Kyrgyzstan: How Osh Grew

One of the things I like to do is to walk around and look at where I am. In my working life I was focused on getting from Point A to Point B, and thought about work issues along the way. Now, I can stop and see.

The Osh Bazaar is on the opposite side of town from where I am staying, but these vendors are here – a Kyrgyz version of convenience stores. They sell fruits, vegetables, some packaged foods, and some street food, prepared on the grill in front of you.

The Muslim population is large in Kyrgyzstan, and it is more subtle than in the Middle East. There is a prayer call broadcast from the mosques, but I never heard it in the same way as I did in Jordan or Oman because there are fewer mosques.

The oldest mosque in Osh is this one:

Craftsmen house their operations in small quarters. This man who makes his living sharpening saws and knives, is right across the road from the mosque. Some of those knives and saws are awaiting their turn, and some are for sale, having been acquired through customers or other used goods sales, and sharpened into usefulness again.

I walked down the alley that ran beside this vendor. The neighborhood became more residential, with narrower alleys spreading from the “main” alley, with doors interspersed along their length. I was walking peacefully, passing other walkers or parents who were watching children at play along the creek that ran through the alleyway, until I became aware of someone behind me trying to get my attention. I turned around, and a couple of men, who had been talking with each other while watching the kids at play, were saying something (I speak neither Kyrgyz nor Russian) and motioning me back, pointing to an open door a short way down one of the smaller alleys.

Through the window and open door, I could see a young couple talking to someone who was less visible. I walked over to the doorway, and I saw the man who I had read about in one of the guide books – an older man who makes knives. The young couple were tourists from India, and they (mostly she) were in the process of bargaining for a knife that they liked. I looked at the array of knives. Some were smaller, like paring knives, and some were bigger and could be used for cutting up game or a roast, which is what I was thinking of as I looked at them.

While she was wrapping up their bargain, the young man and I chatted a little bit. I asked, quietly, and he shared the price they were getting, and after they left, I began talking with the old man about his knives. He uses antlers and horns to make the handles, and sometimes wood. He buys the blade steel in rolls, and then works them himself to make the blades. And lastly, he puts the city, Osh, and the date on the blade. He showed me one of the largest knives he had on the shelf by his window.

I was more interested in finding a knife that seemed balanced and fit my hand. I tried all of them, picking each up and getting a feel for which seemed best for me. I found the one that fit me best, and then we talked price. I paid a little more than the Indian couple, about 200 som, which equates to about $2.86. The final price was 2000 som, or $28.64. The knife isn’t as big as the one he is holding, but it will work in the kitchen for me, and I will enjoy the memory each time I use it:

I still don’t know his name, but if you’re going to Kyrgyzstan, I can show you on a map where he works in his shop.

Osh was founded about 3,000 years ago. A Soviet archeologist conducted digs in the 1950s, and found Bronze Age artifacts under the slope of Suleiman Toh, which is located in the heart of Osh. These artifacts suggest that settlements date back to the 4th or 5th centuries B.C. Historians speculate that the fertile lands of the Fergana Valley made Osh an attractive place to settle — some refer to the area as the “Cradle of Prosperous Kingdoms.” The situation benefited agricultural societies that settled in the valley, and nomads found that pastures in the Pamir Ala Mountains benefited their herds, with the plus of being near the Osh trading center, especially during the Great Silk Road. Kyrgyzstan was under the rule of the Kokand Empire from the 1700s until the Russian Empire conquered Central Asia. Osh was modernized under the Soviet rule, and developed specialized industries.

Osh, although the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, is still not a large city, but it has lots of public spaces, often with fountains, always with trees and other plants, and benches. People use the parks – old, young, families, everyone seems to make parks part of their lives.

Lenin is everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. It seems that every town of any size in Kyrgyzstan has a statue of Lenin. Usually Lenin is standing in this kind of pose, one arm raised as if gesturing in speech. This particular statue is in the Central Square of Osh. It’s 25 meters tall, one of the tallest in Central Asia, and was erected in 1975, before Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991. Lenin is still admired by those who enjoyed the Soviet days.

