The history of Kyrgyzstan covers ancient petroglyphs to the Silk Road, from the Soviet Union to an independent country. Kyrgyzstan has long been a historically important point in the center of Asia, at the confluence of trade routes and empires. Located right between the Chinese, Persian, Arab, Indian, Turkic, and Russian empires, the land that today forms Kyrgyzstan has changed the history of many peoples, religions, cultures and travelers.
Central Asia and the areas around the Tian Shan have been inhabited for thousands of years, as petroglyphs and archaeological finds can attest. Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan, is one of the oldest settlements in Central Asia, and has been known since antiquity. Some of the earliest settlers were nomadic pagans who practiced Tengrism, an ancient monotheistic religion centered around nature. Up until the Battle of Talas, between the Chinese Tang dynasty and the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in 751 CE, Central Asia was a largely Buddhist territory, though certainly other religions and cultures were well known because of travelers on the Silk Road. The Battle of Talas marked a turning point, from which Islam starting becoming the dominant religion and influence on the region. The Karakhanids were one of such early Muslim dynasties, and they mixed many older Turkic elements with Islam. The Karakhanids were in power from the 9th to 11th centuries, during which time they built Burana Tower (all that’s left of their capital, Balasagun) and the mausoleums in Uzgen.
Starting in the 13th century, with the Mongol conquest sweeping across Asia, the people that became today’s ethnic Kyrgyz moved from the Yenisei River, in Siberia, to their current home in the Tian Shan. The Tian Shan remained under the control of the Mongols in various forms for several hundred years, including under the Kalmyks, the Oirats, and the Dzungars, depending on who had recently beaten whom.
In the 18th century, the Qing Dynasty in China had reached its largest size, and the Oirats became a vassal state. With the rise of the Khanate of Kokand in the early 1700s, Kyrgyzstan fell under the rule of the Khanate. Throughout these previous centuries of Kyrgyzstan’s history, the area played a vital role as a stop for travelers on the Silk Road crossing Asia. Visitors can still see Tash Rabat, a stone caravanserai (like a hotel) in Naryn Province, dating from the 15th century. There are also influences from many lands that entered the languages and cultures (and even DNA) of the people living in the area, likely from passing merchants and travelers. And although the Epic of Manas is reputed to be much older, the events that it depicts closely match the history of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Central Asia was right in the middle of the Great Game of imperial expansion in the 1800s, played out between Russia from the north and Great Britain from the south. At this time, the Khanate of Kokand was much weaker, and so smaller regional rulers had significantly more power. When Alimbek Datka, who was the ruler of the Alai (in what is now southern Kyrgyzstan), was murdered in a palace coup, his wife, the strong Kurmanjan, became the newest leader in 1862. As the Russians moved closer and closer, Kurmanjan Datka urged a peaceful transition, and in 1867, the Alai region was annexed by the Russian Empire. A 2014 film shows the story of her life (as well as the stunning landscapes that she lived in), which is now considered to be an important part of the history of Kyrgyzstan.
From 1867 to 1918, Kyrgyzstan was part of Russian Turkestan, a Governor-Generalship in the Russian Empire. Turkestan remained a colonial outpost for many years, isolated by distance from the capital in Saint Petersburg, but the advent of railroads at the turn of the 20th century brought more and more Russian settlers, straining limited land and water resources. This led to the Basmachi Revolt in 1916, followed by harsh Russian reprisals. Many Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz fled across the border to China, both following the 1916 revolt and the forceful arrival of the Communist Party in 1918.
Following the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1917, Turkestan was divided up into oblasts, roughly according to ethnicity. Since many people were nomadic, and many people identified more with their religion, city, or profession than with ethnicity, borders were hard to draw, and many populations ended up outside of their titular nation (this is why there is a large population of Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan today). The Kara-Kirghiz Autonomous Oblast was established in 1924, only to be replaced by the Kirghiz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic, in 1926. Both of these bodies were part of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. In 1936, the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic was established, governed by the Kirghiz branch of the Communist Party from the capital in Frunze, now Bishkek. One of the most notable figures to come from Soviet Kyrgyzstan was Chingiz Aitmatov, a famous politician, diplomat, and writer.
On August 31, 1991, the Republic of Kyrgyzstan declared independence from the Soviet Union. The president since 1990, Askar Akayev, became President of the new republic and stayed in office until the Tulip Revolution in 2005. Politics remained unstable until protests in 2010 led to the ouster of Bakiyev, who had replaced Akayev. Tensions flared into violence along ethnic lines between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, recalling similar riots that broke out in Osh in 1990. Roza Otunbayeva became interim president in April 2010, also becoming one of the few female leaders in a Muslim-majority country. She also became the first Kyrgyz leader to peacefully hand over power when she stepped down after elections that brought Almazbek Atambayev to the presidency in 2011. Since then, Kyrgyzstan has stayed relatively stable, even hosting two World Nomad Games, in 2014 and 2016.
