Saturday morning, K, J, B and I took a taxi to Bishkek’s Osh Bazaar, from where we were able to hire a car to take us to Osh – the second biggest city in Kyrgyzstan, located in the south-west of the country near the border with Uzbekistan – for 5000som total, which was a pretty fair cost from what we’d been told to expect. It took us nine hours, and brought us through a wide variety of scenery, much of which was quite different from the typical scenery up here in the northern part of the country.
The road began to get interesting just south of Kara Balta.
I’d say the most interesting point of the trip was seeing firsthand the depletion of the Toktogul Reservoir, which is Kyrgyzstan’s biggest source of water and hydroelectric power… It is obviously much lower than it should be. The eastern edge of the reservoir is nearly bone dry, and while the larger western half is still quite full, the water level is far below the previous water line. That doesn’t bode well for Kyrgyzstan’s future.
The eastern end of the Toktogul Reservoir is bone dry.
Luckily there's still a lot of water in the larger western end.
You can clearly make out the previous water line though.
Following the reservoir, the Naryn River is funneled into a series of smaller reservoirs in a picturesque canyon, and they seem quite full, so perhaps things aren’t quite as bad as some estimates suggest. Nonetheless, country-wide rolling blackouts have started again in preparation for the coming winter.
One of the many Naryn River reservoirs.
Once we got out of the mountain passes and entered the eastern edge of the Ferghana Valley, the scenery became much less interesting: flat and hot. To me, the most remarkable aspect of south-western Kyrgyzstan was the lack of Ladas and other Soviet era cars and the sheer preponderance of Korean Daewoo Ticos, which as far as I knew were no longer produced, having been replaced by the Daewoo Matiz. There were Ticos *everywhere* (and a fair share of Matizes and other Daewoo models as well). Now, Bishkek has a high population of Koreans, but we didn’t run across any Koreans down south. But there were Korean cars all over the place… and I bought a lime green Jumong t-shirt in the Jayma Bazaar. Curiouser and curiouser. [According to wikipedia, there is a Daewoo plant just over the border in Uzbekistan, which goes a long way to explaining this madness.]
Why all the Daewoo Ticos???
When we finally arrived in Osh, we had a bit of difficulty finding our way to our CBT homestay as it was located on a tiny, obscure street in a far corner of the city. While the house itself was certainly the most luxurious house I’ve been inside here in Kyrgyzstan, and while the owners were nice, there weren’t enough beds, despite our reservations. Plus it was 750som/night/person, which is incredibly expensive for Kyrgyzstan. We were a little disappointed.
Nonetheless, we unloaded our stuff and headed into the town center. After a short after hours walk around the famous Jayma Bazaar, we found our way to a nice café for some shashlik, then returned to our homestay. While we didn’t spend much time in the city, we found the people friendly, and we felt that even though there wasn’t much to the city, it had far more character than Bishkek.
The next morning we said goodbye to Ben as he set off on his solo adventure to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and the three of us headed to the Osh center in search of cheaper accommodation. J found a place called Stari Gorod located on the corner of Kyrgyzstan and Zainabetinova streets which rents fully furnished apartments for reasonable fees. They have both new/modern apartments and older more Soviet style places. We rented a Soviet apartment in the center for 900som/night total (so 300som/person) which was an excellent deal. After leaving our stuff in our new home, we set off to explore the Jayma Bazaar on its busiest day of the week.
Jayma Bazaar is far more impressive than Bishkek's Osh Bazaar, and it lacks the seedy air of the Bishkek bazaar. Plus, even though there is no ancient architecture whatsoever, it was rather awe-inspiring to think that there has been a bazaar in that location for roughly 3000 years. All of the vendors were incredibly friendly, (although no one guessed that we were from America/Canada – I got asked if I was German, Czech, Belgian and even Spanish!) and they were nice to talk to and willing to be photographed. I bought two scarves, the aforementioned lime-green Jumong t-shirt, and an orange bridle. The man who sold me the bridle and I got along quite well once we determined we shared the view that George Bush was a svolich. Awesome.
The fellow who sold me the bridle.
