Our time in Osh began inauspiciously.
We climbed out of the mashrutka with little idea of where we were in town. We went to try and phone the hostel we hoped to stay at and I realized our phone was missing. I’d had it in my pocket on the mashrutka minutes before, so we ran back and tried to find it on the floor. No luck. No luck either when we used a fellow passengers phone to call ours. The SIM card had already been removed.
We made our way to the Osh Guesthouse, located on the fourth floor of a residential apartment building, only to find they were full for that night. While we sat and chatted with the staff and other guests the sky had darkened and it had started to rain. By the time we’d reached the ground floor the rain had become torrential. But we weren’t sure it would get better any time soon so out we went into the torrent, managing to become soaked from head to toes in the five minutes it took us to get to the next hotel just down the road.
Osh is perhaps best known to the outside world as the centre of the riots in 2010 (and earlier ones in 1990), which saw violent clashes between the city’s ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents. There was chaos in the city, with widespread looting and arson, and hundreds if not thousands (mostly Uzbeks) killed. While the two groups may not be the best of friends, it appears that the city’s Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations are once again living side by side in relative peace. Hopefully they have taken this sign (it reads “Peace”) at the north end of Osh’s Vayma Bazaar to heart
As if the apartment-hostel wasn’t odd enough, this one was located in an office building that hadn’t really even been renovated, just had (some, but not all of) the furniture swapped… beds for desks.
As it turned out, the rain did abate shortly after we’d arrived and I went out to the bazaar for a look around. The rain had left its mark. The main street running through it was 45cm deep with muddy water. Mashrutkas and taxis would drive up to the edge of the pool, pause, then push onwards. The river that ran through the market had risen to within 20cm or so of the undersides of the bridges crossing it.
Much of the bazaar had closed up when the downpour began, and still more was finishing business for the day, but I still managed to pick up a beautiful ripe watermelon, straight from the farms of the Fergana Valley, and some fresh bread for our dinner.
The Jayma bazaar in flood. The water actually dropped fairly quickly, and was completely gone about two hours following the downpour
The market at its quietest. The Jayma bazaar was badly damaged by fire in the 2010 riots. Though its returned to almost its full former size, most of the shops that were damaged were replaced by shipping containers, giving the place a somewhat temporary look, especially when the doors are shut
The next day our first order of business was to change accommodation. While the office-cum-hotel was actually fairly comfy, we were meant to meet travel companions for the next leg of our journey that evening at the Osh Guesthouse, so we returned there, dropped our bags, then went out into the brilliant (and hot) sunshine to explore what Osh had to offer.
First we headed out to the city’s one bona fide tourist attraction, Solomon’s Throne or Sulamain-Too. This rock outcrop rises straight up out of the flat plains of the valley. We sat in the park at the base of the hill finishing our watermelon from the night before and watching the city’s gardeners tidy the place up, doing everything with hand tools, right down to cutting the grass with long sweeping strokes of their hand scythes just above the ground.
Were this China there would be a $15 admission fee to Solomon’s Throne. But thankfully it wasn’t, it was Kyrgyzstan, so we bought our tickets for $0.15 and climbed up the stairs. It was a hot day, well over 30C, but there was a wonderful cool breeze up top and an expansive view out over the city and the Fergana Valley beyond, so we spent quite a while sitting at the peak.
The view out over the city. With a population of about 400,000 Osh was quite a sprawl-y town, but you could still easily see the farms on its edges quite easily from here
We joined the locals in their activities, trying out the natural rock slide near the summit and also getting involved in much of the photo taking that was going on, including (for the second time in Kyrgyzstan) being offered a baby to hold while the parents took our photo. I must say, I certainly wouldn’t let a complete stranger hold my baby on a mountaintop, most especially not if he looked like me…
We took the long, slow route down instead of the stairs. During the walk down I took a hike up to one of the many caves in the mountain for a poke around. There was little sign of their previous use as hermitages/places of worship for Sufi Muslims (Sufism is a sort of mystical, sort of gnostic way of looking at Islam whose practitioners eschew many of the typical formal sorts of worship for a more “personal” relationship with god.) Instead there were the remains of campfires (which, actually, I guess wasn’t incompatible with the Sufi occupants) as well as broken bottles and lots of graffiti (most of it ugly tags, some of actually quite artful and pretty.)
Sarah and I kind of lost one another on the way back down, but eventually we met up and headed back into town.
Crowds of local tourists near the summit of Solomon’s Throne
The stone slide was a self-perpetuating attraction: the more people that slid down it, the more polished the stone became and the better the ride (though something could perhaps have been done about the abrupt stop, banging into a vertical stone wall, at the bottom.)
Part two of our day out in Osh was another visit to the bazaar, this time to do a bit of actual shopping. We managed a new phone ($19! No colour screen or music player, but at that price, who’s complaining? Why can’t they sell simple, functional phones for this kind of price in NZ or Canada?) We also picked up a lovely long skirt for Sarah (in anticipation of our visit to Iran, for which we were still no closer to obtaining a visa.)
Traditional Kyrgyz felt hats for sale in the bazaar
Almost, but not all, of the Jayma Bazaar had been repaired following the riots. But there were still quiet sections with few stalls, and the occasional stronger reminder such as this burnt out building
Mosque in Osh. As we’d noted, the influence of Islam seemed to barely touch Bishkek and many other places in northern Kyrgyzstan. In the south things were different, with a much higher proportion of women veiled and significantly more men wearing beards and prayer caps
And finally we picked up a wide array of snacks and simple staple foods for the next leg of our journey: into the wild and remote Pamir mountains.
