Osh (Kyrgyz: Ош, Russian: Ош, Uzbek: O’sh) is Kyrgyzstan’s second-biggest city (behind only the capital city of Bishkek) with an estimated 300,000 people. Since 1939 this ancient city has served as the administrative center of the huge, populous Osh province that engulfs the eastern edge of the Fergana Valley on the Kyrgyzstan side. The so called “southern capital” of Kyrgyzstan is reportedly the oldest city in Central Asia (estimated to be more than 3000 years old) and stands at a modest 1000 m above the sea level, which is lowlands compared to much of the rest of the country. It is a large economic and cultural centre who has kept unique charm of the ancient East.
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While there might be little of architectural merit to show for many years of history, Osh’s sprawling bazaar and hospitable citizens provide an atmosphere that is far more archetypically Central Asian than you will find in Bishkek. The people of Osh are very diverse as well. The city has an ethnically mixed population dominated by Kyrgyz (48%) and Uzbeks (44%), but minority groups of Russians, Tajiks, Turks, Tatars and other smaller Central Asian ethnic groups abound.This makes for a different flavor to the city than the rest of the country, and also in turn positively effects the flavour of the food. The diversity colors the city, but has also meant that the city has had times of divisiveness and all out conflict (see history section). But at this time, all is well, and the diversity of the population is easily seen on the street, in the neighborhoods, and in the food! Combined with its suburbs the population swells to an estimated 500,000 inhabitants, but Osh City itself has somewhere between 250,000 to 300,000 people (measured at 255,800 in a 2012 census). That population number, much like other cities in Kyrgyzstan, varies with the the seasons as so many laborers leave to work elsewhere. Osh is home to several universities, so students flood in at the start of September, and depending on agricultural work or the Russian economy, numbers can change based on labor flows.
As an important regional center, Osh retains a distinctly international feel; you’d be forgiven for thinking yourself, if not quite in Uzbekistan, then certainly not entirely in Kyrgyzstan either, yet is already physically and spiritually closer to Kashgar than to Tashkent. It is a lively city that despite its smaller size can seem busier than Bishkek. Despite the city’s antiquity it is startlingly, relentlessly Soviet. The roads are wide, often four-laned, bordered by stark concrete government offices, dreary shops and tenement flats that climb grey and charmless against the hazy sky.
Nevertheless, it is also a city of irrepressible Central Asian color: flower stalls line the streets, the rainbow patterns of atlas silk are visible everywhere and luxuriant mountains of fruits and vegetables fill the bazaar in summer. You might be surprised that unlike much of the rest of Kyrgyzstan, few of the men roaming the streets are wearing “the traditional Kyrgyz kalpacs. Instead their shaved heads were covered in embroidered blue skullcaps, and over their shoulders hung the three-quarter-length Uzbek velvet cloaks, known as chapins.” (Silk Dreams, Troubled Road by Jonny Bealby) Although the Soviet legacy of town planning and architecture dominate, a sense of ancient Central Asia still pervades, especially around the bustling bazaar. The rich history of the oasis, much of it unknown, lies hidden beneath the avenues of socialism and little remains to be seen. History’s cultures, religions and wars have disappeared from memory. It is well worth pausing in Osh a couple of days for its rich history, eclectic mix of peoples and to visit the best bazaar west of Kashgar, China. There are also some impressive cave formations in the nearby valleys.
Sultan Babur (1483-1530) nostalgically described the city in his memoirs: Orchards follow the river on either bank, the trees overhanging the water. Pretty violets grow in the gardens. Osh has running water. It is lovely there in the spring when countless tulips and roses burst into blossom. In the Fergana valley no town can match Osh for the fragrance and purity of the air. There was a city mayor who must have taken this to heart and put a lot of money into city beautification, and once done, the residents liked it, and now it’s a basic requirement of the city to keep the efforts alive. The city is very green and lush with a bunch of flower pots planted along the main car bridge that crosses the river, roads are lined with trees, and there are even gardens in boulevards. Here in Osh, people truly live here in community, it’s got a soul; residents take pride in it.
The town also obviously harbors some wealth. While dirty Ladas & Nivas, outdated Audis, old trucks and diesel buses bought cheaply from East Germany are still commonplace on the busy streets, you will also see fancy black Mercedes and Lexus SUVs driving by. People here, regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnicity, truly love this city, and it’s not hard to see why when you visit. Osh is pleasant overall in that it is quite well maintained. The sidewalks are swept (women sweep them with big witch-like twig brooms early in the morning), there are garbage bins everywhere which are actually used, the parks are trimmed, the fountains are clean and actually spout water around (waterless fountains are so depressing!) and people here really take pride in their properties. It is also sitting in a bit of a valley, and has hills on only one side of it. Despite hot weather, Osh is filled with lush green trees and pleasant fragrant breezes. The city oozes culture and history from its pores, and the true Central Asian hospitality fills it with a warm, welcoming energy that is unlike any other major Central Asian city.
OSH CITY LAYOUT
Osh is located not surprisingly in the Osh Oblast, and is a solid 10-16 hour car drive south of Bishkek but only 5 kilometers from the border of its neighbor Uzbekistan. By car, the Bishkek-Osh drive is beautiful but harried as Kyrgyz roads and the few mountain passes don’t really make for straight forward Google Maps travel time predictions.
The airport is about five minutes by bus from the new bus station so it makes for a quick rewarding 40 minute plane ride from Manas International Airport, which is just outside Bishkek (on Avia Traffic Company, Air Manas, Air Kyrgyzstan, Pegasus and Sky Bishkek). Daily morning and evening flights from Osh Airport link the city, and hence all of the southern part of Kyrgyzstan (Jalalabad, Batken, etc.), to Bishkek and the north with about 7 flights per day. There are also inexpensive international flights which can take you to Moscow (DME and ZIA), Novosibirsk (OVB), or St. Petersburg (LED) (on Ural Airlines, S7 Airlines) or Urumqi on China Southern Airlines. With easy transit from FRU (on TurkishAir via Turkey and FlyDubai via Dubai) also makes Osh a savvy gateway to all of Central Asia.
For many travelers, Osh is predominantly a launch or arrival point for buses to/from China, for transiting from Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley, or for accessing Tajikistan’s memorable Pamir Highway. There are drainage canals running all over the city pleasantly giving off sounds and coolness from the running of water. Historically Osh has served as a famous trading route crossing the Alay Mountains to reach Kashgar to the east, and now for tourists serves much the same function. In modern times, Osh has become also the starting point of the Pamyr Highway crossing the Pamir Mountains to end in Khorog, Tajikistan. Osh also has two railway stations and a railway connection to Andijan in neighboring Uzbekistan, but no passenger traffic and only sporadic freight traffic. Most transport is still by road, just cars and trucks as opposed to camels of days gone by. The recent upgrading of the long and arduous road through the mountains by highway to Bishkek has greatly improved communications.
Osh is oozing with history and culture. The city of Osh is reputedly 3000 years old (they celebrated their 3,000th anniversary in the year 2000), and many locals claim that Osh is “Older than Rome ”. Just as the city today maintains a unique diversity, even the legends surrounding its founding vastly vary. The origins of the city have been ascribed from Alexander the Great of the Greeks, to King Solomon of Jewish fame, from the Prophet Suleiman of Muslim heritage even going as far back as the Biblical Adam. Legends claim that that the Macedonian warrior king Alexander the Great visited the city on his way to India, and that King Solomon visited and slept on top of the hill that still bears his name, Taht-i-Suleiman (Suleiman Mountain or Solomon’s Throne). This most enduring tale says that when Solomon reached the outcropping of high rock in the center of modern day Osh, shouted ‘khosh’ (‘that’s enough’).
Between the 10th-12th centuries medieval Osh was the third of the great cities of the Fergana Valley (after Ahkiset and Kuba) when Islam took hold of the region, but in the 13th century the Mongols came and did their level best to destroy the place. Nothing remains of the palace, courts and academies destroyed in the 13th century by the armies of Genghis Khan, but in the following centuries it bounced back, more prosperous than ever. It is a thousand pities that here is no more Osh of old times. We never again see the walls of impregnable fortress with three admitting gates. We never again see citizens praying in the cathedral mosque next to an old bazaar. They all sank into oblivion along with other important symbols of the city that has more then 2000 years of history, but at least the bazaar can still be found on the place of its ancient predecessor. Originally a key stop along the Silk Road trading routes from China to Europe, historians agree that Osh remained relevant at least until the shipping age.
What is more certain than founding legends, according to historians is that the founder of the Afghan Moghul Dynasty and descendant of Tamerlane, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (aka Bobur the Lion 1483-1530), who was born nearby just across the Uzbekistan border in Andijan, came to Osh to visit Solomon’s Throne before venturing on to India. In 1496, Babur, passed through modern day Kyrgyzstan on his way to conquer India and commissioned the small mosque on top of Solomon’s mountain, Suleyman Too. Even today this mosque is still referred to as Babur’s House. The inhabitants of ancient Osh were instrumental in assisting Babur to repulse the occupiers of their city. Babur somehow concluded that the confines of the Fergana would cramp his aspirations as a descendant of famous conquering warrior princes and from Osh decided to advance his empire. Under Babur’s direction, the Indian Mughal Empire reigned over India and Afghanistan for several hundred years. Babur later describes the town recalling how local scallywags would open the nearby town canals, drenching unsuspecting travelers. In 1762 Osh joined the Khanate of Kokand and became one of the six trading centres with the Khanate. Assimilated into Tsarist Russia, the city expanded onto the left bank of the river and European style houses first started to appear.
Imperial Russian and Soviet rule
Russians first came to Osh in 1876, when Russian forces overpowered the khanates that hitherto had controlled the city. The city was occupied and annexed by the Russian Empire during the so-called “Great Game”, the contest between Britain and Russia for dominance in Central Asia. This conquest was achieved and the inclusion to the Russian empire made by the mid 1880’s, with main credit to General von Kaufman and General Mikhail Skobelev, nicknamed the “White General” from his victories and achievements in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 (he wore always a white uniform and rode a white stallion in battle).
