The subject of many novels and movies, Central Asia sits at the crossroads of legendary rivalries and is crossed by the fabled Silk Road. The region is massive, covering more than 4-million-square-km and includes five countries that were formerly a part of the Soviet Union, including Kyrgyzstan, the focus of this episode. Both Kyrgyzstan and its neighboring countries have diverse cultures and rich histories but are largely unknown to western travelers. On this episode, we’ll chat with travel writer and photographer Stephen Lioy about his life in the region, particularly Kyrgyzstan, where he lives, to get some inside tips for visiting one of the world’s most remote travel locales.
What Scott and Trevor knew about Kyrgyzstan beforehand:
Scott: A little bit – my Dad and I almost went through Central Asia in 2019. I also have a former colleague who went there to the capital, rented motorbikes with a few friends and drove around some of the country.
Trevor: My parents are friends with a famous Marathon runner from Kyrgyzstan. I must have been 13 when I first met her and I looked Kyrgyzstan up in my World Atlas. I feel like I met someone in the tractor business once too. They sold big industrial tractors in Kyrgyzstan. But that could have been Kazakhstan. Before Borat, I don’t think even the most geographically curious of us would have been able to tell you the difference –sorry!
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Scott: According to some research I did online about Kyrgyzstan, a bunch from Wikipedia. Kyrgyzstan, officially the Kyrgyz Republic is a landlocked country in Central Asia bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the south, and China to the east. Its capital and largest city is Bishkek, which has a population of around 1 million.
Ethnic Kyrgyz (that’s a tough one to pronounce) make up the majority of the country’s six million people, and practice the Islamic faith, but there are significant minorities of Uzbeks and Russians, having been a Russian, and then Soviet, state since the 19th century. There are believed to be more than 80 ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan and, according to a 1989 Soviet census, a Jewish community made up 10% of the country’s capital.
Trevor: Kyrgyzstan is farther from the sea than any other individual country, and none of it’s rivers flows into the sea. The country is dominated by mountains of the Tian Shan belt, which covers over 80% of the country, lending itself to Kyrgyzstan’s nickname: “the Switzerland of Central Asia”, and according to a 2019 Forest Landscape Integrity Index, Kyrgyzstan ranked 13th globally out of 172 countries, despite the country relying heavily on gold, coal, and uranium mining for economic necessity.
Issyk Kul Lake, the country’s top tourism attraction, was a stopover on the Silk Road, a land route for traders, merchants, and other travelers from the Far East to Europe. Issyk-Kul Lake is the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan and the second largest mountain lake in the world after Titicaca.
Scott: Although geographically isolated by its highly mountainous terrain, Kyrgyzstan has been at the crossroads of several great civilizations as part of the Silk Road and other historical commercial routes. In addition to its Turkic influences, Kyrgyz culture bears elements of Iranic, Mongolian and Russian culture.
Guest Intro: Stephen Lioy.
Photo: Hiking at Boz Uchuk Lakes along the Ak-Suu Transverse Trekking Route (Copyright Stephen Lioy – Photography and Travel Media)
Guest Intro: Originally from Louisiana in the good ol’ US-of-A, travel photographer and writer Stephen Lioy set off in 2008 to try living in China, but after a year-and-a-half, got wanderlust and headed down more remote paths. This journey took him to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, where he’s been photographing, creating content, and sharing that part of the world ever since. He joins us online from Bishkek.
Listen to Episode #133 – Travel to Kyrgyzstan to hear Stephen answer the following questions:
- So what were you doing before moving to China and why did you go there?
- Why, when, and how did you decide to settle in Kyrgyzstan?
- Have you lived there ever since?
- In a nutshell, what’s that capital city like?
- So when did you become an authority on Kyrgyzstan and write a Lonely Planet about it?
- You’ve written other regional LP guidebooks too, correct?
- Can you give us a Coles-notes version of Kyrgyzstan?
- What typically draws travelers to Kyrgyzstan?
- What are the key sites people must see if they travel to Kyrgyzstan?
- The most popular destination in the country appears to be the lake, Issyk Kul. I even read something that mentioned the most popular beach zones. How’s the lake? And is it a year-round destination, or do people enjoy it in the winter too? Issyk Kul (“Is it cool” all year round?)
- What is travel like within Kyrgyzstan: by bus, train, car, plane?
- Is it safe to travel to Kyrgyzstan?
- What are the people like in Kyrgyzstan?
- What’s the food like?
- How long would someone need at a minimum to have a proper trip there?
- How do you get to the country typically if you’re going to travel there?
- Now, where should they go in Kyrgyzstan: lay out the dream trip for us?
- Have you ever tried your hand at Falconry?
- Do you know how to play the Komuz, a three-stringed lute?
- I’ve heard about the fabled Pamir Highway. Tell us about it?
- Apparently Kyrgyzstan and it’s neighbors have various non-contiguous borders: There is one exclave, the tiny village of Barak (population 627), that is surrounded by Uzbek territory. There are also four Uzbek enclaves and 2 enclaves from Tajikistan inside of Kyrgyzstan. Have you ever been to Barak?
- What are you up to these days and next?
- How can people learn more about you and your work?