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Almaty or Bust!
Central Asia in Words and Pictures

Part Six: Kyrgyzstan

Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

Population: 4,892,808 (July 2003 est.)
Capital: Bishkek
Ethnic Groups: Kyrgyz 52.4%, Russian 18%, Uzbek 12.9%, Ukrainian 2.5%, German 2.4%, other 11.8%
Religions: Muslim 75%, Russian Orthodox 20%, other 5%
Languages: Kyrgyz - official language, Russian - official language

Kyrgyzstan is the smallest, most remote, and (arguably) the most beautiful of the Central Asian republics. The Pamir Alay and Tian Shan mountain ranges dominate the country and actually separate the northern part of the country from the southern part. The people of the north are closely connected to the Kazaks; their languages and customs (nomadic herding, a limited belief in Islam) are very similar to one another, to the point that some believe they are variants of the same group, with the only difference being that the Kazaks live in the steppe and the Kyrgyz live in the mountains. The southern people, especially those in the dangerous Fergana valley, have more in common with their neighbors in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (about 13% of the population is Uzbek, in fact) than with Kyrgyz in the north.

You might ask yourself, why would two diverse groups of people choose to form a country together? The answer is...they didn't. The Soviets created Kyrgyzstan as a way to "divide and conquer." They wanted to divide the Kazaks and the Uzbeks--the two major Central Asian groups--so that they could more easily control both groups. So the Soviets created Kyrgyzstan as a way to separate large groups of Uzbeks and Kazaks from one another by lumping some of each in with the Kyrgyzs.

Now that there is no Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has struggled to find its identity. However, there is one thing that unites all Kyrgyz: music and literature, especially as they are combined in the form of the Manas, the Kyrgyz national epic, which tells of the formation of the Kyrgyz people and which is recited by a special type of akyn, called the manaschi. This epic tradition is probably not exclusively the province of the Kyrgyz; no doubt, Kazaks and other peoples of Central Asia (some that don't exist any more, others that exist in parts of Siberia) all shared in the formation of these epic tales. However, because Kyrgyzstan is the invention of Soviet officials, Soviet historians decided to "give" the Manas to the Kyrgyz, in an effort to foster a stronger sense of national unity (this for a people who never needed a "nation" until it was forced upon them). I recently saw a film called The Stars Caravan, which is about a Kyrgyz film projectionist who travels to remote regions to show films to nomadic herders. Throughout the film, the Manas is featured, discussed, and celebrated by every single Kyrgyz. So, apparently, this Soviet plan has worked; it's a force that has united Kyrgyzstan, even if nothing else does.

In a nutshell, Kyrgyz music is very much like Kazak music, in the sense that it is largely a folk music utilizing stringed and wind instruments. Not much Kyrgyz music is available in the west, but Mark A. Humphrey of Frequency Glide Enterprises in California is trying to change that. He's released two CDs of Kyrgyz music, including one by the incomparable Salamat Sadikova, with a promise of more to come. Judging by the high quality of these works, I can't wait to hear more from this interesting part of the world.

This is a group of Kyrgyz performers holding a three-stringed fretless instrument known as a komuz; this is the instrument that is most widely associated with the Kyrgyz people. You can hear this instrument on Sadikova's wonderful album, The Voice of Kyrgyzstan.

Another picture of the komuz.

On the left, you'll see an instrument called a kyl kiak; it's a two stringed bowed instrument. On the right, you'll see (barely) a timur komuz, or what many westerners call a jaw or jew's harp. If you've always wanted to play an instrument but have never had the courage, pick up one of these; anyone can play them, and they're great fun. All of these pictures, by the way, are taken from Mark A. Humphrey's excellent site.

Did I mention Kyrgyzstan was a beautiful country? Well, here's an example: Issyk-Kul Lake, the second highest lake in the world.

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