Monday, 3 January 2011

New Year in Osh / Новый год в Оше (Pt2 Ozgon, Gulcha and other shenanigans)

A mural on Kurmanjan Datka Avenue in Osh

We are walking down a nondescript corridor on the American second floor of a building that has seen better days.  The building is two storeys high, so there is no British second floor.  We are seeking the Osh CBT (Community Based Tourism) office which the guidebook says is located in this building on the American second floor.   But it is nowhere to be seen.  Eventually we knock on a door to make enquiries. The door is opened by a middle-aged lady in surgical whites, behind her is what appears to be both a doctors' and a dentists' surgery combined.  The bright light emanating from the room is glaringly painful in the stygian gloom of the corridor.  She looks at us, impassive.  Max enquires:

                      <<Excuse me, would you be able to tell us were the tourism office is?>>

She responds, blank faced:

                           <<The place you are looking for is on the second floor.>>

and closes the door, plunging us back into semi-darkness.   If at this point a dwarf had meandered down the corridor and begun talking to us backwards, I would not have been surprised.  This is the first, and hopefully the last, time in my life that I've felt like I've stumbled unwittingly into the dark recesses of David Lynch's psyche. 
We make our way out into the light of day and the bustle of Osh's Kelechek Plaza.   Max does what he always does at such moments (and indeed at every available opportunity), he gets out his i-phone.  Now, Max is truly obsessed with this piece of kit, and with all the other gadgetry he has in his i-collection.  He mentions them so often, and with such regularity, that I am beginning to believe he's been sent undercover by Steve Jobs to singlehandedly expand Apple's influence in Central Asia.  A little bit of conspicuous i-phonic internet surfing locates the CBT website and confirms that the office has been moved to the first floor (British) of a hotel nearby.  When we locate said office however, it turns out that nobody is in.  Max rings the number written on the door to be greeted by a chap called Talant who tells him that everyone is on holiday but he could certainly arrange a new year's trip into the mountains to stay in the Alay Valley if we wanted.  We agree to call back tomorrow morning to finalise the details.
Job done, we hop in a taxi to take us to the town of Ozgon, 55km north-east of Osh.  Our taxi driver is a cheerful Uzbek chap who happily points out the various sites on the way.  As we are passing through an area on the outskirts of Osh still derelict from the June riots, he shows us in an equally offhand way the enormous scar he has on his belly from being knifed during the troubles.  The amiable manner in which he does this somehow makes the whole thing more, rather than less, shocking.  <<What's the situation like now?>> Max asks.  <<Back to normal.>> he replies.  Long may it remain that way

A merrily harrowing taxi ride to Ozgon
  Ozgon itself has had its fair share of troubles.  In the summer of 1990 violence broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbek factions over issues of land tenure.  The violence was short lived but between 300 and a 1000 people lost their lives.  No outward mark of that violence remains today however, the town is pleasent and lively, with an atmosphere that makes one feel instantly relaxed. 

The three Mausolea - with inscriptions in Kufic and Naskhi script
The mausolea we have come to visit date from the heyday of Kharakhanid Mavarannahr ('The land beyond the river') in the 11th and 12th Century.  A time when Ozgon was one of the largest cities in the Fergana Valley and a centre of Silk Road activity.  
An 11th century minaret also found onsite

The central of the three Mausolea was probably built for Nasr Ibn Ali, the founder of the Karakhanid dynasty, who died in 1012/13.    
The mausolea are clearly viewed with much pride in Kyrgyzstan as they gloriously adorn the Kyrgyz 50som note.

As we wander away from the mausolea, a bunch of teenagers sitting on a bench listening to music on their mobile phones (it is reassuring to know that the world over teenagers are teenagers) shout a cheery greeting to us:

<<Hello Baby!>>

Too much American music and not enough English lessons methinks.
Returning to the town we are tempted into a cafe by Shaslyk (succulent, spiced junks of meat on a skewer) grilling on an open barbecue outside.

