Saturday, October 22, 2016

Travels in Kyrgyzstan: Osh

Kyrgyzstan is the kind of place that people rarely end up in by accident. This country almost the size of the United Kingdom but with a population of only 6 million, entirely covered in mountains and further from the sea than any other country in the world, rarely makes it into the news.

Nestled between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China's Western frontier, in many ways Kyrgyzstan does not make for a very promising travel destination. The country is one of the poorest in Asia, with an average per capita income lower than Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia. It and Tajikistan have none of the natural resources of their larger neighbours. Kyrgyzstan could be said to be the closest thing to a democracy in Central Asia, which is part of the reason that it has the region's most liberal visa regime. Visitors from well-off countries generally need no visa. On the other hand, the country is also quite unstable, witnessing a revolution in 2005 and another one in 2010. In fact, at the time of my journey Britain's Foreign Office was advising against all inessential travel to the country, due to the threat of instability and terrorism. This almost put me off going at all, but while in Almaty I spoke to some other travellers who had already been there and to the staff at my hostel, and they all assured me that the place was no more dangerous than Kazakhstan (which is, in my experience, safe enough).

I thus decided that my next destination after Kazakhstan would be Kyrgyzstan, from which I would travel back to China through the Irkeshtam pass. The plan was to travel overland to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, and from there catch a cheap flight to Osh, a city in the South of the country. My original plan had been to fly to Tajikistan and enter China from there, but I then discovered that Tajikistan's border with China is often and unpredictably closed to people who aren't Chinese or Tajik. Kyrgyzstan thus became my backup plan.

I travelled from Almaty to Bishkek, Kyrgzystan's capital, on a mashrutka, one of the private mini-buses that seem to constitute the main way to get around in Central Asia. The entire journey took four hours. On the way to the border I looked out at the typical Kazakh scenery of empty flat steppe, interspersed with a few villages. As we approached Kyrgyzstan the scenery started to get more mountainous. The border crossing was not too bad: everyone had to get out, go through a Kazakh checkpoint, then walk a few minutes to a Kyrgyz checkpoint and get an entry stamp, then walk on until they found their own mashrutka again. There was little bureaucracy or waiting involved.

As soon as I crossed the border, the relative messiness and poverty of Kyrgyzstan made itself felt. I was surrounded by a crowd of taxi drivers offering rides to Bishkek, one of whom tried to physically push me into his taxi. Luckily I managed to shrug him off and identify my own minibus. As we drove on, the villages we passed looked noticeably poorer than the ones on the Kazakh side of the border. As we drove into Bishkek I looked out at the capital's run down neighbourhoods, which reminded me of what I imagine places like Albania or Moldova must look like.

During Soviet times Bishkek used to be called Frunze, in honour of the Bolshevik leader Mikhail Frunze who was born there. He was a Slav of Russian and Moldovan descent, rather than a Kyrgyz. In spite of the region having been part of the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union for a century and a half, few people from the native ethnic groups really made an impact on Russian history. The city itself is a Russian creation which has been heavily Slavic for most of its history. Apparently in 1970 ethnic Kyrgyz made up only 12% of the city's population, while European peoples made up over 80%. The proportions are now reversed, with 66% of the population Kyrgyz, and less than 20% Slavic. Kyrgyzstan's lack of opportunities and instability led to an exodus of the Russian, Ukrainian and German population after independence. More or less the same thing happened in all the other Central Asian countries except, to some extent, for Kazakhstan. In spite of that, Russian is still Bishkek's most popular language.

Our mashrutka dropped us off near the central bus station. Dodging another crowd of over-eager taxi drivers, I found a money-exchange booth (these seem to be everywhere in the country), and changed my Kazakh Tenge into Kyrgyz Som. Kyrgyzstan may be the only place in the world where Tenge from Kazakhstan are considered to be a hard currency and willingly exchanged all over the country. With no idea how to get to the airport, I went into the central bus station and looked around. I saw a pretty young woman working at the office of a local airline, and asked her if she could speak English. Thankfully she could, and was able to explain to me that I should take a taxi to a certain square, and then from there take a certain mashrutka to the airport. I went back out and jumped into a taxi, whose steering wheel was on the right-hand side, even though in Kyrgyzstan people drive on the right. This is a bizarre thing about the country: even though people drive on the right like in most of the world, quite a few cars have the driver's seat on the right as well, British style. Perhaps the cars are second-hand British imports?

At the airport I noticed that the soldiers patrolling the place all had their faces covered by balaclavas, I suppose to protect from the risk of retaliation by terrorists. The airport seemed very small, considering that it is Kyrgyzstan's major international airport. With a bit of trepidation, I boarded my plane to Osh. My flight was with Air Manas, a cheap Kyrgyz airline. Just like all Kyrgyz airlines, Air Manas is banned from the EU because of safety concerns. The airline is named after the Epic of Manas, the most famous Kyrgyz work of literature, claimed by the Kyrgyz to be the longest epic poem in the world (unfortunately it isn't). The flight from Bishkek to Osh only took 45 minutes. The overland journey, however, would have involved a full 12 hours of travelling over little mountain roads through the country's spectacular mountains. While we were flying I could see snow-capped peaks from the window.

