If you visit Kyrgyzstan, it’s possible to overlook the Central Asian cultural mixing bowl that is the city of Osh. For many travelers, Osh serves as a transit point en route to the Pamir Mountains, Irkeshtam Pass to China, Dostyk crossing to Uzbekistan, or the newly marked trekking trails in the Alay Mountains.
However, if you’re looking to encounter a unique blend of cultures and history, lively markets, gregarious people, and a culinary scene which many Kyrgyz call their favorite, then we recommend giving Osh a closer look. The diversity you’ll see owes itself to over 3000 years of history and the city's favorable position as a midpoint along one of the Silk Road's main East-West arteries. From there, trade and migration helped evolve Osh into the urban tapestry of cultural interchange you see today, a regional crossroads home to more than 80 ethnicities.
Here are some of the experiences to look for when you go, so you can understand why.
1. Climb Suleiman-Too (Solomon Mountain) for the Best Views of the City and its History
If you’d like to understand Osh geographically and historically, there’s no better way to do so than to make the short climb up Suleiman-Too (Solomon Mountain or Solomon's Throne). Besides offering the best views of Osh and the surrounding area, a walk up the UNESCO World Heritage mountain-cum-sacred pilgrimage path is a walk through the region’s pre-Islamic (e.g., Zoroastrian, Shamanistic) and Islamic history. Your experience will also be one of living history as you witness present-day visitors performing rituals, much as they have been doing for millennia.
Along the way, peer into caves and niches dotted with prayer relics and the occasional petroglyph, take a run down the now well-worn “fertility slide”, drop a coin into the fortune-telling wishing well, interact with locals, and check in with the imam giving blessings in a small mosque at the top. (Note: After spending some time meditating in Osh, Babur — the one who built the original mosque in 1510 — later went on to found the Mogul Empire in India. Look closely and you’ll find evidence of cultural exchange between the two regions in shared features like the use of the tandoor oven and spices like cumin, and in certain regional dishes.)
If a deeper, quirkier dive into regional history and archaeology interests you, spend some time at the Soviet-style archaeological museum. There, you can catch up on some additional pre-Islamic history, including “the cult of the horse.” Plan for about 60-90 minutes for a straightforward climb up and exit down the other side. Add another hour or two for a longer museum and petroglyph wall visit.
2. Learn to Make — And Eat! – a Giant Osh Samsa as Big as Your Fist
While traveling in Kyrgyzstan, it’s very likely you’ll eat samsa (also known in Uzbek as somsa), dough pockets tucked with meat, onions and spices. However, if you wish to visit samsa central, a visit to Osh is a must. Elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, samsas are often baked in a ordinary oven, whereas the “Oshski samsa” is baked inside a clay tandoor oven.
Our favorite among samsa experiences, bar none, was the samsa class at Bismilloh Samsakana (232 A. Navoi Street). Maybe it’s my favorite because, in this part of the world, samsa-making is a man’s job. Although our instructors made the rolling of dough rounds and measuring and tucking of meat look speedy and trivial, I assure you it’s not. But that does not stop untold 1000s from being cranked out each day.
Build up an appetite for one of these, or go for the smaller Parmuda Samsa on offer. Note that Osh is no stranger to spice, either. Some samsa are tucked with a slice of hot pepper and issued with a warning of black sesame or nigella seeds on top.
For those of you who like to make historical connections through cuisine, note that the word samsa resembles its Indian/South Asian cousin, samosa. Although we initially believed the samosa made its way north and gave rise to the Central Asian samsa, it is in fact the other way around. Samosas likely originated somewhere in the Middle East, yet were introduced to the Indian subcontinent in the 13th or 14th century by Silk Road traders from Central Asia.
