It is often said that it is the landscape of a country that shapes its people, and helps create the culture. It is perhaps for this reason that the cultures of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are so vastly different, while both have long and rich traditions, and histories that crossed several times.
Coming from a country as large as Australia, which shares a common language and culture from north to south, east to west, it is easy to look at a map of the relatively small countries of Central Asia and miss how many different and diverse cultures and nationalities can occupy such a small area.
While there were, and to a lesser extent still are, many nomadic peoples living as ethnic minorities right through that area and as far west as Iran, Kyrgyzstan is an area whose people were mostly nomadic, and were until the 1920s. Unlike Uzbekistan, there are few great buildings, and ancient cities. However, there is a culture equally rich and vibrant, but which has, due to its majestic mountains, been somewhat isolated up until the 19th century. Although Lake Issyk Kul, the world's second largest lake, was a stopping point along the Silk Road, there is little architectural evidence of this. There are great Silk Road cities in neighbouring Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China, but none in Kyrgyzstan.One look at those mountains with their permanent caps of snow, and I'm sure even an enterprising merchant would have searched out a more hospitable and forgiving route.
There had once been great Silk Road cities at Osh and Balasagun, but these were destroyed by the Mongols. There were, further back over the centuries, settlements of Scythians and Hung sun civilisations, but little remains beyond some fascinating ruins, and petroglyphs. In more recent times, they were part of the Uzbek Khanate, then colonised by the Russians, and after the 1917 Revolution, eventually became a full member republic of the USSR.
The native Kyrgs lived in yurts, somewhat similar to those used by the Mongols, and were famous not only for being excellent horsemen, but fierce fighters, a reputation that helped shape their modern identity. During the Second World War, the USSR, which took the brunt of Germany's aggression, took many of its soldiers from Kyrgyzstan. Our group passed through a village where all of the men of fighting age were shipped off to the fighting, with not a single man to return, a not uncommon tragedy. Looking over the breathtakingly beautiful landscape, and peaceful countryside, it is difficult to believe that such sadness could have been a part of the history, or, in fact, that much of anything could have happened there, there is such a sense of timelessness about Kyrgyzstan.
There is a strong Persian, Mongolian, and Russian influence right through the nation, but it is overall a uniquely Kyrgy influenced culture. Men still wear the kalpak, a tall felt hat, and, as a matter of daily dress, so many locals wear national costume, of which the Kyrgys are very proud. As fascinating and splendid the culture and people are, nothing can equal the natural beauty of the country, a beauty so perfect that it hardly seems real.
Early spring was definitely the time to visit. Not only was it off-season, but there was still plenty of fresh snow about, as well as beautiful blossoms. The grass was fresh and lush, and horses, goats, sheep, and cows of an amazingly wide and varied array of colours and breeds were grazing greedily on what was probably their first fresh fodder after the winter. The countryside was pristine, and the mountains stunning. The Alps now have lost their ability to impress me, the Tian Shan (Heaven Mountains) are so perfect they look more like a movie backdrop than anything found in the real world.
Staying in Ashu, a small village in the Chon-Kemin, is like stepping back in time, and then stepping out of time. The place is so tranquil and charming that even the local hoon driving noisily down the mud streets could not shatter the charm. I now fully understand what it is like to need to pinch oneself to believe that something so stunning could be real.