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KYRGYZSTAN is a central Asian republic that has been indepen­dent from the former USSR since 1991. It bounded in the southwest by Tajikistan, in the west by Uzbekistan, in the north by Kazakhstan, and in the east and southeast by China. The land consists almost entirely of high, rugged mountains of outstanding natural beauty.

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The principal ranges are the Tien Shan Mountains (meaning the “Celestial” or “Heavenly Mountains”), encompassing vast peaks and some of the most massive glaciers on Earth. In the northeast of the country is the country’s largest lake, Issyk Kul. Heated by volcanic action, this lake never freezes in winter.

The primary river system in the country is the Naryn, which is a source of hydroelectric power. The capital and largest city are Bishkek (formerly Frunze). The climate can be hot in summer, but it is freezing in winter, with considerable snowfall and frosts.

In the north and at higher altitudes, conifers, particularly firs, are the tree’s main species, while willow and alder are found at lower levels. In the south and the lower, drier regions, apple, maple, walnut, and almond trees are among the trees that can grow. Kyrgyzstan is home to various wildlife, including snakes (boas), turtles, gophers, jerboas, hedgehogs, squirrels, ermine, martens, lynx, wild boar, wolves, foxes, and brown bear. Birds include geese, black cock, and vultures – some rare species are considered unique to the region. Rivers and lakes support some 75 different species of fish.

Agriculture is the second most important economic activity and employs a large number of people. While only about 4 percent of Kyrgyzstan is suitable for cultivation, there is another land used for grazing, and livestock rearing is the central aspect of farming. Animals include yaks, sheep, goats, horses, cereals, sugar beet, cotton, and hay being grown on some farms. Fruit and nuts were harvested from orchards in the south. Soil erosion and degradation have occurred in some areas, but measures are taken to halt this process. Fish caught for local consumption from rivers and lakes.

Forests covered about 4 percent of the land area of Kyrgyzstan and harvested for local use. There has been some reforestation, but damage to trees, particularly from inappropriate felling and grazing cattle, remains a problem.

Kyrgyzstan has valuable oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, and other mineral ores, and mining is the principal contributor to the economy. Oil and gas have not, as yet, developed, and the country is dependent upon imports of fuel. Hydroelectric power supplies most of the country’s electricity.

Parts of Kyrgyzstan are threatened by environmental pollution caused by the storage of toxic waste and radioactive material, which are the by-products of mining, previous nuclear tests, and the overuse of chemicals, especially fertilizers. The government is making efforts to address pollution and damage to the land caused by excessive grazing and tree-felling.

Tourism is at a low level at present with very few Western visitors. The government is actively encouraging foreign visitors, and it expected that climbers might be attracted to the country to scale its mountains.

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Landlocked in east-central Asia, Kyrgyzstan covers just 198,500 square kilometers (76,641 square miles), making it the smallest of the Central Asian countries that became independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Several small areas within southwestern Kyrgyzstan belong to neighboring Uzbekistan or Tajikistan.

Kyrgyzstan is predominantly mountainous. Only about 10 percent of the terrain is below 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) in elevation, and more than half the land surpasses 2,500 meters (8,200 feet). Permanent snowfields and glaciers blanket about 3 percent of the country. Indeed, studies estimate that Kyrgyzstan’s 6,500 glaciers contain an amazing 650 billion cubic meters (850 billion cubic yards) of water. This abundance of mountain moisture is the source of Kyrgyzstan’s many lakes and fast-flowing rivers.

Kyrgyzstan’s primary mountain range is the great Tian Shan, whose peaks, valleys, and basins essentially define the whole republic. Also, the Trans Alai mountains in the south, part of the Pamirs, are significant. The only land flat enough to be suitable for large-scale agriculture is in the Chu, Talas, and Fergana Valleys of the north and east. The northern areas of Kyrgyzstan near the border with Kazakhstan are desert regions, with very little vegetation. Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country.

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