Day 13 – The best food in Transoxania

Tuesday 9 September 2014

So here I am in Osh. My friend Alistair had already told me to watch out for the traditional Uzbek hat and they were certainly in evidence.

Osh is a relatively large city in the South of Kyrgyzstan, due to a combination of Stalin’s wisdom, Stalin’s bloodymindedness, and Stalin’s iron rule, despite being a largely Uzbek city (in similar terms, Samarkand, one of the larger cities in Uzbekistan, is a largely Tajik city. The whole Fergana Valley area has particularly curious borders, complete with enclaves and exclaves, which of course in the USSR didn’t matter but which means now if you want to catch a train to the Tajik capital Dushanbe, and back, you’d better have an empty passport …).
It’s also quite interesting to compare Osh with Bishkek. The latter is a relatively Soviet city, in a grid pattern with wide boulevards and a number of planned parklands. Osh … looks a bit like something out of the Middle East in terms of colour (theoretically legion, in practice yellow dust), road layout (random, with badly-fitting gravelly pavements, where they exist at all – Osh is not a place for minimalist footwear), and culture (no you can’t drive down that road as there’s a bazar in the way). I actually quite liked it; Bishkek’s ‘nice but dull’ whereas Osh just feels a bit more, well, not ‘edgy’ but maybe ‘soulful’.
One weird feature in Osh is, on the road leading out of the bazaar, there are large posts by the side of the road, like lampposts, but instead of lights they had loudspeakers. Every so often there’d be a (recorded) woman’s voice coming through them – saying what, I have no idea, and everyone else seemed to be ignoring them anyway. I’ve never knowingly seen it before, and it feels like it comes straight out of some dystopian fiction.

I nearly didn’t make the flight there though. A combination of generic slowness in getting out the door, combined with a mis-remembering of the map, meant I accidentally got off the marshrutka about five blocks too early and having to run to where I thought the buses to the airport went from. It then turns out they’re actually just around the corner from where I was waiting …
Check-in technically closes 40 minutes before the flight. I made it there 42 minutes beforehand. I needn’t have worried though – the previous flight hadn’t departed yet.
Bishkek’s domestic terminal is very small – the three check-in desks are on one side of a room, the security scanner at the other, and beyond that is a large room full of seats. And one stall. It is, however, larger than Osh airport which was so small I didn’t even go in it – we got off the plane, walked through a gate, and were in the outside world. Bishkek airport now also holds the record for the most gratuitously pointless use of a shuttle bus. We were kept waiting to board it for about 7 minutes to take us from the terminal to the plane, which was a distance of around two bus lengths …

The flight itself (on Turkish-based airline Pegasus Airways) was smooth and quick, about 45 minutes. The same journey by shared taxi/bus would take taken 10-12 hours and cost only marginally less; sorry Leila but I remember your persuading me to take a similar routing in Laos and maybe I still haven’t recovered. The view of the mountains would have been good, but despite asking for a window seat, I got the aisle seat because some babushka was sat by the window and wouldn’t budge.

I had shashlik again in Osh, from one of the many street food outlets. I think they’re called chaikanas; they’re more like cafes than restaurants, usually with a completely open frontage onto the street, and mostly look pretty grim and ‘well used’. But for 150som (£1.73) I had two huge shashlik kebabs and a large pot of tea. Elsewhere in the city, from a street stalk, I had a peanut-laden cream pastry. Today has been a good food today, topped off by three slices of free pizza because two Belgians in my hostel who’d sat on the same table in the hostel as me this evening ordered in a pizza each and couldn’t finish them.

In a way I wish I had had more time in Osh – I think it’s a city I could happily have explored for a second day – but I’m assuming too that much of Uzbekistan will be similar.

This will be a bit of a leap into the unknown, however, as I’m having terrible trouble finding a place to stay in the Fergana Valley – there just seem to be no hostels at all, and very few hotels, which may or may not all be full. This may well be a case of just turning up somewhere and seeing/hoping. Eeep.

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