Osh: The Heart of the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan


Osh is the second city of Kyrgyzstan, a place that plays second string to the fashionable avenues and boulevards of the capital, Bishkek, but a place that can still claim to be the heart of the old Silk Road.

Osh is an ancient city, one with a history that dates back thousands of years and that has seen tyrants, conquerors, traders and empire builders pass through its walls. Little remains of the walls and towers that were built and torn down through the ages, and Osh has grown to become the largest city in southern Kyrgyzstan, a sprawl of buildings that has little to show of its intricate past and that would be almost unrecognisable from even its pre-Soviet days.

This though is the heart of the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan, a crossroads of culture, religion and trade on the long route from China to the West and like many places along this historic pathway, modern Osh is very much a fusion of all the societies, languages and people that have met here.

Osh is home to the largest bazaar in Central Asia, a huge marketplace that stretches for a kilometre and more along the banks of the shallow river. This is where for thousands of years, the Silk Road’s business of trade and exchange has played out amongst market stalls, nomads and travellers. The bazaar at Osh remains authentic, not in the sense that there are glamourous, ornate buildings of old or stones that have stood here for centuries, but more because of the fact that this is one of the most thriving market places in the region.

Market stalls here are built into old shipping containers, while farmers and salespeople will open the doors of their rusty, Russian cars and sell their goods from the backseats. At the bazaar, you can hear languages from Uzbekistan, China, Kazakshtan, Krygyzstan and even India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is a true melting pot of cultures, a true crossroads where ethnicities are mixed and culture seems to flourish.

Osh is a wonderful example of the Silk Road’s enduring legacy and while the only history to really be seen are the museums in the shadow of the towering Sulaiman-Too mountain that the city is built around, the real reason to visit Osh is to experience the vibrant, colourful culture of a city at the centre of regional history and contemporary life.

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SEE – Photos & Videos

WSE Travel - Osh, The Heart of the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan - Bazaar in Osh (2)

Bazaar in Osh

WSE Travel - Osh, The Heart of the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan - Bazaar in Osh

Bazaar in Osh

WSE Travel - Osh, The Heart of the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan - Lenin statue

Lenin statue

WSE Travel - Osh, The Heart of the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan - Sacred Mountain

Sacred Mountain

WSE Travel - Osh, The Heart of the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan - View of Osh from Mountain

View of Osh from Mountain

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GO – Getting There

Osh is the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan and the main city in the south of the country. Due to Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous terrain and rugged landscapes, Osh is unfortunately isolated from the capital Bishkek by a huge dividing range that makes overland travel here arduous and long.

Bishkek is home to the main international airport in Kyrgyzstan and the capital is the easiest point of arrival in the country. From here you can take one of the regular flights with local airline Air Manas to Osh, a journey time of just half an hour, with tickets costing as low as $25 if booked in advance and no more than $50 if not.

The intrepid or those on an extremely low budget can take the winding mountain roads to Osh, a journey of at least 14 hours in a shared taxi or old Soviet Marshrutka. This can cost as little as $10, and vehicles leave regularly from the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek. You are best starting early to secure a seat and be prepared with ample supplies for the long journey.

Osh is located right on the border with Uzbekistan, and it’s also possible to travel from the city and into the Fergana Valley, before reaching the Uzbek capital Tashkent by train or bus. Many travellers also use Osh as a starting point into the dramatic Pamir Mountains and along the world’s highest road through Tajikistan. From Osh, it’s a long 14-hour journey to Murghab, the starting point of the Pamir Highway.

WSE Travel - Osh, The Heart of the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan - Map

Osh, The Heart of the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan – Map

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Do – Activities & Attractions

Jayma Bazaar

The best thing to do in Osh is to visit the enormous Jayma Bazaar. This is a market place that holds thousands of stalls and that has a long history of trade stretching back centuries. It’s a place of colour, smells and activity and you can spend countless hours wandering through the packed corridors and haggling for souvenirs or local goods.

Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain

The Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain is the unmissable centrepiece of Osh. It rises high above the city and can be seen from anywhere. Climb the steep steps to the top and you can have unrivalled views over the region while also having the opportunity to visit the shrines, temples and mosques that have long been found here. At the far end of the mountain is an interesting museum taking you through the varied sacred history of the mountain, from Zoroastrianism to Islam.

Osh Animal Market

Every Sunday, early in the morning, you can visit the Osh Animal Market on the outskirts of the city. This is as authentic as it gets anywhere in Central Asia, as local farmers and nomads from across the region bring their animals for auction and sale. Expect it to be noisy, dirty and loud.