The Osh City Hall is a large building in the Central Square, and faces the Lenin Statue, pictured above. The Kyrgyzstan flag doesn’t show in the photo, but it flies from a 40 meter flag pole at the front of the entry garden. The sun in the middle of the flag has forty yellow sun rays, symbolizing the 40 Kyrgyz tribes that unified under Manas to become Kyrgyzstan. The body of the yellow sun is a round “tunduk,” the frame that sits in the middle of a yurt’s roof, providing ventilation. The background is entirely red, and some would tell you that it symbolizes all of the blood that was shed by the Kyrgyz people before they gained their independence.

Upon independence, there was some debate about whether or not to remove the statue of Lenin. Those in favor of removing it felt that it symbolized the pre-independence history of Kyrgyzstan, and should not face City Hall or the flag. The statue appears to “oversee” events in the Central Square, and it seemed inappropriate for an independent, modern state. Removal remains an open question.

The Chernobyl Memorial seems out of place in Kyrgyzstan since the disaster took place in Belarus and Ukraine. The white sphere between two columns symbolizes the atomic nucleus in a decay stage. The banner behind the statue says “The Battle for Chernobyl,” and shows a Russian MI26 helicopter flying above the exploded reactor #4. The memorial commemorates the civilian victims and “liquidators,” the name given to military and civilian personnel who responded to the disaster. After the April 26, 1986, meltdown and explosion, the USSR government mobilized hundreds of thousands of people from across the Soviet Union, professionals and civilians, and sent them to northern Ukraine and southern Belarus, where the radiation was most significant. While this did much to mitigate the damage from the disaster, these people paid a huge price, many of them dying soon afterward. Of the 4,500 – 5,000 mobilized from Kyrgyzstan, only about 1,300 are still alive today, and they face a variety of health issues.

The Cathedral of Michael is more than a church for the local Christian community. Named after the Archangel Michael, it was established in the late 1800s to provide for the Russian Empire’s Orthodox soldiers and officials. Tsar Nicholas II ordered a complete rebuild in 1909, but with the emergence of the Soviet Union in 1917, the church spent about a decade as a house of worship, and was then used as a club by the Soviets, similar to the fate of Trinity Cathedral in Karakol. In 1952, the club was transformed into a “house of culture,” hosting the Provincial Philharmonic, among other cultural activities. Only in 1992 was the church returned to the Orthodox community. In 2010, it celebrated its centennial. Now, only minority Russians and Orthodox Christians are left in Osh, and the Cathedral represents a spiritual and cultural center for the ethnic Russian community in the city. After the collapse of the USSR, the migration of Russian, Slavic, and other European people began, moving to Bishkek and Russia to look for better opportunities.

The door was open, so I took the opportunity to peek inside.

The Mother’s Tears monument represents two women, one Kyrgyz and one Uzbek (as represented by their styles of dress,) embracing each other and crying. The nearby gravestone is in the shape of a “basheek,” the traditional Central Asian cradle for newborn babies. On the gravestone are the names of the people who died between June 10 and June 14th in 2010, in the time now remembered as “the June events of 2010.” The events were a series of ethnic clashes between Uzbek and Kyrgyz groups in the City of Osh. Even now, the June events are a sensitive topic, and they are rarely discussed by locals. The two groups tend to blame each other for the outbreak and the feelings are still just too raw, especially in light of the deaths that were caused by these events. Some outside observers called it an “inter-ethnic clash,” but others felt it was far more complex. Now, the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks live in peace, as they did for hundreds of years, and think of the June events as a “lesson for the future.”

World War II is familiar around the world as people still observe and celebrate the defeat of Fascism. Post Soviet countries remain focused on this war, which they know as the “Great Patriotic War.” The USSR lost more people than any other nation – some estimates go as high as 24,000,000 to 30,000,000. At the time of the war, the USSR’s main resource was manpower. This memorial, the Eternal Fire for Victims of the Great Patriotic War, features the eternal fire and a weeping mother, and quotes in Kyrgyz and Russian that “Nobody is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten.”