Before the Russian revolution, Osh was the largest city in Kyrgyzstan, the population numbering 34,200 people, five times that of Pishpek (modern Bishkek). Following the October Revolution in 1917 the Soviets made their mark on the city and some of this legacy remains today, including a large statue of Lenin in one of the city parks. Before the 1917 revolution and the Bolshevik’s bloody subjugation of Central Asia, when the area was governed by local leaders in much smaller Khanates, most Central Asians simply described themselves as Muslim, Turk, or Tajik, meaning of Persian origin. The Soviets believed that this left the region highly vulnerable as a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism and Pan-Turkic nationalism. In the 1920s and ’30s Stalin therefore created – some say personally — Central Asia’s national boundaries and imposed on each nation its own specific ethnic profile, history, language and territory. Where these didn’t exist — or were not considered suitably distinct from others – they were invented and supplied by Moscow. Islam, perceived by the politburo as a threat to Soviet domination, was excised from each national make-up and suppressed. The legacy of this is that today each of the newly independent republics has inherited ethnic ‘grow-bags’. Thus there are Kyrgyz villages in Tajikistan, Tajik communities living in the cities of Uzbekistan, and Kazakhs grazing cattle on the Kyrgyz steppes and Uzbek towns, such as Osh, in Kyrgyzstan.
Recent Rioting & Osh Today
The city’s industrial base, established during the Soviet period, largely collapsed after the break-up of the Soviet Union and has recently only started to revive. During this period the economic disparities between the wealthier business owners with houses and poorer factory workers in apartment blocks began to boil over. The proximity of the Uzbekistan border, which cuts through historically linked territories and settlements, deprives Osh of much of its former hinterland and presents a serious obstacle to trade and economic development. In the post-independence period the city became a byword for the inter-ethnic conflict that erupted in 1990 between Uzbek and Kyrgyz factions, although the worst of this took place at the town of Uzgen, 50km to the northeast. In 1990, shortly before the end of Soviet power in Central Asia, Osh and its environs experienced bloody ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. However, it is a reductive disservice to call them simply “ethnic clashes” as their causes are far more complex and nuanced. There were about 1,200 casualties, including over 300 dead and 462 seriously injured. The riots broke out over the division of land resources in and around the city.
Again, beginning on June 10th, 2010, tragic instances of large-scale unrest and violence led to hundreds of people killed (around an estimated 400), thousands injured, and the city being put on edge. For three days of rioting, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks were killed, large scale looting took place, and over 2000 buildings, mostly homes, got destroyed. This deepened the gulf between the country’s ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that has been peaceful for most of their long shared history. Local media reported that gangs of young men armed with sticks and stones smashed shop windows and set cars aflame in the city center. The city’s police force proved incapable of restoring order resulting in a state of emergency being declared and the army being mobilized. The Kyrgyz intelligence agency claimed that the 2010 violence was initiated by the just-deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who is said to have made a deal with foreign narco-jihadist gangs to take over southern Kyrgyzstan and initiate a shariah state in exchange for the Bakiyev family’s being returned to controlling Bishkek. However, to the day no serious proof has been presented to the public and media. According to various sources, up to 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks refugees fled to Uzbekistan. Many refugee camps were set up in the Andijan, Fergana and Namangan regions of Uzbekistan for Uzbek citizens of Kyrgyzstan who cross the border seeking safety. Shortly thereafter, peace was restored and tensions dissipated as the people slowly accepted the new government. While Osh remains a highlight of Central Asia, it will be some time before the city can get fully over these fresh wounds.
Today, Osh is a pretty peaceful place. Many who see it describe it as a working city that is thriving, even while healing. A majority of the people who fled the city have returned. Some people say it’s because the city’s people have worked hard to build relationships between ethnic groups, other people say it’s because the people are scared of a repeat of 2010. 2010 is referred to by all kinds of terms, ranging from ‘events’ and ‘riots’ to ‘conflict’ and ‘war’. Happily, there appear to be no outward signs of such ethnic tension today and most of the city’s inhabitants rub shoulders well enough, despite frequent dissatisfaction with the Kyrgyz-dominated Bishkek government. Since 2010, there have been several peaceful elections and no major protests or revolutions.
By Peretz Partensky from San Francisco, USA – Cyrilic for OSH, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24275235
Terrible things happened and many people were killed, but many if not most people in Osh wish to move past this black mark on their history, so it’s best to respect their wishes and not bring it up in conversation. When in Osh, it is usually considered impolite to bring up the “June Events,” as they are called here, so keep that in mind as you make new friends and explore our city. Within the fabric of this ancient city lies an incredible vibrance and vitality to commercialism that has pervaded since it’s Silk Road days. This is evident today as its first western-style supermarket (Narodniy) opened just ten years ago in 2007, but have now sprouted across the entire city despite the persistence of bazaar shopping.
People always make a huge deal about Osh being “more Muslim,” or “more conservative.” It’s true that in Osh, people tend to be more likely to go to mosque and that many men and women tend to cover their heads. Many articles frame this as some sort of a negative, or in some way that serves to “other” the people of Osh. The people of Osh are just people, some of whom wear a headscarf for a variety of reasons, some of whom don’t, some of whom attend mosque, some of whom don’t. Just arrive with an open mind and an open heart, behave and dress respectfully as you would anywhere else in this region that you travel, and smile, and this city will welcome you with open arms just as it has welcomed foreigners for thousands of years!
Under the Köppen climate classification, Osh features a continental climate, with hot, dry summers and cold winters. Osh receives on average roughly 400 millimeters of precipitation annually, the bulk of which typically falls on the city outside the summer months. Summers are really hot in Osh, with average high temperatures routinely exceeding 30°C (86°F) and sometimes getting as high as 40°C (104°F, usually in July). Winters are moderately cold with average temperatures below freezing during a good portion of the season. Spring and autumn are transitional seasons, with temperatures rising during the course of the spring season and falling during the course of the autumn. Especially while climbing the hill for a view in summer, Osh can be mind-numbingly hot, so plan to drink lots of water and pack clothes are conservative in style but still can keep you cool from sweating.
