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Just don’t go to Osh!

If you’re planning on going to Central Asia, keep one thought in mind: don’t go to Osh! While parts of Central Asia holds some of the world’s greatest treasures, there are other parts that hold the world’s greatest collection of detritus (i.e: the city of Osh, Southern Kyrgyzstan).

There is a definite hope for the future in these countries, development is underway and (with the exception of Osh) towns are clean and readily accommodating to tourists and despite their relatively obscure nature, the slow trickle of tourists could well become a flood in years to come. It isn’t really difficult to imagine Central Asia (and especially Uzbekistan) becoming tourist hotspots; it has all the ingredients: sun, pretty Russian girls and a wealth of cultural experiences.

If you’re flying high above the peaks of Chimgan in Uzbekistan in a helicopter that looks like a prop from a James Bond movie, don’t worry, the pilot probably flew missions in Afghanistan in the 1970s dodging SAM missiles. Air travel is generally scary in these countries, but it is an essential part of the experience. The trip in the AN-24 from Bishkek to Osh is one that is not easily forgotten, even after you’ve got the ringing out of your ears from the noise of the propellers. Rather than an extravagance, helicopters in Central Asia are a necessity for the modern day tourist – facilitating visits to obscure mountain lakes that would have taken days if not weeks to trek to.

One could go on for hours about the Uzbek mosques in Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara and their cultural significance on the Islamic world and, of course these are breathtaking (be sure to bribe the guards to climb up the dilapidated minarets- these give the best views of monuments that you’re ever going to find) and they will certainly provide the backdrop to any trip to the region, but it is really the remnants of the USSR that provide the entertainment factor. The Soviet Union sure made Central Asia into a strange place; about the place are scattered bits of rusting military hardware, queer buildings blasted into the sides of mountains, and futuristic architecture that have now  houses chaikhanas (tea shops) and squatters. We spent a day at an old ski resort where we rode the (wooden) chairlift into the mountains and, fished in a radioactive lake from 1950s pedallos and rode horses with serious aggression problems. The region sometime feels like a post-apocalyptic America, but an America seen through the lens of the Soviet Government. Indeed, Americana springs up in the strangest places- in Osh our taxi driver listened to American Western music as we sped past run down shacks, whilst trying to explain his theories about spaghetti westerns.

Central Asia is a backpacking haven. Besides the fact that it costs next to nothing to travel (fifty pounds got us half the way over Uzbekistan and flights, if you can call them that, cost as little as fifty pence) and eat, people are friendly and accommodating. People are curious about England and the West; they don’t try to rip you off and, although petty crime is on the rise, Tashkent is most certainly a more pleasant place at night than London. Police are prolific in Uzbekistan- green uniforms can be seen at every corner and, although they can be bribed (to speed you through customs and  to get you out of sticky situations when our unlicensed taxi driver decided it was a good idea to ram his Daewoo through a police checkpoint).

One can’t help feeling sorry for the people of these countries. In Almaty, Kazakhstan, the poor line the street outside the church, some with missing legs, eyes and hands, people live in squalor in the countryside of Uzbekistan’s poorest region, Karakalpakstan, subsisting on a strange collection of American and Chinese hardware of the past fifty years. The strange thing is that few resent their situation and none blame anybody. The burgeoning middle classes of the cities (especially in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) do want to improve their lives, but the majority are happy with their lot.

“They will spend five thousand dollars on a wedding even though they have been working for that money for ten years” said our Uzbek guide, Umid “Uzbek people live for the moment”.

What makes the region most interesting for the adventurous is its quirks. When the Ambassador asks you “Why the hell did you come here?” you know you’re in for a ride, a ride almost as scary as weaving through Tashkent traffic at 160km/h in a beaten up Daewoo taxi (with doors that didn’t work), piloted by a man who had little regard for police cars and red lights; we will fondly remember him as ‘Old Man Schumacher’.

One thing you will have to watch out for is the food. With typical teenage nonchalance, we ate our way through everything we were offered; we ended up with amoebic dysentery. If there’s one piece of advice you should take from this, it should be ‘Don’t eat the melons!’

And if you can take two, don’t go to Osh!

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