The road from Bishkek to Osh
We left early, heading from Bishkek to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city, and culturally quite different from the capital. Leaving from Bishkek’s muddy long-distance taxi stand, I shared the car with a weedy Russian guy who was wearing a denim shirt over denim jeans, a beefy old Russian guy, a Kyrgyz teenager and our selectively-friendly driver. The 650 kilometre journey takes 12 hours; the road is in great condition, but traffic slows down as it switchbacks over passes higher than 3000 metres.
The initial drive through farmland wasn’t too inspiring, but I was assured by my fellow passengers that the road would get more interesting. In case you were wondering how I got that from a bunch of non-English speakers, lets just say that gestures go a long way.
And it did; on the drive to Osh I witnessed some of the most breathtaking natural scenery I have ever seen, the car ducking between gorges and canyons for the first half of the journey.
The car wove its way through the western portion of the Tian Shan range, leaving the population centres of northern Kyrgyzstan behind. We stopped for lunch somewhere in the mountains I may never know exactly where we were, but they served lamb kebabs, hot naan and green tea and nothing else.
Somewhere in the second half of the journey we rounded a corner and spotted the huge Toktogul Reservoir. Built in the 1960s by Soviet engineers, this mammoth dam continues to supply water and electricity to much of Kyrgyzstan. Past the lake we began to climb again, as did the temperature; the rest of the journey was spent sweltering as we taxi descended through the lunar landscape that is the Fergana Range.
The Fergana Range skirts the northern edge of the Fergana Valley, a wide, flat and hot plain which nowadays is mostly in Uzbekistan. It’s a cultural watershed; north of the Fergana Range lie largely Kyrgyz and Russian-populated areas (like Bishkek and Issyk-Kul), whereas south of the range the people identify as a mishmash of Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Turkish, Russian and Tajik. Because of the Soviet Union’s gerrymandering, the twisted national borders force the Kyrgyz highway into a wide detour before reaching Osh – see the map below.
After speeding between fields of watermelons and lakes in the unlikeliest of locations, we reached the outskirts of Osh. One of the passengers in the car asked to be dropped off in the suburbs of the city. The driver kindly obliged and we drove off into the unpaved backstreets of Osh. We pulled up outside a ramshackle cottage surrounded by a high cornfield, and the passenger, a teenage Kyrgyz boy, told the driver to come inside with him so he could pay him the fare. Both the driver and the boy disappeared for a good 10 minutes. While I was sitting there I started to feel a little uncomfortable, realising that the garden patch in front of the cottage was home to several marijuana plants. the denim-clad Russian went looking for the driver and the young boy, but he didn’t return either. I was left in the car with the other remaining passenger, the old Russian beefcake.
Thinking back over the day I had spent, actually, a lot of things hadn’t added up; I had been given a free lunch at a restaurant, no-one in the car spoke even one word of English (an odd thing in today’s world), Mr Denim and the driver were acting like best friends even though they had just met… and now this deserted marijuana-and-corn farm. I had also just read in my guidebook that this area was home to many militants in the early 1990s. It was at that point I was concerned for my life, for the first time in all of my travels, and I convinced myself if I didn’t go in looking for the driver and the other passengers, they would come out and drag me in. After several anxious minutes, the driver and Denim Boy returned, yelling out what I can only guess was Kyrgyz for “The little bastard ran away!”. That’s right, we were all duped by a cunning little kid who got a free taxi ride. All the other things that didn’t add up were just part of the eccentricities of the region. The driver jumped back in the car in a huff and drove us into the centre of Osh, with me frowning and shaking my head to show sympathy to the driver, and on the inside laughing nervously at my paranoia.