Jalal-Abad (Kyrgyz: Жалал-Aбат [dʒɑlɑlɑbɑt]) is the administrative, cultural and economic center of the eponymous Jalal-Abad oblast (province: Жалалабат областы) in southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Very close to the border of Uzbekistan, the city is situated at the north-eastern end of the Fergana valley along the Kögart River valley, which is very close to the border of Uzbekistan. It lies at the southeast corner of the oblast in the foothills of the Babash-Ata mountain range to the North near the confluence of the Kok Art and Kara Darya rivers and covers a total area of 88 square kilometers (34 sq mi). The climate is noted for dry, hot summers, and relatively warm winters with high humidity which makes it prime growing land for fruits, nuts and vegetable. It is surrounded almost on all sides by massive mountain ranges and is also a premier region known for its spas and mineral springs that come down from these mountains.
Jalalabad is sometimes referred to as “The Sacred Valley” city because the town is relatively flat as opposed to the rest of the country, and there are a number of ancient holy places for Muslims that you can visit in the vicinity. Jalalabad is the third largest city in Kyrgyzstan with a resident population of about 75,000 (measured at 97,172 in 2009) and the oblast as a whole has less than a million people. This region is one of the three areas that comprise what is considered “the southern part of the country” which differs from the northern regions in many territorial, cultural and socio-economic aspects. Jalalabad and it’s larger neighbor Osh, share much in common culturally, religiously and linguistically with their fellow Fergana valley neighbor Uzbekistan. The city’s proximity to the greater Fergana Valley is reflected in its mixed population, of which about two-thirds are Uzbek. One leg of the Silk Road trade route used to pass Jalalabad on its way to settlements of the Fergana Valley, and although you may see little evidence of this today, Jalal-Abad still has something of a timeless feel.
It may be Kyrgyzstan’s third most populous city and have a taste of modernity, but you wouldn’t know it from its chilled-out, easy-going feel. Most visitors don’t bother stopping in Jalal-Abad in their haste to reach Osh, which is a shame. The town with broad avenues, chaikhanas (teahouses), three universities and hot mineral springs is worth a visit in its own right. The laid-back place is also the a convenient launching point for trips into primeval walnut forests (just 80 kilometres away) and the quaint Uzbek mountain village of Arslanbob. The city has a bright, relaxed feel that is different from many of the towns in the north. The streets are wide and well-shaded with trees, and many of the houses are typically Uzbek, hidden away behind walls and tall metal gates with rooms that face inwards onto a communal family area with the mandatory grapevine. The city’s spirit of gentle liveliness is partly due to its youth. With several universities located in the heart of Jalalabad, students tend to fill the streets and throng to all the cafes around the center.
Jalal-Abad (sometimes spelt Dzhalal-Abad, Jalalabad or Jalalabat) is likely named after a 13th century warrior. It can be literally translated as the City of Jalal. The word is a Persian suffix often used in city names to refer to the person who founded the community. Some say that the town was named after Jalal ad Din, who was famous for setting up chaikhanas (teahouses) and caravanserais to serve travelers and cater to the many pilgrims who came to the holy mountain nearby each year. Jalalabad is famous for its spas and there is a legend that the water from the Hozret-Ayub-Paigambar spa cured even lepers. According to this legend there was a grave, a mosque and the khan’s palace near the healing spa named after the ancient Prophet Job (“Azreti-Ayup-Paygambar”).
Jalal-Abad has a long history of attracting travelers: traders, tourists and pilgrims (to the various holy sights). In addition, there is a storied history of sick people coming to visit curative spas such as those found in the Ayub Tau mountains, at the altitude of 700 m above sea level some three kilometers out of Jalalabad. People with diseases and Muslim pilgrims have long sought hope and healing from the curative springs that flow down from the holy mountains. One of Kyrgyzstan’s main routes of the Silk Road passed through Jalalabad and the region has played host to travelers for thousands of years. Although you may see little archaeological signs in the vicinity visible today, there are many ancient signs of civilization further out. When you get out to the more remote parts of the oblast there are a number of curious archeological remnants dating back many millennia such as the Saimalu Tash petroglyphs and the Chatkal valley Bronze Age vessels found in burial mounds.
In the early part of the 19th century a small Kokand fortress was built, and a small village (kishlak) grew up around this. The local people were slow to develop and were largely engaged in simple agriculture, trade and services to the pilgrims visiting the spas. Jalalabad originally developed as a market town where cattle were bought and sold, and so became known as a place of interaction between agricultural and nomadic peoples. The town had medieval narrow curved streets and the bland houses were surrounded with high clay walls. Only mosques were acceptably decorated with colorful ornamentation.
All that changed in the 1870s, when Russian migrants came to the region. In 1878, the Russians quickly established a garrison town and founded a military hospital. Attracted by its rich soil, warm climate and numerous hot springs, some of the Russian servicemen settled here and remain ancestors of today’s Jalal-Abad Slavs (the Jalabad oblast contains the oldest Slavic community in southern Kyrgyzstan). Villages maintaining Slavic names such as Arkhangelskoe and Podgornoe were originally Cossack settlements. Jalal-Abad was later linked to the so-called ‘cotton railway’ between the Fergana valley and Russia, and developed into an agro-industrial center producing cotton, wheat, tobacco, walnuts, fruit, vegetables, maize and silk worms. In 1916 a railway was built from Andijan to Jalal-Abad. and in those days it was also a supply center for the now run-down local coal mining towns of Kok Jangak and Tash Kumyr.
