Osh, Older Than Rome

In post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, land of mammoth mountains, nomads, yurts and fermented mare’s milk, Tricia Pearsall finds all the hospitality and warmth she could ask for.

Bracing against the grandmother’s yurt, I nod, trying to smile and control my twisted face after swallowing the strongest, most gut-wrenching fermented mare’s milk I’ve tasted since being in Kyrgyzstan. This steely, weathered woman with twinkling eyes thrusts yet another china bowl of kymys, the Kyrgyz national drink, in my face. Part of this show is renowned Kyrgyz hospitality; part is flaunting her mare’s product as superior to her daughter-in-law’s brew, which I’d tasted in the yurt down the hill. Definitely an acquired taste, kymys is coveted as a celebration of spring and summer by all Kyrgyz peoples. I deflect the kymys rivalry by stepping inside the vibrant red, richly patterned yurt interior layered with shyrdaks (colorful appliquéd, felted carpets), hangings and tassels, and I fuss over the bubblegum-cheeked, gurgly grandbaby swaddled and stuffed in a swinging cradle. Outside, bags of yogurt and great quantities of fermenting kymys hang on a wooden tripod. Thanking all profusely, I back out and bow slightly with my right hand over my heart to the grandfather sporting his traditional black and white felted hat. And off we continue on the trail toward the celebrated Tien Shan Mountains. Our destination is the base camp of the 23,000-foot peak, Khan Tengri—Prince of Spirits, Ruler of the Sky.

We are five trekkers with our guide, Misha, cook Sasha and a jolly band of macho porter-supporters, tough young graduates of formerly Russian youth mountain training programs, each trying to out-carry the others. One, Slava, wears only shorts at night and always goes barefoot in the snow.

Alexander Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia thunders over my interior stereo as I begin to sense that I am too insignificant to fully digest the raw architecture of this land of colossal mountains, some ice-jagged under avalanche-prone sheaths of heavy snow, some lavished with fir trees shading pockets of sumptuous mushrooms, others barren, naked, painted red, gold or copper depending on the major mineral component. At the foot of these mountains and folded in between lie gigantic valleys swept with silver grasses or rugs of deep green. We hike today across vast fields of yellow, orange, purple, red flowers swarming with blue and orange butterflies, and I keep wondering how Cecil B. DeMille would have handled the Mongol hordes in such space. It takes us five days just to reach the base of the pass that will drop us onto the 37-mile Inylchek Glacier leading up to Khan Tengri. No trees in this passage, only a vast expanse of grass, tundra and lakes, a snow leopard kill of a Marco Polo sheep, and then three days of unexpected heavy July snow.

Misha determines the snow is too deep for us to try the pass, pulls out his satellite phone and calls for a truck. Meeting us at the last river crossing and Kyrgyz checkpoint (we are within striking distance of the Chinese border) is nothing less than a Soviet troop carrier, army surplus from their Afghan War. With wheels taller than me, this monster rolls over landslides, downed electric poles and boulder fields, and ferries us, our crew and another party of Polish hikers to a “base” camp at the foot of the Inylchek Glacier, for climbers and trekkers waiting to get to the Khan Tengri camp. Owned by Tien Shan Travel and other trekking/climbing companies, it is run by a maturing Russian climber named Peotr.

When the weather clears, we hitch a ride on an enormous, shiny blue Russian helicopter accompanied by a legion of antsy Khan Tengri climbers from Estonia, Ukraine and Poland, and our crew hangs out the windows the whole way. Glaciers have magical personalities, and this one growls as we fly over giant thrust-up snow cones and over Merzbacher Lake, filled with icebergs just waiting to escape its banks, as happens every year.  We land squarely on the red Kool-Aid “X” and hop out at 13,000 feet into this tent city—even a beer-vodka tent—buried under a thick cover of snow. Hearty climbing souls work here all summer, cooking, operating radios and manning rescues. Ten days from now this community will be jolted by 12 deaths, Russian and Polish climbers caught in a massive avalanche on Khan Tengri.

The next day we begin the arduous but thrilling hike down the glacier, passing two downed Russian helicopters, the 24,400-foot Pik Pobedy (the second-highest in the former USSR) and Merzbacher Lake, emerging three days later at the snout of the glacier, just in time for Peotr’s 70th birthday dinner. After an elaborately traditional songfest celebration reinforced by invited officers from the Chinese border checkpost, we head back to Karakol with Misha and Sasha passed out—too much vodka toasting Peotr’s long life.

Kyrgyzstan’s topographical architecture, far surpassing anything designed by humans, is the sole reason for our pilgrimage. Here in the middle of Central Asia sits the most progressive country of those arising from Soviet political remains, yet it still feels like a zoo fenced in by native ranges. The country is naturally bordered by the Tien Shan and China to the east, the Chuy River and Kazakhstan to the north, the great Pamir Alay mountain chain and Tajikistan to the south. Kyrgyzstan’s western border with Uzbekistan, at the head of the Silk Road-famous Fergana Valley, has been tragically gerrymandered with the result looking a bit like a snub-nosed, open-jawed crocodile. Pockets of Uzbekistan lie within Kyrgyzstan’s borders, making ethnic and political life contentious and difficult.

Kyrgyzstan’s origins and heritage, 21st-century optimism and promises rest on a heroic epic poem titled Manas. A massive cycle of legends defining the birth of the Kyrgyz people, Manas, a super-hero warrior, carves out a spacious homeland for his nomadic people, safe from hostile hordes. Traditionally recited in more-than-24-hour stints by elaborately costumed storytellers, called Akyns, the Manas epic was brought to near extinction by the advance of literacy plus efforts by the Soviets eager to squelch nationalistic fervor. Following the fall of the Soviet Union and Independence in 1991, it has now become the country’s symbol of rebirth and freedom. All flights arrive at Manas International Airport.

We landed at Manas in the black part of a mid-July morning, gray noses of at least 20-plus U.S. Air Force cargo planes poking out of the fog in drill formation as we taxied past. Picked up by Tien-Shan Travel, we immediately headed east along the Kazakh border toward Lake Issy-Kul, a giant warm-water alpine lake with a 373-mile shoreline, second only to Lake Titicaca of Bolivia in size. When the sun came up, we stopped at a roadside yurt for a breakfast of laghman: lamb and vegetables over homemade noodles. Eight hours later, we drove down the wide streets of Karakol, a town overlooking the eastern edge of the lake, its cottages dwarfed by tall white poplars, each dacha flaunting the artistry of a gingerbread-inspired skillsaw on blue or green shutters and under eaves. Baba Yaga land. This little town holds numerous surprises: a museum and park dedicated to the Russian explorer Nikolai Przewalski; a nailless Dungan mosque that looks exactly like a Chinese or Mongolian Buddhist temple; the yellow-gold, onion-domed Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox cathedral full of shrines; and an extensive bazaar.

In many rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, homestays, Community-Based Tourism and Shepherd’s Life networks are making a much-needed sustainable impact on local economies, as well as offering infinitely more enjoyable alternatives to Soviet-era concrete hotels. You can travel from yurt to yurt on horseback, visit eagle hunters and shyrdak makers, or just stop in small towns and villages where incredibly hospitable townspeople try their best to see to your every need, from fixing your bicycle to finding a dentist to sharing the bounty from their gardens and larders.

Karakol is not just the staging ground for the highest and grandest part of the central Tien Shan range at the China border. It also provides a feast of alpine hiking treks in the Terskey Altau range just south of town, from the Karakol Valley up to the deep blue glacial lake, Ala Köl, over Ala Köl pass with its towering view of Karakol Peak and down to the hot springs at Altyn Arashan, in forests that offer the most phenomenal mushroom picking ever, resulting in a Sasha-produced, to-die-for mushroom stew.