SITES TO SEE IN OSH
The main Osh Bazaar is one of Central Asia’s most fabulous open air markets and is a great place to find local handcrafts and souvenirs, which are mainly concentrated on the left bank near Filarmoniya (a philharmonic building though you never seem to hear of a concert happening). Most guidebooks refer to the bazaar as one of the most picturesque in all of Asia, stretching for about a kilometer along the bank of the river. Jayma Bazaar is the name for the eastern entrance section, where metal container-box rooms are the main stalls and marshrutka (minibus) signs ‘bazaar’ (базар) usually imply. Centrally located, the bazaar stretches north from Alisher Navoi, divided by the Ak- Buura River, which has a number of traditional chaikhanas (teahouses) along its west bank, dishing up chai and laghman in a relaxed convivial atmosphere. It stays crowded as people come from all over the surrounding region (and even neighboring countries) come to shop seeking everything from organic seasonal fruits and vegetables to pirated CD & DVD discs, and from Chinese tea sets to local knives and horseshoes. You can also buy shoes, geese, boxing gloves, cosmetics, books, nail clippers and basically everything in between.As with any true bazaar, the goods on sale are demarcated in clearly defined zones: moneychangers, dried fruit, lepyoshka (round flat loaves of bread), meat, gold jewellery and so on. Skilled craftsmen still employ ancient technologies for making these everyday knives, horseshoes and steel home decorations. The bazaar itself stretches for about 1km along the west side of the river, and crosses it in several places. While open everyday, it’s most dynamic on Sunday morning, and almost deserted on Monday.
There’s also the Osh Animal Market in town which you could consider seeing if you’re in Osh on a Sunday morning. There are hundreds of sheep, donkeys, horses and cattle that go on sale at this traditional livestock market, but some may find the conditions of the animals here distressing and it’s not a must-see like it is in Karakol. The main intersection in Aravanski at Kurmanjan Datka street is often colloquially called “gul bazaar” because there are a bunch of flower shops located together in close proximity. It’s beautiful, cool, and very fragrant, especially in the summer.
Alien Fairy CakeThis distinctive round structure with faceted silver walls and roof may appear to some as an alien fairy cake. The main entrance to Suleiman Too is beside this strange silver-domed building. In actuality it contains a photography salon where newlyweds can be snapped on honeymoon at the Taj Mahal without bothering to leave Osh. So unless you are planning to get married, just admire the peculiar structure’s exterior and the bright red Osh State University in the background as you mount the steps up the hill.
Osh has the largest remaining Lenin statue in Central Asia! It’s gigantic! This imposing black granite Lenin statue stands tall right in front of city hall opposite the flagpole for your viewing pleasure. From the central Aravanski district, walk south on Lenin Street until you, you know, see Lenin. He really seems to preside over the city, as literally his statue is right in front of the city and oblast administrative building.
Upon becoming independent in the early 1990’s many people were led to believe that the independent states of Central Asia had completely jettisoned their Soviet past. A novelty for visitors coming from other Central Asian countries (which upon independence immediately jettisoned all reminders of it’s Soviet past) is the continued persistence of icons of Lenin that are strewn around Osh in various guises. Whereas Uzbekistan’s Soviet icons quietly disappeared into the dead of night, only to be replaced by a new variant on a familiar theme, in Kyrgyzstan financial considerations have outweighed ideological statements. So the largest Lenin in town remains as the focal point in the main square and above the rooftops of the western edge of town a huge metal-cut of the same bearded icon rises to the sky. Just how big is this Lenin? Well according to some BBC journalists who tried to do some digging, “all the men who knew its height are dead” (article here). If not Big Brother, at least the great father of Communism is keeping an eye on things around Osh.
Kurmanjan Datka Statue
Kurmanjan Datka was a Kyrgyz woman and nomadic leader about 100 years ago who is now a national heroine. Not only is there a tall statue of Kurmanjan Datka in the center of Osh city (at the intersection of Masalieva & Kara Suu streets), but the main North-South street that runs the length of the city (parallel with the river) is named after her. This puts her on par with the ubiquitous Lenin Streets of former Soviet cities of which Osh is no exception to. In fact, Osh is now well regarded as the home of this famous “Queen of the South” who even in black statue form stands tall but remains humble, simply holding a bowl out in service of others. Her statue once stood in the capital, Bishkek, in the days when it was known as Frunze, but when the capital followed suit with other regional cities and disposed of its communist monuments, the great leader was bussed unceremoniously over the mountains to adorn the republic’s second largest city. This female leader featured on the 50-som note also is the star of the epic Kyrgyz film of the same name which is the biggest budgeted Kyrgyz film to date (click here to watch the full movie version with English subtitles on youtube).She is revered today as a mother of the nation because she broke many traditional gender roles in her rise to power. When she was 18, a marriage was arranged for Kurmajan, but she broke tradition and refused to marry him at the wedding. She later married the lord of the Alay region, Alymbek, in 1832, and was given the title “Datka” (which means ruler). He was murdered in a coup in 1862, which led to neighboring khanates recognizing Kurmanjan Datka as the rightful leader of the Alay region. As a female general, she was instrumental in liberating the Fergana valley from the Kokand khanate. While initially opposing Russian expansion in the region, when Russia fully invaded in 1876, she successfully persuaded her people to accept new leadership rather than fight a losing battle against them. When her sons became embroiled in smuggling and were convicted of murdering two customs officials, she refused to commute their sentences and is said to have actually attended the public execution of one (the other was exiled). How’s that for a powerful woman?