The culture of Kyrgyzstan is heavily influenced by the traditions of nomadic life. Kyrgyz culture features influences from Russia, Persia, and Turkey, but yet remains something entirely unique. Nature influences are prominent, from the designs to the music, and many traditions reflect the fact that nomads lived closely with nature. Perhaps the most well-known aspect of Kyrgyz culture is the Epic of Manas, an incredibly long poem passed down orally for generations.
As nomads, the Kyrgyz people always lived closely with nature. From their housing to their clothing, everything was designed to adapt to changing weather and locations. Yurts are easy to take apart and carry, and can be made warmer for winter, and cooler for summer. The textiles inside of yurts, such as shyrdaks and tush kyiz (felt rugs and embroidered hangings), take their inspiration from designs found in nature, such as plants, animals, and landscapes. Even clothing was made out of natural materials and designed to be comfortable while still stylish.
Horses were, and still are, central to Kyrgyz culture. They provided not only transportation but played crucial roles in wars and even cuisine. Kumis, or kymyz, is made from mare’s milk, and some traditional dishes feature horse meat. Horses traditionally played roles in courtship and marriage ceremonies and could be used as payment or as dowries. Some instruments were even designed so that they could be played on horseback, and the beat of hooves can be heard in traditional Kyrgyz music.
It’s no surprise then that horsemanship is valued in Kyrgyz culture. Sports are ways to develop both riders and horses and to make both better prepared for hunting and battle. Competitions testing dogs and birds of prey on their speed and accuracy found the best hunters, who would be essential in the winter.
Many of these elements can still be found today, though Kyrgyzstan is also still a modern country. People are proud of the culture in Kyrgyzstan, and events are held to make sure that it is kept alive and promoted. Visitors can expect to be immersed in these nomadic and traditional elements, especially if they stay with a host family.
The Epic of Manas
The Epic of Manas is perhaps the most famous part of Kyrgyz culture and is (arguably) the longest epic poem in the world. At 20 times longer than the Odyssey, this epic tells the life of Manas, an epic warrior, and his son and grandson. The original tale was passed orally from performer to performer, who was known as manaschi. The tale was written down starting in the 1800s, and the first complete version was published in the 1920s. The Epic of Manas has since been translated into many different languages, and published in the Soviet Union and abroad. Read more...
Yurts are one of the most essential parts of Kyrgyz culture and are more than just houses. They represent the family, the earth, and the universe, and cover everything from birth to death. Yurts hold much of Kyrgyz culture, from important rituals and ceremonies to craftsmanship and traditional artistry.
Kyrgyz yurts are made of cupola birch poles tied to a latticework that forms the vertical walls. The outside is made of felt and wool, which is water repellent and warm, and can be easily patched as needed. The top of the yurt is a wooden circle, called a tunduk, which forms one of the most essential symbols of family and the universe. Read more...
Kyrgyz textiles feature mostly designs from nature and materials that were easily found in the mountains and their surroundings. Felt and wool are common materials, as are reeds and embroidery thread. Most of the motifs and designs reflect the mountains, rivers, plants, and animals that live in Kyrgyzstan.
- Shyrdaks are the most iconic Kyrgyz textile, easily recognizable from their bold patterns.
- Tush kyiz are intricate embroideries, often made for marriages. The designs feature plants and flowers, and sometimes animals, embroidered onto a soft cloth, and are hung on the walls of yurts.
- Kurak is items sewn together from fabric scraps. The name kurak comes from the word “kura”, which means sewn together, or put together from separate pieces. Kurak maybe hats, children’s clothing, blankets for cradles, wedding curtains, mattresses, pillows, covers for saddles, bags, or carpets.
- Ala kyiz are also made of felt, and may feature similar designs as shyrdaks, but are made through a different process.
- Chiy are reeds that grow on the steppes and are harvested and dried to make mats. Read more...
Kyrgyz music is most famous for how evocative it is of nature and life in the mountains. Many songs have lyrics about the nomadic lifestyle, but even without words, the music reflects the sounds and feelings of not only the landscape but of the experiences essential to living there. There are a variety of instruments in Kyrgyzstan, all of which can be played in ensembles or separately.
- The most iconic is the komuz, a three-stringed instrument reminiscent of a guitar, though it is slightly smaller.
- The kyl kyyak is a vertical bowed string instrument, with two strings, usually made from apricot wood.
- The temir komuz, or jaw harp, is another popular instrument in Kyrgyzstan.
- The chopo-choor is another wind instrument, similar to an ocarina that sits comfortably in the hand, and has three to six holes to control the pitch. Read more...
