Sunday, 2 January 2011

New Year in Osh / Новый год в Оше (Pt1 arrival in Osh)

We advise against all but essential travel to the Oblasts (Provinces)
of Osh and Jalal-Abad.

I am sitting in an Airplane that does not comply with accepted international air safety standards, about to fly to a city that my government strongly advises me not to visit, to celebrate New Year there in spite of the fact that the Krygyz aurhotities have banned all fireworks, celebrations and public gatherings in said city.  Many people would consider this a distinctive decision, perverse even.  But I am not many people, when the idea was suggested to me I thought, <<Wow, that does sound interesting... I'm in.>>
The engine sputters into life, wheezing like Darth Vader with a 50 a day habit; gradually settling into a regular rattle and thrum:


My erstwhile companion Max Bishkek, observes with interest that the pilot's cabin visible through the slightly parted curtains looks remarkably retro and 50s.  We all realise simultaneously that this is probably because it does indeed date from the 1950s.  The plane wheels clunk and clatter as the plane leaves the ground. 
And so, here we go, bound for a new year's date with the city of Osh.

The year is 1042.a.d. and the streets of Osh are bustling.  The Karakahnid ruler Muhammad 'Ayn ad-Dawlah has recently ascended to power in the great city of Bukhara many miles to the west.  It is the height of summer and trade is booming.  The many eateries and drinking holes that line the alleyways of the bazaars are packed with an eclectic mix of soldiers, merchants, pilgrims, moneylenders, missionaries, traders, nomads and thieves.   A caravan of valuable spices has just arrived from Bactria (Balkh in modern day Afghanistan), A merchant is bartering with a trader over the price of a consignment of lacquerware.  Another merchant packs his newly acquired sacks of pistaccio nuts from Persia onto his beasts of burden ready to be taken east to the secretive Chinese Empire for sale at a lucrative profit.  The sound of the call to prayer can be heard emanating from the minaret of a nearby mosque.   In farms in the surrounding area Bombyx worms, driven by the fuel of mulberry leaves, are industriously dribbling gossomer threads from their salival gland to produce a cocoon which will shelter them during their arduous metamorphosis into a moth.  Little do they expect to be unceremoniously plunged into boiling water so that the threads of their cocoon can be woven into a sensuos, soft, strong, long lasting cloth which is cool in warm weather and warm in cold weather, destined to travel far to the west, maybe as far as distant Byzantium.  It would probably be of little comfort to our friend Bombyx Mori to know that the name given to this cloth it was so pivotal in creating would come, some eight centuries later,  to symbolise the whole transcontintal network of trade routes of which Osh was a key point, when a 19th century German geographer called Ferdinand von Richthofen coins the phrase 'The Silk Road'.

The year is 2010.a.d. and the streets of Osh are burning.   It is the 12th of June and ethnic tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbek inhabitants of the town have spilled over into terrible violence.  Gangs of young Kyrgyz men with firearms and metal poles are rampaging through Uzbek neighbourhoods, burning down houses and businesses.  Uzbeks are streaming from the city in droves in a desperate attempt to reach the border with Uzbekistan a few kilometres to the north-west.   Young children are crushed underfoot, screaming, trampled to death in the streets in the mad dash to escape.  The Kyrgyz government and military admit to being powerless to stop the violence.  The Russians have refused pleas to provide military assistance.  The sky is rank with acrid black smoke. 

The year is 2010.a.d. (for a few days more at least) and the streets of Osh are ...normal, if still a little subdued.  It is the 28th of December and three British tourists are arousing a certain ammount of attention among the local populace.  A man has just approached us, claiming he can guess our ages, got both mine and Max's age spectacularly wrong and asked for a hundred som for the privelage of his predictions (he didn't get it).  The buildings we walk by are a mix of beautiful old architecture, Soviet brutalism and modern craziness.

The sleek shiny glass of the
Kyrgyz Republic Radio building

The streets of Osh

The imposing frontage of Osh University

Although the situation has calmed considerably, and the streets have normalised to a greater or lesser degree, there is still plentiful evidence of the recent troubles; the burned out buildings dotted around the city a visual testament to societal scars which may take generations to truly heal.

Nowhere is the devastation more evident than in the city's main bazaar, the Jayma or Osh Bazaar, where it seems every other stall is empty or burnt out.

Riverside Cafe in ruins - Osh/Jayma Bazaar

But there are still things to be sold, and this is Central Asia so sold they shall be.  And it's an indication of the hardiness of Central Asian trade, and the variety of wares available, that I can buy traditionally embroidered cushion covers whilst Max buys some truly eyebrow raising 'Wolf Come' viagra.

The Genuine Article

Warning: may induce pack behaviour
Our first destination was the Taht-i-Suleiman (Solomon's Throne) A jutting mountainous outcrop of rock above a large muslim graveyard, that dominates the centre of the city.  So named becuase the fabled King Solomon is said to have visited Osh and slept on top of the mountain. 

Steps leading up Solomon's Throne
At the top of the slope lies Babur's House, a Muslim shrine and place of pilgramage (particularly for Uzbeks) originally constructed by Zahirrudin Muhammed Babur, a descendent of Tamarlane the Great and founder of the Indian Mughul Dynasty.  The current form of the shrine is sadly not the late 15th century original but a reconstruction due to earthquake damage,  but it is still attractive enough.

Babur's House

If you are feeling a little lacking in sexual oomph, there is a long, smooth, sloping chunk of rock, thought to resemble a pregnant women, just behind Babur's House.  Sliding down this feet first is said to be beneficial for your health and confer fertiflity.

Daniel Mahony and the Rock of Potency

Funnily enough, a female admirer texted Dan not long after his sliding experience so maybe there's something in it.
Having climbed the mount, we made our way back down towards a mosque close to the bottom of the slope.  We were intrigued to find ourselves in the middle of what appeared to be a building site.  We were even more intrigued when a work-stained and wiry gent in overalls came up to introduce himself and invite us in for a look.  It turned out the mosque was being totally reconstructed and this chap, who's name was Rashid, was resposible for the electrics (as well as a good chunk of the building and guard duty).  He showed us round his work with great gusto and pride and it was intriguing to see a great religious building
mid-construction.  Also intriguing was the realisation that the main direction of prayer was pointing westward, not east, towards Mekka.  It's strange how these little details bring home to you the realisation of how far you are away from home.

Rashid the many skilled

Inside the Mosque
The exterior of the Mosque

Having thanked Rashid vociferously for his time and enthusiasm we stopped of at a traditional Chaikana, for chai (that is 'tea'), soup and some simply glorious, warm fresh nan (that is 'bread').

Maxton pours

Traditional Uzbek Raised Seating Platforms

I want the finest nan known to humanity
I want it here and I want it now

The rest of the day consisted of a little more wandering followed by a stop off in a cafe where a lady from Osh University thanked us for coming to Osh, also trying to convince us to come and volunteer to teach English for a month or so at the university (they are despereate for native speakers to help the students improve their speaking skills), all whilst we were drinking beer and cognac and eating rich chocolate.  After which we retired to our guest house, freshened up, popped out for a bite to eat for tea. and then retired early in preparation for the next day's activities.
Thus ends the account of our Arrival in Osh, tune in again tomorrow for the next thrilling installment, with our trip to Ozgon to explore Karakhanid Mausolea, a David Lynch-esque episode in search of a tourist office and a journey to a small town in the Alay Valley.

Some photos in this article courtesy of Daniel Mahony

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    Found you blog the other day, some good reading, thank you.

    I'm thinking of coming to Bishkek to teach English. And would love to ask you some questions etc.

    My email address is

    Please get in touch,