The Kidnapped Bride
Kyrgyz men have a way of sweeping a woman off her feet – off her feet and into a waiting car. Ala kachuu (bride kidnapping) is a very hands-on way to find a wife. There is some dispute as to how 'traditional' the practice is and it's officially illegal, but it also seems to be on the upswing, with some reports putting around one-third of the country's marriages as a result of bride kidnapping. Many locals say the practice is a reassertion of national identity, while others point to the rising cost of wedding celebrations and the expense of the traditional ‘bride price’. If both sides tacitly agree, a well-executed abduction can in fact prove a clever way to dramatically slash wedding costs.
But not all ala kachuu grabs are quaint money-saving devices. In the case of a genuine kidnap, the woman does still have the right to refuse if she can weather hours of haranguing by the groom-thief's female family members, who attempt to make her wear a symbolic bridal headscarf. But often she'll succumb, fearing an implied shame or worse if she refuses; and the girl's family, once contacted, often pressure her to agree to the marriage.
The issue of ala kachuu came to the fore in local conversation with the 2007 Kyrgyz movie Boz Salkyn (Pure Coolness).
Of approximately 80 ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan, the main trio are:
- Kyrgyz: 72%
- Uzbek: 14%
- Russian: 6%
Other notable minorities include Ukrainians, Uyghurs, Kalmyks, Tatars and Dungans (Hui Muslims originally from China).
Since 1989 there has been a major exodus of Slavs and Germans, but the Kyrgyz (along with Kazakhs) remain probably the most Russified group in Central Asia. Russian remains the lingua franca in Bishkek and northern Kyrgyzstan, but is less commonly spoken in the south. About one fifth of working adults are overseas and send home remittances, most notably from Russia.
About two-thirds of the population lives in rural areas. Regional clan identities are relatively strong with a north–south cultural division that's a potentially destabilising factor within society, along with the tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups. Although generally invisible to visitors, such tensions have occasionally boiled over very violently, notably in 1990 at Uzgen, in Bishkek in March 2005, and in Osh and Jalal-Abad in June 2010.
The population is overwhelmingly Muslim. Northern Kyrgyz are more Russified and less likely to follow strict Muslim doctrine than their cousins in the south. Nonetheless, Islamic observance is growing rapidly, partially as a reaction against perceived corruption in the secular sphere. Dwindling communities of Russian Orthodox Christians are still visible, particularly in Bishkek and Karakol, both of which have active Orthodox cathedrals.
Central Asian literature has traditionally been popularised in the form of songs, poems and stories by itinerant minstrels or bards, called akyn in Kyrgyz. Among the better-known 20th-century Kyrgyz akyns are Togolok Moldo (aka Bayymbet Abdyrakhmanov), Sayakbay Karalaev and Sagymbay Orozbakov.
Kyrgyzstan’s best-known author is Chinghiz Aitmatov (1928–2008), whose works have been translated into English, German and French. Among his novels, which are also revealing looks at Kyrgyz life and culture, are Jamilia (1967), The White Steamship (1970), Early Cranes (1975), Piebald Dog Running Along the Shore (1978) and The Day Lasts More Than 100 Years (1980); Piebald Dog was made into a prize-winning Russian film in 1990.
The Manas Epic
The Manas epic is a cycle of oral legends, 20 times longer than Homer's Odyssey. It tells of the formation of the Kyrgyz people with the original narrative revolving around the exploits of batyr (heroic warrior) Manas as he carves out a homeland for his people in the face of hostile hordes. Subsequent stories feature his son Semetei, grandson Seitek and widow Kanykei.
The epic was only first written down in the mid-19th century (by Kazakh ethnographer Chokan Valikhanov) and even today it remains very much part of oral tradition. Akyn who can recite or improvise from the epics are considered in a class by themselves and are known as manaschi. According to tradition, bona fide manaschi find their role in life after a long illness or life-changing dream in which the warrior of legend calls them to the task.
Since independence, the Manas epic has become a cultural rallying point for the Kyrgyz. Manas statues grace virtually every city. Although there's much dispute as to the age of the epics, Kyrgyzstan celebrated what was purported to be the 1000th anniversary of Manas' birth in 1995. There's also a tomb near Talas touted as being the hero's final resting place, a legend that certainly encourages local pilgrims.
Kyrgyz traditional music is played on a mixture of two-stringed komuz lutes, a vertical violin known as a kyl kyayk, flutes, drums, long horns and mouth harps (temir komuz, or jygach ooz with a string).
Quintessential Kyrgyz felt rugs or decorative pieces called shyrdaks are pieced together by female artisans from cut pieces of sheep’s wool after weeks of washing, drying, dyeing and treatment against pests. The appliqué patterns are usually of a kochkor mujuz (plant motif), teke mujuz (ibex-horn motif) or kyal (fancy scrollwork) bordered in a style particular to the region of production. Designs became strikingly colourful after synthetic dye became readily available in the 1960s, but natural dyes are making a comeback, notably using pear and raspberry leaves, dahlia and birch root. A handmade shyrdak tends to have irregular stitching on the back and tight, even stitching around the panels. More pictorial ala-kiyiz (rugs or hangings with ‘blurred’ coloured panels pressed on) are made by laying out the wool in the desired pattern on a chiy (reed) mat, sprinkling hot water, then rolling and pressing until the wool strands compact.
There are felt-making cooperatives in Bishkek, Karakol, Bokonbaevo and Kochkor that offer demonstrations of the craft, with pieces often sold through CBT and other community tourism offices.
Kyrgyzstan’s Aktan Abdykalykov is one of Central Asia’s most accomplished filmmakers. His 1998 bittersweet coming-of-age Beshkempir (The Adopted Son) was released to critical acclaim, and Maimil (The Chimp) received an honourable mention at Cannes in 2001.
Tengri: Blue Heavens (2008) is a French-made film that follows the romantic pairing of a down-on-his-luck Kazakh fisherman with a Kyrgyz widow, set and shot in Kyrgyzstan.
Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains (2014), by local director Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, was released to international popular acclaim and nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar award.
Community Based Tourism
One of the great appeals of Kyrgyzstan is the relative ease with which one can organise homestays, yurtstays, local guides and horses thanks to several Kyrgyz grass-roots organisations. The most widespread network is CBT whose most active sub-branches effectively double as tourist offices – notably in Arslanbob, Karakol and Naryn. You can often approach CBT providers independently, but typically this won't get you a discount. That's arguably a good thing as the CBT network is a valuable resource and is worth funding. Nonetheless, several smaller CBT-like outfits do compete in some towns, especially in Kochkor for trips to Son-Köl.
Homestay prices vary slightly between regions and according to the 'edelweiss' ranking (the CBT version of a star rating), but the typical range is 450som to 700som per day for bed and breakfast, plus 250som to 350som per additional meal. Depending on the quality and availability of local restaurants, it is often cheaper to eat out. Horse hire is usually around 700som per day and guides range from 600som to 1400som per day – sometimes you'll need to pay for the guide's food and lodging on top of their daily rate, and occasionally even for their horse. Be sure to clarify all costs and services provided before departing.
Kyrgyzstan offers an annual refuge for thousands of migrating birds, including rare cranes and geese that stop over in the Unesco-affiliated biosphere reserves of Issyk-Köl and Sary-Chelek lakes. The country is believed to have a population of a few hundred snow leopards, and is also home to populations of brown bears, Marco Polo sheep, ibex and wolves. The large Sarychat-Ertash area in the Central Tien Shan a closed reserve, which partially intended to preserve wild animals, particularly imperilled snow leopards.
Fresh water locked up in the form of glaciers is one of Kyrgyzstan's greatest natural resources, but the glaciers have been shrinking alarmingly – albeit not perhaps as catastrophically as a 2008 UN report feared.
Despite a well-established seasonal rotation, there are problems with overgrazing of meadows near villages. And contrastingly there's a simultaneous under-grazing of more distant jailoos made inaccessible by the increasing costs of transport or lack of infrastructure.
In Soviet days, the Kyrgyz SSR’s uranium-mining sector earned the sobriquet ‘Atomic Fortress of the Tian Shan’. A number of former mine sites still threaten to leak their radioactive contents into rivers and groundwater. Meanwhile there remain major controversies over the ownership and operation of active mines, notably the massive Canadian-run Kumtor Gold Mine. According to the BBC, this operation reportedly produces around 12% of Kyrgyzstan's GDP, but its high mountain location at the source of many river systems makes its environmental credentials particularly sensitive. In 1998 a Kumtor truck carrying almost 2 tonnes of cyanide and sodium hydrochloride fell into the Barskoön River, leading to a widespread evacuation, though the exact number of casualties remains a source of considerable dispute.