We left the bazaar and made our way to Suleiman Too (Solomon Mountain, commonly called Solomon’s Throne in guidebooks). This mountain is revered as Muhammad supposedly prayed atop it. Additionally, people claim that the mountain resembles a reclining pregnant woman (although unless she’s planning to give birth to a very pointy baby, I don’t see it), so pregnant women and hopeful mothers frequently make the pilgrimage to the top to pray.
I just don't see a pregnant woman.
The climb to the top is steep, although the path consists of fairly new concrete steps with a rail, so it is not difficult and only takes about 15 minutes. Nonetheless, by the time we reached the top we were drenched in sweat and feeling rather miserable. From atop Suleiman Too you can see an aerial view of Osh, and that’s essentially it. There’s a small mosque at the summit, but it is a new structure and not too interesting. While Suleiman Too is the main “attraction” of Osh, there’s not much to it.
The view from atop Suleiman Too
After hiking back down and snagging some lunch, we rested in our apartment for a little while, then made our way to a nice park next to the “river” (more of a canal, in my opinion) that runs through the city. The park was a tree-lined pedestrian avenue filled with people out for an afternoon stroll, and there were many small cafes. Additionally, there were numerous ancient amusement park rides which were obviously very popular with people of all ages. At the end of the park sits an old Soviet-era Aeroflot plane which somehow used to serve as a video theater. The plane is at the base of a fountain which would make for excellent morning photography, but is impossible to shoot from the front in the late afternoon. After dining at a cheap café in the park, we returned to our apartment and spent the remainder of the day relaxing.
The next morning we arose early and headed to the bus station near the bazaar in order to catch a marshrutka (a van which passes for public transport in this country) to Jalalabad. The ride cost 100som/person and only lasted an hour and forty-five minutes, but was thoroughly uncomfortable. We got the last three seats on the marshrutka. I had a normal seat, but with someone’s child in my lap. J got a tiny stool in the aisle. K was squished into a tiny spot next to the fattest woman in all of Kyrgyzstan. By the time we reached Jalalabad, none of us was in the mood to attempt a marshrutka to our next destination.
After a quick lunch at the bus station, we negotiated a taxi from Jalalabad to Arslanbob. We got it for 1000soms (although it’s much cheaper if you go via public transport), and our driver got us all the way to Arslanbob in less than an hour. (He was a little mad; his method of dealing with obstacles such as pedestrians and livestock was to lean on both the horn and the gas at the same time and hope that whatever was in our way moved.)
Arslanbob is a picturesque village located in the mountains north of Jalalabad, and it’s known for having the largest walnut grove in the world. It’s also predominantly Uzbek. The scenery, forest-land and culture of the village made it seem almost as though we were no longer in Kyrgyzstan. It reminded me of a bizarre combination of Taos, New Mexico and an ocean-less Costa Rica. It might very well be my favorite place in Kyrgyzstan.
The view from our CBT homestay in Arslanbob
Our CBT homestay (for the fabulous price of 350som/person/night) was located at the upper edge of the valley, and we had a balcony with a spectacular view, which was an excellent place for a nap :-) Our host family spoke mainly Uzbek, with a smattering of Russian and even less English. Uzbek is quite similar to Kyrgyz (in the way that Spanish and Italian are similar), so we were able to communicate using the few Kyrgyz words that we knew. They were incredibly friendly, wonderful people. There was also a super tolerant cat, an incredibly lazy dog, and a beautiful flower garden. [Side note on pronunciation: A few of the differences I was able to notice with my pathetic Kyrgyz skills – jok (no) is pronounced yok, and jeti (seven) is pronounced yeti, and saat (hour/time) is pronounced sahat.]
After napping on our wonderful balcony, we decided to head into the village center for some refreshment. We had tea and samsa at an incredible tea house with balconies overhanging the river. The tea house was apparently the hang-out for the old men of the village, and I felt rather out of place as both a foreigner and a woman, but we were treated kindly by everyone there.
Me in the Arslanbob tea house
After finishing out tea, we made for Arslanbob’s small waterfall, which is a fairly short walk from the village. The afternoon was hot and sunny, and the waterfall was gorgeous and cool. K and I merely soaked our feet, whereas J did like many of the locals and stood under the frigid falls himself. Several locals came to the falls, not just too cool off, but to bathe/shave while we were there. Many Kyrgyz tourists came to the falls to be photographed. Some were brave enough to venture into the frigid waters… including one very scary large man wearing nothing but tighty-whities. Additionally, like Suleiman Too, the small waterfall of Arslanbob is surrounded by some sort of fertility myth and is visited by pregnant women and those wishing to become pregnant. K and I obstinately sat on cold rocks (a belief introduced into this region by the Russians that such behavior will cause your ovaries to freeze).
