Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country in Central Asia, bordering Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It occupies almost 200 thousand square kilometers (roughly the size of Austria and Hungary put together) of which approximately 94% is mountainous.

Often referred to as the “Switzerland of Central Asia,” Kyrgyzstan is mostly covered by the great Tian Shen mountain range - a northern arm of the Himalayas – which reaches heights of over 7000 meters, making it an attractive place for mountaineers. If Kyrgyz Republic were to be rolled flat it would occupy a space larger than China; this coupled with a low population of 5 million people gives the republic a sense of space and freedom, making it popular with travellers.

The country boasts some of the most untouched and breathtaking nature in the world. For the local Kyrgyz, the enormous mountainous inland lake, Issyk Kul, (the second highest lake in the world) is a spiritual home for them and its enormous, mountain flanked shores attract travelers from all over the region and further. It lies about a three or four hour journey from Bishkek winding up into the mountains and is renowned for it's crystal clean water, forests and surrounding mountains.

The Kyrgyz comprise 70% of the nation’s population and have historically been semi-nomadic herders, living in round tents called yurts and tending sheep, horses and yaks. (The icon you see on the far left is a view of the sky through the roof of a yurt - a strongly symbolic image for Kyrgyzstan, echoed in the nation's flag.) The majority of Kyrgyz retain this heritage to some degree and even modern Kyrgyz city-dwellers pride themselves in their ability to ride horses. As a race they are descended from the great Mongol hordes and therefore are exceptionally hospitable by nature.

In the rest of the country, this nomadic tradition continues to function seasonally as herding families return to the high mountain pasture (or jailoo) in the summer. Other ethnic groups include ethnic Russians (9.0%) concentrated in the North and Uzbeks (14.5%) living in the South, as well as Tartars

Kyrgyzstan is one of two of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia to retain Russian as an official language, along with the majority Turkic language, Kyrgyz. Bishkek particularly has more Russian speakers than the rest of the country, and is therefore a good place to practice Russian. Of course, there are neighborhoods where Kyrgyz is spoken exclusively. Students focusing on Kyrgyz are matched up with such homestay families in the city.