Though Kyrgyzstan might not be known as a center for performing arts, there are actually a number of famous writers and performers from the region. There is a thriving arts scene in Kyrgyzstan, with theaters and art schools around the country. Students can study dance, performance, music and filmmaking, and there are performance spaces that regularly host productions.
The State Kyrgyz Opera and Ballet Theater was founded in 1926 as a training theater. The current building was built in 1955 and still holds regular performances to this day. Read more...
Kyrgyzstan's literature extends across centuries, though it wasn't always written down. Since very little of the population was literate until relatively recently, many poets (known as akyns) traveled from village to village performing their works. Some works, like the Epic of Manas, were memorized and passed down orally between generations of performers, known as manaschi. Literacy increased under the Soviet Union, when schooling became more common, and not just part of religious education. Starting in the 20th century, writers, poets, and linguists flourished, producing excellent works that became famous around the world. Read more...
Horses are essential to the nomadic lifestyle, and life in the mountains and on the steppes would be impossible without them. Horses were used for everything from transportation to war, from payment to companionship. Mare’s milk is a part of Kyrgyz cuisine, and meat and leather can also be important products. Tourists can easily find Kyrgyz souvenirs related to horses, such as intricate horsewhips or antique saddles. Read more...
Sports in Kyrgyzstan are more than just recreation; they’re training for life. People needed to be strong and resourceful to survive in the mountains and steppes, and sports helped them gain the strength and skills necessary. Sports also reflect the traditions and values of the Kyrgyz people and helped them pass on their culture from one generation to another.
- The most famous of sports in Kyrgyzstan are horse games. Kok-boru features two teams of riders fighting for possession of a dead sheep, which they must land in a goal to score points.
- Wrestling is another popular sport in Kyrgyzstan. Here, the connection between sport and survival is a little clearer - strength and agility would be useful in a variety of situations.
- Hunting competitions helped hone the skills of animals, like birds and dogs. Birds of prey can be trained as hunting aids, but are never fully domesticated.
- Intellectual games build a player’s capacity to think strategically. Ordo, a game that involves throwing vertebrae in order to hit a target at the center of a circle. Read more...
Kyrgyz clothing reflects the lifestyle and regions of Kyrgyzstan, with designs and materials drawn from nomadic life. Wool, felt, leather, skins, and coarse cloth are the main materials used for Kyrgyz clothing, with ornamentation taken from tribal traditions and nature. Even though many people wear Western clothing, traditional elements are still visible everywhere, and people are proud of their traditional clothing in Kyrgyzstan. Read more...
Some monuments and memorials in Kyrgyzstan remain from Soviet times, while others have only appeared since independence. New statues of Manas and older statues of Lenin dot the country, while monuments to other notable figures (such as Chingiz Aitmatov, Toktogul Satylganov, and Przewalski) can also be found. In Bishkek, there are also monuments to those who died in the Second World War (at Victory Square), and a Memorial to Those Who Died for Freedom (commemorating those killed in the 2010 revolution). Ata-Beyit, close to Bishkek, is a memorial complex located near a mass grave where political prisoners had been executed and serve as a memorial to those who died during the political purges.
Though museums in Kyrgyzstan may not be the most famous nor the highlight of a trip, they are still important and informative. The State Historical Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Bishkek are two of the largest and most famous museums in Kyrgyzstan, but a trip to Bishkek would be incomplete without visiting the Frunze House Museum, where visitors can enter his perfectly preserved house. The Osh State Historical and Archaeological Museum showcases the only UNESCO World Heritage Site completely in Kyrgyzstan, while the Przewalski House Museum in Karakol is a tribute to the famous explorer, one of the first to map the area. Next to Burana Tower is an archaeological museum, where visitors can learn more about the ancient history of Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan Visa Requirements
Kyrgyzstan is the most open country in Central Asia for tourists. Citizens from many countries do not need a visa to visit Kyrgyzstan for periods ranging from 30 days to unlimited stays. Below you will find a list of visa-free nationalities and who need an e-visa or to obtain it at the embassy.
Citizens of the following countries can stay in Kyrgyzstan without a visa for an unlimited amount of time:
Citizens of the following countries can stay in Kyrgyzstan without a visa for up to 90 days:
Citizens of the following countries can stay in Kyrgyzstan without a visa for up to 60 days:
Bosnia and Herzegovina
United Arab Emirates
United States of America
Citizens of the following countries can stay in Kyrgyzstan without a visa for 30 days or less:
Electronic Visas for Kyrgyzstan
Citizens of all countries, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, can apply for an e-visa from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the www.evisa.e-gov.kg website. Processing takes 3 days, and the price will depend on the duration (from 30 to 90 days) and the number of entries. Payments can be made with VISA and MasterCard.
Please note, e-visa holders can enter and exit Kyrgyzstan at all border crossing points with the exception of the “Madaniyat” (border with Uzbekistan) and “Karkira” (border with Kazakhstan) border crossings. At these checkpoints, you need to present a visa obtained at the embassy.
