This week, we travel to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. It is one of the world’s 45 landlocked nations, but it also has Issyk-Kul, a beautiful high-altitude lake that is 113 miles long. Mountains cover about 80% of the country, leading some to describe it as the “Switzerland of Central Asia”.
At approximately 30 residents for each square kilometer of land, Kyrgyzstan is one of the world’s least crowded countries. The Kyrgyz, a Muslim Turkic people, comprise almost 75% of the population. The settlement of the Kyrgyz in what is now Kyrgyzstan dates back to at least the 1600’s. Known under Russian and Soviet rule as Kirgiziya, the country was conquered by tsarist Russian forces in the 1700’s. Formerly a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan declared its independence on August 31, 1991. Bishkek, its capital, still has remnants of the Soviet era, including large plazas and monuments.
Since its independence, many Russians and Germans have emigrated to Kyrgyzstan. Besides the Kyrgyz, which make up 75% of the population, the Uzbek make up around one-seventh. Other ethnic minorities such as Russians, Ukrainians, and Germans make up the last one-eighth.
The official languages are Kyrgyz and Russian. A decent minority also speak Uzbek, a Turkic language. The Kyrgyz consider themselves Sunni Muslim but do not have strong ties to Islam. They celebrate the Islamic holidays but do not follow practices daily. Ethnic Russians and Ukrainians tend to be Orthodox Christians.
Manas, the hero of the Epic of Manas (one of the longest known poems), is a national hero in Kyrgyzstan. In the Epic of Manas, Manas is a great warrior and leader and defeats the Kyrgyz people’s enemies by surrounding them. The Kyrgyz people are then able to return to their traditional homeland, modern day Kyrgyzstan. Manas unites all 40 tribes of Kyrgyzstan, which is symbolized on the flag of Kyrgyzstan by the 40 rays of the sun in the center. Within Kyrgyzstan, Manas is everywhere! There are statues of him, roads, a university, a planet and an airport named after him, and an opera about him.
Kyrgyz folk singing and music lessons are also frequently offered in schools. The national instrument of Kyrgyzstan is a three-stringed device called the komuz. You can play it in a range of positions, including over the shoulder, between the knees and upside down. Other instruments include oz-komuz (mouth harp), the chopo choor (clay wind instrument), and the kuiak (a four-stringed instrument played with a bow).