22 September 2022
This morning I am flown out of Bishkek’s Manas International Airport for Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan. With a population a little over 208,000, Osh is located in the Fergana Valley. I was prepared for chaos at the airport but it went smoothly. Security to enter and security at every doorway, had to remove shoes and still have a pat down. Short 45 minute flight to Osh, didn’t leave on time, but quick exit at Osh and on time for lunch.
First, a few words about flying in Kyrgyzstan:
In 2006, the EU blacklisted all Kyrgyz air carriers except for Air Astana. Kyrgyzstan’s national airlines, previously owned by Aeroflot, plus Air Manas and a couple others, were banned from flying to and from the EU. The ban was lifted in 2016 for “sufficient evidence of compliance.” Yikes! I bravely board to avoid the 380 winding, dusty miles to Osh. My little backpack easily meets the 17 lb. carry-on limitation, weighing in at 4.8 kilos.
We may be less worried about airplanes than about Putin’s latest tantrums. Putin just conscripted hundreds of thousands of reservists to fight in his loosing war in Ukraine. Bumbling through, it is typical Russian-thought that more men, no matter how ill-equipped, will prove victorious. Our Kyrgyz guide tells us that masses of men are fleeing Russia, planes are full and oversold, and men are rushing to the borders into neighboring countries. There are at least one million Kyrgyz men working in Russia and many will want to come home, including our guide’s brother (who makes it out and home next week). All is reminiscent of the monument to the Urkun, Exodus, we visited yesterday. We expect to see repercussions in the Stans and Caucuses over the next week, especially those countries with direct flights. Will this spell the end to Putin or do we wish we had taken along the Korean gas masks?
Watching the rugged territory of Kyrgyzstan drift by, it is not long before we land on the one runway at the Osh International Airport. We get our bags and are driven 13 miles to our lodging at Sunrise Guest House. Again, a modern, characterless hotel but this time with awful beds, showers, no bottled water in rooms, and some of the worst wine I have ever tasted.
Osh is spread out and crowded with splashes of green parks. It is amongst the oldest settlements along the Silk Road in Central Asia. Its founder was Babur, descendant of Tamerlane who founded the Timurid dynasty and was credited with being one of the greatest military leaders in history. Lots of ancient history, turmoil, empire building and political violence occurred around here over the centuries.
Into the hornet’s nest, we visit the Osh Jayma Bazaar. Operating under one huge roof and along countless winding side streets and courtyards, endless Kyrgyz locals sell everything one could possibly want from ethnic clothing to furniture, musical instruments, baby bassinets, cars, fruits and spices. It is like Costco, Target, Walmart and Home Depot all in one. If it isn’t sold here, it doesn’t exist. Colorful and lively, walking the market provides endless photo shots. I enjoy the color of local markets, but find I can capture just so many photos of vegetables.
For a pleasant change of pace, we travel to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sulaiman-Too Mosque atop Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain. This mountain is thought by some historians to be the site of the Stone Tower from which geographer, astronomer, mathematician Ptolemy worked. The “Sacred” part comes not from the mosque but from the mountain being the best example of a “sacred mountain” used for worship over several millennia in Central Asia. Sulaiman (Solomon) is a prophet in the Qur’an and the mountain contains a shrine that supposedly marks his grave.
Our afternoon hike is up and over this mountain! As we arrive and I see this formidable mound of rock for the first time, I am horrified to imagine climbing in this heat. It feels at least 90° and air quality is horrible. I think of my recent hiking in the Cinque Terre but without its views and Prosecco.
Thankfully , the complex also includes a rather unique museum, the Muzey Sulaiman, which protrudes from the face of the sacred mountain. The museum is in a series of natural and man-made caves, some carved out of the rock by the Russians. The caves include archaeological, religious, prehistoric and historical artifacts; filled with stuffed animals and statues of Buddha, it has it all. If nothing else, it affords a phenomenal view of Osh. And a respite from the heat and dust!
The hike consists of many steps, many legends, a mosque, some really smooth and slippery polished granite, a little rock climbing, some narrow spots, and a lot more steps down the other side. The views of the valley and of Osh spread out below us are quite nice. The mountains are just five miles away yet I cannot see them. The air pollution from dust colors the sky brown to the east and smoke blights the sky to our west.
We head back to the Sunrise Hotel. This is the worst hotel of our stay but only for one night. I try the local Estate red wine and their vintners have a lot of room for improvement. Everyone fights over who pays for the bottle as we all have Soms left and nothing to spend them on. This is the kind of country where you can cash 40$ for a week and have 20$ too much.