My long-time Chinese pen pal Erica (pic in the gallery) is leaving Beijing to work for her brother (short-term) and learn Russian... in Kyrgyzstan (a former Soviet Republic).

Road trip anyone?.. Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country in Central Asia, bordering Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The mountainous region of the Tian Shan covers the majority of the nation, with the remainder made up of its valleys and basins.

...Political stability appears to be elusive, however, as various groups and factions allegedly linked to organized crime are jockeying for power. Three of the 75 members of Parliament elected in March 2005 have been assassinated since then, and another member was assassinated on 10 May 2006 shortly after winning his murdered brother's seat in a by-election. All four are reputed to have been directly involved in major illegal business ventures.

...The World Almanac 2005 reported that Kyrgyzstan's population is slightly more than 5 million, estimating it at 5,081,429. Of those, 34.4% are under the age of 15 and 6.2% are over the age of 65. The country is rural; only about one-third (33.9%) of Kyrgyzstan's population live in urban areas. The average population density is 69 people per square mile (29 people per km2).

The nation's largest ethnic group are the Kyrgyz, a Turkic peoples. The Kyrgyz comprise 69.5% of the population and have historically been semi-nomadic herders, living in yurts and tending sheep, horses and yaks. This nomadic tradition continues to function seasonaly as herding families return to high mountain pastures or jailoos in the summer. The retention of this nomadic heritage and the freedoms that it assumes continue to have an impact on the political atmosphere in the country. The name Kyrgyz, both for the people and for the nation itself, is said to mean either "forty girls", a reference to the Manas of folklore unifying forty tribes against the Mongols.

Other ethnic groups include ethnic Russians (9.0%) concentrated in the North and Uzbeks (14.5%) living in the South. Small, but noticeable minorities include Tatars (1.9), Uyghurs (1.1%), Kazakhs (0.7%) and Ukrainians (0.5%). Of the formerly sizeable Volga German community, exiled here by Stalin from their earlier homes in the Volga-German Republic, most have returned to Germany, and only a few small groups remain.

Islam is the religion of 75% of the population.

The main Christian churches are Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox.