Today is Independence Day in Kyrgyzstan, and, as it happens, I am currently in Bishkek on my way to the World Nomad Games in Cholpon Ata. It now makes sense why there was so much activity yesterday and the day before, cleaning and painting in all the public squares and parks, plus erecting a huge concert stage at Ala Too Square.
The Kyrgyz state reached its greatest expansion after defeating the Uyghur Khaganate in 840 CE. From the 10th century the Kyrgyz migrated as far as the Tian Shan range and maintained their dominance over this territory for about 200 years. In the 12th century the Kyrgyz dominion had shrunk to the Altay Range and Sayan Mountains as a result of the Mongol expansion. With the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, the Kyrgyz migrated south. The Kyrgyz peacefully became a part of the Mongol Empire in 1207.
The descent of the Kyrgyz from the autochthonous Siberian population is confirmed by recent genetic studies. Because of the processes of migration, conquest, intermarriage, and assimilation, many of the Kyrgyz peoples who now inhabit Central and Southwest Asia are of mixed origins, often stemming from fragments of many different ethnicities, though they now speak closely related languages. Issyk Kul Lake was a stopover on the Silk Road, a land route for traders, merchants and other travelers from the Far East to Europe. Kyrgyz tribes were overrun in the 17th century by the Mongols, in the mid-18th century by the Manchurian Qing Dynasty, and in the early 19th century by the Uzbek Khanate of Kokand.
In the late 19th century, the eastern part of what is today Kyrgyzstan, mainly Issyk-Kul Region, was ceded to the Russian Empire through the Treaty of Tarbagatai between China (then ruled by the Qing Dynasty) and Russia. The territory, then known in Russian as “Kirghizia”, was formally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1876. The Russian takeover was met with numerous revolts against Tsarist authority, and many of the Kyrgyz opted to move to the Pamir Mountains and Afghanistan.
In addition, the suppression of the 1916 rebellion against Russian rule in Central Asia caused many Kyrgyz later to migrate to China. Since many ethnic groups in the region were (and still are) split between neighboring states at a time when borders were more porous and less regulated, it was common to move back and forth over the mountains, depending on where life was perceived as better. This might mean better rains for pasture or better government during oppression.
Soviet power was initially established in the region in 1919, and the Kara-Kyrgyz Autonomous Oblast was created within the Russian SFSR (the phrase Kara-Kirghiz was used until the mid-1920s by the Russians to distinguish them from the Kazakhs, who were also referred to as Kirghiz). On 5th December 1936, the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic was established as a full republic of the Soviet Union. During the 1920s, Kyrgyzstan developed economically and modernized considerably. Literacy was greatly improved, and a standard literary language was introduced by imposing Russian on the population. Many aspects of Kyrgyz national culture were retained despite the suppression of nationalist activity under Joseph Stalin.
The early years of glasnost had little effect on the political climate in Kyrgyzstan. However, the Republic’s press was permitted to adopt a more liberal stance and to establish a new publication, Literaturny Kirghizstan, by the Union of Writers. Unofficial political groups were forbidden, but several groups that emerged in 1989 to deal with an acute housing crisis were permitted to function. According to the last Soviet census in 1989, ethnic Kyrgyz made up only 22% of the residents of the northern city of Frunze (now Bishkek), while more than 60% were Russians, Ukrainians, and people from other Slavic nations. Nearly 10% of the capital’s population were Jewish (a rather unusual fact for almost any place in the Soviet Union except the Jewish Autonomous Republic).
In June 1990, ethnic tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz surfaced in the Osh Oblast (southern Kyrgyzstan), where Uzbeks form a minority of the population. Attempts to appropriate Uzbek collective farms for housing development triggered the Osh Riots. A state of emergency and a curfew were introduced and Askar Akayev, the youngest of five sons born into a family of collective farm workers (in northern Kyrgyzstan), was elected president in October of that same year.
