After a spending a week in transit, traveling by road and rail from Shanghai all the way to Kyrgyzstan in only four days, I’m looking forward to a rest. Unfortunately, I’ll be resting in Osh, a forgotten city on the border with Uzbekistan, where I arrived late at night after a harrowing journey over the Irkeshtam Pass. When I wake up the following morning, the city is cold and damp with snow, which only serves to exaggerate its greyness. It doesn’t look like much has changed here since the end of Soviet rule. It seems that every building of any size is gated, with the outstretched wings of the gyrfalcon, the Kyrgz coat of arms, emblazoned above the door. An enormous statue of Lenin still stands here, gesturing ironically towards a flapping Kyrgyz flag.
Five-cragged Sulaiman-Too, a UNESCO world heritage site/mountain, juts dramatically out of the center of town. I hike up along the footpath, passing several crevices along the way that can allegedly cure anything from headaches to barrenness. I am startled to see a giant Bo Peep bonnet protruding from the mountainside in a very un-UNESCO-like fashion.
I stumble across a museum housed in a large cave high up the mountain. The three attendants at the entrance seem genuinely surprised when I show up and ask to buy a ticket. They don’t receive many visitors. Inside I learn that these caverns have been used for millennia, first by the first men, then by Zoroastrians for religious rites, then Muslims, and now as a damp, collapsing ethnography museum. The displays haven’t been updated for decades. Faded papier-mâché dioramas show cave people wielding clubs crouching around a fire, and Zoroastrian artifacts are housed in dusty unlit display cases, or are simply set on the floor. The ladies have set out plastic tubs and surplus bowl-shaped relics to catch the water dripping down from the leaky ceiling. The climb up the staircase that leads to the exit (out through the bonnet!) is lined with bedraggled stuffed animals. It’s all magnificently random.
Back on the ground, I find a pleasant riverside park, complete with a colourful Ferris wheel and, strangely, a mothballed jetliner. (Is it art, a playground, or still functional? I don’t know either.) I eat lunch at a completely empty cafeteria that reminds me of a Polish milk bar. The cashier/waitress/chef uses a microwave to warm up a cup of instant coffee and a crock of delicious whatsit.
Having exhausted Osh’s list of attractions, I return to the hotel. A trio of babushkas has colonized the communal sitting area, and when they see me enter they invite me to join them for tea. After waiting an age for the water to boil, the chief babushka tosses some loose leaves into the teapot, hands it to me, and then shoos me back to my room. Invitation revoked. I spend the rest of the evening in my room, drinking my tea.
GOsh, it’s time to move on
The next morning I feel quite ready to leave Osh, so I trundle down the street and across the bridge to the minibus station. Or rather, I would have, had the bridge not been torn down, along with the bus station. After wandering in circles around the plywood barriers and unfinished concrete pillars that mark the location of the new bridge, I eventually hail a taxi and negotiate a private ride to the Uzbek border.
When the border opens at 9:00, the Kyrgyz customs official shows more interest in discussing pop culture than searching my bags for drugs and relics. We trade Canadian celebrities—my Celine Dion for his Jim Carrey, my Justin Bieber for his Wayne Gretsky. Once he releases me, I wave goodbye to Kyrgyzstan—the visa-free Stan!—and walk across the 200 meters of no man’s land towards Uzbekistan.