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Introducing Kyrgyzstan

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Ala-Archa Canyon © Garth Willis/www.alpinefund.org

Dominated by towering mountains and breathtaking natural beauty, the Kyrgyz Republic in Central Asia is not a well known travel destination, despite the fact that it is one of the most welcoming republics in the region.

Kyrgyzstan boasts some of the highest mountains in the world with 23 peaks over 19,685 feet (6,000m), and is often referred to as the 'Switzerland of Central Asia'. The challenge of climbing these remote giants of nature has long been an irresistible lure for mountaineers, although for most of the 20th century the area was off-limits to foreigners outside of the Soviet Union. Ala-Archa National Park includes approximately 20 glaciers and 50 peaks and offers dozens of horse trekking, hiking, climbing and skiing possibilities. The mountains are also home to lakes, including Lake Issyk-Kul, which at 105 miles (170km) long and 43 miles (70km) wide is the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in South America; the less touristy Song Kul; and Jeti Oguz, which has some spectacular mountain formations and thermal springs. Another popular attraction in Kyrgyzstan is the walnut forests of Arslanbob.

Among this abundance of natural splendour lies the attractive capital city of Bishkek, famous for being one of the greenest cities in the world thanks to its profusion of trees and parks, while the ancient city of Osh near the Uzbekistan border is allegedly 3,000 years old and is full of historical interest. Osh is also famous for its lively market, which is reputedly one of the most colourful in all of Central Asia.

The Kyrgyz, the country's largest ethnic group, are traditionally nomadic herders having originated from Siberia in the 13th century. Their nomadic habits continue today as families herd their sheep, yaks and horses back up to the mountain pastures (jailoo) every summer where they live in round hide tents known as yurts. The tradition of horse riding is part and parcel of the Kyrgyz culture and numerous festivals and games are centred on this activity. Hospitality is another key function of their way of life and visitors will find it difficult to pass by without an invitation to share in a drink of fermented horse milk, or kumys, an acquired taste by anybody's standards.

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