Saturday, August 16, 2008

Aug 12 - Osh, Kyrgyzstan

We are now in the Fergana Valley. For more than you ever wanted to know about the Fergana Valley, please see

The silk road traveler would have left Xian, traveled the protected HeXi Corridor, gotten to Dunhuang, built his special donation cave to his favorite Buddhist deity, and headed out into the Taklamakan desert (remember that it means "You Don't Come Back"). Actually, you would skirt the desert to the north through Turpan, or to the south through Hotan. Both ways get to Kashgar. From there it is up and over the Pamirs, over some dry 4000 meter passes. We did it on our 24 hour bus ride. How many days must it have taken the camels?

Anyway, on the other side of the Pamirs is a fantastic fertile valley called Fergana (actually farghana, where the gh is a guttural French type r immediately following a rolled European r - the combination of the two r's drives European speakers crazy, and they never get it right).

The valley is now presently divided among three country - the eastern tip is in Kyrgyzstan, a little bit of the south is in Tajikistan, but most of it lies in Uzbekistan. So when we got to Osh, we were in the eastern tip of the Fergana Valley, and the fruits and vegetables were marvelous. Just imagine how wonderful this place was for the silk road traveler who finally got to his 400 km long oasis, before heading off into the deserts of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran.

Back to our trip. We first tried the Tash Mahal Hotel, a dismal Russian style place for 800 som ($23 USD) that we (Mike, Carol, Mirco, and Iliana) quickly rejected. Around the corner was the Stary Gorod, which offered a four person apartment suite, according to the guidebook. The apartment suite was fantastic, but only for two people, so we each took a standard room (en suite with two beds and use of the kitchen on the floor) for 1100 som ($31+ USD). We agreed to meet for dinner at 6:30 pm.

After a shower and some clothes washing, we were ready to go out. The hotel area is perhaps 500 m northwest of the center of town (old bus station) and quite near the main bazaar. Mike changed $200 USD for 6920 Kg som, and we were off. We were now in Kyrgyzstan, so why not try to make contact with the CBT (Community Based Tourism), the local eco-tourism organization. They have a great website and glowing comments abound in Lonely Planet for their homestays and other services. We tried to find their local representative in Osh at several locations without success. We sent an e-mail to them, which was returned as undeliverable. We cannot confirm that they are worth these accolades.

Trying to deal with CBT aside, the walk to the center of town was very interesting. Mike finally found some underarm deodorant, which he had been unable to locate in China. We also scored some Barf, everybody's favorite all-purpose laundry detergent. Lest you get the wrong impression, the box tells you in small print that Barf means Snow (in Persian), so this cleaner is Ivory Snow on steroids.

We finally walked through the old bus station around noon, and determined that it would be easy to get to Ozgen and other neighboring towns of interest the next day. Then up and down a couple of streets where we saw the most wonderful melons, tomatoes, fruits.

The predominant feature of Osh is Solomon's Throne, a hill that towers a couple of hundred meters over the town, and sits almost in the center of town. Since 1497 there has been a small mosque and a mausoleum on top, and for the muslims in this part of Central Asia, it is a place of pilgrimage, third only to Mecca and Medina.

But in between the market and Solomon's Throne, our eyes were caught by a small linear public park, just to the east of the Akbuura, a small river running through Osh. All sorts of carnival stuff - a couple of tame rides, including one designed to disorient your stomach. Also photographs, shooting games, guess your weight, hit the thing with the hammer and make the ball hit the bell, etc.

It took at least one half hour to walk through this interesting park, and finally, we found the entrance to the Throne. Entrance is 3 som apiece, but if you want to use the bathroom, it is an extra 2 som. Since Carol used the bathroom and Mike didn't, it was a huge 8 som (23 cents). Still we saw some people trying to climb the fence and avoid the admission price.

The walk up the steps is supposed to take 25 minutes. We did it in 20 minutes with many stops. The temperature was at least 35 C (95 F) in blazing sun, and maybe even hotter.

On the way up, people have tied strings of cloth to most of the trees and bushes, presumably for good luck, or so their wishes at the top would be granted. Probably a pre-Islamic rite. Since Carol had already participated in the rituals of the White Pagoda in Hami, China, it couldn't hurt to be ecumenical, so she tied one on.

At the top, there was nothing to do but watch people praying intently at the mouth of the mausoleum, look at the panorama of Osh below us, and watch people walking along a trail to a supposedly dull museum at the other end of the rock. Mike noted that for the first time we were seeing people with builds other than the slender Han and Uighur body types.

We passed on the rest of the walk and headed down. On the way down, there was a teen-age girl who was clearly suffering from heat exhaustion. Mike gave her friends some additional water and Carol made her eat some Turpan raisins.

At the bottom, we stopped at a mini-mart for some cold drinks. The young man who was running the place spoke beautiful English, as well as Russian, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkish, and maybe Persian. With those language skills, we wondered why he was tending shop.

Two hours at the internet followed.

Then back through the park, where we had our first fried fish, served hot from a wicker basket carried by a vendor walking through the promenade. 45 som ($1.30) for a deliciious fish, bones and all.

At the bazaar, we bought tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet red peppers, for the next two days' breakfast. (The total was maybe $1 for 4 of each item.) We also got a yellow melon for 25 som.

In the main section of the bazaar, we saw every kind of printed tee-shirts. All the big brands (Addidas, for the attention-challenged; Aidas, for the music afficionados). Carol was especially taken by a tee-shirt that showed basic directions: "Right" on the correct side; and, of course, "Lint" on the other. Too bad it was in a child's size.

Back to the hotel after much walking, by 6 pm. One of the tee-shirts which we had washed and hung on an outside line, had fallen down in the bushes, gotten very dirty, and had to be Barfed, along with the next batch of laundry. Mike went out for some water, and to buy Uzbek currency (sum). The official rate was 1316, so Mike was astonished when he got 7000 sum for $5 USD and went back for another 7000. The vendor had only 500 sum bills, so Mike had 28 bills, representing his $10. This was just a precursor of much more to come.

At 6:30 pm. we walked out with Mirco and Iliana, down along the bazaar, through the park to the internet, where Mirco needed 2 minutes. Then back through the park to a restaurant which had looked great for lunch, but was now ready to close, and had sold out of almost everything.

After such a disappointing dinner, but some lively conversation, it was now well after 9:30 pm. We walked back to the hotel, stopping briefly at the 24 hour market, where we found some soft cheese, the first on our trip.

The market is next to a mosque. We heard the final evening call to prayer, which was delivered by a live muezzin. Kyrgyzstan allows the call to prayer to be heard in town, unlike China (or Uzbekistan).

The whole day there was no electricity in the hotel. The owner promised electricity by 6 pm, and indeed it came on. Apparently in Kyrgyzstan, there are non-electric days, presumably announced officially in advance.

We shared the melon, and to bed by 10 (Carol) and 11 (Mike).

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