Mountain guide Adrian Nelhams introduces life in Kyrgyzstan and explains why it’s one of his favourite places to explore and climb.
The Tien Shan, which has been crossed for centuries by Silk Road
traders, wandered along by generations of nomads and was the
battleground of Genghis Khan and other warring tribes, remains very much
today as it was centuries ago.
Kyrgyzstan’s cities have a Soviet feel, which acts as a window into
the 20th century, but underneath this Soviet architecture, the soul of
the place remains very much as it always has been.
The Kyrgyz people owe their survival to their nomadic lifestyle which
has been key for over 2,500 years. Yurts or felt tents acted as
temporary homes as their livestock roamed the mountains in search of
food and water.
Horses (akyns), or ‘the wings of the Kyrgyz people’, are central to
the Kyrgyz way of life – a friend, worker or source of food. These
horses allow the nomads to shepherd their flocks over miles of remote
grazing land in the Tien Shan mountains, hunting, carrying yurts,
supplying meat, leather and milk. Their national drink, kymyz or cumous
is in fact fermented mare’s milk.
The nomadic people of Kyrgyzstan say ‘a man should move, because the
sun, animals, fish – everything moves and only the land and dead
creatures stay where they are’.
The mountain pastures are littered with brown rings of dead grass and
ramshackle livestock corals, most of which have fallen down into
disrepair, with small walls of dried horse dung left over from the
previous tenant. A sign of the Kyrgyz nomad, where a yurt once sat and a
Inside the yurts (bozuys) the circular walls are lined with bright,
colourful felt rugs depicting the changing seasons, the hunting of Marco
Polo sheep and their traditional way of life. The multi-fuel stove sits
to one side with the chimney snaking up and out of a small gap in the
Inside, the space is allocated according to tradition – the left-hand
side for the man, his horse and his hunting gear and the right hand
side for the women, the stove and her domestic utensils. At the back of
the bozuy lie the brightly coloured folded felt blankets or shyrdaks and
thick straw filled beds – the higher the pile the wealthier the family!
The felt, which is compressed layers of sheep’s wool, is made by
layering handfuls of washed wool together on a reed mat and rolling the
mat up and tying it tightly together in a long tube. Boiling water is
then poured over the outside of the reed mat which seeps through into
the wool. The roll is then stamped and jumped on to mulch the layers of
wool together to make one tightly knitted layer – simple but really
Two great mountain ranges embrace over 90% of the country – the Tien
Shan mountains, which stretch for 2,500km from east to west, and the
Tajik Pamir mountains, which spill into southern Kyrgyzstan. Over 30% of
the country is covered in permanent snow and ice. The Tien Shan host
peaks such as Khan Tengri (the Prince of Spirits) at 7,010m, and the
highest peak Jengish Chokosu or Peak Pobeda at 7,439m. In the Pamir,
Peak Kuh-i-Garmo, or Peak Lenin, is 7,134m and is one of the easier
7,000m summits in the world.
In the seventh century traders explored these parts making their way
along the Silk Road, which was once the richest trade routes in the
world. Caravans of camels, men, horses, silver, spices and silk
travelled across the thousands of miles through Kyrgyzstan to
Uzbekistan, through Turkmenistan and Iraq on to the Mediterranean Sea
and then into Europe. Trade also passed through Kyrgyzstan and on to
Greece via Kazakstan and Russia.
Tashrabat in Kyrgyzstan was an important valley, providing a vital
link to and from China forming part of the Silk Road. Just below the
pass a fortified Caravansari was built to store the valuable silk safely
overnight. Traders would sleep with the silk before continuing their
journeys. The region prided itself in keeping a safe passage through for
all the traders, encouraging them to use the same route again next
time. Money would change hands for this safe passage through and so it
was the responsibility of the region to keep the bandits out and the
The rich history of Kyrgyzstan, the unspoilt mountain landscape, the
virgin summits and unexplored valleys, the traditional nomadic people
many of whom still live off the land and in yurts, make this a very
special place to go climbing and mountaineering.
ISM has been
running expeditions and exploring the virgin summits of the Tien Shan
for almost 20 years. It is not just the climbing, but the culture and
history of this beautiful landscape that captures your imagination.
Written by Adrian Nelhams, UIAGM guide and director of ISM mountaineering company that's very proud and feels privileged to be part of Kyrgyzstan’s climbing history.