Osh (pop. 300,000 people) is Kyrgyzstan’s second-biggest city and often referred to as the capital of southern Kyrgyzstan. Its location at the heart of the most important tourist regions in Central Asia makes it an essential node on many, if not most Silk Road itineraries.
Osh is a good place to relax, recharge and refuel for a day or 2, especially if you have just come from the mountains.
In the center of Osh, the petrified spine of Sulaiman-Too juts out of the surrounding plain, arched as if straining to carry the weight of the city’s 2500-year-old history.
The mountain surrounded by the plain: it is an ironic reversal, and a fitting symbol for Osh’s split Uzbek-Kyrgyz personality.
Situated at a stone’s throw from the border with Uzbekistan, on the edge of the Ferghana Valley’s cultivated flat lands, Osh carries all the hallmarks of a classic Uzbek city. Its sprawling bazaar takes up the entire centre of the city. Osh moves; a buzz atypical for Kyrgyzstan is exemplified, ironically, by the 24/7 traffic jams.
The sound of Islam carried over the roofs of Osh, too, evokes the pious atmosphere of old Bukhara rather than the nomadic beliefs of Kyrgyz yurt dwellers. Even the city’s notorious underbelly recalls Uzbekistan’s past of caravan trade: organized crime has turned Osh into a depot of the lucrative heroin trade between Afghanistan and Russia.
The Kyrgyz half of the population, in turn, consists mostly of recent immigrants. They tie Osh to the nearby Alay mountains, where their relatives still live.
The earliest signs of settlement in Osh date back to the 5th century BCE. Like the rest of the Ferghana Valley, it fell under the rule of Saka, Persian, Greek, Kushan, Arab and Turkic empires in ensuing centuries.
Arab geographers like Al-Maqdisi and Ibn Hawqal speak of Osh as an important centre for silk production and as a trade centre at a crossroads on the Silk Road at the end of the first millennium CE. Archaeological finds suggest that the Jayma bazaar has been trading on the same place near the river for the past 2000 years.
The 13th century saw large-scale destruction at the hands of the Mongols, but unlike some neighbouring trade emporiums of times past, Osh bounced back. In 1496 a young Babur commissioned the mosque on top of Solomon’s Throne, which is still referred to as Babur’s House. In 1762, Osh became part of the Khanate of Kokand.
In 1868, the Khanate of Kokand was annexed to the Russian Empire. Kurmanjan Datka, ruler of the Alai region, stayed independent for a while longer, but in 1876, she led a peaceful transition to Russian power. Her story inspired the acclaimed 2014 film Queen of the Mountains.
Soviet times: carving up the Ferghana Valley
There isn’t a guidebook about Central Asia on this planet that does not re-iterate the myth that Joseph Stalin single-handedly carved up the Ferghana Valley to divide and conquer its peoples. This is simply not true. Instead, the process of drawing the borders of the socialist republics was more like a tug of war between different local elites and the decision makers in Moscow.
Francine Haugen’s Empire of Nations describes (p 188—194) how at the time of delimitation both Uzbek and Kyrgyz leaders had made their claims for the major urban centres in the Ferghana Valley. Even though Kyrgyz leaders acknowledged that in neither Osh nor Jalalabad the majority of the population was classiﬁed as Kyrgyz, they based their claims on the fact that without them, the Kyrgyz ASSR would be economically unviable.
Eventually, this argument won the day over that of ethnic allegiance, and it was decided that Osh and Jalal-Abad would be given to the Kyrgyz ASSR.
It’s just one example of a process that happened, not only in Ferghana Valley but throughout the Soviet Union in the 1920’s and 1930’s, involving ethnographers, economists, local elites and Moscow apparatchiks.
1990 and 2010 ethnic conflicts
In 1990 and 2010, violent riots broke out between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, killing hundreds, if not thousands, often in brutal fashion. Why? It’s a complex topic, but here are a few of the reasons:
- Urbanization of the traditionally rural Kyrgyz population, especially after independence, increased competition for employment, urban resources, etc.
- Economic issues: in 1990 the Soviet economy collapsed, while in 2010 the global credit crisis reduced opportunities, especially in Russia, the main destination for labour migrants.
- A weak state: in 1990 the Soviet Union was on its death bed, while 2010 saw the overthrow of president Bakiyev.
- Organized crime, flush with cash from the drug trade, has economic and political clout in Osh.
- Economic disparity: Uzbeks have traditionally been merchants and city-dwellers, and were better set up to take advantage of opportunities in the Soviet system. They are consequently often seen to be richer and better established in business.
- Administrative disparity: Kyrgyz hold practically all key administrative posts.