OSH MOSQUES & CHURCHES
Dom Babura Mosque
A 20-30 minute sweaty climb up the hairpin stairway of Sulayman Too takes you to the flagpole at the top of the hill where you can enter a one-room mosque from 15th century known by locals as “Dom Babura” (Babur’s House). In 1510, the last of the Timurids (descendants of Conqueror Tamerlane), the Central Asian emperor Babur, supposedly built this mosque in Solomon’s honor at the peak. It is said that he loved the mountain so much that he ascended every day in the morning and came down every evening, although in those times no path led the way and he had to climb the steep face. After such an arduous routine, he finally decided to build himself a little house on the top. What you see now is actually a 1989 reconstruction of the historic prayer-room where in 1497, 14-year-old Zahiruddin Babur, newly crowned king of Fergana, first built a shelter for his chilla – a annual 40-day retreat of silent meditation with just bread and water to eat performed by all Sufis.
Largest Mosque in Kyrgyzstan?
The Shahid Tepa mosque was for many years the largest mosque in the country. Located at the north side of the central bazaar (at the intersection of Mamadjan & Lenin streets), the Shaid Tepa Mosque, is a crowded busy mosque especially on Fridays. This major landmark of Osh was originally constructed out of wood between 1908-10, but was converted to stables and blacksmiths during the early Soviet period. It reopened in 1943 in a surprising act of religious tolerance by the then Soviet government, and in recent years it has been renovated with financial support from Saudi Arabia making space for some 5000 worshippers. As a foreigner however, it can be difficult to get permission to go inside. Some have remarked that Bishkek’s newest $25-million, 6,000-capacity central mosque financed by Turkey is now completed and has stolen the largest mosque title away from Osh while the Hazrat Sultan Mosque in Astana is now the biggest in Central Asia.
Suleiman Too Mosque
While certainly not the oldest, the Suleiman Too Mosque maybe one of the nicest mosques in all of Kyrgyzstan. This mosque is so new (built in 2012) that it’s sometimes just called the “Osh New Mosque”. It has space for over 1,000 men (entry is reserved for men only). The new mosque located in the middle of the south side of Suleiman Too base on Gapar Aytiev Street just between the two entrances to the mountain While you may be enamored by the appearance from the outside, the inside is rather dull and ordinary. It may not seem as grandiose as mosques like those in Istanbul or Uzbekistan, but the lavish new exterior combined with the ancient wonder of the mountain make for memorable photos. The Sulaiman Too Mosque is the newest of several hundred mosques located in Osh. In this ethnically diverse area, more than 90% of the population is Muslim. So on an average day, you will likely hear an azan (call to prayer) through the loudspeakers of nearby active mosques like this one.
Asaf Ibn Burhiya Mausoleum
In accordance with folk legends, a nearby mausoleum was named after the mythical helper Asaf ibn Burhia (Мавзолей Асаф ибн Бурхия). As vizier to King Solomon, Burkia requested the honor of being buried at the foot of this holy mountain; his will was fulfilled after his death. Following suit, many other Muslims, to increase their chances of getting to paradise by being buried close to the holy Solomon, requested to be buried into what became this big uninspiring graveyard placed here. Thus, in order of rank, commoners are buried toward the bottom, while notables, including famous Kyrgyz singer Ryslai Abdikadirov (1941-1994) are buried higher up closer to their famous ancestor. Local legend also tells the tale that the cemetery began when women were forced to jump off the top of the mountain if they cheated on their husbands. Their bodies were left in the area that is now the cemetery.
Ravat – Abdullakhan Mosque
Back down at the bottom of the hill is the small Rabat Abdullah Khan Mosque, the city’s oldest mosque dating from the 16th century but rebuilt in the 1980s. It’s a working mosque (male visitors only) and one of the main places of worship in Osh, around 1,000 people regularly pray here. Enter through the wooden doorways, carved with traditional Uzbek skill, to the peaceful courtyard. Three rooms may be visited with permission, shoes off at the entrance (as everywhere in Kyrgyzstan). The Kyrgyz have traditionally followed the nomad’s somewhat relaxed interpretation of Islam and this is reflected in the secondary position mosques are accorded in Osh. Until the new juma mosque in the northeast of town is finished with Turkish money, the old local guzar mosques such as the Bakhi (Mohammed Yusuf Baihadji Ogli from 1909) on Navoi St or the even older Rabat Abdullah Khan, at the base of the Tacht-i-Suleiman, will continue to fulfill the needs of the faithful.
Russian Orthodox Church
Not far from the Kurmajan Datka statue in one of the central squares of the city lies the forsaken Russian Orthodox church. The Russian Orthodox church, reopened after the demise of the Soviet Union, remains an interesting relic of early 20th century Russian architecture. The church is named in honor of the Archangel Michael (XX century). This historical building has come through all the hardships of the Soviet atheism “cultural revolution” purges and was returned to the orthodox community only after Kyrgyz independence.
Toktogul Park is a beautiful lush green oasis just south of the Mayor’s office/chong Lenin. Although officially known as the Mayor’s Park (парк Мээрим) or Satylganova Park (Парк им. Т.Сатылганова), usually people just refer to it as Toktogul Park. The musician Toktogul Satilganov is commemorated by a large statue in the center of the beautiful park with fountains and the river nearby. There is also a World War II war memorial that bears the inscription (in Russian and Kyrgyz) “No One is Forgotten – Nothing is Forgotten” in addition to a Chernobyl Memorial. The park is pretty big, and a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon with an ice cream and a book watching youths canoodle. There’s a very nice cafe that recently opened here called Green Park that might be just what you need to enjoy a relaxing afternoon outside.