The 3 Storey Yurt

In the shadow of the mountain, you can find the bizarre 3 Storey Yurt. This is an interpretation of local Kyrgyz culture, with historic and traditional artefacts, clothing and dress to be found inside. There are three levels and it’s one of the tallest yurts in the world.

Giant Lenin Statue

Osh has kept one huge vestige of its Soviet legacy for all to see. On the main road in the city, overlooking the river, you can find a giant statue of Soviet hero Lenin, which is one of the largest left in the post-Soviet world.

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Stay – Accommodation

Osh has an increasing number of hotels and guesthouses, although the choices available to travellers are much less in number than in Bishkek and standards are much more unpredictable. A favourite amongst travellers is the Osh Guesthouse, who are helpful arranging transport onto the Pamirs and finding shared taxis across the region. A nicer guesthouse to stay at though is the Tes Hotel, which offers basic dorms and nicer privates with a great breakfast and who can also help with local travel advice.

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Eat – Restaurants

Osh is home to some great local delicacies and due to its location as a crossroads on the Silk Road and amongst the Central Asian borders, you can find food from across the region in the city. Central Asian staples such as Plov and Laghman are firm favourites while a local delicacy is the enormous Samsa, a samosa-like pastry filled with meat and vegetables. At the bazaar, you can find plenty of shashlik stalls grilling kebabs and along the river, there are some lovely local restaurants with pleasant outdoor seating.

If you are looking for a western style cafe with great wifi then head to Brio, where you can get excellent coffee, but of course, for a higher price.

The local tourism office runs a great food tour of Osh that allows you to learn more about the cuisine and the unique cooking techniques from local families.

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Time – Seasonality & Schedules

Osh is best visited during the summer months, between April and October, when the weather is hot and the skies are clear. Although Osh is found at a reasonable altitude, the surrounding country is elevated and ensures that the region experiences severe winters. Roads in and out of Osh can become snowed and travel across Kyrgyzstan can be almost impossible for several months of the year. If you are interested in seeing the rest of Kyrgyzstan’s landscapes and scenery, it can be best to visit in the hiking summer season, to experience the most enjoyable conditions.

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Safety – Possible risks

Osh is currently a safe destination to visit and you will find that the streets, even at night, are pleasant enough to walk around even if they are ill-lit. Due to its location on the border with Uzbekistan and its multiethnic nature, the city has in the past been subject to ethnic violence and riots, the latest incident being just a few years ago. Kyrgyzstan was really a creation of the Soviets and Osh, before the Russian influence, was more Uzbek than Kyrgyz. Today, it still has a huge Uzbek population and with rising Kyrgyz nationalism, tensions have in the past boiled over. Before travelling to Osh, it’s wise to keep yourself informed of political events.

Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.

Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.

Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).

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Pay – How much does it cost?

Osh is a very cheap destination to travel to, especially by Western standards. There are plenty of ATMs in the city and at the airport where you can withdraw the local currency, the Kyrgyz Som, with ease. You will find plenty of money changers at the bazaar and in the city centre too, which may be useful if you are heading across the borders to either Tajikistan or Uzbekistan.

Local meals are very good value, with a plate of Plov or a few Shashlik costing no more than 1 or 2 USD at small eateries. The larger, more western style restaurants will charge more, however, even a great cup of coffee and a sandwich in the local coffee shop will cost no more than 3 or 4 USD. Dormitories sell for as little as 5 USD for the cheapest, most basic options, while private rooms range in price from 10 to 20 USD for midrange, and upwards for luxury options of course.

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Responsible Travel – Best Practices

Osh is home to one of Kyrgyzstan’s most helpful Community Based Tourism Offices, and they can offer help and advice to travellers, not just in the city, but in the surrounding region. Community Based Tourism – or CBT – is an initiative that has had real success and dramatic results amongst locals, allowing travellers to experience local life while ensuring the locals actually get the benefits or the tourism dollar. The office can set you up with hiking guides, homestays in remote villages and also several local tours in the city itself.

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Reality Check – Be Aware

Kyrgyzstan is still developing as a tourist destination and Osh is no exception. Even with the helpful CBT office and knowledgable local guesthouses catering to travellers, venturing further afield from the city can be tricky but adventurous. Infrastructure is basic and transport happens slowly. The city has a developing economy too and has been wrecked before by ethnic violence, a fact which although may be hidden from the travellers, is very much clear to locals. Travel here is raw but infinitely interesting.

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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?

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