A last minute change to my Kyrgyzstan itinerary added an entire city to my schedule, a change that would absolutely transform my journey around Kyrgyzstan. Osh may not be a household name, but it probably should be. Sitting at the crossroads of the Silk Road, the second largest city in the country has been a very important place for a very long time. I quickly learned that it’s not just an interesting place to visit, but a fun one as well and I can’t imagine having traveled to Kyrgyzstan and not spending time in this dynamic city. Since I’m willing to bet that most of you don’t know a lot about Osh, today I want to share not only the experiences I enjoyed the most, but which I think every visitor to the city should try as well.
The only UNESCO World Site entirely within Kyrgyzstan’s borders is Sulayman Mountain, located in the city of Osh. I think it can be safely said that the mountain is one of the oldest sacred places in the world, with worshipers climbing its slopes for millennia. During the days of the Silk Road it marked the midway point, and the bazaar still operating in Osh is a remnant of that importance. While what people worshipped at the site may have changed over the centuries, the fact remains that people have sought solace here for as long as there have been people living in the region. That amazes me, and walking up the staircase to reach its summit was certainly a spiritual experience, but a more holistic one. I felt respect for all those who came before me and looking out across Osh, I found myself wondering what other adventures lay in store for me in the city.
To understand the travel experience in Kyrgyzstan, it’s also important to understand the role that food plays in the local culture. Food is important in Kyrgyzstan, as it is in many countries, but for me the cuisine was honestly one of the highlights of the experience. Like most people, I really didn’t know what to expect but almost immediately I was won over by their delicious traditional dishes. As an affirmed carnivore I fit in well there, but one meal in particular was special, the night I learned how to make plov. My Kyrgyz friends may not like to hear this, but plov is actually an important dish throughout Central Asia, and forms the basis of the diets for millions of people. It’s also a simple but hearty dish made from meat that is fried, boiled and steamed with yellow carrots, spices, garlic and then cooked rice. Served as a concoction, it’s tasty and definitely filling. While in Osh I joined a Plov Dinner Tour where we were invited by our guide into his home to help make a fresh batch. It was fun, educational and definitely delicious and was one of the highlights of my time in Kyrgyzstan.
The largest and probably oldest outdoor marketplace in Central Asia, the so-called Silk Road Bazaar in Osh isn’t just a place to buy anything, it’s a part of world history. For more than 2,000 years people have been buying and selling anything you can imagine on this same spot, originally an important stop along the famed Silk Road. I can only imagine the history that has passed through these narrow aisles, traders from around the world making the trek from China to the Mediterranean. Entering the bazaar early in the morning, it was still slow by bazaar standards, giving me the perfect opportunity to wander aimlessly. Sure, the goods for sale were interesting, but even better was the people watching. Dressed in traditional Kyrgyz attire, the dresses and hats were gorgeous, adding to the overall visual overload of color and design. Clothes to jewelry to meats and vegetables to modern day electronics, it really is a place to find whatever it is you’re looking for. But for me, it was about meeting Osh and Kyrgyzstan for the first time, getting to know the culture and history of what really is a fascinating country.
Plov wasn’t the only way I connected with the local food culture in Osh, I also joined a newly minted Osh food tour led by a local who was eager to share with me why the city is famous around the country for its culinary expertise. Certain foods are commonly found throughout Kyrgyzstan, but in Osh they have their own unique versions of these hearty meals. Kyrgyzstan is thankfully a place for carnivores and meat forms the base of most traditional meals, but not all. Mayda Manty is a good example of a dish that can be, but not always meatless. In the rest of the country this pasta-like dish features large, almost ravioli-like pieces, but in Osh they’re much smaller and when a little raw onion is added in, is the perfect comfort food. Another favorite was Samsy, a meat-filled dough, sort of like a meat pie, that is cooked in a tandoori oven. I’ve never tried anything quite like it and again, it was love at first bite. The tour is naturally much more expansive, and when you add in the lessons on history and culture, is one of the best ways to learn about life in Osh.
Walk Around Town
Of course though, the best thing to do in any new city is to just wander around, which is one of the things I loved most about Osh. Staying at the very comfortable and even luxurious Classic Hotel, I enjoyed a great location from which to see more of the town. But for a more in-depth exploration, a local guide joined me to point out what he loves most about his city. Turns out, there’s quite a lot from the ancient bazaar to peaceful parks and my favorite, Soviet-era statues and monuments. I noticed them throughout my time in the country; instead of removing the old Soviet monuments, nearly all still stand in Kyrgyzstan. When I asked I was told that it’s in no way meant to be a longing for the old days, but rather a way for future generations to remember the past. It’s an interesting philosophy and an unexpected highlight during my trip.
I really enjoyed spending time in Osh, and by the end of the visit found myself sad to leave. That’s the great thing about Kyrgyzstan really, it surprises visitors in ways they never anticipated and ultimately, that’s what travel should be all about.
This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.