The market in Osh

Osh is Kyrgyzstan's second biggest city, and it is geographically and culturally very far removed from the capital. Unlike the more Russified Bishkek, Osh is conservative and piously Muslim. It is also an ancient city, which was part of the Silk Road for centuries. It sits in the Fergana Valley, a beautiful but troubled region that straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. While the valley is now divided between three independent states, its ethnicity is a patchwork that has little to do with the artificial national borders. On the Kyrgyz side cities like Osh have long been dominated by Uzbek tradespeople, while the Kyrgyz tended to live in the countryside as farmers or nomads.

The Kyrgyz have however been moving to the cities in large numbers since Soviet times, and Osh is now equally divided between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. This has led to tension and outbreaks of serious violence. In 1990 a dispute over how to divide a former collective farm led to riots in which over a thousand people were killed. In 2010 there were new clashes in Osh and the surroundings as part of the revolution in the same year, with hundreds killed and thousands of Uzbeks fleeing to Uzbekistan. There is still serious resentment in the region between the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz, although it is of course invisible to passing travellers like me. What's more, the Fergana valley is also the main hotbed for the region's resurgent Islamist movement.

I arrived in Osh after dark, and after getting out of the tiny airport I took a taxi to my guesthouse. In spite of its troubled reputation, Osh is Kyrgyzstan's most interesting city, and it is the main base for the few backpackers and foreign travellers who make it to this little visited country. The Biy Ordo Guesthouse where I stayed, run by a friendly English-speaking lady, is the establishment where foreign travellers tend to gather. I got a decent room with my own bathroom and breakfast included for the equivalent of 20 euros a night. There were a few other backpackers in the guesthouse, including a group of Israelis. The temperature was much warmer than in cold Kazakhstan, and at night a light jacket was sufficient, while in daytime I could walk around in short sleeves.

Walking around the streets of Osh I really felt like I was in Central Asia for the first time. Most women wear colourful veils, many of the men wear traditional Kolpok hats, people speak to each other in the local Turkic languages rather than Russian, and the atmosphere feels closer to Iran than to Russia. The food is pretty much the same as what you might get in Xinjiang, with skewers of lamb meat and nan bread in every restaurant. The city also sports a huge bazar in its center, with any good you might imagine on display. The town's buildings and infrastructure are however visibly run down and in disrepair, and the area's economic depression quite evident. On the city's outskirts there is a huge statue of Lenin, one of the biggest remaining in Central Asia, which stands in front of an even taller flag of independent Kyrgyzstan and the local government headquarters. The ironies of history.

Statue of Lenin in Osh

Flag of Kyrgyzstan and Lenin facing each other

Kyrgyz Communist Party offices

On my first day in Osh I went to see the city's main attraction, in other words the Sulayman Mountain. Kyrgyztan's only World Heritage Site, it is a small mountain that cuts Osh into two halves and offers great views of the surroundings. It has also been a place of pilgrimage starting from millennia ago, long before the arrival of Islam to the region. It later became an Islamic holy site, visited by many travellers along the Silk Road. After taking a taxi to the gate and paying a very small fee equivalent to around 0.3 Euros for a ticket, I started walking up the mountain. The mountain has some holy caves that are places of worship for local people. I tried to enter a couple, but I found that to get in it was necessary to climb up some rocks that struck me as dangerous. Worrying about how I would get back down again, and not wanting to experience the local hospitals, I decided to give up. I saw various locals climb up and enter without giving it any thought.

I then continued climbing up the stairs carved into the mountain until I reached the mosque of Babur. Babur was the founder of the Mughal Empire, the empire ran by Muslims that came to rule almost the whole of India. A descendant of Genghis Kan and Timurlane, Babur was actually born in the Fergana Valley, and it is said that while sitting atop of the Sulaiman Mountain at 14 he decided to set off and build his empire. On the mountain there now lies a reconstruction of a little mosque that Babur built there at the beginning of the 16th century. The original mosque was destroyed by an earthquake in 1853, and then its reconstruction wad destroyed in the sixties by a strange explosion, which the local people of course blamed on the godless Soviet authorities. The current reconstruction dates from after independence.

The Sulayman Mountain
Mosque of Babur
View of Osh
Mosque at the base of the Sulayman Mountain
Inside of the mosque

The views of the surroundings from the mosque of Babur were pretty good. Next to the mosque a group of young Kyrgyz girls asked if they could take photos with me, something which often happens to foreign travellers in China. They really wanted to chat with me, but upon discovering that I spoke no Russian they were forced to give up. While in Kazakhstan most people assumed me to be a local Russian, in Osh everyone could tell I was a foreigner just by looking at me. People of Slavic descent are no longer that common in the area, and foreign tourists are easy to spot.

In spite of the warnings about the area's safety, I found the locals to mostly be very curious and friendly towards me. On a couple of occasions I was stopped on the street by youngsters who wanted to chat, although the language barrier meant communication remained very basic. Taxi drivers would always shake hands with me when I got into their cars, and my "salaam aleikum" response to Russian greetings was always met with delight. If I were able to speak Russian, or indeed Turkish, which is close enough to Uzbek and Kyrgyz to be understood, I would have certainly got more out of the trip and been able to get to know more local people. All the same, when I was lost or had any sort of problem, there were always local people who offered to help me any way they could. I suppose the traditional hospitality of nomadic cultures is still highly felt. 

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