The capital Bishkek is home to over one in seven of the country’s inhabitants. (The capital’s name comes from the word for a wooden churn used to make fermented mare’s milk.) The city was founded in 1825. Most of it was built in the late Soviet period. The main streets are wide and lined with trees. Industrial plants are on the outskirts of the city. In the background loom the mountains of the Alatau range. A few miles south of the capital is the Ala-Archa Canyon nature reserve.
High mountains cover most of Kyrgyzstan. Besides the Alatau, there are the Tian Shan (Heavenly) Mountains in the middle of the country, which are the main range, and the Pamir-Alau range in the far south. Kyrgyz pasture cattle, sheep, and goats on grassy meadows at high altitudes during the summer, bringing them down into the valleys when the cold rains and snow start in late fall. The peaks, which in the Tian Shan reach 24,000 feet and above, are covered by huge snowfields and glaciers, which are now under threat from global warming.
The main lowland areas are the temperate valleys of the Talas River (in the northwest) and of the Chu River (in the north), and the much hotter fertile region in the southwest, which is the easternmost section of the Fergana Valley. Here lies Osh, the country’s second largest city—and one that, unlike Bishkek, dates back to ancient times. Grains and sugar beet are grown in the valleys, and in the Fergana Valley also cotton. The third important river, besides the Talas and Chu, is the Naryn, which originates in the Tian Shan Mountains and joins with other streams to form one of central Asia’s two great rivers, the Syr Darya.
Kyrgyzstan also has some 3,000 mountain lakes. The best known is Lake Ysyk-Kol in the northeast. Over 5,000 feet above sea level, it is the second largest alpine lake in the world. Along the lakeshore are health spas and thermal springs, and also the summer homes of the new rich.
Natural resources are limited to some deposits of coal, gold, mercury, and antimony, and abundant hydroelectric power. Most people are desperately poor, especially in the undeveloped mountainous south and southeast along the borders with China and Tajikistan.
The great Kyrgyz national epic in honor of the legendary hero Manas is twenty times longer than Homer’s Odyssey.
The most famous contemporary Kyrgyz writer is Chingiz Aitmatov, whose masterpiece “The Day Lasts Longer Than 100 Years” mixes folklore with science fiction.
The culture of the south, centered in Osh, differs from that of the rest of the country. The people of this region lack a nomadic past; they have long been settled on the land. Islam is more strongly entrenched here, and social customs are more restrictive.
Eid celebrations in Bishkek end with prayer on the public square in front of parliament next to the statue of Lenin. The annual event attracts approximately 10,000 worshipers (Kimberley Bulkley)
Besides the usual Muslim holy days, the traditional spring festival of Naurus (New Year's Day) is an occasion for celebration. Large-scale festivities are devoted to the Manas epic.
The food eaten in Kyrgyzstan has developed from the subsistence diet of the nomads—meat, spices, milk products, potatoes and bread. People generally drink tea without milk. Other drinks, which are the mildly alcoholic, are kumys, fermented mare’s milk, and bozo, a thick yeasty concoction made from fermented millet.