3. Look at the Eyes
What do you mean, “Look at the eyes,” you ask? Osh is a crossroads of peoples and pilgrims, of Silk Road trading, of Stalinist Soviet border drawing. As a result, Osh is a human tapestry of ethnic groups, including Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, Tatar, Russian, and Turkish to name a few. As you walk the streets and markets in Osh, look at the people. At any turn, you might imagine yourself further East in China, just South into the Wakhan Valley of Tajikistan/Afghanistan, or further West into The Caucasus. The people of Osh and their features serve as visual evidence of intermixed and intermarried cultures having left their mark.
To know that so many cultures have left an impression on this place, just step back and look at the people. Look at the eyes. They tell us a story, one that is deep, complex, and unfolding.
4. Day Trip to Uzgen, Visit a Silk Road Mausoleum and See How Red Rice is Grown and Processed
No trip to Osh is complete without a day trip to the nearby town of Uzgen, once the home of the ancient Turkic Karakhanid dynasty, now the site of the Silk Road sites of an 11th century minaret and 12th century mausoleum. Our English-speaking guide there, Husniddin Sharipov, was a knowledgeable storyteller and offered history and context for what we saw. Photographers note: late afternoon offers better light on the mausoleum and less contrast with the snow-covered Pamir Mountains in the distance.
After taking in the historical Silk Road sites in Uzgen, seek out the story behind Uzgen rice. Uzgen red rice is said to be the best rice for the preparation of plov (a rice and meat dish popular throughout Central Asia). A visit to a traditional rice factory includes a walk around the edge of the rice plantation and a look inside the facility. Hydro-power water wheels and stone milling equipment are used to remove the husks from the kernel. In this way, not much has changed in 2,000 years.
Although you may have visited the Jayma Bazaar in Osh and had your fill of nuts, dried fruits and spices, we recommend a stop at the Uzgen Bazaar. From the picturesque and quaint tile work and Cyrillic lettering at the entrance, to the approachable environment inside, it’s well worth a visit. We found the people friendly, gregarious and generous. While there, we sampled a host of dried fruits and nuts, several variations of a fermented drink called “bozo” and various homemade chili sauce concoctions. Shopping tip: Prices for nuts and dried fruit in the Uzgen Bazaar are quite a bit lower than in Osh.
5. Watch the Blademaster of Osh Give Life to Recycled Materials
If you happen to be in or near the mahalla (neighborhood) near Craftsmen Street (formerly known as Alebastrova Street), take the time out to stop by the little hole-in-the-wall knife-making workshop run by Zakir Jon, the friendly knife craftsman of Osh. He learned his trade when he was just 11-years old from a master craftsman traveling through the city. Even after 57 years of experience of knife-making under his belt, this craftsman sports a youthful and playful approach to his craft, and to life.
Zakir Jon runs a simple set up. A coal-powered fireplace heats the metal to the point where it can be flattened and shaped with a hammer. Each knife takes between 25-28 hours to make, including the blade and custom handle. You can admire the work on display as you watch him turn the grindstone, pound the metal and form the makings of an honest-to-goodness hand-smithed blade made from scrap metal. Better yet, ask Zakir Jon how he makes his knives from recycled car parts and industrial materials. You'll notice that many of the blades are engraved with stars, his trademark symbol. As he tells it, when he was young the coolest thing going were Soviet cosmonauts.
And buy one, like I did. Each one has a story and comes with its own hand-decorated leather sheath. I use mine just about daily — to dice garlic, slice tomatoes, cut meat. It remains sharp, and the artistic flourish at the base of the blade always draws me in. Each time I pick it up, I glance at the colors in the handle. I think of the experience and consider how that knife was made. And I kind of marvel at how the world works.
6. Relish and Explore Osh's Jayma Bazaar
Wind your way through lanes old and new in the Jayma Bazaar, a 2,000-year old marketplace that has stood the test of time as the heart of the city's trading center. At several kilometers long, it's one of Central Asia's biggest.
It overwhelms at first. At a minimum, we recommend you sample your way through the section with the dried fruits and nuts. You'll find a vast array from not only Kyrgyzstan, but also nearby Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and even Iran. Don't be afraid to try several types of almonds, pistachios, raisins or dried apricots before deciding your favorite. Note: If you are going trekking or on a Pamir Highway road trip, we recommend stocking up here. You'll be thankful for these healthy snacks later on.