As we headed back to the hostel the sky darkened and opened up once again. It wasn’t quite as intense as the previous day’s downpour, but was more than enough to soak us again before we got home. When we arrived I asked the young man running the guesthouse if this was typical for the time of year. It was not. He said he’d only seen the bazaar waterlogged like the previous day two other times in his twenty five years in Osh.
Our final dinner in Kyrgyzstan: lamb Shashlik (kebabs) and bread for me, manti (big meat filled dumplings) for Sarah
That evening, our prospective travel companions Nat and Kev arrived in Osh and (somehow, despite its obscure location) found their way to the guesthouse. They were an Australian couple that we’d contacted on the Lonely Planet travel forums as we were both heading to the Tajik Pamirs around the same time. We’d already done most of our planning over e-mail but it was good to finally put faces to the names. There is very little public transport in the Pamirs, so Kev and Nat had made arrangements to hire a jeep and driver, and we’d made plans to come along with them and split the costs. We finalized our plans with the guesthouse staff (who had helped organize the driver), did a wee bit more last minute shopping, then did our best to get to bed to ready ourselves for our 06:00 departure the following morning.
The following morning our alarms woke us, and our driver, a young Kyrgyz man named Odel, was waiting out in front of the building. We packed our bags and our food and water reserves into the back of the jeep (a nice new-ish Mitsubishi Pajero) and off we went.
At first we headed through more of the flat, fertile Fergana valley, where shopkeepers, melon stall owners and even the farmers were just getting up and about their daily business.
But as we headed towards the southernmost edge of Kyrgyzstan, the mountains began to rise again and we soon found ourselves in what I thought to be the most beautiful part of the country we’d yet seen. More yurts and herds. Even bigger, more rugged iron-red mountains accented by brilliant green pasture on the less steep slopes. And more switchbacks leading upward, ever upward, towards another high mountain pass. At one point we stopped for our driver to pick up some kymyz (fermented horse milk) for the trip. When I went to take a photo of the yurt the owner poked his head out and invited me in for some bread dipped in incredibly thick and rich fresh cream. Sarah came over to say hi as well and was similarly greeted. A breakfast of bread and fresh cream looking out over a beautiful green valley with snow capped mountains off in the distance. This is the life!
A herding family’s yurt in the rusty Kyrgyz mountains
As great as this was, when we descended from the pass things went a bit downhill (Ha!) We stopped at a petrol station to fill up (a wise idea, given the near desertion of the area we were headed to) but just as we did so, our jeep emitted a huge plume of white smoke from its tailpipe. Uh oh.
Our driver tried re-starting the car, producing even MORE of the same foul smelling smoke. He fiddled around under the hood, focussing on the radiator, but to no avail. There was something oily (but not oil) dripping from underneath the car. All of us (Kev especially… he used to be a tour guide and is probably particularly keen on assuring things don’t turn to crap) were fairly clear that even if our driver did manage to jury-rig a solution to this problem, we weren’t very keen on taking a band-aid patched car into some of the highest and most remote mountains in the world.
Our stricken ride
To his credit, our driver agreed. He called up a friend (another driver) in Osh and asked him to come out to pick us up and continue the trip in a new vehicle. Especially since this meant handing over his fare to his buddy, this was a commendable display of professionalism. The new driver, Saghan, arrived about two hours later. A further half hour was spent transferring the petrol we’d just bought into the new jeep (this seemed a bit of a waste of time to me, but I suppose since we’d already paid for it we were the ones to use it, and perhaps the old driver didn’t have the cash to pay his mate for the tankful.)
For all of the frustration involved in waiting I think it very impressive that it took only three hours to arrange a new driver and car to come from Osh, completely ready to be away from home for a nine day road trip through the mountains. Even so, Odel was tremendously apologetic and insisted that I take his Kyrgyz baseball cap by way of an apology. Entirely unnecessary, of course. In the end I accepted and, though I originally thought the felt hats looked a little silly, I quickly grew very attached to this one and wore it all through the Pamirs.
Our journey continued in the new car, with Saghan at the wheel. We headed along a river valley before climbing up and over one final Kyrgyz mountain pass. On the way up the road we saw a small landslide (still big enough to mostly bury our vehicle if we’d been caught under it) sliding down of the hillside and onto the road. We waited until it had spent itself, then quickly but carefully skirted the pile of earth and rock it had left on the road. The road continued on up to the top of the pass, this one probably the highest yet judging by all of the snow around.
Sheep headed up to their summer home in the high mountains delay our progress a little
Down in the wide valley on the far side of the pass we reached the end of the line in Kyrgyzstan: the village of Sary Tash. A few dozen homes, a petrol station, one or two cafes and a homestay was about all there was to the place. And a road junction.
At Sary Tash you can turn left and soon reach the Irkeshtam Pass to China. Turn right and you enter the wilderness of the Kyrgyz Pamir Alay. Go straight and you’re almost immediately climbing up into the heart of the Pamirs and the Tajik border. This last was where we were headed, for what we anticipated to be one of the few real adventures on our trip.
Onward and upward from Sary Tash
Tags: Kyrgyzstan, Llew Bardecki, Osh, Sary Tash, Travel