The town of Naryn is the provincial administrative center for the Naryn region. It lies in a steep-sided mountain valley, and is situated on both banks of the Naryn River (one of the main head waters of the Syr Darya) which cuts a picturesque gorge through the town. Naryn City is about 320km (200miles) from Bishkek. At 2000m (6500ft) above sea level, temperatures can plummet as low as minus 40°C (-40°F) in winter and the average temperature in January is minus 17°C (1°F). However, the altitude makes for a temperate summer climate and a welcome escape from the oppressive heat of lower regions of Kyrgyzstan. The town lies along the Naryn river, a tributary of the Syr Darya. It is a long, thin town set between impressive red sandstone cliffs on one side and rolling green hills on the other, and spreads for about 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) along the broad, rust-brown river of the same name. The population of 40,000 people is almost entirely made up of Kyrgyz people (99%) so Kyrgyz is naturally the common language here (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 or shout “Hello” proud of the fact that they can “practice” their limited English.
Naryn makes an excellent base for adventure travel into the surrounding mountains. The Naryn region contains two of Kyrgyzstan’s four major lakes (Song Kul and Chatyr Kul) as well as possibly the most famous of Kyrgyzstan’s historical landmarks, Tash Rabat Caravanserai. After passing by Kochkor (a small market town that locally is best known for its potatoes) most visitors plan an overnight stay in Naryn City on their way to the Torugart Pass into China, Tash Rabat or elsewhere. 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 travelers 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. Aside from the relatively well known destinations there are countless virtually unknown beauty spots set among the mountain ranges that dominate the region. The region’s biggest claim to fame is that the best quality shyrdaks (hand made felt rugs) are said to be made here.
While at first glance Naryn City may look kind of grim, it gets better as you head further into the city and becomes a much more attractive town of broad leafy avenues. The small town is long and thin, following the course of the Naryn River for several kilometers east to west. 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. Sandstone cliffs fringe the town just beyond the river to the north, while south of the town a wide flat plain gives way to arid pale mountains. Temperatures can plummet to minus 40°C and the average annual temperature is minus 6°C; even the swift-flowing Naryn freezes in places in winter and people ski on the slopes above the town.
Dusty brown Naryn is strung along the milky blue Naryn River extending for 15km between the brown mountains (river side) and the tall summer-green/winter-snow capped mountains to the south. The road from Bishkek forks north of the town, each branch of the fork leading to one end of town. A trolleybus and minibuses run along the main street, Lenina Street. The hakimyat (municipal administration) on Lenina is the designated center of town. Other landmarks are the small bazaar on Orozbekova, and the bus station, 800m east of the hakimyat on Lenina. Naryn is a long sprawling town with few opportunities for sightseeing. The center of the town revolves around the main square that faces the municipal administrative building, the Hakimyat, where there is a tall, modern statue of a Kyrgyz couple holding an eagle aloft, which is meant to represent Kyrgyz youth. This area was redeveloped in 1999 and the statue of Lenin that used to stand here has been moved a couple of blocks west to the leafier surroundings of a park.
The square is also home to a new, purpose-built art gallery, which is worth a visit. The gallery has the work of several Kyrgyz artists on display, like Torobekov Kojogulov, who paints scenes from Kyrgyz life and semi-abstract landscapes and still-lifes. There are also some evocative charcoal drawings, attractive ceramics with Saimaluu-Tash petroglyph designs and, naturally, a plushly decorated yurt. The main building of the recently established University of Central Asia stands opposite the art gallery. A little further west stands the Naryn Drama Theater, with a small plaza in front of it that serves as a location for meeting friends and eating ice cream in summer. The central bazaar lies immediately north of this.
At the far eastern end of the town called “Moskovsky” is Victory Park, a pleasant, wooded park that has a Soviet tank as its centerpiece, which faces a line of seven arches that frame the arid mountains beyond. The park is pretty-much deserted most of the time, but on summer nights it is sometimes used as the venue for outdoor discotheques. Recent days have seen the opening of a couple of fancy new restaurants open up to the public in this part of town including “Khan Tengri” to go along with the traditional tourist favorite in the center “Anarkul Apa”. The museum has different rooms that include ethnological displays of the Kyrgyz nomadic way of life, a dissected yurt, traditional costumes (which include some interesting headgear), a room devoted to the life of local revolutionary hero Jukeev Tubaldy Pudovkin (who helped build railways in Central Asia, joined the Red Army and worked for the Bolsheviks in Naryn), and the obligatory display of stuffed examples of wildlife found in the Naryn region. The largest room is dedicated to local artists in their display of Kyrgyz handicrafts – Shyrdaks, Ala-kiyis, Tush-kiyis- for which the province is famous.