Around the corner, check out the spice mounds and get yourself into a conversation regarding the finer points of custom laghman spice blends and different grades — or potency — of chili powders.
Should you tire of fruits, vegetables and food, check out some of the craftsman and metalsmith areas. Or strum a handmade komuz, a traditional Kyrgyz stringed instrument you'll likely hear across your travels in Kyrgyzstan.
Note: The Destination Osh office at 15 Gapar Aytiev Street offers free Jayma Bazaar maps and suggested themed routes through the market.
7. Make Your own Lepyoshka Bread and Design
The importance of bread to the culture and daily routine is no less true than in Osh. Several types of bread make the rounds in bakeries, on the streets, stacked in bazaars, and in restaurants. However, the bread that stands out for its ubiquity, flavor and design is the Uzbek-style traditional bread called lepyoshka. You’ll know it when you see it in stacks in markets and in bakeries. It will arrive at your table during virtually every meal.
To deepen your cultural experience and understanding of Osh, we recommend taking a walk down the area along Kurmanjan Datka Street (in front of City Hospital) that former Peace Corps Volunteer Mark affectionately called “Ashkana Row” in his great Osh guide. Poke your head into one (or more) of the bakeries there in the early morning. While inside a bakery, ask to look inside one of the tandoor ovens and note the way in which bread rounds bake, closely arranged on the inside of a tandoor. The whole thing is warm, and cool — and really photogenic, too.
8. Watch Old Men Play Chess in Navoi Park
One thing we noted in Osh was the amount of green space and parks, and how full those parks are of locals taking walks, playing games, and enjoying time with family. Take a walk through leafy Navoi Park and after passing by the amusement parks and games, seek out the old men playing competitive chess, likely just as they did during Soviet times. Lines of old men, beards often stretching to the chess board, focus and time their moves.
Stand back, watch, and take it all in. Much of the park feels like a walk back in time, most especially this.
9. Visit the Osh Animal Market
If you happen to be in Osh on a Sunday morning, and you wish to get a glimpse of local tradition in livestock, this is the place. Sheep, horses, donkey and cattle change hands, sometimes several times in the course of a day. There's a secret language and code, and a dramatic flourish, to the animal negotiation process. It's fun to watch. Pay attention and you'll also hear people yell “Osh! Osh! Osh!” as a sort of “Go! Go! Go!” as they make way and attempt to get their stubborn animals to move where they want. Some speculate this is how the city got its name.
The environment may be a little muddy and dirty underfoot (i.e., don’t sport your best footwear), but the Osh Sunday animal market is as real as it gets. And the people are friendly, too.
How to get to the Sunday animal market: From the Aravanskaya bus stop in Osh, take marshrutka 105 or bus 5 headed east, to the end of the line. A taxi should cost around 300-400 KGS.
10. Learn the Secrets Behind the Famous Osh-Style Plov
Plov (notice the resemblance to the word ‘pilaf’) is a rich Uzbek dish traditionally made of rice, mutton, carrots and spices slow-simmered in a large metal half-sphere pan called a kazan. In addition to traditional or everyday plov, you might also find wedding plov and holiday plov varieties featuring additions like chick peas or raisins, among others. Every family has their own secret recipe, one passed on from mother to daughter.
Osh and nearby Uzgen are famous for having the best plov in Kyrgyzstan, in large part because of the local Uzgen red rice (see #4 above). Be sure to balance out the richness of plov with some tart kymys (fermented mare’s milk). Yes, yes, we know that sounds strange. But here you do as the locals do, because they know what’s good for you.
