I returned to Kyrgyzstan in a mad dash for the World Nomad Games up in the north of the country, but not without time for a couple of short but worthwhile stopovers: first for Kyrgyzstan’s independence day celebrations in Osh, and then a double-overnight in the walnut-forested hills of Arslanbob.
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.