Kyryzstan 2019 - a journey through Tien Shan, the Pamir and the Lowlands

Kyrgyzstan, most people will know the name of this landlocked and mountainous country in central asia, but probably not much more! It has got its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it is a bit bigger than the half of Germany, but has less than 10% of Germanys population and most of its pupulation is living in the areas around the biggest cities Bishkek and Osh.

Tien Shan that is the name of the mountain range, which covers most of the area of Kyrgyzstan, but also parts of China (Xinjiang), Kazakhstan, Tadzhikistan and Uzbekistan. Several peaks reach more than 7000m and are glaciated with some of the longest valley glaciers in the world. The Pamir is the other magic mountain range within Kyrgyzstan, it forms the border to China and Tadzhikistan and like the Tien Shan its peaks are higher than 7000m.

The very fertile lowlands in the north and in the south-west are the breadbaskets of Kyrgyzstan, the rivers coming down from Tien Shan supply the water for irrigation.

The capital is Bishkek loacated in the northern lowlands. Kyrgyzstans latitude is about 41 deg N similar to Croatia or central Italy. The summers are hot and the winters are very cold.

That should be enough dry facts to give you an idea of the place where I spent a bit more than three weeks.

Very often I was asked by the locals, what I like most in Kyryzstan and I surprised everybody with my answer, which came for the bottom of my heart: new roofs, new windows and new paint on buildings and schools even in the remotest of villages we visited!

Kygryzstan had a very hard time after gaining independence from the Soviet Union. There was poverty and hunger everywhere. You simply cannot eat awesome landscape! As it seems this changed by now and I really hope this trend will continue.

When preparing the trip I decided not to cover the whole of Kyrgyzstan and I picked the less travelled half,  the more remote areas in the west and south-west. Most tourists visit lake Issyk Kul and the Tien Shan south of this huge lake, go a bit west to lake Song Kol and return to Bishkek. I also decided to stay several days in Bishkek, visit mythical and identity developing places and try to find some folk or sport festivals. The itinery was never fixed, we had a rough idea, which topics and which landscapes I wanted to cover, but we changed the plan nearly daily.

The landscape - the mountain areas

Most of the time I travelled through the mountains of Tien Shan and Pamir. The peaks are a bit similar to the Alps, the highest peaks are a bit more impressive than the western alps in Switzerland, Italy or France (sorry my friends in these countries, but it is true...), the lower peaks are like ours in Germany, Austria and Italy. But there are differences, which make the landscape unique - the dimensions of the valleys and high plains!

The valleys and plains are really huge and awesome. They are often covered with heavily eroded loess or lake sediments. Their size is hard to grasp!

The rural way of life would have develeoped very different without the high plains and wide valleys. In europe the mountain population developed their system of alpine farming, the cattle stays in the valleys during winter and is driven to the alpine pastures of the same valley during summer. In Kyrgyzstan a similar climatic situation resulted in a similar nomadic lifestyle. However the summer pastures are nearly always not in the same valley, but in the high plains and valleys many miles away. Dshajloo - the jurt camp on the summer pastures - is still a fundamental part of the rural economy.

Dshajloo and the nomadic way of life

The Kyrgyz tribes have been nomadic for hundreds of years, migrating during summer to the grazing grounds in the high valleys and plains. Even nowadays this migration takes place and is something mythical expecially for the urban population of the 21st century. I was stunned by the amount of traditional jurts. They are everywhere where you find good grazing for the herds of horses, sheep, cattle and yaks. During winter the pastures are covered by deep snow and the temperatures drop below -30C. But in summer the pastures are green, full of flowers and animals.

The jurt is not only used as a mobile summer "house" for nomads, but I have seen jurts in the gardens of parcels in the cities, two or three storied jurts used as hotels or museums and even as a kind of kiosk at the beaches of lake Issyk Kul. The jurt is definitly a kyrgyz icon!

Lets move to the next icon, the horse. Horses are everywhere in the countryside especially in the mountains. You might think it is used as draft animal and sometimes for riding. However I have not seen a single horse in front of a cart! Horses are used for dairy and meat production and therefore you find thousands of horses grazing the summer pastures. The nomads use (riding) horses to drive cattle, sheep and (meat producing) horses, thats their daily job. The mares are milked close to the jurts, often tied to a long line together with  their foals.

The mares have to be milked about every hour to produce milk for drinking and to produce kumis, fermented mares milk. Townspeople flock to the countryside just to drink mares milk and kumis, jurts close to roads advertise their products, it seems to be a good business for the nomads.

We have been invited regularly to drink mare milk and kumis, both are tasting quite nice. The milk is very different to cows milk, it is not as fat, therefore not as sweet, with a strong "grassy" taste. Of course it is very healthy.... To kumis however you have to get used to even if the taste is not especially strange. Kumis is a kind of national drink for the kyrgyz people. Many europeans/americans do not dare to drink kumis especially at a nomads place. But as it is fermented and has a low alcohol content the consumption is quite safe. The locals drink it like water and I was at once reminded of the beer consumption in europe during the middle ages. Then water was not treated, the beer was low in alcohol and safer than water. Very similar (water from the tap is quite safe in Kyrgyzstan nowadays!).

The taste of kumis is a bit like kefir, but it is hard to compare with a drink in europe. The thing I had to get used to was not the taste but the brownish to blackish "things" swimming on the surface of a bowl of kumis (look at the picture...). It is just fat and completely harmless, but it is unusual for us.

By the way the reason why horses are used traditionally as dairy animal is very simple. Horses are faster than cows and sheep. In case the country was invaded (which happened regularly....) moving around and saving the lifestock was just easier and a more successfull strategy.

But the "horse stories" are still not over! Traditional Kyrgyz sports need horses!

Kok Boru or Buzkashi

Kok Boru is the the national sport, the top teams are formed by professionals and have sponsoring contracts. It is broadcasted by TV, there is a league system and dedicated Kok Boru stadiums and the famous riders and horses are household names. Better known is the afghan variant - Buzkashi. Kok Boru however is a team sport with defined rules.

I was lucky to watch two matches in a formal competition, both had been semifinals. As the price money was quite substantial the teams have been very motivated and I was more than impressed by the riders and the horses! I am still sorry that I missed the final, a heavy thunderstorm drove us away.....

The Kok Boru competition was part of a huge sports and folk event on the Suusamyr plain commemorating the most famous kyrgyz wrestler and sports man of the 20th century Mr. Kojomkul. It took place for the first time and many top teams, wrestlers and folk musicans participated, some even from the neighboring countries. The finals have been braodcasted by TV and some high ranking politicans showed up as well (considering the number of their body guards, they must hve been very important....).

Before I forget, Kok Boru is also enlisted as UNESCO world heritage. I guess you understand now the importance of this sport for the Kyrgyz nation and idendity, a bit like football/soccer for England, Italy, Spain or Germany.

Oodarysh - wrestling from horseback

Another traditional equestrain sport is Oodarysh. Watching the qualifiers was a memorable experience as the spectators formed a narrow circle around the 30m diameter of the "field". Of course the crowd got more and more excited supporting their champions. More than once the horses of the participants where driven into the crowd during the heated matches. Interesting! The semifinals and finals have been more regulated and police made sure that there was enough distance between the spectators and the riders. Photography in such a tight space was "demanding" and a real challange, but is was good fun for me, but very serious for the participants as it was about honor (and money).

More about the festivales at later stage in this blog. First I have to proceed with history and kyrgyz idendity. While preparing the tour I read about the importance of a place called Manas Ordo, a small village near the town Talas in the north-western Tien Shan. As it is a bit isolated and without any famous landmarks, it is not visited by the regular tours.

All the same I thought, lets dive into the history and national idendity at the very beginning of the tour. The first stop after Bishkek was Talas and Manas Ordo. It was a wise decision and this crash course in Kyrgyz history made it much easier to understand this country.