- Kyrgyz nationalism: a Kyrgyz-first ideology is the default mode of thinking for the majority of ethnic Kyrgyz. Nationalist rabble-rouser politicians are popular, while hate speech and negative portrayals of minorities are common fare in Kyrgyz media.
- Discrimination: Uzbeks and other minorities do not have the same rights and protections as the Kyrgyz ethnic majority inside Kyrgyzstan, for instance with regards to language and schooling.
Since most of these reasons continue to this day, it is fair to assume ethnic violence will rear its ugly head again before long. Plenty has been written about the riots: we recommend Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley for a page-turning journalistic account of Kyrgyzstan’s 2010, and Nick Megoran’s analysis for a very wise, evenhanded look at Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations in Osh.
Things to see and do
The main sights and activities in Osh are:
- Jayma bazaar
- The riverbank park
- City mosques
- Sunday animal market
- Cooking classes
Sulaiman-Too, or Solomon’s Throne in English, the iconic mountain presiding over Osh, is the city’s record keeper and historian, its medicine man and shaman. Find out more at Sulaiman-Too, a palimpsest for Osh.
For the past 2000 years, the Jayma bazaar has linked the urban economy with the rural one. Extending north from Alisher Navoi street along the Ak-Buura River, the bazaar constitues a second river formed from a constant stream of shoppers dodging carts pushed by men shouting ‘Bosh! Bosh!‘ as they rattle past. Like elsewhere in the region, Sunday is the busiest day, while Monday is closing day (although some stalls open).
Some tourists, unaccustomed to what a Central Asian bazaar looks like, might be disappointed by the lack of spices (locals don’t use them), locally-produced goods (knives, boots, furniture and metalwork are made on the bazaar, most everything else is from China) and pretty domed buildings (you are not in Istanbul).
If that’s the case, you are missing the point.
At Jayma bazaar, the smells of freshly baked bread mingle with the reek of ammonia wafting out of a nearby toilet. There is a lot of shouting. Friendly shouting, angry shouting. So many different faces. Furtive glances are exchanged. Someone’s getting into a fight with a taxi driver. You debate politics in one of the chaikhanas hanging over the river, and you leave a little bit high from all the tea you drank. Finally, you get your horse shod. Some spare change left: a silk scarf for your wife, some fresh figs for your kids.
Off the beaten track
2 modes of living surround the center: wabi-soviet apartment blocks dating from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s on the one hand, and Uzbek mahallas on the other hand.
Traditional mahalla neighbourhoods consisting of large, multi-generational houses with high gates, carved wooden awnings and grape-covered courtyards are spread around Osh, for instance, in the backstreets around Amir Temur street leading away from Sulaiman-Too.
Want more? Walk along the railroad to see some seldom-visited bits of Osh. The remains of the Ak-Buura fortress, in use during the 1st-5th and 9th-12th century, can be found on the city’s southern edge.
Also called the Silk Road museum, the regional museum at the bottom of Sulaiman-Too has very poor displays about the region’s history and culture, and no information in English. Badly underloved and underfunded, it is one of the worst we have seen in the region, and that is saying something. Expect to learn nothing.
Open 9-13 and 14-18. Entrance: 150 som.
Museum of fine arts
The Turgunbai Sydykov Museum of Fine Arts nearby has some local artwork. Don’t expect to be baffled. Open 10-17, ask the lady who lives in the shack over the river to open the door if the museum is closed. Entrance: 150 som.
A small medieval hammam sits just to the left of the museum, while the Rabat Abdullah Khan mosque is on its right.
In the nearby Alymbek Datka park, the world’s only 3-storey yurt holds an exhibition on Alymbek and Kurmanjan Datka, which is, quoting Dagmar Schreiber, “touching in its plaintiveness and mustiness.”
Mosques and churches
Ravat Abdullakhan mosque
At the bottom of Sulaiman-Too stands the small Ravat Abdullakhan Mosque. The scholarly Abdullakhan II (1534-1598) was the most noteworthy Shaybanid ruler of the Khanate of Bukhara.The mosque in Osh was built in the second half of the 16th century, at the zenith of the Khanate’s power when the successful conquests of Abdullakhan made him the ruler of a vast territory, larger than present-day Uzbekistan, encompassing Balkh, Khorezm, Khorasan and Ferghana.
Abdullakhan was a great builder as well as a great general, constructing mosques, madrassas, caravanserais and khanakas, like for instance the Kosh madrassa in Bukhara.
The Ravat Abdullakhan mosque has suffered a lot of damage over the centuries from earthquakes and neglect during Soviet times, but it has been lovingly restored and the original structure is still largely intact. More details at Tourkg.
