Kyrgyzstan’s fascinating culture and long history is colored by its hardy peoples’ struggle to overcome the harsh climate, inhospitable steppes and towering mountains that cover most of the land. The nomadic herding lifestyle of cattle and sheep was always more important than settled agricultural pursuits, and contributed to the tribal clan system which is still in use today. Although the majority of Kyrgyz now live in or near cities and towns, their heritage still influences their love of this wild country.
Settled in the dawn of the human race, Kyrgyzstan first appears written in Chinese chronicles 4,000 years ago. Recent archaeological discoveries place the Kyrgyz, red-haired, green or blue-eyed, fair-skinned people, in the Siberian Yenisey River Valley around 200 BC. From there, tribal migrations led to the creation of the region now known as Kyrgyzstan by the 2nd century BC. The Kyrgyz state rose to prominence after its defeat of the Uygkur Khaganate in the 9th century, but by the 12th century, the empire was decimated by the Mongol expansion and its people left for the south.
From the 13th century, the region and its nomadic tribes sank into total obscurity, controlled by various Turkic rulers. Kyrgyzstan lost not only its autonomy and independence, but also its distinct language and culture. The famous Silk Road between China and Europe continued to bring riches to the remote caravanserai towns scattered across the mountain valleys. A brief century of freedom was followed by periods of rule by Juche Khan, son of Genghis, and his forces, the Oirat tribe and, in 1510, the Dzungar Khans. Kalmyk armies invaded in the 17th century, Manchus from China in the mid-18th century and Uzbek forces in the early 19th century.
Worse still, in 1876, Kyrgyzstan fell under the control of the Russian Empire. The takeover spawned violence and revolts, with many Kyrgyz fleeing to Afghanistan or the high Parnir Mountains. By 1916, a Central Asian uprising triggered by Russian imposition of a military draft on the region’s people resulted in a Kyrgyz exodus to China. The Soviet era began in 1918 with the creation of the Kara-Kyrgyz Autonomous Oblast, which became the Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1926. Ten years later, the region was incorporated as a fully-integrated USSR Union Republic.
During the Soviet era, strides were made in education, especially in literacy, and social changes took place. The Cyrillic script was introduced and, in spite of Stalin, aspects of the region’s traditional culture were preserved. Islam became the dominant religion, although rural people showed more devotion to its tenets than did city-dwellers. The ancient, nomadic culture continued to dominate the country’s social and political structure, even though ethnic, Russian-led urbanization via communist policies was the norm in the cities. By the dawn of Glasnost in Russia, Kyrgyzstan was in a state of total confusion and identity crisis.
The year 1985 saw Gorbachev’s election to Soviet Union Communist Party General Secretary, causing the winds of change to blow from the Kremlin across all the USSR Union Republics. Glasnost was followed by Perestroika when the Party and State separated, and Kyrgyzstan along with other Central Asian Soviet countries began the long march for independence. The election in 1990 of an unopposed Communist leader, Absartnat Masaliyevm, sparked opposition group demonstrations, the formation of the Kyrgyzstan Democratic Movement, ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and an election which replaced hardliner Masiliyev with reformist Askar Akayev.
By 1991, Akayev had introduced new political structures and appointed a reformist government composed of forward-thinking, younger politicians. Shortly afterward, a Russian-organized coup attempted to dispose of Akayev, which led to his and the vice-president’s resignation from the Communist Party and the declaration of Kyrgyzstan’s independence. The country was the first in Central Asia to break away from Russia, with Akeyev re-elected by a 95 percent majority. Independence brought a resurgence of a national cultural identity as well as a new constitution although, sadly, political infighting over the next decade weakened the country’s governance and caused social and ethnic divisions. In 2005, events hit rock-bottom, with Akeyev forced to flee to Moscow and resign his post.
Kyrgyzstan’s rich culture is displayed through its diverse ethnic groups and is based on the traditional nomadic lifestyle, although this is only evident nowadays in the remote rural and mountainous areas. 40 clans forming the Kyrgyz group are the majority, with Islam their dominant religion, and the Serbian minority and small Russian community are dedicated to Orthodox Christianity. Clan traditions vary according to location, with those in the southern Fergana Valley different than the north, although the ancient patterns of life and the patriarchal family are kept alive by festivals and celebrations all over.
The horse is at the heart of Kyrgyzstan culture, as it has been for millennia, providing transportation for people and goods, as well as food. Even nowadays, horsemanship is prized over all other skills, and no festival or event is complete without horse races and the game, ulak-tartysh, similar to polo but played with the headless carcass of a goat. Archery and wrestling on horseback are other traditional games.
In the villages, yurts are still the home of many families, especially in summer, with its thick, warm felt draped over a foundation of willow branches and its interior lined with carpets, rugs and hangings dividing the area into male and female sections. A hole in the ceiling lets out smoke from the fire, and are amazingly warm, even in the coldest winters. Folk legends and the history of the clans are told in magnificent epic poems, and folk music, songs and dance are part of every celebration. Staying in a yurt for a few days is an unforgettable highlight of any visit to Kyrgyzstan.