From Osh we headed to Bishkek, the road was described to be scenically spectacular so we hired a private driver for $100 which allowed us to stop along the way to take photos and enjoy the scenery.
Highlights along the route were Toktogul Lake and the two passes, Ala-Bel Pass at 3184m and Tor-Ashuu Pass at 3586m, both were snowing at the time and the valleys were white-washed with snow. It was quite surreal having come from lush green vegetation with poppy sprinkled meadows only a few hours before.
In Bishkek stayed at a very local guesthouse – the Bishkek Guesthouse – run by a pair of Uzbek brothers who are barely out of their teens. The guesthouse was basically a three bed, one bathroom apartment on the seventh floor. It was cosy, to say the least, as the place also doubled as some form of student accommodation.
There wasn’t too much to do in Bishkek, the usual monuments of Lenin, the Osh Bazaar and museums. We wandered around observing the locals (which were comprised of Kyrgyz, Russians, and Ukrainians). The city itself did not present anything particularly memorable, except for a local scammer who imitated a police officer requesting my passport at the bustling Osh Bazaar – if I had handed it to him I suspect I would have had to pay to get it back.
We arrived late afternoon in the town of Osh by mashrutka (minibus) from the border pass. We decided to stay at the Osh Guesthouse, a family run hostel located deep in the neighbourhoods of Osh. A friendly European guy who appeared to be a traveller himself answered the door – he advised us that the caretaker was out getting water as there was apparently a water outage in Osh. I’m personally able to withstand various levels of comfort (e.g. don’t mind staying in a dorm, using shared bathrooms, lack of hot water etc) however running water was one of my ‘prerequisites’ and I questioned whether we should stay or seek other options (we had already experienced absence of water in Uzbekistan). Why there was no water was beyond my understanding as it had been raining the past few nights and Kyrgyzstan is widely known for its famous mountain water sources. However, I could see that Travis, at the recognition of readily available wifi was quite content with the place. Anyway, we decided to stay for a night and see how it went. The caretaker (a young baseball cap-wearing Kyrgyz) came back with a few buckets of water (priority, he said was ‘for toilet’). Thankfully later that night the water started up again.
We had dinner, which was a beef and vegetable dish with rice and chai, at the local chaikhana (teahouse). It was bustling with local men chattering loudly in Kyrgyz.
The following morning we began exploring Osh, starting at the local Jayma Bazaar – rows of bread stalls sold round doughnut shaped loafs of bread (with the hole filled!), stalls sold pistachios, dried fruit, fresh fruit, and then of course were the electronics, made in China goods, clothes, local traditional wear (including notably the Kyrgyz kalpak, a tall felt hat worn by Kyrgyz men).
We then headed uphill towards the Solomon’s Throne – a pilgrimage site atop a massive hill overlooking Osh. Prophet Mohammed was said to have prayed here. It was a fairly unremarkable giant rock, however provided great views of Osh and an opportunity to observe the local Kyrgyz culture particularly at the Dom Babura (a little mosque nearby). We then headed to a musty old museum (the Historical Museum) which, aside from some fantastic photography of Kyrgyzstan, housed a wide variety of taxidermy and various Kyrgyz artifacts. Afterwards we visited the nearby three story mutton smelling yurt before heading back to the bazaar to pick up snacks.
The Uzbekistan currency, the Som, is quite interesting in a number of ways.
Firstly, because of the instability in the Som and its high rate of inflation, the US dollar is used in parallel (i.e. you can pay for most things in both currencies). There is an official exchange rate and also a black-market exchange rate (or the more appropriately named unofficial exchange rate, as everyone exchanges openly at the unofficial rate). The official exchange rate is around 1100 Som to a dollar, whilst the black-market exchange rate is 2800 Som to a dollar, which means you can exchange over 150% more on the black-market.
Now, you can further save because you have the option to pay in dollars or Som, for example an official hotel or attraction will have a dollar entry cost, but because they are official, they will use the official exchange rate and so paying in Som will save 60%. On the other side, an unofficial hotel will use the local black market rate, which as a tourist you will have difficulty obtaining, so it is marginally better to pay with dollars.
Secondly, the highest denomination is a one thousand Som note. If you exchange a single 100 US dollar note at the black-market rate, you will get 280, one thousand Som notes! This is a stack about an inch (three centimetres) thick. To pay for lunch, hand over around 25 notes, taxis between major cities, you better start counting the notes about five minutes before you arrive at your destination. I have never seen restaurants with the need for note-counting machines till Uzbekistan. We saw one man without a wallet, but a wad of folded notes straight in his back pocket. As Sonya mentioned, imagine having to pay for everything with fifty cent coins.
We arrived in Tashkent in the afternoon by a shared-taxi and went straight to the Kyrgyzstan embassy. We had made the mistake of not applying for enough time on our visas, and our Kazakhstan visa had already expired (before even entering the country). We had read that the Kyrgyzstan visa could be processed the same day (for a fee) so we decided to head straight into Kyrgyzstan and then onto Kashgar in China. Fortunately, we managed to get the visa in time, only one day prior to our Uzbekistan visa expiring.
Tashkent is like any other capital city, quite modern with a mix of people. One of the great things was the metro. A fixed 700 Som could get you anywhere on the line, but what was really interesting was the underground subways, apparently designed in the Soviet era to withstand a nuclear bomb, each station had lavishly designed interiors. However there didn’t seem to be a concern for passenger safety, with trains starting and stopping rather abruptly and doors closing seconds after the train had arrived at the platform.
We briefly stopped at the Uzbekistan History Museum which had the usual collection of ancient artefacts. Uzbekistan has had a number of political and religious changes through history, and was visible in the vast collection.
One of the more interesting experiences we had in Tashkent was the Uzbekistan theatre. We had read that the theatre was worth checking out and ticket prices were inexpensive. We found one theatre and purchased tickets for some Russian musical for 14000 Som. Upon arriving later in the night, we were informed that the performance had changed, with the name again in Russian. When the performers arrived on stage in black, sat on stools with paper notes, we realised it was going to be numerous monologues, all in Russian. We could understand the first five minutes which was determining where the audience was from ethnically – whether Uzbek, Kazakh, Uighur, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, Russian, etc, and realised the multiculturalism of Uzbekistan (or something along those lines) was the topic of the night. The rest of the performance was rather a blur, though, even though we could not understand the majority of it, it was still an interesting experience.