After our treks in the Tien Shan and Terskey Altau, we leave Karakol and Lake Issy-Kul and head west toward Bishkek, the capital. We stop at the ancient Burana Tower, one of two such remaining 10th- to 11th-century brick minarets in Kyrgyzstan, the other south near Osh in Özgön. The Özgön tower sits near three conjoined 12th-century mausoleums, each boasting a different architectural style in the same warm red-brown brick.

Mounds near the Burana site have yielded 6th-century B.C. Scythian treasure such as a gold mask purportedly whisked away to Russia by Soviet archaeologists. Burana also hosts a fascinating series of balbals, Turkic totem funeral markers, lining the hill beyond the tower. These 6th- to 10th-century carved stones lend a curiously comic aura to the site. And don’t miss the museum. Though understaffed and dark, it gives an excellent occupation timeline with pertinent artifacts.

The tree-laden, on-grid town of Bishkek has been Kyrgyzstan’s capital just since Independence in 1991. Before then, the town was called Frunze, in honor of the local guy who handed the area over to the Russians in the early 19th century. Just like every other Russian metropolitan community, it centered around an enormous concrete outdoor parade ground for troops, rimmed by imposing administration buildings, called Lenin Square. Now known as Ala-Too Square, the fearsome, bronze Lenin statue, with swept-back coat and raised right hand, has been moved behind the State Historical Museum and replaced with Erikindik, the Freedom statue.

Though never sophisticated or cosmopolitan, Bishkek shows signs of lumbering in that direction, with chic fashion shops, a handsome colonial opera house, dreary art museum, tasty restaurants—particularly Turkish, Indian and Kyrgyz cuisine—and large strolling leisure parks with everything from Ferris wheels, tilt-a-whirls and family entertainment to chain-smoking students draped around outdated sculpture. Bishkek is a pleasant place to catch one’s breath before venturing on, with friendly, hospitable people and markets to fuel the soul. One in particular, the Osh Bazaar, sells everything from fresh melons, bread and shyrdaks to surplus Soviet military gear, Chinese trade goods and goat-yarn socks knit by scarf-bedecked Kyrgyz babushkas. Though the country of Kyrgyzstan is only 18 percent Russian and 52 percent Kyrgyz (a Turkic group with Mongolian and Chinese influences), Bishkek is 47 percent Russian and 33 percent Kyrgyz, and one often wonders, “Am I in the wrong country?” At Independence, Kyrgyz became the “official” language, but everyone spoke Russian first.

Accommodations in Bishkek are scarce. There are precious few good guesthouses, as most lodgings seem to vary between the cool indifference of Soviet-era cinderblock to the bland conformity of modern U.S./European high-end hotels. We were lucky to find Sabyrbek’s B&B. A once-gracious dwelling—OK, the entrance looks like a junkyard—what it lacks in amenities is more than made up for in conversation and camaraderie. No one is ever turned away; guests just scoot over. The food is family style, breakfast, lunch and dinner, or you can cook. There are a few visitors from Japan who have stayed for years. Located in the middle of the embassy district, this former home of a noted Kyrgyz author is not for everyone, but it was a godsend for us at a time of tight hotel space.

After a few days’ rest in Bishkek, we were anxious to get back on the road, this time south to the Pamir Alay, the 310-mile mountain spine along the Kyrgyz-Tajikistan border. We phone Tien-Shan Travel and soon head out of Bishkek by car, out of the Chuy River Valley, climbing over the Altau range, up to the nearly 12,000-foot Tör Ashuu Pass, through a long, wet tunnel, and finally bursting out above the breathtaking Suusamyr valley. Stopping for the night in a yurt run by Dostuck Trekking, we join in milking mares for kymys and riding horses through the high steppe grass, topping off the evening with a fine beshbarmak (large noodles topped with lamb). The next day we jog eastward to avoid the Uzbekistan border and on to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city.