Along the Ak Buura river, stretching from Alisher Navoi to Abdykadyrov streets, is the local amusement park that is great for strolling. This riverbank park is named after the Uzbek poet, Nizomiddin Mir Alisher, from the 14th-15th century who wrote under the pen name, Alisher Navoi. The popular fountain in the park serves as central meeting place and locals swim in the Ak-Buura River here during summer. All of the amusement rides are really meant for smaller kids, but it’s an enjoyable place to visit every so often for the energy and the greenery.
At the southern end of the park is a ferris wheel and an abandoned Yakovlev Yak-40 regional jet that used to have a video salon and cafe inside of it.
By Peter in s – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29192590
A central feature of the park for those curious about Soviet aviation is an broken down Yak-40 airplane, which was at onetime a video salon and now closed cafe that looks poised to leap over the river. There’s also a palvankhana (wrestling hall) here but wrestling bouts are infrequent. Navoi Park is home to, among other things, a ferris wheel, numerous shooting galleries, and even a random mural depicting, of all things, Seattle’s downtown skyline. As yet another reminder of it’s Soviet past, you can find men of various ethnicity challenging eachother to battles of wit as they play chess. Join an international game of chessmanship if you dare to represent your country!
The City of Osh in summer can be hot. Super hot even. Sure, you can climb the mountain or suffer through poorly air conditioned museums around town. Or you could find out why pools are such a draw to locals in Osh? What better way to cool off than to spend the day at a pool, either a cheap local hangout or a more comfortable resort? The river runs through the center of the city and feeds at least 8 different pools which vary in how much they filter the water. The varying price reflects what you pay for. Everybody knows loves a good afternoon poolside, which is only found at the most expensive pool, costing 350som for the day, but that also comes with lounge chairs, poolside beer delivery, and a decently clean pool. About the least expensive is 50som, in the very south of the city, where you might question whether the pool or the river is cleaner. As quite the curiosity for foreigners at the overcrowded cheap pools, you might get stared at and/or jumped on/run over by wild children so be forewarned. Admission usually gets you a locker, and you can often bring in your own food/drinks to the cheaper ones. There are lots of other pools in and around Osh, most for only 100 som admission (and some with wifi even!), so ask around but below are a few options to check out:
Fer-As Pool – located along the river by the old bridge. Features: clean water, funky sun chairs, bar-restaurant inside (so you can order some beer or food), and occasional pool parties
Bolshaya Riba Pool – translated as big fish; located under the Abdykadyrov Bridge, open as late as 10pm
Delfin Pool – meaning Dolphin; located by the stadium and Tes Guest House
Rémi Resort Pool – located up north of Abdykadyrov Street; nicest pool but WILDLY overpriced, particularly food (since you’re not allowed to bring anything in)
SULEIMAN TOO SACRED MOUNTAIN
The centerpiece of Osh is none other than Solomon’s Throne, a rocky mountain spine that juts out of the plain, seeming to have taken one step too far from its mountainous friends. Sacred Suleiman’s Throne (Tacht-i-Suleiman) is the biggest of five mounds of barren limestone and quartz rock in the center of Osh city. As the only World Heritage Site in Kyrgyzstan, the Sulayman Mountain, offers a splendid view of the city in which it symbolizes. It has become the number one stop for most people visiting Osh, both local and foreign. Sulaiman Too is considered the most complete example of a Central Asian sacred mountain, so accordingly has been honored with UNESCO’s title.
Steep steps are leading to the top of the mountain from were you have a nice view of the town. Tourist groups to Kyrgyzstan are offered excellent panoramic photos and views of Osh’s environs in reward for their sweaty exertion in climbing the mountain. It’s a great place to have a hike and take in the fabulous views of the boiling city life and shimmering snow-bound peaks of the Pamir Alay off in the distance, especially at sunset.
Many are strcuk by the commanding, albeit hazily toxic, view of the Ferghana Valley floor to the west and the high road to the Pamirs to the east. Start your walk at the chrome-domed souvenir shop on Kurmanjan Datka Street and go through the archway to climb up the long, steep flight of steps. Late afternoon to dusk is a good time to visit even while it is especially busy with people, mostly families and young couples. The rocks around Babur’s House make an excellent vantage point for admiring the magnificent landscape below.
Solomon’s Throne is the city’s focal point: an arid rocky outcrop that arises abruptly from the city centre above a large Muslim graveyard. This jagged, barren rock seems to loom above the city wherever you go. Until the sixteenth century this mountain was known as “Bara Kukh” (Beautiful/Nice Mountain or “Free Lonely Mount” in Farsi). Suleiman Mountain was later renamed after the Muslim Prophet Suleyman Sheik, who prayed here and was later buried at the foot of the mountain. Ever since then the place has assumed a holy significance and many Muslims from all over the region continue to make a pilgrimage to what is nicknamed Kichik-Mecca (‘Little Mecca’). For Central Asian Muslims Taht-I-Suleiman is the third most sacred place after only Mecca and Medina, and it is even believed that the Prophet Mohammed prayed here. There are a total of 8 sacred caves scattered across the 5 peaks. The mountain is also bedecked with ‘handkerchief’ trees as testament to traditions that predate Islam; pilgrims tie a piece of cloth to a tree or bush in exchange for a wish or good luck. These “happiness trees” covered with strips of material tied around the branches decorate the slopes of the mountain like the West’s Christmas trees in December. From X-XI centuries till the beginning of XX century, at the foothills, slopes, and even on the tops of Sulaiman-Too, many Muslim religious buildings including Mazars, mosques, and etc. were constructed.
