Lifting the veil
For most travellers, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia - commonly known as the 'stans' - are a hard nut to crack. The allure of the Silk Road, once the world's superhighway, is tainted by tough visa regimes and convoluted transport links. Guided tours are available but tend to be expensive.
If you want to experience a slice of this remarkable part of the world at your own pace, there is a choice. Kyrgyzstan, wedged among Kazakhstan, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, issues one-month visas on arrival at Bishkek's Manas Airport to most nationalities and offers splendid scenery and the most developed tourist infrastructure in the region.
As the iconography of 20th-century propaganda begins to fade and crumble across the former Soviet Union, the State Historical Museum, dominating Bishkek's Ala-Too Square, has become an artefact in its own right. On the top floor, above bronze dioramas depicting workers rushing to the barricades, a series of ceiling murals immortalises the triumphs of the Russian Revolution. The defeat of Nazism and the first space flight lead to an image of a 1980s anti-nuclear demonstration. Amid other protesters, a man wearing a skull mask and dressed up as a cowboy rides a mock Pershing missile to protest against the Reagan-era arms build-up.
I'm here to document a more enduring piece of heritage. In a small strongroom beneath the museum I am shown a hoard of gold treasures found in the grave of a Hun noblewoman buried early in the first millennium. The centrepiece is a funeral mask of wafer-thin gold with red quartz eyes, from which the owner seems to stare at us across a gap of 20 centuries.
Other riches emerge: a set of gold medallions once used to decorate a horse's bridle, a gold diadem, a gold breast ornament inlaid with amber and onyx, and a pair of gorgeous rings. Discovered in 1958, the collection is to go on display in the museum for the first time this year, with help from a grant from the United States embassy.
If the collapse of the Soviet Union left Kyrgyzstan with little but livestock and a handful of goldmines for an economy, it also lifted the veil on a landscape dominated by the Pamir and Tianshan mountain ranges and softened by aquamarine lakes and lush pastures. The authorities realised there was money to be made and tourism is now an important industry.
At the Kyrgyz Concept travel agency a friendly woman named Svetlana runs crisply through the options. The most popular destination is Lake Issyk-Kul, half a day's drive from Bishkek. Rare species, including ibex and snow leopard, inhabit the area while the lake is host to oddities including a Soviet-era torpedo testing station.
I have only two days to spare, so Svetlana puts together an itinerary within reach of Bishkek. An hour later I am heading into the countryside in a black Mercedes-Benz with an enthusiastic young guide named Sergei.
We leave town by what Sergei says was known as Silk Road Street, where traders from China once sold cloth to merchants who would carry it farther west. All I notice is a bus station, a drab market and some cottages, but these soon give way to a landscape of brooding magnificence. Half an hour from the capital we emerge at Ala Archa Canyon, where boulders tumble in spills of coppery green amid sharp peaks and deep valleys.
We move on to Burana Tower, the remains of one of the oldest minarets in Central Asia, once 45 metres tall, and a nearby field full of odd little sculptures called balbal. Sergei tells me these 6th- to 10th-century tombstones were erected in memory of ancient nomadic warriors who died in the field. Their comrades took their bones home but buried the rest of their remains here.
The sun is setting as Sergei drops me at the Ashu Guesthouse in Chon-Kemin. In the dining room the crowd is composed of French trekkers and western missionaries, two groups who seem to gravitate to the area. I sit down with some of the missionaries to enjoy a heartwarming meal of beetroot salad, blinis (Russian pancakes), plov (pilaf) and beef pastries.
Next morning I join the evangelists for what the Kyrgyz Concept brochure describes as a 'trip to the Panoramic Mountain of gold bowl 'Chon-Kemin' on horse', a description I cannot improve on. Four hours of gentle trotting, led by expert local horsemen, and I almost fancy myself a Hun warrior in search of plunder. Then it's time to drive back to Bishkek and board a plane.
Getting there: China Southern Airlines (www.cs-air.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Beijing and on to Urumqi, and from Urumqi to Bishkek on Fridays.