Small, spectacular, mountainous Kyrgyzstan lies at the west end of the mighty Tian Shan Range. Its rivers originate from glaciers. Its snow-covered Ala-Archa Canyon lies beneath peaks like Dvurogaya (4,814 m), Korona (4,860 m), Baylyanbaish (4,700 m), and Semenov-Tian-Shansky (4,875 m). The Ala-Archa National Park, its name meaning ‘many-coloured juniper’, shelters some 160 species of birds. Its fauna includes snow leopards and wolves, and 1,100 species of plants.
Kyrgyzstan’s pretty Russian colonial capital is Bishkek, founded in 1825. The country is, however, the least urbanised of the Central Asian republics. Since the collapse of Soviet industry and the country’s urban economy, many Kyrgyz have reverted to life on the steppes. Horse-riding, semi-nomadic, felt yurt-dwelling herders spend summer tending their flocks in awesome places like the Suusamyr Valley. This vast prairie is surrounded by Kyrgyzstan’s most dramatic mountains. Wild horses may also be seen grazing or galloping across the country’s high plains. In the country’s valleys and especially around Kyrgyzstan’s vast, azure Lake Issyk-Kul, most villagers wear traditional dress, with ubiquitous felt hats. Specialists make yurts and Shyrdak. These are multi-layered, hand-quilted, felted rugs decorated with vibrant, complex geometric designs. Hunting with the golden eagle is an ancient tradition dating back to the Mongol conquest of Central Asia. Hunters ride highly trained horses, with a special device (baldak) fitted to the saddle. This supports the arm upon which the eagle perches. Man and bird hunt rabbits, foxes and even young wolves.
Apart from a rich folk culture of myth and music, the country boasts fascinating monuments. At snow-covered Tash Rabat, stands a small, perfectly-formed 10th-12th century stone caravanserai. It sheltered merchants and travellers along the wilder stretches of the Silk Road. Balasagun, a Karakhanid Empire regional capital (10th -12th c.) was seized (1128) by the nomadic Kara Khitai who ruled China as the Liao dynasty. Balasagun’s Burana minaret towers above the fascinating grave markers of Turkic nomads designating how many enemies the grave’s occupant had slain.
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