Naryn, Kyrgyzstan

Cities in Kyrgyzstan

Naryn is a town with a long, thin shape which straddles the fast flowing Naryn River and is set between high, steep cliffs. It still houses an army base and headquarters for the customs post at Torugart - and so camping on the hills overlooking the town is forbidden. Naryn is known mainly as a stopping point for travellers on the way to/from Kashgar, and unfortunately many guidebooks published in the West are not very complimentary about the town. The region offers many possibilities for trekking and if you are not in a hurry to pass through on your way to China, Naryn could serve as a center to explore this unspoiled and largely unknown region of the Central Tian Shan.

The modern town of Naryn was founded in 1868 as a Russian garrison town, and much of the current town is post-war (Soviet architecture). Early settlements have been found in caves near the town of Naryn, however, and there are stories that suggest that the name itself is quite old. One charming Kyrgyz story tells of a herder who had sold his cattle in the Andijan region (now in Uzbekistan) and on his return, exhausted, he settled down for the night at a place called a Jailoo ("pasture") and turned his horse free.

The horse wandered and fed at a place called Arpa ("barley"). When the man tried to corral the horse the next day, it ran away. He chased it and when he caught it he killed it and cooked its meat. He left the head behind and called the place At-Bashi ("Horses head"). He ate the meat along his journey and called the place where he had his last meal from the carcass Naryn - which was the name of the dish he had cooked - a sort of soup with finely cut meat. If you find these places on the map you will see that they are quite far apart - the man went a long way to sell his cattle and chased the horse for quite a distance! Another source suggests that the name comes from the Mongolian word for "sunny".

The town has suffered considerably from the economic decline that followed independence. The government established a Free Economic Zone in 1991 to provide favourable conditions for investors to boost the economy of the region.

The population of the town of Naryn is about 45,000, (there about 260,000 inhabitants in the whole of Naryn province) - most of them (99.9%) are Kyrgyz. Kyrgyz is the first language of the population and it is not unusual to find people who cannot speak Russian. Generally speaking, the people are friendly and like foreigners, but don't be surprised if they stop and watch as you walk by. Unfortunately, there is a problem with alcohol - a result of high unemployment and the fact that people really do believe that drinking vodka helps to cope with the altitude!

The River Naryn is the longest in Kyrgyzstan (535km), and has in fact been famous from antiquity. It is an ancient tributary of the Syr-Darya River which like its northern twin, the Amu-Darya, flowed into the Aral Sea. These days, extensive cotton farming in Uzbekistan absorbs most of its waters, and as a result the Aral Sea is drying up. It is possible to travel from the town to the source of this once famous river. Downstream, in Kyrgyzstan, the river is used extensively for hydroelectric power generation where it flows into the giant Toktogul Reservoir, which you will see if you travel the main Bishkek-Osh road. The river is a potential source of friction with Uzbekistan, since Kyrgyzstan wants to retain more of the water for its own uses. There are three main approaches to Naryn. From Bishkek, 10km from the center of town the road forks, and there is a confusing road sign which has arrows indicating Naryn both to the left and to the right The left hand fork leads to the top end of town, (Moskovskaya/Razzakova) and the right hand fork takes you the bottom end of town - dropping steeply through a chasm which cuts through the cliffs.

The road from Torugart (At-Bashi and Tash-Rabat) descends steeply from the mountains and also brings you to the top of town. If you approach Naryn on the Osh Road, there is a very good view of the river valley with the town in the distance a few kilometers from the town center. There are also minor roads leading into mountain valleys and one of the most interesting takes you to Eke Naryn and the valley of the Little Naryn River; it is possible to reach Lake Issyk Kul on this road (you will need a 4WD vehicle).

At the Eastern edge of town, just off Moskovskaya, is Victory park, including a tank on display. On summer nights this is the scene of impromptu discos and, unfortunately, is sometimes the site of unseemly disturbances.

A little further below, on Moskovskaya, is the town Museum. Here you will find exhibits on the history of the town; paintings of places and famous people from the Naryn region; a room containing the personal effects of Jakeev Tabaldi, a famous revolutionary who helped build railways in Central Asia, joined the Red Army and worked for the Bolsheviks in Naryn and Issyk-Kul regions; and a room containing a number of stuffed examples of wildlife found in the Naryn region. The largest room is dedicated to examples of local Kyrgyz handicrafts - Shyrdaks, Ala-kiyis, Tush-kiyis etc. Naryn is renowned as a center of excellence for the manufacture of Shyrdaks.

Continuing along Moskovskaya, we cross the Naryn River on the main bridge - in winter the river totally freezes here. In summer children are often to be found swimming at the foot of the rocks. The water of the river and the stream that cascades over the cliff-face is the water supply for the many houses that you can see crowding the riverbank.

You now come to the long main street (still called Lenin Street) where you can ride on the town's 3 trolley buses. There is a small market on Orozbekova Street, which runs parallel to Lenin Street. The main square was redesigned in 1999 and is still watched over by a statue of Lenin. The town of Naryn is the administrative center for the region and the buildings opposite the main square house the offices of some of the many different local authorities.

Continuing along the main street a couple of kilometres you come to the new mosque (finished in 1993), which was financed by Saudi Arabian money and has a distinctly Arabian design. A little further on is the public banya (sauna), now privatized. Several houses near the riverbank also advertise saunas - utilizing naturally hot water. As you reach the end of town, on the hills overlooking the road are several ski hills used in winter by the locals.

On the main Naryn/Torugart road, a little past the turn-off to Eke-Naryn is an old water-powered grain mill on the banks of a stream - still used to grind flour today. Further on is the old military hospital built by the original Cossack garrison.