Manas - the uniter of the kyrgyz tribes

Mr. Manas is everywhere. You find him as statue in many towns, he is just part of the national idendity! The international airport in Bishkek is called Manas Airport and every child learns about him at school. I do not know whether the stories are more fact or more fiction. But it is a fact that Manas and the Manas epos is a very important part of the kyrgyz idendity.

When exactly the historic figure lived is not completely clear, it is said it must have been the 9th century (some scholars think it is the 4th centure, some the 17th century...), but for the population it is clear where he lived and where he was buried, in Manas Ordo near Talas. In an awesome monument you find statues of him and of his 40 loyal followers, his mausoleum and a small museum.

The Epic of Manas is a three volume collection of poems telling the story of Manas, think of the Illiad, the Odyssey or the icelandic sagas!

For hundreds of years the Epic of Manas was not written down and only preserved as oral recitations performed by a handfull of Manaschi. Nowadays it is printed, but the names of the Manaschi are still famous, recitations are well frequented and the end of the oral recitation has not arrived even in the age of internet and mobile phone.

The Epic of Manas ist listed as UNESCO world heritage, which underlines again the importance for the Kyrgyz people.

Lets jump from age old epics into the bustling capital Bishkek to balance your view about Kyrgyzstan. It is not only about rural life and legends...

Bishkek - the capital

You are probably surprised, which picture I picked to lead this paragraph, but it tells you a lot about Bishkek. It is a modern city full of life (and traffic). I enyojed staying in Bishkek a lot and I regret all the tourists, who can or want to stay only a night or couple of hours!

I envisioned Bishkek very different, even after reading lots of blogs and guide books!

Bishkek is a green city, trees parks and fountains are widespread and cool down the very hot summer temperatures at least a bit. Bishkek is a young city, founded only about 1862. Now it has a bit more than one Mio inhabitants and is growing quickly.

Bishkek is famous for its examples of soviet architecture and monuments, quite unique as in other former soviet capitals urban development has destroyed most of the buildings. It is a bit of a time capsule. You also find many traces of the soviet era in the form of monuments and symbols.

But it was not so much the architecure, but the life in the city, which surprised and impressed me. Ala-Too, the main square start to be busy about sunset. Local tourists, young skaters and many couples with their kids populate the square and a few foreign tourists mingle with the locals. I loved to watch the people and to take some pictures.

Every hour or so the changing of the guards (of course close to a Manas monument) draws a small crowd, but otherwise it is just a very relaxed atmosphere!

Another very typical sight dating back to the soviet era are, lets use the german term, the Plattenbauten. Huge suburbs, rayons, have been developed and I spent two ours in one of the biggest. If you look at the pictures, do not be mislead. I was there during the hot hours of a very hot day, not many people have been on the streets.

It is definitly not a pretty architecture, but I was surprised, as renovation and construction was going on nearly everywhere!

Bishkek has a big covered market, the Osh Bazaar (Osh is a big city in the lowlands, no idea why it is called Osh Bazaar), which draws many locals and some tourists. I have not seen many tourists anywhere in Bishkek, but several groups in the market , it seems to be a standard stop for groups....

It is definitly worth while to visit, but I still cannot get used to bazaaris doing nothing but watching their smart phones. The atmosphere was different on bazaars before the introduction of smart phones. Anyway, have a look!

You can find all kind of goods, not only food, on the market. The meat market is neatly tiled and nearly spotless clean, clothing of all style from underwear to Kyrgyzs hats, music instruments, tools, whatever you need!

Close to Ala-Too square is the kyrgyz White House, the seat of the government and and a small, but impressive monument commemorating  the last revolution, highly remommended!

It is time to say good bye to Bishkek and to move on to Osh, the second largest city.

Osh - main city in the southern lowlands

Osh is located at the edge of the fertile Fergana Valley, which extends to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Osh is hot, very hot, but due to the Tien Shan, which is visible on the horizon, it is again a green city. Osh is trade and agriculture and Osh is ethnically diverse with a large percentage of inhabitants of Uzbek descent.

The main reason to go there as a tourist is Kyrgyzstans only tangible UNESCO world heritage site, the Sulayman Mountain. There are two other tangible sites "Western Tien Shan" and "Silk Road", which are shared by many countries.

Osh is bustling and much more "southern" than Bishkek. Compare Munich to Milano. It is famous for its delicious food (I completely agree), for its chaotic traffic (I completely agree) and its bazaar. I ate the best Lagman in Osh, we bought delicious melons and yes, I have been on Sulayman Mountain. Please climb this mountain either early in the morning or late in the afternoon and enjoy the view over the city and the Fergana valley! Trust the advise in the guidbooks not to walk up during the hot hours, the sun is mercyless!

It is said, that the market in Osh is the biggest of all central asia, I do not know whether this is true, but it is big! Some streets in the market are remarkable, as products are still handcrafted right in the bazaar. The bazaar is huge and it is easy to get lost, carpets, clothing, tools, food, toys, toiletries whatever you need. Very traditional....

The city itself is intersting because of its life, not so much because of its buildings or monuments. The amusement park is worth while to stroll around, the soviet heritage is again a glimps into the recent history and the ethnic mix of the population gives you an idea about all the neigbouring countries and the history of the silk road, which made Osh famous in the past.

I did not regret to stay some nights there and I ate the best Lagman ever....

The Fergana Valley and the foothills of Fergana Mountains and Tien Shan

This area is the southern breadbasket and its a land of plenty! We did not have to much time to explore this fertile region but I got at least a glimpse of the fields of cotton, vegetables, grain and the rice paddies for the famous Uzgen rice. In the hills you find orchards of almonds, cherries, apricots, peaches, apples, amazing!

It is a densley populated area, the towns of Uzgen and Dschalabad are nearby, very different to the lonely mountain regions!

Lets return to the landscape of the mountains and how to travel through the Tien Shan, especially through western Tien Shan - The Tien Shan highway.

The Tien Shan Highway

The main road connecting Bishkek with Osh and all villages inbetween is called Tien Shan highway. So far no other road is tarmac between these cities! This will change in the future as construction is going on to build a new road linking Bishkek with Osh. But it will take another two years, probably...

Driving in Kyrgyzstan is driving on mountain roads, if you do not like switchbacks do not go to Kygryzstan. Sometimes we crossed three mountain passes per day and we did not crunch miles!

The traffic ranges from crazy to relaxed, most of the time it is more relaxed. Police controls the speed in every second village, but in most parts of this area villages are rare.... The Tien Shan highways lets you explore many different mountain sceneries, valleys and lakes. If you take some detours it will be even more rewarding.

If you just want to see Osh or the Pamir, take a plane! From Bishkek to Osh, it is about two days driving, at least, no stops for sightseeing included!

The western Tien Shan is a bit lower than the eastern part of the mountain range, the peaks are "only" a bit higher than 5000m, if you want to see mountains in the 6000 and 7000 m range, you have to go east or into the Pamir using the Pamir Highway.

The mountain passes however climb up 3000 to 3800m, many switchbacks between Bishkek and Osh, I can tell you.

The Pamir Highway - road to China, Tadzhkiztan, Uzbekistan and into the Pamir

If you are in Osh and want to go further south or to cross the border to China or Tadzhikiztan you have to use the Pamir Highway. I expected heavy traffic from/to China, even if this border station is not the most important, but I was completly wrong. The road is in a very good condition, it must have been buildt quite recently all the same the chinese traffic is very low, you have to wait half an hour until a truck passes you! This part of the new silk road is very peacefull!

I do not know on which of the roads from China traffic is really heavy, it is not going through Irkeschtam border station and the Pamir Highway. After all the news about the chinese new silk road initiative, I was more than surprised!

Anyway the Pamir is an awesome sight, when you see it towering over the Alaj valley. In the beginning the Pamir highway passes through the fertile foothills of the Fergana basin before it climbs up to 3589m at Taldyk Pass and dropping to the Alaj Valley at about 3100m

River Naryn - water is life and money

River Naryn (and its tributaries) is hard to miss while travelling through the western Tien Shan and its importance cannot be overestimated. You probably have not heard of Naryn but of the Syrdarja and the Aral Lake. The Naryn changes its name to Syrdarja on Uzbek territory (at the confluence with river Karadarja) and ends, sometimes, in the Aral lake.

Without the water of Naryn and its tributaries agriculture would be quite impossible, not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in Uzbekistan and the Fergana Basin. Moreover the production of energy using the waters of Naryn is one of the most important export goods of Kyrgyzistan! And it even spawned somehow the last revolution in 2010. The people was not really happy with the President Bakijew and unrest buildt up. As he decided to export so much electricity, that the local population had power only a couple of hours per day, the revolution started, so the saying goes.....

The famous Song Kol , touristic hot spot and alpine lake

Song Kol is a must see in Kyrgyzstan and the only place I visited with "visible" tourism (the other hot sports are more to the east....).

Lake Song Kol, altitude 3016, is the most famous of all high altitude pastures in Kyrgyzstan. The reputation is well deserved as it still has a serene atmosphere, horses and sheep abound and the access is through an awesome landscape (most roads climb up from river Naryn or its main tributary Suusamyr).

On the plain of Song Kol no permanent structures are allowed, only jurts, which are removed during winter! As tourism is booming countless touristic jurts are spread all over the plain. We tried to count and we stopped at 200+ as it was to hazy to see the opposite shore of the lake. Do not expect to be alone up there!

Do not expect serenity in many of the camps either, some are party zone with volleyball fields and similar activities. But as soon as you leave the camp you will feel the magic of this place.

All the same it is (still) recommeded to stay some time at Song Kol, it is very scenic and nomadic life is as typical as it can be in an area where tourism starts to become a major and necessary source of income for the rural population. I hope, that the ban of permanent structures will be in place for a very long time!

Slowly I am coming to an end. First of all I want to thank Talant Asemov, my guide, driver and travel companion. Most I know of Kyrgyzstan I learnt from him! If you consider to go to Kyrgyzstan contact him. He is fluent in german and can tailor a trip to Kyrgyztan to your need. As I mentioned my need was to stay flexible to get many and diverse pictures and stories. Talant, mission accomplished.

You saw many pictures of mountains, horses, roads, rivers, but what about historic monuments dating back to times before the Soviet Union?

Burana (and Uzgen)

There are some majestic buildings and ruins of older times, but not many. Most of Kyrgyzstan was and is a nomads country. Only on the lowlands close to Tien Shan bigger cities were founded many centuries ago and some of the buildings survived the wars and earthquakes of the centuries.

Balasgun and later Burana flourished as a city located at the ancient silk road. The remains are more or less just the Burana tower, a minaret. It is part of the UNESCO world heritage " Silk Road" and deserves to be visited. On the same site a collection of Balbals was saved from looting. They come from all corners of Kyrgyzstan and are Kurgan stelae, their meaning and age are however still under dispute. They are very likely a kind of gravemarker or memorial for nobleman/woman or warriors.

Besides the Burana site you find a historic complex at Uzgen near Osh, conisting of a mausoleum and a minaret, build in a very similar style like Burana. Again it was the trade along the silk road, which was the reason to found a prosperous city at the edges of the Fergana Basin. Unfortunately somebody decided to protect the wonderful mausoleum, but they spoilt the experience. A huge tin roof on metal supports is now protecting this unique buiding. It is a pity and I find the same structures all over the world. They may be cheap and effective, but they are really dreadful!

Therefore only details.....

The Festivals

You got an idea of the sporty part of a festival already in the beginning. However there is much more to share. I visited two festivals, first the folk and sports festival comemmorating Mr. Kojomkul taking place at Suusamyr plane, the second a much smaller folk festival near the town of Naryn, comemmorating the Maral or caspian red deer. A female Maral (mother Maral), so the legend goes, adopted two toddlers in ancient times. Later these two where the founder of the first Kyrgyz tribe. A shaman was telling this legend in quite a moving performance. I did not understand a word, but was impressed anyway.

The following collection shall give you an idea what an experience it was to join the kyrgyz crowd.... Highly recommended!

