The change from China to Kyrgyzstan isn’t sudden. Towns become villages become a simple row of houses, then back again in reverse. Kashgar is in a hot lowland; cross the beautiful Irkeshtam Pass demarcating the border, going up and down mountains and valleys, then descend to Osh, also in a hot lowland.
But take that away, and the differences are stark. Chinese is now replaced by Cyrillic script, used for both Kyrgyz and Russian, the two official languages of Kyrgyzstan. (In China, the Arabic alphabet is still used for Kyrgyz.) Various places are named after Joseph Lenin, who is also memorialised in Osh with a giant statue. Houses look like those from the West. Road signs are European-style. There’s no more communist or nationalistic messaging, though some blocky Soviet-era buildings and apartments still stand. Everything seems a lot more humble and rural.
As wonderful as China was, it was constant sensory overload and go-go-go everyday. Osh, on the other hand, seems to be in no rush. The second-largest city in Kyrgyzstan with a population of 300,000, it would be considered something less than a small town in China. There’s no glitzy buildings or giant malls or mass consumerism. Actually, there isn’t too much going on, but it’s a pleasant place to be — especially when waiting for a delayed visa.
Having met travellers Atsuki and Tom at the border, all of us quickly and eagerly adjusted to the jarring culture change with aplomb. After over a month of just Chinese food, which tends to have sharp, strong flavours, it was nice to get something hearty, rich, and savoury to eat for a change. Aside from finally being able to get dairy again — pizza! cheese! milk! lactose intolerance! — we had food with more subtle flavours and the fragance of herbs, primarily dill. (See that Soviet influence?) Even as Uyghur laghman noodles are readily available in Kyrgyzstan and beyond, the mere addition of a sprig of dill makes it taste markedly more un-East Asian. Manty (Turkish dumplings of meat, potatoes, or cheese, either bun-sized or ravioli-sized; one of my all-time favourite foods), chickpea soup, shish kebabs, plov (pilaf)… all of these dishes had dill too. Mmm!
We spent a couple days wandering Osh’s bazaar, one of Central Asia’s largest. While not as interesting as Kashgar’s in terms of exotic items (with the notable exception of seeing all those funny tall white hats men wear, which represent snow-capped peaks), it was just fun to wander around and see how daily life is done here. Whether walking past shops, sitting at a table for a meal, or stopping every few minutes at a refreshments stall for a 5 som (US$0.07) tall glass of cold juice or 10 som soft-serve ice cream, we were frequently approached by others young and old for conversation, asking where we were from, what brought us to Kyrgyzstan, and our general impressions, while also happily introducing random elements of Kyrgyzstani culture to us: how to say a few words in Kyrgyz, Islamic customs, what food to get or what they were eating… We even got invited into a game of pool (slightly different, with only large white cue balls), with tables inexplicably inside the bazaar.
Unfortunately, English speakers aren’t very easy to come by here, though it’s a marked improvement from China in terms of accent, and those who do speak English are eager to practice. With the few exceptional times where I was asked if I was Kyrgyz (plausible from far away, not so much face-to-face), virtually everyone addressed us in Russian, which is like the Mandarin of Central Asia. Given that all of these countries were part of the Soviet Union until 1991, it’s not a surprise, though Russian culture continues to dominate the whole region, visibly so in music, TV, and advertisements. With my abysmal Russian and an unreliable translation app, I’m barely able to squeak by in communication, but the people are so friendly and accommodating that they either try to find someone nearby to help, or just patiently explain things by pantomiming until we understand.
Entertainment here is very… kitsch, like the Russian/Eastern European type. It’s kinda cute! The city’s main park lines the river, with amusement park rides, outdoor karaoke, cotton candy, a dangerous-looking ferris wheel, and a decommissioned Aeroflot plane that kids seem to use as a jungle gym.
Kyrgyzstan’s one UNESCO World Heritage Site happens to be in Osh. Suleiman Too is one of five “too”s (mountains), a Muslim pilgrimage site supposedly because the prophet Muhammad prayed there before. The mountain’s current biggest claim to fame, however, is the numerous caves dotting its face and formerly used for healing purposes. The Cave Museum explains this in scant detail — a cave to cure infertility, another for headaches, another for joint aches, another for eye problems, a flat rock for back pain… all worn down and slippery from people crawling in and out over the years. Larger caves were once used for worship — and definitely aren’t a shabby place for a view of the city now. These caves were used back in the time where Kyrgyz people primarily held animist beliefs. With no English explanations, the museum pointed out Kyrgyzstan’s transformation from an ancestor- and fire-worshipping society, to Zoroastrianism, to Buddhism, and finally to Islam, which a large majority of Kyrgyzstanis adhere to.
Kyrgyzstan hardly makes the news out west — in fact, it’s one of those countries few seem to have heard of. Usually I’d say that’s a sign of its success and prevailing peace, but it’s actually more of a mixed bag and a dearth of reporting due to lack of interest. There’s plenty of good, as the brand of Islam here is quite relaxed and tolerant: very few wear dopis (in the case of men, and no beards either) or hijabs, with simple modesty being all that’s practiced and an emphasis on choice of religious expression. While most people consider themselves Muslims, the elderly (having lived under the Soviet Union) tend to be pretty loosey-goosey about it, imbibing alcohol once in awhile (which is sold in alarmingly large and cheap amounts in grocery stores) and mixing in some of the traditional animist practices; the younger, more adherent generation is Sunni, though liberal. There’s nothing resembling a theocracy here — I mean, on the flipside, this city does have a small problem of benign but really, really drunk old men wandering around in the middle of the day looking to chat. (Russian vodka, everyone.) Not exactly something typical of a strict Muslim country.
For whatever reason, Kyrgyzstan has an excellent relationship with South Korea. More than one person I talked to on the street had a relative or friend working there — Korean companies like to recruit Kyrgyz people into language-lite jobs. There’s also a small population of Korean people living in Kyrgyzstan, and food and beauty trends from Korea have been a hit locally, having been brought by both those Korean expats and Kyrgyzstani workers returning home from Korea. Plenty of Kyrgyzstani people also find their way to Russia (less lately due to the sagging economy), Europe, and America for work.
While all of this neat, interesting stuff has been left unmentioned in the West, so has the bad, and I was definitely surprised to learn that in its short 25 year history, Kyrgyzstan has already overthrown two presidents and suffered race-related riots as late as 2010 in Osh. While the first two can be blamed on a new country’s growing pains and corruptibility of power, the latter is a bit more complicated. With borders drawn by Stalin during the Soviet years, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik people inevitably got all mixed up, with large populations of each ethnic group not living in its own “stan”. In Kyrgyzstan’s case, it’s resulted in six “holes” in the Fergana Valley, four of which are Uzbekistani exclaves (and the last Tajikistani), while Kyrgyzstan also has one exclave of its own. How that happened when all the Stans used to be one giant country is beyond me, but the problems continue nowadays. Southern Kyrgyzstan has a large Uzbek-Kyrgyzstani population, one whose elites have a tendency to take over business and cause resentment in the poorer, more rural Kyrgyz population. The politicians haven’t helped.
Osh is probably the most mixed city of Kyrgyz and Uzbek people — not that I noticed. I have no idea whether things have markedly changed since the 2010 riots (where 400 died, mostly Uzbeks, and 100,000 of them fled as refugees to Uzbekistan), but people seem to get along. The two countries themselves, however, don’t.
Whatever problems there may be, unlike China, there’s no atmosphere of silence or repression, and yet there’s no manifestation of boiling tensions. Relaxed and slow, Osh is a warm, friendly place to spend some time and get acquainted with Kyrgyzstan — but first, before I continue into the rest of the country, a little detour…