11. Get Your Uzbek Fashion On
Get your Uzbek fashion on as you shop for fabric and buy pre-made and custom cut clothes. You’ll know you’re looking at Ikat, a distinct kind of Uzbek design style, when you see the multi-colored oval bleed patterns or sharp-line designs in textiles. Don’t let our description of the design frighten you. From light silk top coats, to skirts, scarves and everything in between, you are likely to find something interesting to wear that draws a lot of “Where did you get that?” reaction.
Coming to a fashion studio near you, Uzbek design from southern Kyrgyzstan.
To find some Uzbek-designed jackets, tops, dresses, or scarves, check out the stores in the Shahid Tebe District. One favorite shop (for its prices, modern designs and ease) is at 515 Kurmandjan Datka Street. You can also find Ikat designs in the Jayma Bazaar. For a deeper look into Uzbek fabrics and fashion design, we’re told you should make your way to Kara-Suu Bazaar, a 45-minute ride north of Osh.
12. Choose Your Favorite Piece of Large-Scale Soviet Public Art
Osh is arguably one of the best locations in Kyrgyzstan to avail yourself of large-scale Soviet relics, mosaics, murals and bas reliefs. From a Cubist style bird mural to a mosaic rendering of the 1980 Moscow Olympics mascot (remember that cute teddy bear?), the images ring nostalgic. Themes run in multimedia, from a workers paradise mosaic to multi-kulti bas relief stone cuts to modern murals with a nod to pan-Asian solidarity. These works demand a second look. They often serve as a measure of history, from the sense of Soviet propaganda in an ethnically diverse city to the notion of what fits and makes the cut in the modern day.
Note: You can also learn more about Soviet public art by taking the free walking tour organized by Destination Osh. The route passes by some of the more notable Soviet murals and mosaics, then provides a map walk-through to find other pieces not on the tour.
13. Take a Vegetarian Break with Maida Manti and Gök Chuchvara
When you visit Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, surely you’ll have tried manti, the regional style of steamed dumpling. What’s challenging in Kyrgyzstan: finding vegetarian versions. Surprisingly, considering how meat-dominated Osh is, the city sports a local vegetarian specialty that you can't find anywhere else in Kyrgyzstan called maida manti. These small parcels are made from very thinly rolled leaves of dough stuffed with pinches of potato filling.
If you're lucky and it's the right season you will also be able to find pumpkin manti. Same goes for gök chuchvara, small dumplings filled with spinach-like local greens. Along with the butter in which the manti are turned, your plentiful and reasonably-priced portions will also be served with kaymak (local sour cream), sliced red onions, flavored vinegar and the option to sprinkle ground red pepper on top. The best manti and chuchvara we've found are at Oybek Manti at 362 Kurmandjan Datka Street. You order by weight (e.g., half kilo) rather than by portions or plates.
Don’t forget to ask about the different flavors of homemade compote-style juice drinks available.
Note: You can also experience these dishes and learn more about their origins as part of Osh Foodie Tour offered by Destination Osh. In fact, you can request a fully vegetarian food tour if you so desire. Just let them know in advance.
14. Accept an Invitation into a Family Courtyard in a Mahalla
Whether you are in the neighborhood near our favorite knife-maker, or shopping for textiles along Kurmandjan Datka Street in the Shahid Tebe District, be sure to look — respectfully — into the family courtyards along way if the gates are open. In the mahallas (traditional Uzbek neighborhoods) you often see from the street only a foreboding gate or wall. What you'll find inside those gates are surprisingly large family compounds, sprawling park-like courtyard affairs with tapchan (raised tables for dining), a green space in the center, and living quarters (often for multiple generations) along the side. People are quite friendly, so you might find yourself invited inside for a further look and some tea.
15. Trek into the Nearby Alay Mountains
Given the variety of accommodation, food and experience options in Osh, it makes for a good planning and jumping off point for treks and hikes, not only into the Pamirs, but also to the closer Alay Mountains. In our opinion, the Alay Valley features some of the most beautiful one-day and multi-day treks in Kyrgyzstan — which, if you’ve read some of our other articles on trekking in Kyrgyzstan, says a lot.