The proprietress posing proudly

After a hearty lunch of nan, shashlyk, chai and laghman (a noodle dish with many varieties) we had a wander around Ozgon's bazaar.  Got laughed at by children whilst taking a photo of the cornucopia of nan on sale (this is fair enough as it's the equivalent of a Kyrgyz guy coming to the UK and taking a photo of Tesco's bread aisle) and hopped a taxi back to Osh,

The gates of Ozgon Bazaar

The following day finds us in a taxi bound for the small town of Gulcha in the Alay valley.  An hour and forty minutes of wending our way through stunning mountain scenery on a route which would eventually take us into China and we are there.

On the road to Gulcha

This is true rural Kyrgyzstan, cows roam the streets, you can hear the bleating of sheep from every homestead and the backdrop in every direction is a stunning panorama of snowcapped mountains.

Roaming the streets of Gulcha
We are led into an attractive family home and ushered into a side room where we are served a lunch of freshly baked bread, fruit from the family orchard, honey from a relative's aviary and plentiful supplies of hot chai.

Chilling, waiting for lunch to be served

Chai Sippin' Boy


The man of the house comes in to welcome us to his home and tell us that his son will take us for a tour of the town.  He introduces himself as Alaybek, which translates roughly as 'Man of the Alay Valley'.  So, we have inadvertently become guests of the anthroporphic personification of the area we're visiting...intriguing. 

Walking the mean streats of Gulcha
In the centre of town preparations for the coming New Year's celebrations are well underway, a giant Yolka or New Year's Tree is set up and Djed Moroz and his granddaughter Snegoorochka are interacting merrily with all and sundry (any similarities to the Christmas celebration are purely incidental and imply no copywright infringement whatsoever).   Our arrival inspires a similar reaction to the arrival of the Beatles tour bus in a small town in the USA in the mid-1960s...I get the feeling Gulcha does not get foriegners wandering its streets casually very often.

The Yolka in all its glory

Posing with Djed Moroz and Snegoorochka
We buy some presents and a bottle of beer each at a nearby grocers, potter through the town back up to our Homestay house and take an afternoon nap.  By late afternoon, the merest hint of boredom is beginning to set in.  Max proposes a game of scrabble on (of course) the i-phone.  We are one move into the game when we are ushered into the main room to be greeted by an extended family gathering and a feast of herculean proportions.  Very little scrabble will be played tonight methinks.

The New Year's family gathering
Introductions are made, conversation and chai flows, much food is consumed.  Like all great feasts and banquets, it becomes an endurance contest, everything you could possibly want to eat is there in abundance and you want to eat it all.  Just when we thought we could fit not a morsel more food in our mouths, the main course of Plov (a rice dish which originated in Uzbekistan) is brought out.  In this type of endurance contest the meal always wins.  But the battle is a hell of a lot of fun nonetheless.

Our genial hosts - Alaybek and Alynkan
Although he has not drank alcohol for many years, Alaybek generously provides us with glasses of Kyrgyz wine and toasts begin to flow.  Alaybek begins to philosophise:

<<Back in the days of the Soviet Union, we used to get drunk and we would laugh and sing.  Nowadays, young people get drunk and they fight.  It must be they drink bad alcohol nowadays.>>

Blame it on the Jaguar. 

We perform a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne for the family's benefit (conplete with crossed hands and half-remembered lyrics) and then everybody decamps outside to watch the fireworks and see in the new year with sparklers and Champagne.

Alaybek pours the champers

The next day we thank our hosts vociferously and make the return journey to Osh with smiles on our faces.  The day is spent wandering and checking out museums.  The evening is an epic affair in which we consume 10 litres of liquid (5 of water, 5 of beer) during a mammoth 3 hour session in our guesthouse's private banya (a turkic style sauna room/plunge pool combo).

All in all, a fine end to a fine holiday.  Our rickety old Soviet plane touches down at Manas Airport and we take a taxi back to Bishkek content in the knowledge that we flouted all safety warnings and the worst of our suffering as a result was a little indigestion from overeating.

Some photos courtesy of Daniel Mahony


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