (6,280 square kilometres) mountain lakes in the world, being approximately 180km long and 60km wide, it derives its fame from its sky blue colour, high mineral content and the fact that it never freezes, due to its high salinity. The country's second and third largest lakes are higher still, but far smaller in both size and volume: Song-Kol at 3,016m in central Kyrgyzstan and Chatyr-Kol at 3,530m near the Torugart Pass into China, both of which belong to the Naryn river basin.
At around the same elevation as Chatyr-Kol Lake is Lake Merzbacher at the Inylchek Glacier in the Central Tien Shan: a rare geographical phenomenon that appears and disappears over a short period of time each summer. In contrast, the small jewel-like Sary-Chelek Lake at the modest altitude of just 1,873m in the southwest is considered by many to be one of Kyrgyzstan's most beautiful. A manmade lake, the Toktogul Reservoir lies in the valley between the Ala-Too and Fergana ranges in the west of the country and is an important source of both drinking water and hydro-electrical power.
Enclosed in a pincer grip between the Pamir Alay and the Fergana range of the Tien Shan is the low-lying Fergana Valley, a farming region of which Kyrgyzstan has a share along with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. This has the country's lowest point at 401m, in Kulundy village in Batken Province in the southwest. The Fergana Valley, along with the relatively flat Chui and Talas valleys in the north, comprise the only really suitable terrain for large-scale agriculture in the entire country.