When the Soviets established their power in the region, great importance was attached to the Jalalabad spas. In their Soviet heydays, Jalal-Abad was a popular resort town and people flocked to bathe in the nearby mineral and mud springs. The town is known for a number of natural mineral springs in its surroundings, and the water from the nearby Hozret-Ayub-Paigambar spa is still believed to cure even leprosy among other ailments. Health resorts were erected and both agriculture and the food industry also developed rapidly under Soviet rule. The city underwent a major period of reconstruction in the 1950’s but has struggled more since independence.
The town is a little shabbier now than in its past glory days but its mixture of peoples (two thirds of the population are Uzbek) gives it a unique and appealing flavor of its own. A Soviet times upmarket health resort is still alive today albeit a little dilapidated. On the grounds of the sanatorium is a natural spring (open 6.30-9am, noon-2pm & 5-8pm) enclosed in a wooden circular building. Locals daily line up anxiously awaiting for the building to open in order to collect the curative, sulfuric waters. Both the mineral water and medicinal mud have long been used to treat nervous disorders as well as skin, rheumatoid, kidney, liver and other problems. Several Soviet era sanatoria still offer mineral water treatment programs for people with various chronic diseases. Bottled mineral water from the region is sold around the country and abroad. The mineral water business is still going strong and the sanatorium just outside the city continues to receive its share of visitors, although nothing like in the old days. The springs and sanatorium are 4 kilometers from the city center. They can be found in a shady park, at an altitude of 975 meters, up the almond-grove slopes of the Ayub-Tau mountain, so a taxi ride or a Kyrgyz-Travel tour booking is needed.
WHAT TO DO
Although it’s Kyrgyzstan’s third-largest city, there are no major tourist attractions in the town itself. As in pretty much every former Soviet city, the main drag that cuts through the heart of ‘downtown’ was proudly named Lenin Street. In Jalalabad it not only retained the street name, but fountains and a statue of Vladimir Illych are still proudly displayed. The central square features this famous gilded statue of Lenin who, unusually is in a seated pose. Near this there are also many street cafes (such as Diamond Cafe) full of groups of young people drinking beer, eating meatballs or chicken and chips, or simply chatting together. Jalal-Abad is a great place to relax and watch the world go slowly by, especially if you’ve just made the long trip cutting across from Naryn or driving down the M41 from Bishkek.
Jalal-Abad has a pleasant atmosphere and a good bazaar worth checking out, but little else of special note. The most prominent sites in town are probably the square and the cultural park, which contains various sculptures and Jalalabad’s theater. The big eclectic bazaar in the middle of town sells a huge variety of produce, including delicious fresh circles of bread sprinkled with sesame seeds and still warm from the oven. It’s also a good place to buy samsy, light pastry triangles filled with meat, and kashan, meat deep-fried in dough. If you have time to kill, take the opportunity to people watch and quietly observe locals playing nardy, a national game which looks similar to backgammon. Near the market, on Lenina, is also the place to catch minibuses or taxis to the bus station. Almost everything of use to travelers is within 10 minutes’ walk of this central bazaar, as the historical and cultural museums located in the city’s center attest.
However, just 3 kilometers outside the city, the Jalalabad sanatoria (also called “Kurort”) are the one major draw and worth a visit, even if only for the view it offers of the surrounding countryside. Not far from the regional center of Jalal-Abad City, a natural mineral springs became the base for a well-known resort of the same name. The main health resort with a popular spa overlooks the town from one of the hills outside the city. The waters here are salty, and people travel from a long ways off to collect bottles of it. The spas are also the source for several different brands of mineral water sold all over the country. Near the entrance to the Kurort is a cafe with a fine view of the town; the “Ikram-Ajy” Panorama sits at a height of 1000 meters. From this vantage point you can appreciate how green the city is as the trees tower above the low-rise buildings. Aside from the spas, the complex also features a national crafts museum-like hall, a souvenir shop and an entertainment hall. A spa visit will allow you not only to learn and understand more of the local culture, but also give you the opportunity for physical, mental and spiritual relaxation.
TOURISM IN THE REGION
In it’s unique location lying at the foot of the Ayub-Tau mountains, Jalal-Abad shows great promise as a launching point for a diversity of tours into its region. Aside from the great potential for future health tourism due to the spa’s proximity, it can build upon age-old visits to a number of holy sites. For many years people have deeply revered the architectural complex of the Shakh-Fazil and made a religious pilgrimage there along with other holy historical attractions.
