Osh Kyrgyzstan is the nation’s second city, but its most diverse location. A multicultural destination that’s located in the south of Kyrgyzstan, Osh has a long history that stretches back over 3000 years.
This is the heart of the Silk Road, but in Osh, you will find few ancient buildings or historic sites, because this is a city that has evolved over time. It’s been destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again and then completely remodelled by the Soviets. What Osh has never lost though, is its character.
In Osh Kyrgyzstan, Uzbeks, Kyrgyzs, Russians and many more ethnicities and nationalities rub shoulders in one of the largest and oldest bazaars in Central Asia. There are bustling markets, sacred mountains, and a diversity that you won’t find anywhere else in Kyrgyzstan.
Here’s my guide to Osh Kyrgyzstan, from the history, through to the best things to do. It’s all covered below.
Table of Contents
A Brief History of Osh Kyrgyzstan
Osh Kyrgyzstan has a long and intriguing history that can be traced back thousands of years. It’s a history that’s far too long and complex to tell with conviction here, but in the Travel Tramp spirit I’ll give you the briefest run down I can, and attempt to condense 3000 years into a few paragraphs!
In the year 2000, Osh Kyrgyzstan celebrated 3000 years of history. Although this claim is hard to verify exactly, and it’s convenient that the 3000th year fell at the turn of the millennium, there’s no denying that this is an old, old city.
Osh has long been an important trading centre on the Silk Road, and it was indeed a production centre for silk from the 8th century BC onwards. Osh was part of the many empires that roamed through the Fergana Valley. Alexander the Great would have passed through, and Tamerlane laid claim to the city.
Although the borders of Central Asia had always been fluid, Imperial Russia began the process of laying down borders when they took over the region from 1876 onwards. The Soviets then placed Osh within the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic, despite the fact the city had a majority Uzbek population. Industrialisation followed with communism, but Osh still retained its sprawling marketplace which thrives to this day.
Modern Osh is an eclectic mix of cultures, religions and languages. There’s a very different atmosphere here to the rest of Kyrgyzstan, and the proximity to the Uzbek border which is just a few miles away, and the huge Uzbek population, have caused tensions, particularly since Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991. As recently as 2010 there were huge ethnic riots in the city, as Uzbeks fear they are becoming a minority in their own city while rising Kyrgyz nationalism attempts to homogenize a place that has always been diverse.
Most of the time though, Osh is quiet but busy and tensions only occasionally spill over. For the traveller, the unique mix of cultures here at the crossroads of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan make for a vibrant and colourful scene that can’t be found elsewhere in the country.
The Best Things to do in Osh Kyrgyzstan
Osh is a city that has few historic sights left for the tourist – this is no Samarkand for instance – but that has long been and still is an integral stop on the Silk Road. Although many people pass through the city quickly, only using it as a transit point to the mountains of Tajikistan or to the cities of Uzbekistan, those that do stay for longer are rewarded with the chance to experience the city’s dynamic culture, busy markets and hidden history.
If you’d like help getting around Osh, or booking onto any of the local, community-based tours which are run by locals, then you are best contacting Destination Osh, who are always happy to help travellers.
Here are my favourite things to do in Osh Kyrgyzstan!
Explore the Jayma Bazaar
The Jayma Bazaar is one of the biggest marketplaces in Central Asia. Although the bazaar has been a feature of Osh for thousands of years, the modern bazaar that you find here today is anything but what you might expect from the Silk Road, but that’s part of the delight.
At the Jayma Bazaar shops are set up in shipping containers repurposed from the wars in Afghanistan. Row after row of metal containers are found along the riverside, and around these are hundreds of stalls, traditional shops and booths selling everything from freshly butchered meat to household goods trucked in from China. This is the modern Silk Road in action and it’s not always pretty, but it’s fascinating to see firsthand.
The Giant Lenin Statue
For decades, Osh lived under the rule of the communists, in this far-flung corner of the Soviet Union. Like many cities, Osh built a giant statue of Lenin, the most revered man in socialist history.
While statues of many other, less revered members of the communist party – Stalin for instance – would disappear over the years, Lenin has stood tall and proud, even after independence. This is one of the largest remaining Lenin statues in Central Asia and for lovers of Soviet history, it’s a wonderful monument to see.
Sulaiman-Too: The Sacred Mountain of Osh Kyrgyzstan
Dominating the otherwise flat landscape of Osh Kyrgyzstan is the Sulaiman-Too Mountain. This huge outcrop can’t be missed and for centuries it has acted as a waypoint for travellers along the Silk Road. Over time, the mountain came to possess sacred qualities in the eyes of many, from early Zoroastrians to Muslims who today summit Sulaiman-Too in order to visit a shrine at the top.
You can hike to the viewing platforms for incredible views over the city, while along the walking route you can also find ancient petroglyphs and a museum built deep into the rock itself.
Sulaiman-Too Cave Museum
At the western end of the Sulaiman-Too Mountain, you can find the strange Soviet-built entrance to the Cave Museum.
You can’t miss the enormous, metallic hood that extends from the rock and advertises the way inside.
It’s garish but it’s there. The museum itself is constructed inside the huge caverns in the centre of the mountain and you can find some intriguing exhibits on local history and beliefs.
At the base of Sulaiman-Too, near the western entrance, you can find the larger Archaeological Museum, also located in a Soviet-style complex.
