What Kyrgyzstan (or 'Kyrgizstan') lacks in gracious buildings and fancy cakes, it makes up for with nomadic traditions such as laid-back hospitality, a healthy distrust of authority and a fondness for drinking fermented mare's milk. It is perhaps the most accessible and welcoming of the Central Asian republics.
It contains the central Tian Shan and Pamir Alay ranges, Central Asia's finest mountains, and it's doing more than any of its neighbours to encourage tourism and streamline bureaucratic procedures for visitors - partly because tourism is one of the few things it has to sell to the outside world.
In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union left this tiny, under-equipped republic out on a limb, seemingly without the resources to survive on its own. So far it's getting by on pluck, a liberal agenda and goodwill from Western donor countries.
Away from Bishkek, Issyk-Kul and parts of the Tian Shan, tourist infrastructure is either minimal or wretched, transport is limited, fuel overpriced, roads unpoliced and there is a growing crime rate, fuelled by alcohol and desperate poverty. You should resist the temptation to just hop off the bus in the middle of nowhere and hike into the hills. This said, there are early signs of a developing tourist awareness in some parts of the countryside.
Though most visits to the country are hassle-free, foreigners are sometimes targeted in conflict between government forces and militants in areas south and west of Osh, and in the Ferghana Valley. There are landmines in the Batken Oblast region and along the border with Uzbekistan.
There is also current unrest surrounding recent election results and the subsequent coup that ousted President Askar Akayev. Travellers are advised to avoid demonstrations and monitor events closely.
Full country name: Kyrgyz Republic
Area: 198,500 sq km
Population: 4.7 million
Capital City: Bishkek
People: 52% Kyrgyz, 21% Russian, 13% Uzbek
Language: Kirghiz, Russian
Religion: 75% Muslim, 20% Russian Orthodox
GDP: US$9.8 billion
GDP per capita: US$US$2200
Annual Growth: 1.8%
Major Industries: Small machinery, textiles, food processing, cement, shoes, sawn logs, refrigerators, furniture, electric motors, gold, rare earth metals, tobacco, cotton, potatoes, vegetables, grapes, fruits and berries, sheep, goats, cattle, wool
Major Trading Partners: China, UK, CIS, Turkey, Cuba, US, Germany
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Visas: Many Kyrgyz embassies now issue visas without letters of support. If you arrive with only a Russian or Kazak visa, you can stay 72 hours, during which time you might be able to get a Kyrgyz visa in Bishkek. All foreigners staying in the country for more than three days are expected to register with the Office of Visas & Regulations, preferably in Bishkek. A stamp from Bishkek is good for the whole country and normally lasts a month.
Health risks: hepatitis, diphtheria, altitude sickness, tuberculosis
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +5
Dialling Code: 996
Electricity: 220V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Kyrgyzstan isn't exactly full of festivals. Public holidays include Constitution Day (5 May), a commemoration of the end of WWII on Victory Day (9 May), Armed Forces Day (29 May) and Kyrgyzstan Independence Day (31 August). The spring festival of Navrus ('New Days') is an Islamic adaptation of pre-Islamic vernal equinox or renewal celebrations. It can include traditional games, music and drama festivals, street art and colourful fairs. Important Muslim holy days, scheduled according to the lunar calendar, include Ramadan, the month of sunrise to sunset fasting; Eid-ul-Fitr (or Orozo Ait), the celebrations marking the end of Ramadan; and Eid-ul-Azha, the feast of sacrifice, when those who can afford to, slaughter an animal and share it with relatives and the poor.
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At lower elevations, spring and autumn are probably the best seasons to visit weather-wise - in particular April to early June and September through October. In spring, the desert blooms briefly, while autumn is harvest time when the markets fill with fresh produce.
Summer is ferociously hot in the lowlands, but July and August are the best months to visit the mountains. Cold rains begin in November and snow soon closes mountain passes. The ski season at the Upper Ala-Archa Mountain Ski Base lasts from December to April. Note that winters are bitterly cold, even in the desert, and finding food can be a problem since lots of eateries close for the season. Many domestic flights are also grounded in winter.
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Currency: Kyrgyzstan Som
In 1993 Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian state to introduce its own national currency. The transition from the Russian rouble has been rocky and Kyrgyzstan still has a shaky economy, a primitive banking system, high inflation rates and low wages. Foreigners often pay substantially more than locals for services, and there's not much you can do to avoid this.
Travellers looking for a safe hotel and dining establishments with ambience should expect to spend US$70 a day. Those with more moderate tastes and the occasional craving for an imported beer can get by on around US$40. Budgeteers relying on trains, streetside cafes and truckers' hostels may need little more than US$10 a day.
Kyrgyzstan is effectively a cash-only zone. The local currency is the only legal tender, though in practice US dollars and German Deutschmarks may be accepted or even requested for some transactions. There are currency exchange desks in most hotels and many shops. Most places accept only crisp, brand new banknotes, convinced somehow that anything older is worthless. Banks change US dollars travellers' cheques into som, though licensed private moneychangers in shop fronts have slightly better rates for US dollars cash.
Kyrgyzstan has a value added tax (VAT) of 20%. Tipping is not common, although a few top-end restaurants automatically add a 5% to 15% service charge to the bill. Tipping runs counter to many people's Islamic sense of hospitality, and may even offend them. Shops have fixed prices but bargaining in bazaars is expected.
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Bishkek (formerly Frunze) is the capital and industrial centre of Kyrgyzstan, and the only town in the world named after a wooden plunger - a bishkek is a churn used to make fermented mare's milk. It's a relaxed city of wide streets and handsome houses, though backstreets can be dicey at night.
The city likes to boast that it has more trees per person than any other Central Asian city - which may be true - but when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, smog from the industrial plants on the city's outskirts can still eat your throat away.
This grand, rugged but very accessible gorge, 40km (25mi) south of Bishkek, is a state nature park offering dozens of walking and trekking possibilities, including hikes to glaciers and treks to the region's highest peak. There are basic shelters scattered throughout the park but the best way to enjoy the area is to bring your own tent and supplies. You can use the Upper Ala-Archa Mountain Ski Base as a starting point from which to ski on glaciers, even in summer, though lifts only operate during the December to April winter season. Bishkek travel agents can arrange excursions to the canyon or you can make your own way there by car or by using the local buses.
Lake Issyk-Kul is a huge dent, filled with water, folded between the 4000m (13,120ft) peaks of the Küngey Alatau and the Terskey Alatau ranges. It sits 1600m (5250ft) above sea level and measures a huge 170km (105mi) long and 70km (43mi) across, making it the second-largest alpine lake in the world.
Today, the main reason to come here is to soak up the lakeside ambience, enjoy the thermal springs and health spas, explore some of the best hiking trails in Central Asia and try your hand at catching the local trout - allegedly bulking up to a prized 35kg (77lb).
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