Kyrgyzstan occupies a strategic position astride the Tian Shan Range separating the Tarim basin to the east from the Fergana valley to the west and both from the vast asian steppes to the north. It is therefore not surprising that the Issyk Kul region has been the stage for much of the action in that part of the world.
Early residents were the indo-European Saka nomads who opposed and finally stopped Alexander's eastward penetration into Asia in the 4th century BC. The Saka eventually had to submit to turkic speaking tribes who occupied the Issik Kul area until they fell to the Tang Dynasty Chinese in the 7th century. Tang expansion reached as far as Tashkent and Gilgit but diplomatic blunders by a Chinese general provoked a coalition of Turks, Arabs and Tibetans who trounced the Tang in the Talas valley (in north-west Kyrgyzstan) and drove them out of Central Asia in 751.
Muslim Qarakhanid Turks then controlled the Issik Kul plateau until they were overcome in 1130 by the Buddhist Kara Khitan mongols in who had been pushed out of northern China by the Djurchen tribes who came from the Ussuri river region of Manchuria.
The Kara-Khitan submitted to Genghis Khan and the Issik Kul plateau became part of the Chaghatai Mohgolistan which, having survived the advent of Tamerlane, became host to the Kyrgyz-Kazaks after their rebellious split with the sedentary Uzbek.
Today's Kyrgyz have come a long way from their nomadic origins on the shores of the siberian Ienissei river more than 15 centuries ago.
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I had no problem getting here, it was just a 5 hour bus ride from Almaty and a short city bus hop from the bus station to the city center where Lenin was trying to hail a taxi on Ala Too Square.
After the fall of the Djungarian Empire to the Manchu, Central Asia was divided between the three feuding Khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Kokhand. The Kyrgyz tribes occupying the Tian Shan plateau resisted Kokhand's domination but their tribes were not united and submitted one by one to the advancing Russians in the mid 19th century and were incorporated in the provinces of Ferghana and Semireche.
I found a nice room at the Bishkek Business School and had time to call my internet contacts and walk around the city center. A couple of hours later, Lenin was still trying to hail a taxi in front of the State Historical Museum. The stupid bugger should have taken a city bus as I did.
Resentment against Russians settling in nomad lands led to an uprising in 1916 sparked by massive requisitions of Kyrgyz and Kazak cattle for the russian war effort. It was put down brutally as whole villages were slaughtered. The advent of the Bolsheviks only made things worse with the forced collectivisation of the traditionally free roaming Kyrgyz nomads.
This marble "White House", much younger than the other better known "White House", is the seat of the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic which came into being in August 1991.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the now independent Kyrgyz republic could be in any of the 15 ex-soviet countries that make up the CIS. So could all of Bishkek for that matter, it has the same huge central plaza, the same mass produced apartment blocks and the same tramways and busses.
Dubrovy Park in the city center was depressingly conformist with its bust of the Tcheka boss Dzerzinsky on the right.
The proud Kyrgyz people are presently at a low ebb but they have endured and overcome worse times in their long and varied history from the shores of the Ienissei to here. They seem to be charting a more liberal course than that of their central asian neighbours but only time will tell if they can avoid the pitfalls of corruption and crass bureaucracy.
In Bishkek, I had the good fortune to meet an political scientist working for a western financed ONG counseling the Kyrgyz leadership and parliament and a young Kyrgyz student from the elite political class. I learned from them that the processes of democracy which we take for granted are strange concepts for a people seeped in traditions of authoritarian rule.
It was interesting but finally I had to go so I got on a van at this Avtovokzal (bus station).
Here is my friend Gena Bukan, driver of the only public transport from Bishkek to Toktogul, this private four wheel drive Ulyanov van. An ex-soldier, he was frank and outspoken in condemning democracy and capitalism that brought riches for a few of the new elite and hardship for the majority. Conversation using a mixture of Russian, German and English was difficult but he had some good arguments!
The climb up to the Tor-Ashuu Pass through the Alatau Range provides some of the best mountain scenery I have ever seen.
These switchbacks further up the mountain from the last photo can vie with the Caracoles hairpins on the road crossing the Andes from Santiago de Chile to Mendoza in Argentina!
The Tor-Ashuu Pass crosses the range at 3586 meters through this very long tunnel opening high above the Suusamyr valley.
The trip from Bishkek to Toktogul lake is rough but it is really worth the discomfort if you like mountain scenery.
Going up one of the arms of the Suusamyr valley. Up ahead the road forks to the right towards the Otmek pass and Talas valley where the Ming were defeated and thrown out of Central Asia in 751 and to the left towards the Ala-Bel pass and beautiful Toktogul lake down to the fertile Ferghana valley.
Nomad camp on the high plateau near the 3184 meter Ala-Bel Pass.
Here some fellow passengers are buying Kumys from a Kyrgyz herder who serves it into your container out of the goatskin bag he is holding. Kumys is an alcoholic drink made from fermented mare's milk. It is quite good when fresh but it acquires a strong taste with time.
In Toktogul, Gena brought me to the truck stop where he usually spends the night. It was kept by a very old Kyrgyz woman who served us roast mutton with a choice of coke or kumys. I took the kumys of course. Dinner, kumys and a basic room cost only one dollar! The next morning Gena dropped me off at the bus station at 5:00 AM before returning to Bishkek.
The regular bus service leaves Toktogul for Osh at day break because the road is long and bad. Here, passengers are getting back on board after a stop for breakfast.
The sun was blazing and the temperature over 40 celsius in the shade when we stopped here for lunch.
One of the five artificial lakes created on the Naryn River to produce hydro electric power, a major export of Kyrgyzstan.
We took a shortcut through Andijan in Uzbekistan instead of staying in Kyrgyzstan all the way to Osh as I had expected. Luckily we were not stopped at either border. I was the only one aboard who cared for I would have had to go back to Bishkek to get a new Uzbek visa if my single entry visa had been stupidly used up in this short cut. I was therefore relieved to check in at Osh's Alai Hotel at 5 PM after a long day.
This rocky outcrop is called Suleyman's Throne from a legend crediting King Solomon for the founding of Osh. It is a place of holy pilgrimage for another legend alleges that Prophet Mohammed prayed there. It is also said that Babur, the founder of India's Moghul Dynasty, built himself a playhouse near the top when he was a 14 year old kid. A very famous place indeed, I just had to take a picture of it!
A bread stand in the sprawling Jayma Bazaar.
I don't know how he got to Osh but here is that silly Lenin fellow again, still trying to flag a cab without any success at all!