Osh may indeed be “older than Rome,” as the locals say, for it was known as an important Silk Road crossroads at the head of the famed Fergana Valley.  Suleyman’s Throne, a gnarly promontory sticking out above the city’s skyline, has been an important Muslim holy site since the prophet Mohammed, it is said, prayed there. But more importantly, the rock’s silhouette looks a bit like a pregnant woman, and as a result it has become a primary pilgrimage for fertility. Grandmothers in long, colorful dresses, daughters and granddaughters haul up the steep carved-rock steps barefooted, huffing, puffing, praying, tying cloth prayer strips to limbs of the few trees along the way. On top is a chute in the rock where women slide down some five times, then stuff donations in nearby fissures for good health.

Breadbasket of Kyrgyzstan, Osh has a bazaar with long tables of garlic, watermelons, lettuce and golden baked local nan. It is also home to many chaikhana, or teahouses, giving a laid-back feel to the community of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, where the Islamic faith predominates. Osh is also at the head of the Pamir Highway into Tajikistan, and that’s the direction we take, south to the tundra town of Sary Tash, then due east along the silver-grassed Alay Valley, following the Kyzyl Suu River, where the water runs mineral-red. Our destination is Pik Lenin, a very popular 23,000-foot climbing peak. Our convivial guide, Alexandr, is an aspiring photographer trying to make a few extra “som” escorting two gray-hairs up a glacier—the rest of our group has left for the States.

From the Achik-Tash base camp, we trek up past Onion Meadows, the last green, then up and over the glacier moraine to hike eight hours up the ice to Camp One. We spend a couple of gloriously sunny days listening to well-worn climbing stories, learning ice techniques, hiking and looking up at this behemoth mountain that continues to kill by avalanche.

Back in Osh, we lounge on a ’50s-style patio outside a weightlifting gym attached to an Soviet-era concrete block apartment complex. Flowers and grapevines curl up the four stories, hiding chicken coops and other much-missed nomadic pleasures. Alexandr and Alexi, our driver and Tien-Shan Travel’s Osh connection, prepare a farewell plov. Starting mid-afternoon with a wood fire under a black caldron, the sort that might have cooked missionaries, Alexi fills it with slivered carrots, onions and hunks of lamb in an herbed broth. His family gathers: mother Galina and dad, sister Olga and Andre with teens, Alexi’s stunning wife and children, families who live steps from each other in separate apartments. The dinner is launched by a ceremonial tearing of homemade nan. Beer from the local kiosk is uncapped, and we munch on fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. About a half-hour before serving, Alexi pours measured brown rice into the cauldron and places eight or nine whole heads of garlic and a mound of fresh chilies on the top. We are honored.

Such a country. On our morning flight returning to Bishkek, a drunk passenger never sits down but hospitably passes beer during take-off. We return to Sabyrbek’s B&B, where we talk about the Soviet legacy, roles for women, bomb plants and mine carcasses, left-behind uranium and the brain drain at Independence, when top administrative personnel literally walked away from their Kyrgyzstan desks and returned to Russia.

Sabyrbek’s son drives us to the airport for our departure, excited and nervous because this is the first time he has driven a car alone. We talk about his upcoming wedding, the marriage of two elegant young professionals, and he asks about not serving liquor, the propriety of not inviting certain boisterous family members and reception options. It’s a comforting dilemma in this country forging its future amid economic woes and natural wonders.

If You Go

Travel and Country Guides

Central Asia, by Bradley Mayhew, Paul Clemmer and Michael Kohn. Lonely Planet, 2004.

Kyrgyz Republic: Kyrgyzstan, the Heartland of Central Asia, by Rowan Stewart. Odyssey Illustrated Guide, 2004.

The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia, by Lutz Kleveman. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003

The Silk Roads: A Route and Planning Guide, by Paul Wilson and Dominic Streatfeild-James. Trailblazer Publications, 2003.  

Kyrgyzstan By Air

Kyrgyzstan Airlines, Aeroflot, British Airways, KLM-Royal Dutch, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines  

Trekking and Travel Companies

NoviNomad at NoviNomad.com

Dostuck Trekking Ltd. at Dostuck.com.kg

ITMC Tien-Shan at ITMC.CentralAsia.kg

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