Kyrgyzstan Visas in Embassies
If you haven’t found your nationality in the list above, you will need to obtain a visa at the Embassy of the Kyrgyz Republic. In any case, you will need a Letter of Invitation (a.k.a Visa support) from a Kyrgyz travel company, unless you are a holder of a passport issued by the following countries.
Citizens of the following countries can obtain a visa to Kyrgyzstan without a letter of invitation (LOI):
For citizens of all other countries, visa support (including a LOI) will be necessary to receive a visa to Kyrgyzstan.
The following information is needed for Kyrgyzstan visa support:
- Full name
- Date of birth
- Place of birth
- Passport number
- Marital status
- Workplace (company name, address)
- Job title
- Embassy/consulate where you will be obtaining your visa (city, country)
- Duration of stay: date of arrival and exit
- Number of entries (single/multiple)
- Cities you plan to visit
- Purpose of visit
- Temporary address in Kyrgyzstan
- Copy of passport
- If you are applying for a Kyrgyz visa in a country other than your country of citizenship, we will need a copy of your visa to this country.
Registration in Kyrgyzstan
Citizens of some countries must register at local police stations (OVIR/OVD) within 5 days of arrival, including weekends and the date of arrival. Registration can be provided as a separate service. As a general rule, citizens of countries that require visas to enter Kyrgyzstan will need to register within 5 days of entering the country. Failure to register will result in a 10,000 som fine, and border guards will not let you leave the country until it has been paid. This may result in missing flights and extra expenses.
Uzbekistan is a notable exception, as citizens do not need a visa but need to register.
Citizens of the following 92 countries are exempt from registration of stay in Kyrgyzstan for a period shown below.
Albania - 60 days
Andorra - 60 days
Argentina - 60 days
Armenia - 30 days
Australia - 60 days
Austria - 60 days
Azerbaijan - 10 days
Bahamas - 90 days
Bahrain - 60 days
Barbados - 28 days
Belarus - 30 days
Belgium - 60 days
Bosnia and Herzegovina - 60 days
Brazil - 60 days
Brunei Darussalam - 60 days
Bulgaria - 60 days
Canada - 60 days
Chile - 60 days
Costa Rica - 30 days
Croatia - 60 days
Cuba - 30 days
Cyprus (western) - 60 days
Czech Republic - 60 days
Denmark - 60 days
Dominica - 21 days
Ecuador - 30 days
El Salvador - 90 days
Estonia - 60 days
Finland - 60 days
France - 60 days
Georgia - 90 days
Germany - 60 days
Greece - 90 days
Hungary - 60 days
Iceland - 60 days
India - 30 days
Indonesia - 60 days
Iran - 8 days
Ireland - 60 days
Israel - 60 days
Italy - 60 days
Japan - 60 days
Kazakhstan - 30 days
Kuwait - 60 days
Laos - 30 days
Latvia - 60 days
Liechtenstein - 60 days
Lithuania - 60 days
Luxembourg - 60 days
Macedonia - 60 days
Malaysia - 30 days
Maldives - 30 days
Malta - 60 days
Mexico - 60 days
Monaco - 60 days
Mongolia - 30 days
Montenegro - 60 days
Netherlands - 60 days
New Zealand - 60 days
Nicaragua - 90 days
Norway - 60 days
Oman - 60 days
Peru - 90 days
Philippines - 60 days
Poland - 60 days
Portugal - 60 days
Qatar - 60 days
Romania - 60 days
Russia - 30 days
San Marino - 60 days
Saudi Arabia - 60 days
Serbia - 60 days
Singapore - 60 days
Slovakia - 60 days
Slovenia - 60 days
South Africa - 60 days
South Korea - 60 days
Spain - 60 days
Sri Lanka - 30 days
Sweden - 60 days
Switzerland - 60 days
Tajikistan - 60 days
Thailand - 60 days
Turkey - 90 days
Turkmenistan - 10 days
UAE - 60 days
UK - 60 days
Ukraine - 90 days
USA - 60 days
Vatican City - 60 days
Venezuela - 90 days
Vietnam - 60 days
There are some regions that require additional documentation in order to visit or pass through. Most of these regions are near the border with China, in Issyk-Kul and Naryn Provinces. Since Advantour cannot be liable for alpinism or adventure sports in these regions, the only option we will issue border permits is for light treks and guided tours in these regions. Be aware that attempting to travel to these regions without a permit can be dangerous, and may result in serious trouble with the Kyrgyz government. These regions include Karkyra, Inylchek, the areas around Pobeda Peak and Khan Tengri, Kel-Suu, At-Bashi, Ak-Sai, Peak Lenin, and near Torugart, Karavshin and Aksu valley.