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The cultural highlights of Kyrgyzstan

By Samantha Fergusson

When you think of Kyrgyzstan, soaring mountains, wild-looking horses and snowy white yurts spring to mind, but what is often overlooked is the bounty of cultural gems that are also tucked away within its borders. This Central Asian country is in fact a culture vulture’s dream, with ancient architecture, bronze age artwork and fascinating local traditions all waiting to be explored and discovered. Here, with the help of our wonderful local experts, we’ve picked out some of our favourite cultural highlights of Kyrgyzstan.

Rider in the Tien Shan mountain foothills, Kyrgyzstan

The Burana Tower of Balasagun

Legend has it that a fortune teller told a local khan that his beautiful baby daughter would die by the age of 16. Terrified for her safety, he built the Burana Tower to protect her - no one entered and she grew up all alone. On her 16th birthday, the Khan was overjoyed that no harm had come to her and brought her a basket of fruit as a gift. Inexplicably, she collapsed, and on examination the basket was found to contain a poisonous spider. The khan’s grief was so great that his sobs shook the tower, the top tumbling away into the ruined tower you can see today.

Burana Tower of Balasagun, Kyrgyzstan

In truth, the top of this ancient minaret actually fell down in the 15th century during an earthquake, reducing it from a glorious 40 metres to today’s 25 metres, but it is still incredibly beautiful. It is one of the few remains of the city of Balasagun - alongside some remnants of a castle and a couple of mausoleums - which was built by the Karakhanids, “the black khans”, at the turn of the 10th century. As part of the Silk Route, it was a powerful and important city, but was overrun by Mongols in the 14th century signalling the fall of the Karakhanid empire. Eventually, the whole city was gradually erased from the land leaving this lonely tower standing sentinel over a few small stone sculptures and a couple of crumbled walls.

Stone sculptures found by Burana Tower, Kyrgyzstan

Ancient Petroglyphs of Cholpon-Ata and Saimaluu-Tash

To get a glimpse of what life was like for the ancient civilisations of Kyrgyzstan, visit one of the several petroglyph sites scattered across the country. From afar, they look simply like fields of boulders, but on wandering around you can witness scenes that were painted as early as the Bronze Age, archaeologists dating some of them as about 4,000 years old.

Cholpon-Ata petroglyphs, Kyrgyzstan

The most easily accessible site at Cholpon-Ata has got arguably the most exciting petroglyph where hunters are depicted pursuing wild ibex with tame snow leopards. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of rocks at the site with varying levels of rock drawings on them. Treat it like a bit of a treasure hunt and you can easily spend a couple of hours marvelling at drawings that have existed since roughly 2,000 BC to 400 AD.

Pertoglyph of snow leopard hunt at cholpon-ata, Kyrgyzstan

Another site worth making the effort to visit is Saimaluu-Tash, which means “embroidered” or “patterned stones”, an accurate description for this remote but spectacular array of petroglyphs. High up in the mountains, around 11,000 stunning examples of rock art dating from 2,000 BC or perhaps even earlier are scattered across two glacial moraines. These petroglyphs are etched onto shiny basaltic rocks so are a little clearer to see than the Cholpon-Ata drawings, and are thought to have been offerings to the gods, the pond that you’ll spot by some of the artwork also believed to have been considered a sacred site visited by shamans.

Petroglyph at Saimaluu-Tash in Kyrgyzstan mountains

Wonderful traditional food

The cuisine to be found in Kyrgyzstan and much of Central Asia is probably quite unlike anything you will have tried before. The vast majority of the Kyrgyz population lives in the countryside, with many still living the nomadic lifestyle of their ancestors, and this reliance on the surrounding land and its resources is very much reflected in the food.

Nomad yurts and horses in Kyrgyzstan

Mutton or lamb is one of the most popular meats and is eaten regularly in broths and stews, like Besh Barmak where chunks of lamb are mixed with noodles and a tasty broth. Horsemeat is also eaten at special occasions and funerals, typically young mares who have been raised on mountain pastures as their meat is said to be more tender and with the best flavour. Horse milk is also used in Kyrgyz and the nomadic Central Asian cuisine, the most famous (and unusual for foreign visitors) use is to make kumis, an alcoholic drink made from fermented mare's milk.

Milking a mare in Kyrgyzstan

The more accessible and delicious morsels that you will come across in your travels are the many different kinds of bread that have been central to the diet and traditions of the Kyrgyz culture for centuries. Borsook are light and puffy balls of dough that are fried in hot oil and you will find them at all Kyrgyz celebrations, often accompanied by mare’s milk butter or chopped vegetables. Another bread you’re likely to see is lepyoshka - these are pretty, round loaves that are cooked in a clay oven and truly delicious when still warm. They are often just torn at the table at mealtimes and are never placed upside down, so if you are sharing a meal make sure to honour this superstition!

Kyrgyz lepyoshka bread at a stall

The ancient city of Osh and Sulaiman-Too

Osh is one of the oldest cities in Kyrgyzstan, with a history said to date back 3,000 years, and is located at the crossroads of two important trading routes on the Silk Road. It has had a fascinating history with many different cultural influences and was annexed by the Russians in the early 19th century. These days, the population is mostly made up of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks and so the Central Asian culture can still be felt strongly throughout the city.

Sulaiman-Too in front of Osh, Kyrgyzstan

Osh is most famous for being home to Sulaiman-Too, a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to being “the most complete example of a sacred mountain anywhere in Central Asia” and having been worshipped at for several millennia. It has five peaks and in total there are 17 places of worship still in use on the mountain - including two largely reconstructed 16th century mosques - as well as many that are no longer used and caves filled with ancient petroglyphs. A fascinating place to explore! There are also a few museums worth poking around in the city, including The Great Silk Road Museum which has great exhibits on Kyrgyz history and the Kurmanjan Datka Museum, a three story yurt filled with incredible textiles and paintings.

Solomon's throne on Sulaiman-Too, Kyrgyzstan

Make it happen

If you are intrigued by Kyrgyz culture, or in fact any part of this wonderful country, then our local experts are perfectly positioned to plan your ideal tailor-made trip to explore it. Simply send an enquiry and they will get to work on your bespoke itinerary. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.