Breaking Down Borders in Kyrgyzstan's Oldest City

© Peter Ford
© Peter Ford
Photo of Peter Ford
22 June 2017

Osh is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Kyrgyzstan and offers a fascinating look at the successes and struggles of post Soviet border making, which put this Uzbek majority city within the borders of the independent Kyrgyzb state.

From the top of Sulaiman-Too, the quirks of the Silk Road city of Osh are clearly visible. Looking down on the homes of the 300,000 inhabitants is a lesson in cultural and architectural history. Unimposing community mosques, very imposing neoclassical university buildings, a large blue Ferris wheel; all vie for attention with the striking wall of snow-capped mountains dominating the horizon to the south, east and north. The Uzbekistan border is less than 5km (3 mi.) away.

High-walled courtyards hugging snaking avenues at the base of the mountain denote the ethnic Uzbek communities. The contrast with the Soviet-era apartment buildings near the central bazaar is stark.

Uzbek neighbourhoods shaped by decades of renovations and extensions were torn down in the 60s and 70s, to make way for rectangular concrete and brick housing for ethnic Kyrgyz brought from the countryside, to work in the city’s new factories.

Sulaiman-Too, Kyrgzstan | © Peter Ford

“Moscow, London, New York, none of these cities have Sulaiman-Too,” jokes university student Baktygul. “It’s not just a feature of Osh, but of all Kyrgyzstan.”

The rocky nub is visible across the city. Krygystan’s only UNESCO World Heritage site is an immense source of pride for residents and its main tourist draw.

“The site is believed to represent the most complete example of a sacred mountain anywhere in Central Asia, worshipped over several millennia,” explains the UN organisation.

On a Friday evening in early May, local youths on the exposed summit vie for space with doe-eyed couples looking to take the perfect selfie. Groups of track-suited young men run up and down the steep steps to the withering scowls of headscarf-wearing elderly women. With the light fading, the competing calls to prayer are a sound that have resounded here for centuries.

Osh is very different to the country’s capital Bishkek. “In Osh everything is very affordable, which helps to make local people polite and friendly,” says Baktygul.

“If the weather is good, when I cross the river Ak-Buura to the university I see people swimming or fishing, old men sitting in the park smoking and families having picnics. It is a very peaceful place.”

Osh’s park life revives each spring once the snow has melted. Arcade games, rides and stalls peddling sugary-snacks lend the various green oases along the river a carnival air.

The parks are also a refuge for some of the city’s older men. Wearing the iconic ak-kalpak white felt hats, they sit at long tables engrossed in chess and backgammon battles, which can last hours while crowds offer advice and criticism.

© Peter Ford

The city’s bazaar straddles both sides of the river, a warren of tented stalls, converted shipping containers and small shops, sandwiched between some of the city’s oldest Uzbek neighbourhoods and Soviet-era apartment buildings.

Piles of dried fruit compete for space with Chinese-made clothes and plastic goods, building supplies, live chickens, gold jewellery and every other conceivable commodity, including walnuts from Arslanbob—the largest wild walnut forest in the world.

Osh’s culinary scene is diverse, but ‘samsa’ is indisputably king. The local meat filled pastry has a long attachment with the city and legend has it that 15th-century Central Asian warlord Babur took samsas with him on his conquest of India, where they evolved into samosa. Contemporary Indian sources however mention similar foods some 200 years prior to Babur’s arrival.

© Peter Ford

Osh is also home to the world’s only three-tiered yurt and the tallest remaining statue of Lenin in the region.

“My family call me Lenin because I study so much,” laughs Baktygul. The 20 foot statue —featuring the Soviet leader in a classic pose—occupies prime real estate opposite the city’s administrative building.

Baktygul explains that unlike former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Lenin remains a symbol of the infrastructural, academic and industrial improvement the USSR brought to the region.

Opportunities in Osh and Bishkek are scarce for all but the most gifted students. The future for many young people in Kyrgyzstan is less rosy.

Of Baktygul’s 34 classmates, only three are still studying in higher education. The rest are either married or working in Russia.

“The girls do menial jobs like cleaning floors, and the boys do manual labor,” she says. The better students find work as shop assistants or waiters, earning 30,000 Russian roubles a month (about US$500). Whatever is saved is often sent back to Kyrgyzstan and according to the World Bank, US$1.7 billion, or 25% of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP comes from remittances.

Bakutygul’s elder brother is funding her university costs by working as a barman in Moscow. “He believes that in the future I will be a big, important girl,” she says.

© Peter Ford

In recent years Osh has experienced an influx of foreign students, mainly from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, who are attracted by the country’s low academic costs.

Their presence has added an international flavour to the city. Official census data for Osh suggests a slight Kyrgyz majority, with neither community constituting more than half the population. About 15% of Kyrgyzstan’s 6 million residents are Uzbek, with Russians, Dungans (descendants of Hui immigrants from western China) and others from across the former Soviet Union making up another 15%.

Political science graduate and aspiring tour guide Atabek stresses the importance of understanding the difference between ethnicity and culture when attempting to understand Kyrgyzstan.

“I was raised Uzbek, but ethnically I could be Kazakh, Uzbek or Kyrgyz,” he explains on a walk near the bazaar.

Under Stalin the USSR drew borders—and therefore ethnic distinctions—across a region that had always been a melting pot of cultures.

“It’s not like these distinctions were accurate. I mean the first name for Kazakhstan was Kyrgyzstan [and from 1920–25, much of present-day Kazakhstan was named the Kirghiz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic], so we shouldn’t take it too seriously,” he stresses.

© Peter Ford

The legacy of Soviet border making was brought back into focus in April when Russian citizen Akbarzhon Jalilov set off a bomb in St. Petersburg, killing 15 people.

Jalilov was born in Osh and claimed Uzbek ethnicity, however both Kyrgzystani and Russian authorities were quick to distance themselves, explains Atabek.

“The Russians said he was Central Asian, not Russian. The Kyrgyz government said he was Uzbek, and the Uzbek government said he was an Osh Uzbek. If he had won an Olympic medal the Russians would have acted very differently,” he notes ruefully. “But here, everyone still gets on well. The violence did not reflect any widely held beliefs.”

Kyrgyzstani government data shows that the number of visitors has increased yearly since 2001 to 1.2 million in 2015. The only dips coming during the two revolutions in 2005 and 2010. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism income for Kyrgyzstan is set to rise to US$117 million by 2025.

© Peter Ford

With free 60-day free visas for more than 60 countries, the country is an attractive destination in a region that still views tourists with suspicion—especially Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Osh is a popular stopover for those traveling to Kashgar in western China, and those arriving from Tajikistan in the south.

Kyrgyzstan’s largely unspoilt natural splendours include 7,000m (23,000 ft.) tall mountains, rolling green hills, and picturesque turquoise lakes, and are combined with good transport and accommodation options that have helped make the country increasingly popular with adventurous tourists seeking more than museums, cathedrals, and hiking-trail traffic.

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