Guides might tell you the story of how the sacred Tahti-Suleiman (“Throne of Suleiman”) is named in honor of the legendary wise king from the Koran and Old Testament Bible. According to one legend the mountain appeared only after King Solomon rested here. Some might even go as far as to say that he was somehow flown to Osh and buried here. The mountain contains a shrine that supposedly marks his grave. In the early Middle Ages the mount had a cult value for all believers and especially for fire-worshippers. There is even an assumption that Zaratushtra (Zoroastr), the prophet of Zoroastrianism and the founder of “Avesta” sacred book lived and created his creed in the cave, that was on Suleiman Mountain. Here there was one of the earliest temples of Zoroastrian water – fire cult (the temple of the Oshho river, Yahsha – Osh and fire). Probably, the name of the city occurs from these words. The mountain was also considered the mid-point of the overland trade route taken by caravans between Europe and Asia on the Silk Road, and was supposedly mentioned by Ptolemy in his writings. This mountain is thought by some researchers and historians to be the famous landmark of antiquity known as the “Stone Tower”, which Claudius Ptolemy wrote about in his famous work Geography.
Solomon’s Hill Traditions
There is a path walkway around the mountain, which makes an interesting walk. Its slopes are indented with many a cave and crevice each reputed to have different curative or spiritual properties (many detailed on photo-boards in the Cave Museum). All manner of legends are attached to the this place; a tiny cave on the main path around the mount is said to have curative properties. At the Chak-Chak cave you can insert your hand, pull out some rocks and make a wish. Pilgrims come to pray all over the mountain for any illness or help in solving a problem, especially in spring. Pilgrims shuffle inside the Tamchi Tamaar Cave, place their hands and knees in the assigned rocky dips, polished smooth by centuries of devotees, and touch a spring of blessed water.
Holy men recite passages from the Koran in exchange for about US$0.50 cents in som. Inside another cave, water droplets drip from the roof, and it is said that these are the tears of Suleyman (Solomon). Legend has it that if you roll clown the inclined slab of limestone at the summit you will be cured of all bodily ills or at least confer considerable health benefits. Just behind the shrine is this smooth sloping slab of rock, called Bel Bosh Tosh, where the popular custom is to slide down foot-first on the part of the body that ails you. There is usually a queue of local families lining up to do just this. As you wind your way up the hill there are many smaller caves, crevices, and side trails that are said to cure specific elbow, arm, or leg, or head ailments. If you put your affected part of the body into grooves worn smooth by similarly sick people, locals believe that the different cracks in the mountain are designed to heal different illnesses. While down in the city, from the right distance, direction and angle, some people apparently think the profile view of Sulaiman Too resembles a reclining pregnant woman lying down. Perhaps for this reason, the hill is also revered by many women who have been unable to bear children. Women who ascend to Sulayman’s shrine on top and crawl though an opening across the holy rock will, according to legend, give birth to healthy children. Following the trail from the Kyrgyz flag at the summit towards the Suleiman Mosque (the largest mosque in the region) on the way up the mountain you pass a hole in the rocks; you’ll see it right beside the path to the Cave Museum as you descend westward from Suleiman Too’s main viewpoint. Many women (especially young hopeful mothers) do a pilgrimage to this “Tomb of Suleiman” as it is said to help women give birth to a child (very important in these cultures). Tradition holds that a woman who slides down this “fertility slide” seven times will bear strong children. The rocks of this mini-cave “Ene-Beshik” are worn smooth by young ladies sliding down to promote their fertility and aid their motherly aspirations. A slippery slope, worn smooth by pilgrim piety, continues downwards, above a scorched cemetery of crescents and stars, to the museum.
National Historical and Archaeological Museum Complex
What appears to be a gigantic concrete Georgian lady’s-bonnet protrudes from a southwestern crag of Suleiman Too is actually the National Historical and Archaeological Museum Complex. About a 25 meter climb to the top of the mountain leads you to an exit hole of a cave where this Osh Regional Museum can be found. While first established in 1949, the current Soviet building wasn’t completed until 1978 to celebrate the 3,000th anniversary of the city of Osh.
Probably of most interest in the museum are the photo exhibits and artifacts relating to local shamans and the different religions practiced in Osh, past and present. In an attempt to illustrate the region’s historical-religous development, Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and water faiths are presented respectfully alongside each other. The archaeological-cultural museum here also contains more than 33,000 pieces of ethnographic artifacts, works of handicraft, paintings, sculptures and graphics discovered in the city environs. Upstairs you can find the craft stalls which are worth a quick browse, and of course the trademark Kyrgyz museum display of a fully functional yurt. The local museum (open Wed-Sun, 9am-5pm) features lonely exhibits that range from anonymous bits of pottery to an exhausted-looking stuffed bear. However, the glass-sphere lamps and the views as you exit (via steep stairs past mangy stuffed animals) are probably the most memorable. Tri-lingual photo (Russian, Kyrgyz and Uzbek) panels explain which crevice on Suleiman Too is appropriate for curing which ailment.
