The Kyrgyz for gold is “Altyn”. It is used as a name and KyrgyzAltyn is the main, government run, company working in gold extraction.
Evidence of ancient gold mines has been found throughout the country – in Talas, Osh, Chui, Naryn and Issyk Kul. Jewellery dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries BC has been found in Chatkal.
Gold is found in many deposits around the country. In his book, “Gold of the Tien Shan Mountains”, by D. I. Sarygulov (who was the President of KyrgyzAltyn), cites some 25 deposits suitable for mining, and 61 “placer” deposits suitable for panning throughout the country.
Mining was a well established industry in the Soviet Union, especially in the period during and after the Second World War, (Sarygulov’s book contains a particularly damning account of the shortfalls of the Soviet mining industry). The countries of the former USSR now constitue the world’s second largest producer, with production of 300 tonnes a year (about 10% of the world’s total production). Most of this comes Russia – about 200 tonnes, and Uzbekistan is the second largest producer with about 60 tonnes a year. Kyrgyzstan currently produces about 20 tonnes a year – although there are plans to increase this.
The main deposit is the Kumtor goldfield, which is one of the largest deposits in the world and is operated by a Kyrgyz-Canadian joint venture – with an estimated 11 mjillion ounces of gold). Although this particular goldfield was known about, it was not developed until after Independence. It contributed considerably to the fledgling Kyrgyz economy and helped to sustain it in the difficult times following independence, (despite facing a number of setbacks such as a cyanide spill, and a wall collapse). Indeed, gold was so important for the economy of the Kyrgyz Republic, that for the period immediately after independence it represented virtually all the foreign currency earnings of the new country, and some economic statistics were (and still are) quoted in two forms – for example: GDP and "GDP (without Kumtor)".
Further expansion is planned with, for example, extraction beginning at the Central Kyzylkumah field, which should bring over 6 tonnes of gold per year. Other local deposits – Makmal, Tereksay, Solton-Sary – should produce more than 2 tonnes of the metal per year. The management of Kyrgyzaltyn are also considering creating another Joint Venture with investors from Finland or China, which would provide additional production of over 1 tonne per year.
Licenses have been issued to a number of other companies to investigate and develop other goldfields around the country.
The rules concerning gold production have been relaxed in recent years and now private individuals can prospect for gold and are allowed to sell their finds directly to the market and several prospecting collectives have grown up around the country. In a number of places it is possible for amateurs to pan for gold – such as around Sary Chelek, outside Kopuro Bazaar and near Ece Naryn.
In 2000, a local unemployed man found a gold nugget near the Kasan river in the Chatkal region and a “gold-rush” started. In fact, this is nothing new … there used to be a mine in Terek Sai operating in the last century, but it concentrated on extracting Antimony. Now it has changed the emphasis and is prospecting for gold.
“Altynbeks” of all ages – young and old alike – can be seen on river banks panning for the mineral. Some of the locals have dug small “mines” on their property and work underground. Some report finding about a quarter of a gram a day – they receive about 420 som (about USD10) per gram … just about enough to sustain a living. It is thought that about half of the local population are involved in the “industry” – surviving by digging out golden sand in mountain brooks. Nobody knows exactly how much gold all these people extract, but some say that it is comparable to a small mining enterprise.
You can find examples of jewellery made from Kyrgyz gold in many of the jewellery shops in Bishkek.