Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!


There are approximately 80 ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan; the principle ethnicities being Kyrgyz (66%), Uzbek (14%) and Russian (10%). Notable minorities include the Dungan, Ukrainian and Uyghur peoples. The Kyrgyz are outnumbered almost two to one by their livestock and about two-thirds of the population lives in rural areas.

Although their precise origins are unclear, the Kyrgyz are a Turkic nomadic people that migrated to central Asia from the upper Yenisey valley of Siberia from the 10th century onwards. Recent genetic studies have demonstrated that they are closely related to the present day indigenous population of the central Siberian region. Over the centuries, and in the course of numerous migrations, they have mixed and intermarried with local populations so that, in genetic terms, they are less homogenous than they were in the past. According to historic Chinese sources, the Kyrgyz had green eyes, fair skin and red hair, but on the whole, having mixed with Mongolian and other Turkic groups over the centuries, most contemporary Kyrgyz no longer exhibit these characteristics. Although they are of quite varied physical appearance, in general they are fairly short and dark skinned, with wide faces and almond eyes.

The name Kyrgyz comes from two Turkic words that either mean 'forty tribes' (kyrk - forty; uz - tribes) or, alternatively, 'forty girls' (kyrk - forty; kyz - girls). Both of these meanings correspond to the Manas epic; the first relates to the 40 small tribes that are said to have united against Chinese and Muslim expansion to the west, the second, to 40 servant girls who swam in a mountain lake and became pregnant, giving birth to the first Kyrgyz people. It is also represented on the national flag, which has 40 rays emanating from a central sun.

Another possible etymology is kyrgys, which means 'imperishable', 'inextinguishable' or 'undying' - a popular derivation that echoes the Kyrgyz propensity towards chivalry and bravery. Today the world's four million or so Kyrgyz are spread throughout the central Asian region, with the greatest population in the country that bears their name (around 3.35 million), alongside sizeable populations in northwest China (145,000), Tajikistan (81,000), Uzbekistan (225,000) and Kazakhstan (11,000). Many Kyrgyz also live in Russia as migrant workers, along with a permanent population there of around 32,000.

Kyrgyz are for the most part Sunni Muslims, although they practise it fairly superficially - usually little more than a veneer over an underlying core of shamanistic beliefs and practices. Some Kyrgyz in China - and a very small number in Kyrgyzstan - practise Tibetan Buddhism.

The population of Kyrgyzstan in July 2001 was 1,753,003, giving a density of 24 people per square kilometre. Over half the population live in the Fergana valley (just 15 per cent of Kyrgyzstan's territory). An estimated 63 per cent of the nation live and work in rural areas. Kyrgyzstan is a multi-national society comprising at least 23 national groups. The ethnic Kyrgyz make up about 65 per cent of the population but figures range constantly due to the continued exodus Slavic peoples since independence.

A major problem since independence has been large-scale migration. Since 1989 there has been a major exodus of Slavs and Germans – with tens of thousands returning to their countries of ancestry. Most cite the dearth of job prospects and continued economic hardship as the main reason for leaving. Many fear that the steady stream of departing skilled workers and educated professionals will have dire effects on the economy.

According to UNDP statistics, one seventh of the population of Kyrgyzstan moved into, out of or around the country between 1991 and 1998. Minority populalions in particular have taken the opportunity in return to what is still regarded as their homelands; Russians, Ukrainians and Germans are further drawn by higher salaries in their land of origin. In spite of the president's stated commitment to an equal society, inter-ethnic tensions are very real. Russians in particular feel they are being pushed out of jobs and denied opportunities to enter government. Between 1991 and 1998, the Russian population reduced by some 273,000 and the German population by around 61,000. The exodus continues.

The Russians are the largest minority, accounting for about 12.5 per cent of the population. Most live in Bishkek, along the north shore of Lake Issyk Kul and in Talas. They began to arrive in Kyrgyzstan in the latter half of the 19th century in response to Russian government promises of land grants and tax breaks and many communities were moved wholesale during World War II. They work as settled farmers, technicians and academics and formed the Soviet intellectual elite; thus their mass departure is a serious brain drain for Kyrgyzstan.