The new mosque at the western end of town called “Gorodok” is both a dazzling and incongruous sight: a rare splash of color – blue, turquoise, white – against the khaki-brown hills that form its backdrop. The mosque was built with the help of Saudi money in 1993 and has a number of different architectural elements in its design that combine together in a post-modernist sort of way. There is, without doubt, a definite Arabian element in its design, and the irregular, patterned frieze that frames the doorway resembles a Kyrgyz traditional shyrdak pattern to some extent. In contrast, the wooden cupola that tops the pepper-pot minaret seems to be at odds with the rest of the building, and devalues the integrity of the design with its Arabian Nights appearance. A little further on is the public “moncho” (Russian 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.
Naryn Province the large central province that links north and south Kyrgyzstan, is, in many ways, the most typically Kyrgyz oblast in the entire country. At around 45,000km2, it is the largest province in the republic. At an average of just six persons per km2, the population density is the lowest in the country and the total population of the entire province is only around 270,000. In terms of physical geography, the province is far more homogeneous than Chui or Issyk-Kul, being almost entirely made up of mountainous terrain, interspersed with valleys and upland grasslands. The lowest point is at around 1,400m (4,600ft) above sea level and the highest almost 5,000m (16,400ft); more than 70 per cent of Naryn oblast is mountainous making for spectacular views and plenty of alpine hikes right out your door.
The region is one of the poorest in the country, with a local economy that is dominated by animal herding – mostly sheep but also horses, cattle and yaks. In Soviet times, mining was well established in the province but since independence most mines have ceased production, having been pronounced uneconomical. This removal of employment that was formerly guaranteed has further contributed to the poverty of the region. 58% of the Naryn region’s population is living in what the UN classes as ‘extreme poverty’. 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!
Some suggest that Naryn is derived from the Mongolian word for “sunny” as the high desert climate may be frigid in winter, but still yields plentiful sunshine year round. The town’s linear form is one possible etymology for its name, which may come from the Chinese for ‘narrow’. Various other stories about Naryn have been handed down over the generations, including one which tells how Naryn and a couple of other towns in the area got their names. Returning, exhausted, from having sold his cattle in Andijan (Uzbekistan), a herder settled down for the night on a jailoo, turning his horse loose to graze. The horse wandered off and ate at a place called Arpa (‘Barley’). When the herder tried to retrieve it the next day, however, it ran away. The herder chased it and eventually caught it. He killed the horse and cooked its meat, leaving the head at a place he called At-Bashy (“Horse’s Head’). As he continued his journey, he ate the meat until it was all finished. The herder’s last meal was a bowl of “naryn”, a traditional soup dish made with thin slices of meat, which gave the town and region its name.
Early settlements have been found in caves near the town, and such old etymological stories suggest that there were ancient civilizations in the area. The modern town began life as a Russian garrison in 1868 and still houses an army base and customs checkpoint (which is why camping on the hills overlooking Naryn is forbidden), but it was in the post-World War II period that most of the current town was constructed, and this is characterized by the large number of Khrushchevki apartment blocks found throughout the town. In 1920 the town was the scene of a battle between Bolshevik soldiers and White Russian forces led by Kulaks from Tokmok and Naryn, who succeeded in killing the local party chairman, Orozbekov, and capturing the communist commander. The counter-revolutionaries were later defeated at battles at the Shamshy and Dolon passes. Since 1927, the town has served as the provincial administrative center for Naryn Oblast. Before the collapse of the economy, its main local industries were bread-making, meat-packing and dairy production. In Soviet days, mountainous regions such as Naryn received hardship salaries that were 40 per cent higher than in the lowlands. Today unemployment is very high and there is a problem with alcohol. This tinderbox combination of soldiers, drunkenness and grinding poverty means the town can take on an ugly atmosphere after dark. Perhaps out of resentment at their economic decline since independence, the town’s citizens have kept their Lenin statue near the square on the long main street, still called Lenin Street.
A major local industry is hydroelectricity, particularly along the mighty Naryn river, the most important of Kyrgyzstan’s 40,000 rivers, which has seven power stations situated on its shores. The Naryn flows from east to west across the region into the Fergana valley where it converges with another major river, the Kara-Darya, to form the Syr Darya, which supplies more than a third of Central Asia’s water. The oblast is overwhelmingly rural and more than 80 per cent of people work in agriculture, mainly sheep breeding. Horses are the major form of transport in the area, which again is hardly surprising when you consider the difficulty of building-and maintaining-roads in such a mountainous area, especially with the havoc wreaked every winter by the weather.
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 (which utilizes the river to feed its cotton fields) 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).