Shaid Tepa mosque
Near the bazaar is the Shaid Tepa mosque, originally constructed in wood between 1908-10, but which served as stables and forge during the Soviet period. It reopened in 1943 and in recent years has been renovated with Saudi backing. Today it can accommodate up to 5000 believers.
Other mosques and mausoleums
The Mohammed Yusufbai Hadji mosque (aka Mamayusufbay Azhy) on the corner of Navoi-Kol Onorchulora streets (2GIS / OSM) stems from the same time as the Shaid Tepa mosque and is also worth a look for the lovely prayer room.
The small Asaf ibn Burchiya Mausoleum at the foot of Sulaiman Too stems from the 11th century, but much has been lost over successive renovations.
Church of the Archangel Michael
Near the city hall stands a Russian Orthodox Church from the early 20th century. With few Russians remaining in Osh after Kyrgyz independence and the ensuing violence, the church has also become a school and a cultural centre of sorts for the Russian community.
River park and Lenin statue
The riverbank park, stretching from Alisher Navoi to Abdykadyrov, is great for strolling, offering all the standards of an Uzbek entertainment park: rickety rides, karaoke, shashlik and ice cream, VR games, 7D cinema, old-timers playing chess and a Yak-40 airplane.
Nearby, the Lenin statue in front of the town hall is huge, rivaling the Lenin statue in Khujand. Behind the big Lenin, another park has monuments commemorating Chernobyl’s Kyrgyz liquidators, World War 2 and the inter-ethnic conflict of recent times.
The word osh actually means food in Uzbek, and Osh is known to have the best food in Kyrgyzstan. Granted, that is not saying much.
Cooking classes for plov and bread baking are organised by USAID-funded Destination Osh. They still have development funding until mid-2019, after that the initiative will likely die.
Osh Travel is a more sustainable travel agency that offers samsa cooking classes (in Russian). Well worth a try since Osh samsas are very different from those in the rest of Central Asia, supersized and baked in a tandoor instead of a normal oven.
Animal market and hippodrome
On Sunday, the animal market is a fun day out. From the Aravanskaya bus stop in Osh, take marshrutka 105 or bus 5 headed east, to the end of the line.
Kyrgyz-Ata NP and Abshir-Ata falls
If you want to get into nature but do not have the time to get into the Alay mountains, you have a few options.
Kyrgyz-Ata national park (Gmaps): a relaxed hiking experience not far from Osh. Many tour companies offer tours. To get there, turn off at Nookat towards the mountains.
Abshir-Ata (Gmaps): a waterfall popular with locals as a picknick spot, but go beyond the shashlik stands and you will find pleasant hiking for many kilometers upstream, crossing jailoos and alpine lakes to end up at the foot of the Kichi Alay. To get there, head past Nookat to Kok-Zhar, then turn off towards the mountains for 30 km.
If you do have the time for a longer hike, read our article on Trekking in Alay.
Chil-Ustun caves (Gmaps): near the village of Aravan, these caves should probably only be accessed with a guide, unless you are an experienced spelunker. In any case, you will likely need equipment.
The caves are 400 m long and harbour stalactites and stalagmites of up to 350 million years old, as well as some petroglyphs. There are more caves in the area: the longest, at 1200 m, is the Victory Cave.
Uzgen is worth a stop en route to Bishkek for those big on Karakhanid architecture. A minaret and 3 mausoleums from the 11th-12th centuries are the chief attraction.
The minaret’s ornamental brickwork reminds one of the Burana Tower from the same architects, while the stylish ganch and carved terracotta prefigure much of what you see today in Uzbekistan.
An old rice mill and historic bath house are also worth checking out.
The road north from Osh heads towards Bishkek, over Arslanbob, Suusamyr and Toktogul. Eastwards, the trail leads to Sary Tash, where it splits. One road continues straight to Kashgar, Xinjiang and the Karakorum Highway. A second road turns off and morphs into the Pamir Highway. A third road leads to Sary Mogol, the main jumping-off point for a number of excellent hikes in the Pamir-Alay, and climbing Peak Lenin (7134 m).
If you head south instead, the road leads to Khujand, the Fann mountains and Dushanbe. Head west, and you end up in Uzbekistan’s part of the Ferghana Valley, en route to Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara.
Side note: if you are heading to Tajikistan, especially Pamir, exchange somoni in Osh for the best rates. Currency exchanges that deal in somoni are located on Navoi street, near the corner with Masalieva.
Transport & accommodation
Food, Q&A and reports
Food recommendations, as well as all other questions and reports are welcome in our Osh forum thread.