About 14 per cent of Kyrgyzstan's people are Uzbeks, who live principally in and around the Fergana valley, a natural extension of Uzbekistan. Firm believers in Islam, they are traditionally settled people and culturally quite distinct from the Kyrgyz.

Like the Kyrgyz, the Uzbek forefathers originally hailed from Siberia, although they settled down centuries earlier to become farmers, a practice which they keep until this day. The modern Uzbek population is composed of a heritage of Turkic, Mongol and Iranian peoples and is generally considered to be descended from the tribes that arrived in the central Asian region with the Khan Shaybani in the 16th century.

In contrast with the Kyrgyz population, Uzbeks are generally settled farmers who practise a more rigid form of Islam than their nomadic neighbours. They have a culture quite distinct from that of the nomadic Kyrgyz and are usually instantly recognisable by their dress: the older men in black, square skull caps that are called doppi; the women in brilliantly coloured long dresses with the ikat pattern that first became popular in Bokhara and Samarkand in the 19th century. Uzbek families usually live in houses surrounded by high walls, inside which is a private courtyard with individual rooms facing out onto it. They dine at low tables with raised seating platforms at which they sit cross-legged; restaurants with this seating arrangement can be found throughout southern Kyrgyzstan.

The Ukrainians now account for about 1.5 per cent of the population and are the second largest component of the country's Slavic community. Some 36.000 have left since independence.

About 1 per cent of Kyrgyzstan's population is Uighur, living mainly around Bishkek, Ozgon and Jalal-Abad. Uighurs are a Turkic people related to the Uzbeks and based in Xinjiang, China. Most of the Uighurs in Bishkek are descendants of refugees who have fled persecution at the hands of the Chinese since 1881. The Uighurs in the south are a far older community: some families date as far back as the tenth-century Karakhanid Dynasty. Intermarriage with the Uzbeks is relatively common. The Uighurs are mostly active in trade and farming.

The Tatars currently number 51,700 and are another Turkic people. They tend to live in Bishkek and Osh. The Tatars came to Kyrgyzstan from the Volga region of Russia during colonisation to work as traders, clerks and clerics; blither groups were deported from the Crimea in 1944. Some 25,000 have left the republic since 1991, mainly to return to the Crimea or to Russia.

The Kazakhs live along the border with Kazakhstan; at Talas, in the vicinity of Karabalta, and at Tokmak and the Karkara valley. Kazakhs are quite similar to the Kyrgyz in both linguistic and cultural terms and during the early Soviet period were confusingly described as Kyrgyz in contrast to the Kara-Kyrgyz ('black Kyrgyz') appellation that was given to the true Kyrgyz at the time. With a clan-based social structure and a traditionally nomadic lifestyle, Kazakhs are effectively a lowland or steppe counterpart of their highland cousins, the Kyrgyz. With about 45,000 Kazakhs living in Kyrgyzstan, they make up about 0.7% of the total population.

Around 0.6 per cent of Kyrgyzstan's population is made up of Turks, who live around Bishkek, Tokmak and in the south. They are mostly Shia Muslim Meskhetian Turks who were moved from Georgia and Azerbaijan in the 1940s and eke out a living as small farmers, in technical professions or trade.

The settlements around Bishkek, especially Karabalta, Alexandrovka, Kant and Ivanovka, are home to Dungan and Korean communities, who jointly make up about 1.5 per cent of Kyrgyzstan. They arrived in central Asia in three separate waves of migration following persecution in central China, in the wake of the Hui Minorities War in the second half of the 19th century. Despite a shared religion and country of origin, they are not to be confused with Uyghurs, who are also Muslims from China but who are of Turkic descent. Dungans are ethnically Chinese and within China and within their own communities they refer to themselves as Hui. They speak a language that is closely related to the Shaanxi dialect of Mandarin Chinese with loan words from Arabic, Turkish and Persian, which is written in Cyrillic script. They work mostly as farmers and are well-known for their industriousness.

