2005.07.22 Osh, Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz Border Guard
Kyrgyz Border Guard,
Irkeshtam Pass

I left Kashgar on the 19th to allow myself ample time to cross the border before my birthday. I tried to get the cheapest ticket available: a $50 U.S. sleeper-bus going directly from Kashgar to Osh in Kyrgyzstan's Fergana Valley. Even having enquired several days in advance I was unable to book a ticket. I tried showing up at the bus station the morning of departure (buses leave only on Mondays,) hoping for a no-show. No luck. Asking around, it seemed that every other option would be far more expensive. Travel agencies offered to arrange a car for about $100 U.S. to the Irkeshtam Pass, one border crossing between the countries. The only alternate pass into Kyrgyzstan--the Torugart--would cost over twice that much to cross.

After resigning myself to wasting money to observe my ritual of leaving the country on my birthday, I got the idea to just ask a street-taxi if they would make the three-hour drive out to the Irkeshtam Pass. I eventually found a driver I felt comfortable with who was willing to charge a reasonable rate (just under $50) so made it through the Pamir mountains by cab.

The border crossing was straightforward on the Chinese side. Arriving solo to one of the world's more remote border posts meant there were no lines to hang around in. Within a few minutes I'd filled out a departure card and passed into the 7-km of "no-man's land" separating the border checkpoints. There is a fair amount of traffic, but mostly goods being transported by truck. Manufactured goods head west into Kyrgyzstan, China sucks up scrap metal from the old Soviet countries to feed its development boom.

The Chinese border guards arranged for one of the trucks heading into Kyrgyzstan to give me a lift across the no-man's land. I crammed into the cab along with the driver and the only two other independent travelers heading west that day: a Chinese scrap metal dealer based in Osh, and his girlfriend. The truck crept along the winding road, stopping twice for additional checks of our papers by Chinese authorities. Mid-way across the no-man's land we reached a flimsy metal gate barring passage to Kyrgyzstan. We could find nobody around. After waiting ten minutes, the metal-dealer (who could speak fluent Russian) asked at a nearby shed.

Indiferent Kyrgyz border guards told us we'd have to wait another four hours before they'd let us by. The mountain scenery was amazing, but I knew I'd be bored with nothing else to do than stare around for the next four hours. I decided to make conversation. I had heard that the Kyrgyz language is similar enough to Uighur to be understood.

The border guards were all men in combat fatigues carrying Kalashnikov rifles. They seemed to understand what I said, but first tried replying to me in Russian, a language I don't speak. After awhile we settled on a Kyrgyz/Uighur exchange which was surprisingly intelligible on both sides. At one point the soldier I was chatting with asked me something I couldn't understand, but included a word I did recognize, "... guitar..."

"Da," I responded, slipping into the affirmitive reply everybody seemed to use, even when not speaking Russian.

The soldier slipped into the tiny shed and pulled out a steel-stringed guitar. I sat on a wooden bench in front of the shed and tuned the instrument. I tried my best to play a couple Spanish pieces, Romanza and Recuerdos de la Alhambra.

The soldier seemed impressed.

"Pink Floyd?" he asked.

I broke into The Wall's, Is there Anybody out There?

"Scorpions! Metallica!" the soldier requested.

I apologized that I wasn't familiar with their music.

"Hard rock, hard rock!" the border guard demanded, in perhaps the only words of English he knew.

I offered him the guitar, then feigned interest in the pieces he played.

Between swapping guitar techniques and trying to answer questions about cultural differences in America (e.g. marriage and circumcision rituals) the four hours passed quickly.

Once we were finally given leave, it was a fairly straightforward process to get through Kyrgyz immigration. I shared a 4WD with the two Chinese travelers for the twelve-hour journey into Osh.

Mosque Caretaker
Mosque Caretaker

Wednesday, my birthday, was good. I explored Osh, spending a fair amount of time atop Solomon's Throne, a massive craggy rock that dominates the sky above the city. The eastern end of the rock has a tiny mosque that was initially built by Babur, before he became the first Mughal emperor of India. The mosque's one room can accomodate perhaps six people. I took off my shoes and sat down inside, chatting with the caretaker.

He was friendly and informative; we spoke for about half-an-hour. It was harder to understand him than the soldiers at the border, as he seemed less attuned to speaking with non-native speakers. I could get the gist of most of the history, but few of the details.

Yesterday morning was spent exploring Osh's bazaar. The merchandise wasn't as exotic as the handicrafts, colorful hats, and knives common to Kashgar's Sunday market. It had more of a sense of authenticity, though. The bazaar in Osh is clearly the core of the city, the lanes are bustling every day. Wares include produce, spices, electronics, articles of clothing, and useful household goods (among them Barf brand detergent powder.) The bazaar seemed to stretch forever along Osh's riverside--I've never been to a marketplace so large. I stocked up on European-style socks and shoelaces, cloves and cardomom--all items difficult to obtain in Urumqi.

I had heard about heavy police presence around Central Asian countries, officers often stopping people and checking their papers. My features tend to blend in well with those of locals many places I travel, but I made a mistake in choosing to wear shorts that morning. I knew such attire would make me more conspicuous, but saw enough locals wearing shorts I figured it wouldn't be offensive. It was enough to attract attention: I had my first run-in with the local militsia at the bazaar.

Two officers in uniform approached me with a hearty, "Hello!" in Russian. I shook both of their hands and responded in Uighur, figuring it would be close enough to Kyrgyz to communicate. We managed fine through the basic questions: where are you from, when are you leaving, show me your passport. I have been through the question routine enough times to be genuinely indifferent when harassed by the local police. I was a little surprised when they asked me to accompany them to their station in the center of the bazaar. Usually a peek at the passport and plausible answers to questions are enough.

Once inside I was taken to a room with a holding cell along one wall and another officer seated at a small desk. I was asked what was in my bag. I emptied the contents on the officer's desk, creating a large pile of socks and shoelaces. The first officer asked what was in my pockets and started dipping his fingers inside them, at which point I brushed him off and removed the contents myself.

"How much money do you have?" he asked, eying my wallet.

"About 6,000 som."

"Count it."

I figured that was a fine idea, just in case he felt like pocketing a few notes for himself.

"5,422 som, is that right?"

"That's right," I shrugged, folding the notes into a neat stack beneath my wallet, out of his reach.

"Kyrgyzstan and America are friends, right?"

"Oh yes, our countries are very good friends."

"America: good!" I was given the thumbs up.

Smiles and handshakes all around.



I strolled out of the office, starting to feel a sense of relief. As I made for the door, one of the officers chased after me. "Wait, wait!"

"What now?" I thought. Did they forget that they were supposed to lock me in that cell?


The officer handed me one of the shoelaces I had removed from my bag and inadvertently left on his desk.


Exiting the station, I walked away briskly. Not two minutes later, another pair of officers spotted me.

"Hello!" one announced, holding out his ID card.

"Not again..." I thought. "Hi."

Big handshakes and salaams.

We launched into the same series of questions, again with the request to accompany them back to the station. I obliged, figuring there couldn't be much more to say there. As we approached the station, the first officer I encountered started hissing and waving us off:

First Officer: "We already talked with this guy. Let him go!"

Second Officer: "But we just picked him up." Turning to me: "When were you here?"

"Not five minutes ago."

"Oh," the second officer said a bit sheepishly, while the former continued to berate him. I slipped off for green tea and kebabs at a busy tea stall atop a bridge over the river.

After lunch I left the bazaar and happened upon Osh's central park. I met a friendly park attendant there who could speak Uzbek, which I've found is more similar to Uighur than Kyrgyz. As we chatted I realized his questions really weren't that different from those the police asked. My sense is that all of the men I'd been encountering that day were really more curious about outsiders than giving any serious interrogation. The local cops just had the power to actually see which items foreigners bought at market and how much money they carried. Perhaps this fellow would have done the same had he the authority to do so, just to get a better sense of foreigners.

After chatting for a few minutes the park attendant introduced me to friends of his who happened by: three Kyrygz students at Osh University. One of them, Kulpunai, showed me around the park for the rest of the afternoon.

"Have you tried Kymis?" she asked.

"That's fermented mare's milk, right? I don't think I have."

We sat inside a mock yurt on the park grounds and ordered a couple small bowls of kymis. It actually wasn't the most disgusting beverage I've tried on the road. (That honor must go to salty Tibetan yak-butter tea.) Kymis tastes like skim milk with a shot of vinegar. Neither of us finished more than half a bowl.

I paid a few cents for the drinks. We wandered down the central path. A few minutes later we came upon a tent with a large crowd of on-lookers staring at two boys, singing in Russian.

Kulpunai: "Do you know karaoke?"

Me: "Oh yeah. I used to work in Japan."

Kulpunai: "Do you want to sing?"

Me: "Do you?"

Kulpunai: "No, I've never sung karaoke before."

Me: "Well, I will if they have English songs I can recognize."

I skimmed through the slim offerings, finally settling on the Stones' Ruby Tuesday. It crossed my mind that the last thing I expected to find myself doing in Kyrgyzstan was belting out karaoke in a public park.

Samira and Kulpunai buy baklava
Samira and Kulpunai
buy baklava

After finishing the song we made our way across the park to Osh's main street. I excused myself for the rest of the afternoon, though asked Kulpunai if she wanted to meet several hours later for dinner. We did get together, over a meal along with a classmate of hers, Samira.

Both Kulpunai and Samira claimed they had never tried western food before, so I decided we would go to California Pizza--one of the few restaurants with non-Central Asian cuisine I had seen around town. The pizza was mediocre, but it was a lot of fun, anyway. Two pies, a salad, and a course each of coffee, tea, and coke, came to perhaps $7 U.S.. I tried to speak Kyrgyz, they tried to speak Uighur: the communication level was about 90%. The two were opposites in a way that complemented their friendship. Samira was flirtatious and bratty, Kulpunai well-mannered and articulate. Samira taught me how to count in Russian. We topped the meal off with a plate of gooey baklava from one of Osh's other foreign restaurants, Istanbul.

Over my time in Osh I've been staying at the home of a Kyrgyz family. There's a very good network of contacts and information for travelers across the country through CBT, the Community Based Tourism group. They can arrange homestays at prices that are cheaper than hotels. I'm staying at the home of the woman who coordinates for the Osh CBT. I have my own room in her huge old European-style house, almost too cozy to leave.

I will likely leave Osh tomorrow, though. Bishkek sounds pleasant, but I'm not sure I want to make the ten-hour road trip non-stop. There is a city a couple hours from Osh, Jalal-Abad. The distance seems right, and it sounds like a good place to get out into the mountains and trek around the countryside a bit.

Trivia: Kulpunai's name means "strawberry".