Although you can kill some time strolling through the rooms, the vast majority of the museum’s displays are only in Russian or Kyrgyz, making it tricky to fully understand all the exhibits without some proficiency in the local languages.
Also located at the base of Sulaiman-Too, by the Archaeological Museum, is the strange yet bizarrely compelling Three-Storey Yurt.
This is one of the tallest yurts in the world – although that’s not necessarily a huge achievement – and inside the canvas interior, you can find a vast array of cultural items demonstrating Kyrgyz history and nomadic traditions.
Navoi Park spreads out along the river from the Jayma Bazaar towards the city centre. This is the place to be in Osh, whether you are young or old.
Here you can find a whole array of amusement park rides and arcade games, while old men prefer to sit back and play chess on the benches.
There are shashlik stands, restaurants and even a strange abandoned Soviet passenger jet that acts as a sort of centrepiece for the park.
Osh Foodie Tour
Destination Osh run
There’s a real mix of regional delicacies from across Central Asia here, and you can learn how such classics are Plov are made or even go on a bread making course.
Osh Animal Market
Every Sunday morning, farmers, nomads and shepherds from across the region descend upon Osh too buy and sell their animals.
At the local animal market, things are raw, noisy and dirty, but it’s an experience like no other.
After all, why else are you in Kyrgyzstan if not for a glimpse of real, local life? Get here early, because the action happens in the morning.
The smaller town of Uzgen is found just an hour away from Osh and it’s a destination with just as much history.
This is another traditional Silk Road stop, and here you can find an interesting market and some relics of past empires. A trip to Uzgen makes for a great day trip from Osh.
Locations of the Best Things to do in Osh Kyrgyzstan
How to Travel to Osh
Osh is found in the south of Kyrgyzstan, just a few miles away from the border with Uzbekistan. Geographically, Osh is part of the wide Fergana Valley and historically it has always been more associated with Uzbek than Kyrgyz culture.
Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is a long way away, separated from Osh by a huge dividing range of high mountain peaks. Osh finds itself then, in a fairly remote location, particularly with the complex borders formed in Soviet times that turned into national borders in the 1990s.
The easiest way to travel to Osh is to fly direct from Bishkek. There are flights almost every hour throughout the day and travel time is as little as half an hour, with flights costing as low as 20 USD. I booked a flight just the day before I departed and only paid 40 USD. The airport is located just a short taxi ride away from the city centre and you can expect to pay a minimum of 250 Som for the ride, more if it is after dark. There are plenty of rides waiting when you exit arrivals.
If you have more time or are feeling adventurous, then you can take a shared taxi from Bishkek to Osh. There are no buses as the road between the two cities is rough and winding and unsuitable for large vehicles. Journey time in a shared taxi will be around 14 hours depending on your driver and the conditions. You can find vehicles leaving from the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek, but get there early to find a spot. Expect to pay at least 1000 Som, depending on your haggling skills.
Osh is also a huge transit point for travel into the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and south into the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.
If you are heading to Uzbekistan, then you just need to take a quick taxi ride to the border. Here you walk across, then you can catch a bus onwards to the nearest city, Andijan, and from here you can even get as far as Tashkent in the same day if you so desire.
Travel into the Pamirs is somewhat trickier and I won’t go into huge detail here, as there are many other websites that cover this topic in much more detail. From Osh, you can arrange transport all the way to Dushanbe along the Pamir Highway if you so desire. Talk to Destination Osh or the local guesthouses to get set up with guides, itineraries and to find other travellers. If you want to, you can also take a shared taxi from Osh to Murghab, a remote town at the start of the Pamirs on the Tajikistan side. From here, you can catch shared taxis along the highway.
The Best Time of Year to Visit Osh Kyrgyzstan
Osh Kyrgyzstan experiences very hot summers and extremely cold winters. The best time to visit Kyrgyzstan is from Spring on through to Autumn, and if you are interested in hiking in the high mountains or travelling through the Pamirs, you only really have a short window in summer for the best weather.
The peak tourist season really begins around May and only last until August. Even in mid-September, I found there were few other tourists around and even the tour companies had begun closing up for the season.
Where to Stay in Osh Kyrgyzstan
Osh has an increasing quantity of guesthouses and hotels which are increasing also in quality. Traditionally, backpackers have always stayed at Osh Guesthouse, a local establishment which has been around for years. The lodgings here are cheap, but most travellers chose to stay here primarily for the chance to organise trips into the Pamirs with other travellers.
Osh Guesthouse isn’t the only option these days though and I personally would recommend staying at Tes Hotel. It’s a half hour walk to the city centre, but it has a great outside seating area, and a range of rooms for any budget, from dorms through to privates. It’s a happening place and there are travellers here from all over, meaning you can get up to date advice and find travel partners too.
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Where to Eat in Osh
Osh Kyrgyzstan has a surprising array of restaurants too, there’s even a great cafe with excellent internet you can use for work if you’re a digital nomad like me. Brio Cafe is found in the centre, and they serve great coffee and a great array of sandwiches and snacks with fast internet.
I’d also recommend visiting the Jayma Bazaar and Navoi Park for some cheap local eats by the river, or if you want somewhere to enjoy some excellently grilled shashlik and some cold pints of beer, then head to Tsarskii Dvor by the park, where you can enjoy the great outdoor terrace in summer too.
All Words and Photos by Richard Collett