Like the Dungans, many of the Uyghur people found in the north of Kyrgyzstan arrived as refuges from oppression in China, where the vast majority of their kinsmen still live in the northwestern province of Xinjiang (East Turkestan). Uyghurs are Turkic Muslims who are closely related to Uzbeks in both culture and language, and who practise the same pursuits of farming and trading. Unlike those who live in the north, those Uyghurs who are settled in the south of the country, in the vicinity of Osh and Ozgon, have been settled in the area for centuries. Altogether, Uyghurs make up around 1% of Kyrgyzstan's population.

The Koreans, totalling around 18,000, were deported from Sakhalin and Vladivostok in the Russian Far East between 1931 and 1945 by Stalin, who feared they might become a 'fifth column' for the Japanese, who at the time occupied neighbouring Manchuria and Korea. Both the Dungan and Korean people are predominant in specialized agriculture and technical professions, and belong to the most dynamic and prosperous communities in Kyrgyzstan. Like the Dungans, they tend to work mostly as farmers and market gardeners, and, despite some Russification of their culture, manage to maintain a highly distinctive cuisine.

Finally, there are 40,500 Persian-speaking Tajiks, most of them farmers in the far south. In addition, some 13,900 refugees from Tajikistan have taken refuge in the country since civil unrest began in Tajikistan in 1993. Initially they set up camp around Osh and Jalal-Abad, but after tensions arose with the host communities, many were resettled in northern places such as Karabalta and Ivanovka where they were given the houses of emigrated Slavs.

Kyrgyz (with Kazakhs) in general, while probably the most Russified of Central Asian people, are adapting to 21st-century trends. While Russian is still the lingua franca, young people are increasingly learning European languages, English and Mandarin. About one fifth of working adults are overseas, sending home remittances from Russia and elsewhere.


On the road leading into Frunze was a street of old-fashioned domiki inhabited by Dungans, Muslims of Mongol descent who had been harried out of China by its Ch'ing rulers during a religious persecution in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In another part of town was a deposit of Uighurs, who had migrated from Sinkiang at about the same time, though their ancestors had once been widespread almost everywhere to the west of China's Great Wall.

They were easily the most intriguing people to settle anywhere in this part of the world, a variety of Turk who had dwelt in Outer Mongolia before descending to China in the eighth century. They then embraced Manichaeism, that strange Persian synthesis of teachings by Zoroaster, Buddha and Christ, whose devotees have also included St Augustine and John Stuart Mill: but their even greater distinction was their literacy in a generally illiterate society. The Uighurs became the moneylenders and the scribes to a vast area of the land mass, which meant that they were indispensable to every other breed of nomad people in Central Asia, if these wanted a share in the developing trade there between East and West. Genghiz Khan himself turned to them in the thirteenth century, when he was hammering out his Mongol Empire and lacked the means to administer it effectively from among his own people, who had no alphabet. The Uighur script thus became the official calligraphy of the Pax Mongolica, so that everywhere under the khan's authority knew two languages of government: the local tongue and Uighur. This was much the same prescription applied six hundred years later in India Britannica.

The native Kirghiz, like the Kazakhs dwelling to the north of them, were nomads by instinct, though this way of life had been diminished somewhat over the past generation or so. It was the tradition of these people to regard sheep as the only reliable currency and, as recently as 1939, there was a recognised scale of values throughout Kirghizia, by which it was reckoned that five sheep were worth one ox, two oxen one horse, five horses one wife, and two wives a gun. The heaviest fine that could be imposed under tribal law in these lands was five hundred sheep. Between April and November the nomad families would move with their flocks of sheep and herds of horses from one pasture to another, setting up their dome-shaped yurts in every encampment until the time came to pack up and wander off in search of fresh grass elsewhere; and when the snows came they would retreat to their stone or turf-walled permanent dwellings, where they stayed put until the winter had passed.

Barter was still practised on the steppe and in the mountains of Kirghizia, though less frequently than before; and transhumance had likewise been modified. Where once whole families, even groups of kin, would be on the move with their animals for six or seven months on end, the long-distance shepherding was now more likely to be done by a couple of men with a pack of dogs and a truck containing all the gear they might need until they returned home.

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse