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Its nomadic people have left little mark on its beautiful and mountainous landscape and a horseback expedition will often feel like a trip back in time.
You ride through empty valleys, sleeping in traditional yurts (round-framed tented homes, covered in wool felt,), while nomads carry on a life seeming little changed for centuries.
The country lies between Uzbekistan and China and Osh, Kyrgyzstan's oldest city, was an important commercial stop for traders on the Silk Road for thousands of years. The Kyrgyz people were originally from what is now Siberia.
In the third century BC, they were among the warrior bands the Great Wall of China was built to keep out and gradually moved into the region of what is now Kyrgyzstan between the sixth and 13th century AD.
Kyrgyzstan was absorbed into the Russian Empire in 1876 and large numbers of Russians settled in the northern part of the country, while many Kyrgyz nomads were forced out into China.
In 1919, it became part of the Soviet Union and remained so until Independence in 1991. The end of the USSR has left a legacy of troubled regional politics and disputed borders.
Kyrgyz history is told in the Epic of Manas, a song-poem that records oral history for around 1,000 years.
The Kyrgyz nomads had no written language and some 60 versions survive, the longest some 500,000 words. Manas was a warrior who united the various tribes of the steppes under his leadership.
Since Independence, the story has helped unite the 80 nationalities and ethnic groups of the new Kyrgyzstan.
Islam first reached the region in the tenth century, with further waves in the 17th century, but was not firmly established until the end of the 19th century. The large majority of Kyrgyz people are now Sunni Muslims.
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Culture and traditions
Hospitality is a serious business in Kyrgyz culture. The harsh landscape and nomadic culture meant guests were traditionally offered the best of everything a host could provide and this generosity carries over to the modern-day traveller.
Every visitor returns with tales of the kindness and warmth of the Kyrgyz people.
Also taken very seriously is the game of Kok Boru (“Blue Wolf”), so popular as to be considered the national sport.
Afghanistan and Iran both claim the game as their own and it is also known as Buzkashi or “Goat Grabbing” which is a pretty fair description. Two teams of up to 100 or more horsemen on each side, fight for a goat carcass on a pitch similar in size to polo.
Grabbing the goat off the ground, no mean feat in itself, the riders battle to drop it in their opponent’s “goal” –a ring of tyres on a small mound.
The game is played on summer weekends throughout Kyrgyzstan and is said to have its origins as a way to run down wolves attacking flocks.
Wrestling on horsebacks and long-distance races of up to 30 miles are among the many other competitions that reflect the Kyrgyz love of horses.
Ala kachuu (“grab and run” or bride kidnapping) is a less romantic throwback to nomadic life. Originally a way for a poor couple to escape the expense of a wedding, a form of elopement, it has become a way for a man to grab any woman he chooses.
Once she has spent the night under his roof, many women fear disgrace if they return home and so consent to a marriage. While now illegal, enforcing the law has been half-hearted.
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Kyrgyzstan was traditionally a nomadic culture of following and living off flocks of sheep and horses. Meat rules the table, with vegetables still a rarity.
The distinctive Kyrgyz meal is beshbarmak (“five fingers”), made by boiling a rump of horse or leg of mutton.
When tender, it is diced, mixed with noodles and onion sauce and traditionally eaten with the fingers – hence the name. The fatty broth is served as a side dish called shorpa.
Green or black tea is served with almost every meal, as is the circular loaf of “non” flatbread that is common in Central Asia.
The tea is made strong and served continually in small cups until you indicate you’ve had your fill.
At the end of a meal, it is traditional to give thanks by saying “Omen”, then wiping your open palms over your face.
Kumis (fermented mare’s milk) is a must-try experience. Not because you want to try it – you probably don’t – but because your Kyrgyz host will be delighted by your effort.
Mares don’t produce as much milk as a dairy cow, so kumis is a seasonal, summer drink, often sold in town from roadside yurts by country folk.
Said to be the drink of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, it tastes like strong, slightly fizzy cow’s milk but with a hint of beer (it is very mildly alcoholic).
Russians bottle it as a health drink, taken just before a meal to aid digestion. Other seasonal drinks include bozo (yoghurt and millet) in winter or jarma (based on wheat) in spring, among others, which are an acquired taste.
Four varieties have been commercialised under the successful Shoro (“Salty”) brand, which is on sale throughout Kyrgyzstan.
Vodka is a staple among any non-Muslims you meet, traditionally drunk with salty and fatty Russian-style snacks called zakushas.
These range from bread and cucumbers to pickled fish and smoked sausage. They help line the stomach for the obligatory endless toasts.
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Felt rugs called shyr-daks make colourful souvenirs. Layers of felt are stitched together, with intricate patterned cut-outs revealing the different colour beneath.
They were traditionally made by women and used to insulate and decorate nomadic yurts. It’s a time-consuming art that is also a dying one, as prices rarely reflect the amount of work and skill involved. Almost as colourful are tushuks, quilts stuffed with wool that can also serve as a sitting or sleeping pad.
Other crafts with a legacy in nomad life include leatherwork such as bottles, bridles, saddles and kamchis (whips). Often using an animal hoof for the handle, kamchis are skilfully used by every Kyrgyz horseman.
The wide choice of silver jewellery also reflects the former need for women to carry their wealth on them.
Osh is a popular stop for its outdoor market, which is one of the largest in the country. As well as handmade crafts, there is also an eclectic collection of Soviet-era jumble, such as ornate Samovars, assorted militaria or musical instruments.
The food section is a photographer’s dream, full of assorted spices, dried fruit, nuts, veg, meat and bread in colourful displays. The household section has lovely handmade brooms and baskets.
The Tsum Centre in Bishkek is another popular shopping destination. This multi-storey post-Soviet department store is worth wandering around for a taste of local life.
This is the place for locals to find a bargain on a mobile phone or have a printer repaired and for visitors to browse through a fascinating range of unfamiliar consumer items.
The top floor is given over to stalls selling a good choice of souvenirs, many of which can be bargained for. Look out for felted items such as slippers, coats or hats and ornate chess sets with leather boards.
Bishkek, the capital, is one of the most pleasant cities in Central Asia, full of tree-shaded avenues, people-watching-worthy parks and other interesting sights.
The Soviet influence can be seen in the over-grand public buildings, statue-filled squares and Changing The Guard ceremony in Ala-Too Square.
The 22-mile-long Ala Archa Gorge, just outside Bishkek, is a national park famed for its vistas of tulips in spring. Hikers love the waterfalls, glaciers and juniper trees. It also has some challenging rock faces for climbers.
Issyk-Kul is an azure-blue alpine lake – the world’s second largest after Lake Titicaca – surrounded by evergreen forests and mountains that are snow-capped in winter.
The water is rich in minerals and beach resorts such as Cholpon-Ata cater to local health tourism.
However, most foreigners come for the excellent trekking, by foot or horse, in the nearby Tian Shan (Heavenly Cloud) mountain range. Karakol is a centre for the two-day trek to Altyn Arashan over the 12,500-foot Ala-kul Pass down to Ala-kul Lake.
Natural hot springs at Altyn Arashan will soothe any aching muscles as a reward for your efforts.
Even if you are not in Kyrgyzstan on a horse-riding or trekking holiday, you should experience at least one night in a yurt.
A night out in the open, watching the bright stars after a hearty meal and before you go to a warm and cosy bed, is a highlight for most visitors.
Speaking of stars, Song Köl is another remote lake where the lack of any artificial light makes for amazing stargazing. A tourist village of yurts is a popular place to stay and experience it.
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