Despite Kyrgyzstan is definitely not famous for its cities, spending a few days in the Kyrgyz urban centres may reveal to be a pleasant and interesting experience. Osh and Bishkek are the two major cities in the central Asian country and, due to their historical backgrounds, their architecture and their population are very different.
Brief history of the Kyrgyz cities
Bishkek, biggest city and capital of modern Kyrgyzstan, was originally a settlement along one of the branches of the northern routes of the Silk Roads. Developed by Russians in the XIX century, the city, at that time called “Frunze”, became the capital of Kirghiz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (1926-1936) first and of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic (1936-1991) after. The Soviet influence is still very evident in the city, which is characterised by classic majestic soviet buildings, wide roads and symbols of the recent past. In addition, until 1990, Russians have been the predominant ethnic group inhabiting the city and, while now Kyrgyz represent the majority of the population, russian is still the most common language in the capital.
Osh is the second largest but the oldest city in Kyrgyzstan and is located in the Fergana valley near the border with Uzbekistan. Thanks to its geographical position located at the intersection of different silk routes, the city has always had an important role over the centuries. Its bazaar is the oldest one in Central Asia (it has been taking place in the same spot for over 2000 years) and, during the Soviet period, Osh was also a relevant industrial centre. However, the Osh industries mostly collapse after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and just recently have started reviving. The Soviet influence in the architecture is not as strong as in Bishkek; roads are not that wide, buildings are not that majestic and you won’t see any hammer and sickle in the streets. Ethnic differences are what mainly distinguish the two cities. In fact, in Osh Uzbeks represent the predominant ethnic group (57,9%), followed by Kyrgyz (34,2%), Russian (2,2%) and, with lesser extent by Turkish, Tartars and other nationalities. Those ethnic ethnic differences, along with the economical difficulties that the country had to face since the collapse of the Soviet Union, were among the causes of the ethnic clashes occurred in the Osh region in 1990 and 2010.
So, what to do when you visit the two cities?
Here we listed the top 5 things to do in Osh and Bishkek:
- Visiting the bazaar. The Osh bazaar in particular is MASSIVE, it is definitely the best one in Central Asia and probably one of the best bazaars in Asia. Getting lost between the stands is just an amazing experience, you will need almost an entire day if you want to visit it all properly. Although it’s not as big and it’s not as appealing as the one in Osh, the Bishkek bazaar is still quite nice to visit and it has one advantage, the goods are CHEAPER! In fact, since merchants import goods mostly from Russia and Kazakhstan, they don’t have to spend as much as in Osh to get the goods delivered.
- Going to the hippodrome. No, we are not fun of race horses and you may think that this is weird but if you go to the hippodrome, particularly over the weekends, you will be able to see some local sports and have a proper local experience. We went twice, once in Osh and once in Bishkek, because we were looking for the kok boru (also known as Buzkashi); since kok boru is mostly played during the world nomads games or in villages we couldn’t find it but we saw the salbuurun and an archery competition, two traditional sports in Kyrgyzstan. Between the two, the hippodrome in Bishkek is nicer than the one in Osh but, in October 2019, it was under repair.
- Going to the animal market. Definitely not suitable for vegans or animal rights activists, going to the animal market in Kyrgyzstan is an experience to do at least once in your life. We went to the one is Osh, which is meant to be one of the best one. The market is every Sunday morning a bit far from the city centre (you can find it on maps.me) so we went there by taxi paying 200som one way. The market is huge and overcrowded. The animals are nervous and treated very badly. However, it’s quite unique to see such a traditional market. We wouldn’t suggest to a solo woman to go there, since the environment was exclusively male.
- Climbing Sulayman Mountain. Ok, we have to admit that we didn’t do it because we were tired and sick but everyone told us that the view from up there is beautiful. The mountain, located in the centre of Osh, is an UNESCO heritage and was once a Muslim pilgrimage site. Sulayman (Solomon) is a prophet in the Qur’an, and the mountain contains a shrine that supposedly marks his grave. Women who ascend to the shrine on top and crawl through an opening across the holy rock will, according to legend, give birth to healthy children. (Source Wikipedia)
- Walk around the parks in Bishkek. All around the city centre, surrounding the National Historical Museum (that was closed in October 2019), there are beautiful parks. Take your time to walk and relax there surrounded by statues of famous Kyrgyz men, philosophers and secular trees!