If you only have a limited time and wish to experience a remarkable day trek, check out the newly-marked Koshkol “Four Lakes” trek that begins not too far from the village of Sary Mogul (via car transfer). This moderately-difficult day trek takes you to a series of turquoise alpine lakes, glaciers, and gorges and to a high point of 4,195 meters. Along the way you’ll pass a yak-filled jailoo (high pasture), meet local shepherds and their families, and enjoy views of Peak Lenin and the Pamir Mountains in the distance. It's pretty remarkable how all this can be packed into one day.
If you have more time, check out the so-called “Heights of Alay” trek, a moderate-to-difficult trek that can be experienced as 2 nights/3 days (what we did) or 5 nights/6 days. The trek begins a few kilometers outside of Sary Mogul and takes you on the first day to Sary Mogul Pass at 4,303 meters — with views of alpine lakes, glaciers, the Pamir Mountains, and a remarkable almost moon-like landscape. The trek then winds its way down alpine river valleys, through small villages and finishes across a series of shepherd routes. The final day features a sweeping “Best of Kyrgyzstan” canvas of red rock gorges and multi-colored mountain layers before the final descent into the town of Kojokelen. From there you can transfer to Osh (as we did) or continue trekking over the Jiptick pass where you will end in Sary Mogul again after three days.
If you need any more convincing of how beautiful trekking in this area is, check out our Alay Mountains photo essay.
16. Find the Old Russian Airplane
Filed under: “How did this get here? And why?” As you wander through Navoi Park you might stumble upon a decommissioned Soviet-era Yak-40 Aeroflot airplane just sitting there, a relic which speaks to a bygone era. Apparently, a cafe once operated inside. For an aerial view, spend a few som and take a ride on the ferris wheel just next door.
Note: It's best to admire the plane from afar, as the inside of the plane has been transformed into a sort of trash heap meets public bathroom.
17. Down Some Top-Notch Shashlik
One of the most powerful sensory memories we have from our first visit to Osh over 10 years ago is the smell of shashlik, and the charcoal smoke rising from street grills lined with skewers of cut and ground meat. That's why we so closely associate shashlik with Osh. It wasn't until our last visit, however, when we tasted the mother of all shashlik at Atabek Cafe as part of the Osh Foodie Tour. High quality meat, nicely grilled, good flavor, and tasty condiments. Not to mention, seasonal fresh figs and melon to finish it off.
18. Try Spicy Korut as a Beer Snack
We confess that we are partial to the fried fava beans in Karakol as our favorite beer snack in Kyrgyzstan. However, spicy korut (dried, yogurt balls) are worth gnawing on with a cold beer. Korut tends to be quite salty, as well as hard to bite into, so you might want to take it slow and easy.
Although you can find korut everywhere in Osh, the spicy variety is a bit more difficult and novel. We recommend buying them from these vendors at the Jayma Bazaar. These women are good-natured and jovial. They also seemed to find hilarious the idea that travelers might be interested in their korut and their other local dairy products.
19. Take Cover Under Central Asia's Biggest Lenin Statue
If you are interested in more Soviet-era monuments and memorials, continue into nearby Toktugol Park where you'll find the Soviet-era World War II Memorial, along with another dedicated to the local contingent of the Chernobyl “liquidators”, people sent to clean up and contain the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown in 1986.
20. Walk the Streets, Catch a Festival and Laugh with the Locals
Although Osh is a big city, it's one of those places that's best explored on foot as much as possible. We recommend this especially in Osh because of the local people you'll encounter and engage with along the way.
We find people to be quite gregarious and open, and curious about and excited to see foreign visitors. There's an energy and spirit to the streets. And even if you don't share the same language, interaction still happens. The attempt to communicate often results in charades. Take, for example some women (pictured below) we met at Osh Fest, a local summer festival. They invited us to join their tea party. We spoke a little broken Russian, everyone had their photo taken with everyone else (we aren't the only photographers these days) and a cheer of “Osh! Osh! Osh!” broke out.