By then, the Kyrgyzstan Democratic Movement (KDM) had developed into a significant political force with support in Parliament. On 15th December 1990, the Supreme Soviet voted to change the republic’s name to the Republic of Kyrgyzstan. (In 1993, it became the Kyrgyz Republic.) The following January, Akayev introduced new government structures and appointed a new government composed mainly of younger, reform-oriented politicians. In February 1991, the name of the capital, Frunze, was changed back to its pre-revolutionary name of Bishkek.
Despite these political moves toward independence, economic realities seemed to work against secession from the Soviet Union. In a referendum on the preservation of the Soviet Union in March 1991, 88.7% of the voters approved the proposal to retain the Soviet Union as a “renewed federation”. Nevertheless, secessionist forces pushed Kyrgyzstan’s independence through in August of that same year.
On 19th August 1991, when the State Emergency Committee assumed power in Moscow, there was an attempt to depose Akayev in Kyrgyzstan. After the coup collapsed the following week, Akayev and Vice President German Kuznetsov announced their resignations from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and the entire bureau and secretariat resigned. This was followed by the Supreme Soviet vote declaring independence from the Soviet Union on 31st August 1991 as the Republic of Kyrgyzstan.
In October 1991, Akayev ran unopposed and was elected president of the newly independent Republic by direct ballot, receiving 95 percent of the votes cast. Together with the representatives of seven other Republics that same month, he signed the Treaty of the New Economic Community. Finally, on 21st December 1991, Kyrgyzstan joined with the other four Central Asian Republics to formally enter the new Commonwealth of Independent States. Kyrgyzstan gained full independence a few days later, on 25th December 1991. The following day, on 26th December 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. In 1992, Kyrgyzstan joined the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). On 5th May 1993, the official name changed from the Republic of Kyrgyzstan to the Kyrgyz Republic.
Kyrgyz cuisine reflects the country’s nomadic past and the many influences of various cultures. Beshbarmak (бешбармак), a dish of homemade noodles and boiled meat (horse, beef, or mutton), is the national dish, although it is found across neighboring countries as well. If you want authentic Kyrgyz cuisine, remember my mantra: save your pennies and come here.
The term Beshbarmak means “five fingers”, because nomads used to eat this dish with their hands. The boiled meat is finely chopped with knives, mixed with boiled noodles, and spiced with onion sauce. It is usually served in a big round dish. Beshbarmak is usually served with shorpo – mutton broth in bowls called kese. Typically, shorpo is served as a first course that is followed by courses of beshbarmak and a drink called ak-serke (shorpo spiced with kymyz or ayran).
The serving of beshbarmak has traditional ritual associated with it at home, with different sections of the meat given to people depending on their gender, age and rank in the social structure. On special occasions, a lamb’s head may be served on the table. It is served to the most respected person, and he cuts off pieces from it and treats others with various parts. Festive beshbarmak can be cooked with Kazy (sausages) and other meats.
Beshbarmak is easy enough to prepare (if you are familiar with pasta making), but takes time. First the meat is boiled. In the traditional version of Beshbarmak, the hind quarters (rump) of a horse, plus kazy and sujuk (horse meat products), and rack of lamb were most common, but this changed with the seasons. In warm seasons, beshbarmak is usually cooked using lamb. A noodle dough is made using flour, water and eggs. It is rolled out very thin, and cut into noodles. The noodles are boiled in the meat-broth for 5–10 minutes. The boiled noodles and finely chopped meat are placed on a tray (“tabak”) and sauce (called “chyk” or “tuzdyk”, made of onion, ground black pepper and hot meat-broth) is poured over. Then everything is thoroughly mixed. Finely chopped meat in beshbarmak is a sign of respect for elders and guests. Presentation is also important. The dish is layered on a big communal tray. Ordinarily, being invited to a home for beshbarmak is an honor.
Here is a good instructional video. It is from a Kazakh kitchen, but the recipe is the same in Kyrgyzstan: