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Getting ready for horseback sports, Osh

What Kyrgyzstan lacks in gracious buildings and fancy cakes, it makes up for with nomadic traditions such as laid-back hospitality, a healthy distrust of authority and a fondness for drinking fermented mare's milk. It is perhaps the most accessible and welcoming of the Central Asian republics.

It contains the central Tian Shan and Pamir Alay ranges, Central Asia's finest mountains, and it's doing more than any of its neighbours to encourage tourism and streamline bureaucratic procedures for visitors - partly because tourism is one of the few things it has to sell to the outside world.

In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union left this tiny, under-equipped republic out on a limb, seemingly without the resources to survive on its own. So far it's getting by on pluck, a liberal agenda and goodwill from Western donor countries.

Away from Bishkek, Issyk-Kul and parts of the Tian Shan, tourist infrastructure is either minimal or wretched, transport is limited, fuel overpriced, roads unpoliced and there is a growing crime rate, fuelled by alcohol and desperate poverty. You should resist the temptation to just hop off the bus in the middle of nowhere and hike into the hills. This said, there are early signs of a developing tourist awareness in some parts of the countryside.

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