Arslanbob's small waterfall
J in the waterfall.
After leaving the waterfall, we wandered around the village for a couple of hours before returning to our homestay for a wonderful dinner of home-cooked plov.
Typical Arslanbob street
The next morning we got up fairly early, and after breakfast set off on what ended up being a rather lengthy hike. First we hiked back to the small waterfall. From the top of the small waterfall, if you take the trail farthest to the right it will lead you to a panoramic view of the village and the valley. We went there first and snagged some pleasant shots before it got too hot.
View from the panorama
Me at the panorama
Leaving the panorama, the trail is dusty and covered with small rocks. I lost traction and totally wiped out, crashing quite solidly onto the rocky ground. Apparently my instinct is to save my camera at all costs, for in the split second between losing my footing and slamming into the ground I managed to direct the force of my fall onto my left side while holding my camera free and clear of the catastrophe in my right hand. I was bleeding in several places and my hip ached tremendously from that moment onwards (it has since developed quite a spectacular bruise), and it took me a few minutes to stand up. As I sat there wiping off the blood and dirt, a young woman came by herding cows... and they lost their footing in the same place I had, and nearly slid onto me! Luckily they didn’t, although who dies from having a falling cow push them into a ravine? At least that would’ve left J and K with an interesting tale to tell. No physical harm.
After I was on my feet again we continued on and soon thereafter made it into the famed walnut forest. There were dirt “roads” through the forest, so we never felt as though we’d left civilization, although it was beautiful, shady and cool. When we emerged from the forest we were still feeling fairly energetic, and we decided to try for the large waterfall, despite the fact that we didn’t know exactly how to get there and we’d heard that it wasn’t all that spectacular. We took two rather lengthy detours in quite incorrect directions, and were feeling exhausted by the time we finally got on the right track for the falls. We could see it in the distance in all its non-impressive glory, and I for one was not encouraged by the sight of it. Or the vast distance between it and myself. I found a shady spot by the river and decided to stay there as J and K continued onwards… but in the end J and K also decided to give up the quest for the big falls.
The views around Arslanbob were incredible!
I took a ton of photos of this house.
That was the big waterfall. I just couldn't bring myself to go the distance.
After resting for a while (oddly enough, chatting with a couple we’d met at our first homestay in Osh who had picked the same shady spot to rest), we turned and made our way back to the village. K and J headed first to the small waterfall for a “shower” although I was in pain at that point and decided to seek out the cat for a nap. We had a fairly lazy afternoon/evening, but after all our trekking about in the first half of the day, we weren’t up for much else. And Arslanbob is the perfect place to relax.
The next morning, K and I said goodbye to J (who is now off to explore Tajikistan and Afghanistan) and hopped in a taxi for Bishkek, which we shared with two travelers (from Scotland and the Netherlands) who had also stayed at our homestay. The taxi was 1250som/person direct from Arslanbob to Bishkek, which should have been a good deal… but he was an odd fellow. When it came to navigating high, narrow, winding mountain roads filled with hairpin turns, he was a pro, keeping the gas pedal pressed to the floor while passing three cars at a time on blind uphill turns in the grand tradition of Kyrgyz drivers. However, the instant we got onto a flat, straight, traffic-less stretch of road – the ideal place for speeding – he would drop to 60kph and just crawl along. I felt like beating my head against a wall. Or offering to drive. It should have taken us only seven hours to make it back to Bishkek, but instead it took us nine with this weirdo. I simply cannot wrap my head around how someone who could drive so fearlessly through the dangerous mountain passes could then poke along like a half-blind grandmother on the straight stretches. Beyond comprehension.
Anyway, we got back safely, after having had a wonderful vacation. If any of you are ever in Kyrgyzstan, I highly recommend Arslanbob. The scenery is spectacular and different from the rest of the country, the people are incredibly friendly, and the CBT homestays are fantastic.