The rather space-age entrance is carved in the mountain, containing a collection of archaeological, geological and historical finds and information about local flora and fauna. For those interested in history, this metal protrusion of a museum is a big draw, despite it being the source of some controversy. Sulaiman Too is regarded by many as a holy mountain and the ominous Soviet-era museum is seen by some as a desecration since it bores sacrilegiously into the cliff, carving out a bizarre fairy grotto of a museum. The Soviet Red Army blasted a holy Kyrgyz cave, built the eye-sore you see on top of this spiritual place pilgrimage, and then inside placed modern replicas of old artifacts. Some say the museum is not particularly fascinating, but worth a look if only to see the concrete Soviet overhang that was built. They felt cheated by the experience as it’s not very authentic inside, and they claim that in a strange sort of way the most interesting part about it was the ugliness and fakeness of it all. This dimly lit museum has great potential, but would be vastly improved with better lighting and more English translations. It’s likely one of the better museums in Kyrgyzstan, but, despite charging foreigners almost 8 times the cost of locals, doesn’t bother to have English translations. You would certainly get more out of the visit by bringing an English-speaking guide such as one provided by Kyrgyz-Travel as there are none on site.
Modern Silk Road Museum
At the base of the mountain is Osh’s newest attraction, the excellent Silk Road Museum which opened in early 2001 to mark Osh’s 3000-year anniversary in October of 2000. The historical-ethnographic museum on Kurmanjan Datka Street has well-done exhibits which focus on southern Kyrgyzstan and cover the Silk Road days, Kyrgyz immigration from South Siberia, the Kokand Khanate, Russian colonial annexation in 1865 and the Bolshevik takeover after 1917. One interesting exhibit is a map dating from 1953 that shows the different Kyrgyz tribes and clans (still a very important factor in Kyrgyz society today as represented in the Kyrgyz flag today with 40 rays to signify the 40 tribes).This Cultural Museum is a very worthwhile visit with interesting historical and cultural insights, petroglyph displays, archeological items from as far back as the bronze age, traditional Kyrgyz handicraft displays and a tribute to Kyrgyz storytellers (manaschy). Equally appealing is the popular chaikhana (teahouse) outside, where tourists can spend a relaxing afternoon drinking tea or coke and watching the Ak Buura river flow beneath your table.
The museum features some great archaeological finds, historical documents and moving photos of the 1916 uprising, along with some exhibitions focusing on trade and life during the times of the Silk Road. There are also some great weapons, imaginatively displayed as if caught up in a mad whirlwind. It tells about the times of the 10th century when Osh was the third biggest town in Fergana valley, when all the main roads from China and India crossed this town on their way to Europe following their silk trade route. It’s strong on local archaeology and ethnography but, as usual in Kyrgyzstan, has little info in English leaving you to try to piece together the history yourself unless you invest in a Kyrgyz-Travel tour guide.
Upstairs, the sweep through local geology and botany has a slightly Soviet flavor, although the pressed medicinal herbs are interesting. A big attraction at UTAMK is the broad perspective on the history of the region, covering three millennia and a photo exhibition in the entrance hall that describes different aspects of life in the city. Archaeological artifacts, guarded by fiercely keen attendants, include Bronze Age implements and vessels, petroglyphs from Saimalu Tash, 11th and 12th century clay dishes and beautiful, glazed, azure medieval tiles. Among an abundance of exhibits relating to manaschi, felt handicrafts, traditional Kyrgyz songs and horseback games, it is easy to forget the regions ethnic diversity.
Kurmajan Datka Museum
The road from Sary Tash to Osh goes through some beautiful valleys and some small villages. In a bigger village there is a small museum with modern architecture ressembling a yurt that is dedicated to Kurmanjan Datka – the “Queen of the South”. The Qurbanjan Dotka (alternate spelling) museum shows some photos of her and other local public figures. The museum displays some local tools and musical instruments, but what is especially interesting are the pics of women who gave birth to 10 and more children who are regarded as local heroes.
In the city center there is a 3 story yurt. This yurt is actually a museum dedicated to Alymbek Datka, a ruling nobleman of the Alai Valley, whom Kurmajan Datka married. He built nine streets in Osh with his own money, in addition to nine canals, nine bridges and a madrassag for 120 students in the 1800s. Although interesting for its mere existence, the museum’s colourful interior filled with bright weavings and fabrics is little more than a gift shop with costumes in which to pose for photos (extra fee). There’s also a cursory exhibition about 19th-century heroes Alymbek and Kurmanjan Datka. The giant three-storied yurt (usually open 9am-6pm with a 1 hour lunch break) has a fairly lacklustre collection of national clothing, traditional textiles and shyrdaks (Kyrgyz wool felted rugs). This structure used to be the largest yurt in the world until Turkmenistan decided to build a yurt-shaped building, but a tour only about 10 minutes to tour the whole place so for the minimal entry fee it is not a bad value. You can also say for the rest of your life that you are the only one to have been inside a 3 story yurt.
Soviet Public Art
In some ways, the ancient history of Osh makes the whole town seem like a museum from ancient rocks to 20th century Soviet art and architecture. For those interested in peculiar murals, mosaics, and other pieces of Soviet public art in Osh, you can find surprises all over town. Sometimes even on residential apartment buildings!
There’s a lot of really cool historical pieces of public art that are still here from the Soviet days.