The last story (and one without any picture)

It happened in Sarytasch a small village in the Alaj valley, which belongs already to the Pamir mountains. Due to bad weather we had to stay up there longer than expected. Already during the first day we noticed lots of army activity in the valley close to the border to Tadzhikiztan. We noticed mobile units with tanks, radar equipment, howitzers, lots of army tents and MPs on the road. I am not really keen on army units when I take pictures, but we where never approched.

We asked at the next jurt and learnt, that a maneuver will take place in three days and that even the president will attend it. The mystery was solved. During the next days, trenches have been dug, a podium for the top brass and the president was build and some targets for the artillery spoilt the scenery. I really hope that the nomads will drive their livestock away before everything starts....

The weather changed, I got my shots of Pamir and the empty new silk road and we decided to leave after a morning shoot on the next day. The morning was great, at about noon it started to get cloudy (we had again heavy thunderstorms during afternoon) and we returned to Sarytasch. As there are no restaurants for the next 3 hours we picked one of the few options in Sarytasch and entered a small place. It was rather empty, only one table was occupied with a group of army generals, I noticed three, two and one stars on the uniform, some of the top brass of the kyrgyz army.

We ordered some chicken and I noticed the officers were talking about us, while having their meal and some Vodka. After a while an officer approached us and invited us to join them at their table. They wanted to share a drink with us, you should know, that Vodka is not drunk from shot glasses, but water glasses in the former Soviet Union, this tradition is sill alife!

While staying on the Suusamyr plain I already had an invitation to share a Vodka and learnt some local habits. You are very likely asked to say a toast, which I did. But a toast is not a short toast in Kyrgyzstan, it is much more a dinner-speech lasting several minutes, my hosts where not really happy.... but I learnt my lesson!

Of course I was asked by the officers to say a toast, which I happily did and this time it was a table-speech. Everybody was very happy and I contributed a lot to the international understanding between Germany and Kyrgyzstan, Mr. Maas will be pleased! "Auf einem Bein kann man nicht stehen" (look it up in google translate), Talant brought a bottle from our car as we payed the second glass, this time an officer did the toast/table-speech.

We could avoid a third one (Talant as the driver did not drink at all, this was accepted) telling them that we had an appointment in Osh. But two cyclers (bicycle not motorbikes) apeared on the scene, coming from Tadzhikiztan and an officer left the room. I learnt later that he was sent to buy another bottle. I guess the  bikers stayed in Sarytasch.....

Good story, something I will never forget. But I did not take a single picture for the rest of the day....

The final word

I had a very good time, full stop! I got many pictures and a wide coverage!

I will return to see the other half of Kyryzstan, not next year (already full) but a little later.Probably I would try to do some hiking, which I missed especially in Pamir, time will show.

What else?

 a bit PR in german.

Wir sind am 24.08. und 25.08. auf den Naturfototagen in Fürstenfeld bei München. Dieses Jahr habe ich auch eine kleine Ausstellung mit einigen meiner Bilder von unseren Fotoreise-Zielen.

Unsere Falkland/Südgeorgien/Antarktis Reise 2020 ist noch etwas länger als ursprünglich angekündigt zum Frühbuchertarif buchbar. Wer etwas besonderes in dieser Region sucht, sollte hier klicken. Wir denken, dass es ein ähnliches Angebot noch nie gegeben hat. Meine eigene Seite dazu ist noch in Arbeit, hier der link zum Reiseprogramm.

Wirklich besonders ist auch die Grönland im Winter Tour, sicher etwas für Abenteuerlustige und Kälte sollte man auch mögen, aber es wird sicher ein besonderes Erlebnis!

Und wer das Fotografieren lernen will (Grundkenntnisse werden aber vorausgesezt) für den sind die Azoren das richtige!

Einfach auf die Kacheln klicken und/oder uns auf den Messen besuchen!


Our new workshops are now scheduled and we have new destinations. Especially exciting is the Greenland during winter expedition, something very special! And if you are interested to enjoy me (even) more as an instructor, the Azores are the right choice and it is even warm on the Azores!

Check out my workshop pages for my next workshops.


Munich August 2019