The Jalal-Abad Region is also well-known for its walnuts, hospitality and beautiful scenery. The Jalalabad oblast in entirety covers 33,647 square kilometers in the south-west of Kyrgyzstan and, except for the small fringes of the Fergana valley, it is a land of mountains waiting to be trekked. The world’s oldest and largest natural walnut forests are in the Arslanbob region of Jalalabad as well as two major waterfalls. The fruit tree forests are equally delicious destinations in summer. The amazingly well-preserved mountain of petroglyph drawings at Saimaluu-Tash (outside of Kazarman) will delight ancient historical buffs as they discover an estimate 10,000 stone-age carved pictures. Another pearl of the region is the Sary-Chelek Biosphere & Nature Reserve with a beautiful alpine lake surrounded by wild fruit orchards and snow-covered peaks. There are unlimited trekking possibilities in the area, but the lack of infrastructure, except at Arslanbob, poses problems to visitors. A biodiversity conservation program supported by the government and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) is working to protect these natural resources and promote low-impact tourism. Hiking and horse riding through these places will delight any traveler. If nature just isn’t your thing (why would you come here then?), Central Asia’s largest dam and water reservoir may be just what you need to be impressed. The Toktogul water reservoir and big hydroelectric power station is a real modern day feat of man-made wonder.
Summer visitors arriving in Jalal-Abad in July or August will immediately notice how much hotter it is than most places in the north of the country. This is partly because of its comparatively low altitude, but also a consequence of its proximity to the cauldron-like micro-climate of the Fergana Valley. In winter the Jalalabat region can get a lot of snow, so cross-country skiing and backcountry skiing are becoming increasingly popular enterprises. The Chatkal Mountains and the Babash-Ata Range (outside of Arslanbob) are being primed for winter tourism and now offer ski rentals and snowboard lessons. A winter hike in Chychkan gorge, Arslanbob or Sary-Chelek Reserve can also be a uniquely beautiful Kyrgyz-Travel trip. With snow covered trees surrounding and winter cold abounding, people describe the pristine silence creating an unprecedented sense of wonder, as if time and nature have stopped.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
If you’re transiting between Osh and Kazarman or Arslanbob, you’ll probably need to change vehicles in the leafy, laid-back spa-town of Jalal-Abad. The quickest way from Jalal-Abad to Osh is through Uzbek territory, but the visa wrangle has complicated the journey. Local people are supposed to get off the bus at the customs point, cross the border on foot and then change into an Uzbek bus for the absurdly small distance through Uzbekistan, repeating it all in reverse when they reach the Kyrgyz border. Foreigners can only do this if they have a multi-entry visa for both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The better alternative is to take the longer route via Ozgon so make sure to check with the taxi driver before agreeing to the trip.
Flying to Jalalabad is also an option as Air Kyrgyzstan flies there six times a week to/from Bishkek. You can buy tickets at the airport itself or at almost any ticket offices/travel agency in Bishkek or Jalalabad. Marshrutkas 1 and 5 from the centre go to the JBD airport via the bus station. Marshrutkas and buses depart regularly from the bus station, 3km west of the city center. Shared taxis depart from Lenin Street near the bazaar to Osh, Ozgun, Bazaar Korgon and Bishkek. Scheduled buses depart for Bazaar Korgon (en route to Arslanbob) every 20 minutes and to Osh every half-hour or so until 5pm. For villages neighboring Jalal-Abad, you’ll need to head for the local bus stand in the far northern corner of the bazaar past the fresh produce. Shared Nivas and 4WDs for the mountain route to Kazarman also depart from near here. The train line (a rarity in Kyrgyzstan), runs from the Ferghana Valley northeast about 30 km to Kökjanggak.
Nowadays Jalalabad is home to enterprises in the oil, construction, wood processing, electro-technical, light and food industries. However, especially as far as tourists are concerned, Jalalabad is more famous for the nuts. Near the bazaar is a shop which sells a unique local delicacy – walnut jam. The nut’s “meat” is harvested from the tree before the hard husk has formed and is then boiled. The fruit is left whole and suspended in a sweet syrup, rather than a thick jam. They also sell delicious treats like walnuts drowned in honey. In the bazaar you can find all sorts of fresh fruits and a wide variety of nuts. The region is a center for fruit and vegetable growing and people are engaged in producing wheat, fruits, vegetables, maize, nuts, tobacco and silk-worm cocoons. There are also some light-industrial plants and hydroelectric stations out of the city center. Most of the extraction of minerals, natural gas, coal, metals and oil of the Soviet era has long ceased.
Jalal-Abad is known for its mineral springs in its surroundings, and the water from the nearby Azreti-Ayup-Paygambar spa was long believed to cure lepers. Several Soviet era sanatoriums offer mineral water treatment programs for people with various chronic diseases. Bottled mineral water from the region is sold around the country and abroad. Jalabad’s biggest companies include: Kyrgyz-Canada JV “Kyrgyz Petroleum Company”, АО «Kelechek», and АО «Nur». AOZT «KyrgyzChlopok» and JV «Ak-Altyn» process cotton. There are the tobacco-curing companies «Tura-Ai» Ltd and «Aziz-Tabak» Ltd., that export 90% of their output to 17 countries. There are also some flour mills such as АО «Azrat Ayib», AOZT PTK «Intershaq», and «Mariam & Co» ltd, and a Soviet holdover, the liquor manufacturer AOZT «Jalalabat Arak Zavodu».