After our second stint in Bishkek, highlighted by a tumultuous and brief relationship with Ms. Liu (link yet to be completed), we were eager to see the much romanticized ancient Silk Road metropoles of Kyrgyzstan’s south. Osh and Jalal-Abad, both critical and central hubs in the east-west flow of history-shaping goods and ideas for over 3,000 years, offer a unique glimpse into a people and culture still straddling both a fabled past and an unfolding present…
Which is why it’s time for a face lift!
The destination for pastoral nomads, spice and silk traders, and Islamic pilgrims for centuries, Osh lies at the confluence of Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik and Uyghur ethnic regions, and is thus marked by a population as diverse as the surprises found in the riverfront bazaar, the largest in Central Asia. That is, it was until they gave it a brand spankin’ new coat of paint this past April! In a joint effort, the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities revamped and restored the bazaar, town center and a smattering of uptown businesses to their natural, pre-modern charm — by summarily burning them to the ground. Much of the riverbank commercial district was gutted and relocated into the river, along with several dozen bludgeoned, bullet-ridden volunteers. While neither party will accept full credit for their work, those still-standing edifices marked “KYRGYZ” slyly betray that spirit of old-fashioned Central Asian modesty.
The newly opened-up space has allowed local urban artists to flourish, and now visitors strolling through the skeletal remains of bazaar stalls and Uzbek neighborhoods can delight in cheekily placed rubble piles, quaintly charred holes in walls, and even large-scale postmodern sculptures, including the Russian word for “peace” crowning the district’s entrance. And who said the Kyrgyz lacked a sense of irony! One new installation, calling to mind the grand environmental art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, dots the city with bright, white pockets of UN Refugee tents. And to top it all off, a troupe of performance artists bounces around impersonating bored, half-drunk soldiers who will playfully demand a bribe and point their machine guns in your face, careful never to break character.
Those with an extra day may wish to pay a visit to neighboring Jalal-Abad. Inspired by the “arrested decay” approach to ancient ruins, ghost towns, and other heritage sites, the civic planners here have beautifully maintained the lifeblood of their town – a mysterious pilgrimage site since antiquity, known for its curative hotsprings, rejuvenating environs, and an illustrious Soviet-era sanatorium.
While the top two floors are still utilized by locals seeking weird spongebaths and possibly sex or bloodborne infection via used acupuncture needles, the subterranean levels have been preserved in their former glory; highlights include an abandoned swimming pool, dark halls partially submerged under rusty water, leaky pipes, steaming piles of jagged scrap metal, and a wonderfully restored, authentic, shadowy rape room. The odd lucky visitor may be treated to the sight of an inexplicably naked man wandering around near hulking boiler equipment.
If you come during Ramadan, other experiences in Jalal-Abad include watching drunken Muslims performing magic tricks with their cigarettes, and watching other drunken Muslims accost waitresses while ordering you chicken shashlik. And hordes of monstrous mosquitoes.
See the wonders of these towns in the gallery below: