I arrived in Kyrgyzstan for the World Nomad Games during the first week of September and stayed for the entire month. Kyrgyzstan was one of the USSR’s satellite Soviet Socialist Republics, but gained its independence in 1991, as the USSR was dissolving after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Kyrgyzstan has been inhabited for millennia, mainly around Issyk-Kul, but written history is found only through references in Chinese, Greek, and Roman histories rather than any Kyrgyz writings.
Inhabitants were mainly nomadic tribes until the Silk Road, which stretched from Turkey to China, and provided Turks, Europeans, and others, access to goods from China and India: tea, a variety of spices, crafts, and, of course, silk. There was no one route, but rather a trail that began from Istanbul, ranged across the Caucasus, and then into Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China, or north through Kazakhstan, Tibet, and China, depending on the season.
The cities of Osh, Bishkek, and Karakol began as “caravansi,” or settlements serving travelers along the Silk Road. They were small stations built around a large central common area that could accommodate the camels and horses and wagons used to transport traded goods. These caravansi were inhabited by foreign traders – Chinese and Turks mainly – and used by the surrounding nomad tribes for trading opportunities. Islam reached the Kyrgyz people, but never attained the same status as in the Middle East. Kyrgyz retained earlier animist beliefs, either exclusively or incorporated them into the Muslim religion they adopted.
There was no Kyrgyzstan as such until the tribes were united under a leader named Manas. The name derives from the Turkish words “kyrg” meaning forty,“yz” meaning tribes. “stan” comes from Persian and means country.
The tradition of Manas is still strong in Kyrgyzstan, although it’s not clear whether Manas was a historical figure. For centuries, the Manas Epic was passed through men called “meneschka,” the equivalent of the medieval bard in Ireland. Meneschka did not simply repeat the epic, but were chosen by receiving dreams where the epic was revealed to them, sometimes with additional details. The longest documented recitation lasted for three days and included much greater detail than previous meneschka revealed. These revelations are much revered, and there are busts of the best known meneschka surrounding Manas Square in Bishkek. The Manas Epic is still recited at modern tribal gatherings.
Manas (with friends….)
Tradition holds that there were forty Kyrgyz tribes when they were united by Manas, represented by the forty rays that ring the sun on the Kyrgyz flag. (The sun on the flag is designed to represent the “tunduk,” the slatted ring that sits at the top of a traditional yurt, providing ventilation.) These forty tribes drove the Turkic occupiers from Kyrgyz territory.
But foreign invaders valued the trading access the land provided. Historically, invaders were Turkic tribes or the Mongols under “Chinghis Khan” and his heirs. Imperial Russia was the last invader, and in 1876 the Kyrgyz leader, fearful the Kyrgyz would be wiped out by guns and cannon, signed a treaty with the Russian Tsar, making Kyrgyzstan part of the Russian Empire. When Russia became the USSR, the Soviets renamed the country “Kirghizia” and Bishkek to “Frunze,” imposed the Cyrillic alphabet and Russian language, burned Arabic-language books, and suppressed Islam.
The Soviet era is still evident in the statues of Lenin and the WWII memorials that exist in every city and village of any size. The statues of Lenin often have been removed from a central location to someplace less prominent, but the “Great Patriotic War” memorials remain, honoring the Kyrgyz who died as part of the Soviet Army.
The other Soviet legacy are the many trees planted in the cities and watered through a system of channels called “Aryks.” The Aryks were fed by rainwater. Bishkek still has trees though few Aryks, but Osh’s Aryks are still used.
The Kyrgyz people are proud of their country, filled with snowy mountains and green pastures. Bumper stickers proclaim, “Proud to be Nomad!” Frunze is Bishkek once more, and Kyrgyz is spoken next to Russian, both official languages. There is talk of using the Latin alphabet and eliminating Cyrillic. Their first years of independence were rocky, but they have had real elections and a stable government for the last few years. They are looking for ways to grow their economy beyond tourism, while keeping their culture and the natural beauty that surrounds them. They are friendly, hospitable people, waiting to welcome you!