Located on the hillside below the Lenin Statue in Central Square, “Love Park” is a place for lovers, and many people choose to be married here. There are several smaller themed venues, and this large area on the central axis of the park.

Beautiful murals on prominent buildings is one of the things that Osh feels separates them from other post-Soviet cities and towns. During the 80s construction boom, many of the buildings looked the same. The murals helped distinguish them from each other. The murals represented Soviet themes, but also had Kyrgyz national symbols, such as the horse.

The trees in Osh are uniformly painted white on the bottom portion of their trunk. Painting the trees started as the Communist system became established. The white is not strictly speaking, paint. The Russian term is translated literally as “white wash.” It is a compound of lime, chalk, copper sulfate, and glue. These days, it is hard to say how this originated or its original purpose. Because of the chemicals in the compound, some believe it began as a way to protect the trees from insects. Others say that the chemicals used now are not the same as before and do not prevent bugs from attacking the trees. Others hold that the white paint protects the trees from UV rays. Finally, the trees are more visible with white paint, helping those who drive at night. Who knows?

“Aryks” are the irrigation ditches running along the street. The Russian Empire used these to water the trees and other greenery in the city, and the USSR continued the practice. The trees really enhance the city, providing shade in the summer heat. Aryks used to run through the entire city. Unfortunately, after the fall of the USSR, these Aryks fell into disrepair. Some have filled with trash, others are filled only when it rains. At least the trees seem to be able to weather the unreliability!

That a street would be named after Lenin is not surprising, but it IS surprising that it was not named Lenin Street until 1992, one year after the breakup of the USSR. Before that, the street had two names – Russian-speaking citizens called it Main Street, and local Uzbek and Kyrgyz called it Stone Street because it was the first paved road in Osh.

The House of Pioneers is a colorful 2-story building, built by the Soviets. At 10 years old, boys and girls would be initiated as “Pioneers.” Now it is used for a variety of community activities.

Osh seems to have an active arts community. I visited the Osh Art Museum, which is a small two-story building, and found it filled with local (Kyrgyz) works of high quality. There were many locals at the Osh Day celebration performing dance, both traditional and interpretive, and there was the Suleiman Art Gallery. I bought some vintage works of traditional embroidery and some contemporary craft items. I happened into the gallery as the owner was hosting a local college class. From the general tone and demeanor of the group and the discussion, I gathered he was encouraging the student to pursue a career of art work. He explained to me afterward that Osh (and all of Kyrgyzstan) lose many of their graduates to Bishkek and Russia because there are more opportunities than there are in cities like Osh.

One of the students who spoke very good English stayed in the store and translated for the gallery owner and I as we discussed what I would like to buy. She was very helpful, but I’m sorry to say that I didn’t get her name.

Osh was my last new stop in Kyrgyzstan. I headed back to Bishkek to catch a flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan. But the Kyrgyz people were so wonderful and their country is so beautiful, that they will live in my memory forever.

2 thoughts on “Kyrgyzstan: How Osh Grew

  1. Hi there! Fantastic blog post you have here! Very informative, thank you! I was wondering if you could help me to find the famous knife maker in Osh!? Any help would be much appreciated! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi!! How’s the world traveler?? Is this a late post?? Seems as though you’ve been in K’stan for some time. Or, are you in JAIL?? lol jk. BTW, Merry Christmas!! Are you going to be in Bethlehem for Christmas?? That would be cool. Or, I was thinking of you a couple of weeks ago. I was watching an old TV show (can’t remember which) and one of the guests, contestant actually, was a guy you’d probably know (or know of). He was with his new wife and talking about his studies and writing, while a student at DePauw Univ.. As I recall, it was as a contestant on ‘Beat The Clock’. Must’ve been a show from the early 50s. Any guesses?? It was John Jakes. Even I had heard of him. Knew he was an author, just didn’t know what he had written. Anyway, thought you’d enjoy that. Let me know where you are.

    Safe travels, Mike

    Sent from my iPad



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