The Best Things to do in Osh, Kyrgyzstan
This post is about the best things to do in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Osh is the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan and also the oldest settlement of the country with a history of over 3000 years. It was the fertile soil of the Kyrgyz Fergana valley that attracted people to settle down in a land where most people lived a nomadic lifestyle.
Even today, Osh is not a very big city, but don’t be fooled. There are a lot of things to do in Osh and there are plenty of reasons to include it in your Kyrgyzstan itinerary. Be it the scenic location, its interesting past or its unique southern atmosphere.
While there are enough things to do in Osh itself, it is also a good starting point from where you can explore Southern Kyrgyzstan. Osh is only at 963 meters altitude, but the mountains are just a stone’s throw away. Even though they receive much less tourists then elsewhere in the country, the sceneries are just as beautiful.
I arrived in Osh at the end of my Pamir highway tour. After the barren mountains of the Pamirs, Osh felt lush and green. The similarities with the Fergana valley in Uzbekistan were there, but Osh also had its own unique features. Its Soviet past is more visible as well as the cultural influences of the nomadic Kyrgyz and other ethnic minorities.
Osh is also one of the best places to visit in Kyrgyzstan for foodies with several regional dishes that reflect the multicultural nature of the city.
A short history of Osh
Like most cities in Central Asia, Osh was a cultural melting pot along the ancient Silk road. From the 8th century it developed into an important center of silk production. Trade caravans came from China crossing the Alay mountains to reach the fertile Fergana valley and the Silk road cities of Uzbekistan.
Osh remains the most multicultural city in Kyrgyzstan with a large Uzbek minority as well as Russians, Tajiks and Tatars. This didn’t always go well. The Fergana valley is one of the most controversial regions in Central Asia and when the Soviet Union collapsed social tensions surfaced. Most recent are the ethnic clashes in the Osh region in 2010.
It’s a complex history in which the Soviets are often blamed. It’s true that Stalin created the Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that each got a share of the fertile soils of the Fergana valley. However, it remains a question whether this was a deliberate divide and rule policy. The truth is that the ethnic make up was so complex that no matter how the borders were drawn, there were bound to be problems.
As a tourist it is not likely you will notice any social tensions. At the moment things are quiet and Osh is a safe city. It remains a controversial topic though and the core problems that caused the violence remain unaddressed.
The best things to do in Osh
Suleiman too mountain
The Suleiman too mountain is among the top things to do in Osh. The mountain has always been sacred to the people living in Osh with several places of worship. The shrine of prophet Suleyman attracts hundreds of muslim pilgrims, but some rituals predate islam such as the sliding stone believed to increase fertility.
Climbing to the top is very popular among both locals and tourists, because of the beautiful views over Osh. Also watch out for the ancient petroglyphs of animals and humans.
You wouldn’t necessarily notice this, but the Jayma bazaar is one of the most historical things to do in Osh. It is one of the oldest bazaars in Central Asia and this market has been going on next to the Ak Buura river for more than 2000 years.
Jayma bazaar was a bustling place in the days of the Silk Road and remains at the heart of trade in the Kyrgyz Fergana valley. Nowadays it is mostly local produce and cheap Chinese stuff sold in old shipping containers. However, if you look good, you can still find traditional handicrafts as well.
While Khujand in Tajikistan has the largest Lenin statue in Central Asia, the one in Osh is also pretty big and impressive. Overlooking the Osh Central square, he now faces the City Hall and the Kyrgyz flag.
Osh Memorial park
Nearby the Lenin Statue you will find the peaceful memorial park remembering some of the tragic events that are somehow connected to Osh.
Like most ex Soviet cities there is the eternal flame for victims of the Great Patriotic war, but there is also a memorial for the 4000 Kyrgyz people that were sent to Chernobyl as liquidators as well as the Tears of Mother memorial to those who lost their lives in the ethnic riots.
Russian orthodox church
The archangel Michael cathedral is at the heart of the Russian minority in Osh. During Soviet times it was a cultural center and it reopened in 1992 as a church.
Parks in Osh
For a peaceful walk in a nice and quiet green park head to the river park running alongside the Ak Buura river. The closer you get to the center, the busier it gets.
Navoi Park is most popular with local families, because of the amusement rides and great cafes. You will even find an abandoned Soviet plane that is now painted a bright blue.
The 3 storey yurt
At the foot of the Suleiman too mountain you will find the Alymbek Datka park with its 3 storey yurt. It houses the Osh regional museum, but is more like a souvenir shop.
Try maida manti and gok chuchvara
Maybe its the Uzbek influence, but Osh has some of the best food in Kyrgyzstan including some interesting specialities. Plov is a central Asian classic, but Osh uses a local variety of red rice and yellow onions making it quite unique.
Vegetarians will be happy with maida manti and gok chuchvara. Both are a variety of Manti dumplings. Maida manti are filled with potatoes and are served with sour cream and red onions. Gok chuchvara is filled with a local type of green vegetables.
It’s the Soviets that had a big influence on the current architecture of Osh. While the concrete flat appartments are not very inspiring, the decorative soviet mosaics are.
Osh has several hidden gems such as an aeroflot themed mosaic, the olympic misha bear and other Soviet ideologies. This excellent Google Map shows the location of some of the best Soviet murals in Osh.
Foodie tour and workshops
Destination Osh is a great place for any cultural activities. A lot of it revolves around the local cuisine. As i mentioned before, Osh has some of the best food in Kyrgyzstan. You can choose between a bread making workshop, a plov cooking class or a foodie walk throughout Osh sampling the local streetfood.
The best things to do near Osh
Sunday mornings is when locals and nomads bring their animals for sale at the Osh animal market. A large gathering of horses, cows, goats and sheep with men in kalpak hats bargaining passionately. It’s a loud and noisy affair.
The animal bazaar is early in the morning and most business is done before 10 AM. Take a taxi, because it is in the outskirts of the city and a bit difficult to find.
Uzgen is an easy day trip from Osh. The small ancient town is most famous for its 11th century mausoleum complex. The Kakhanid buildings resemble the islamic architecture in Uzbekistan. There is also a historical bathhouse and traditional rice mills that you can visit.
How to get there: Shared taxi’s leave from Kelechek bazaar and frequent minivans leave from the new bus station
Kyrgyz Ata offers the nearest alpine mountain sceneries and is a favourite daytrip to escape the city for people from Osh. It’s a great place to do some hiking or to enjoy nature.
The Alay mountains
A bit further from Osh is the spectacular Alay valley and the Alay mountains. Sary Mogul is about 4 hours from Osh and the gateway to Lenin Peak and several mountain lakes. Tulpar lake is the most accesible and has some yurt camps in summer where you can stay the night.
Other lakes where you can hike to are the Koshkol lakes and the Beshkol lake. Visit Alay organizes multi day hikes in the Alay mountains.
Another great mountain get away near Osh is the cute little town of Arslanbob. Famous for its walnut forests and scenic location in the Baba Atash mountains. It’s the perfect place to get to know rural village life of Kyrgyzstan, although most residents are Uzbek.
There are plenty of cosy homestays with delicious home cooked food. From Arslanbob you can make easy hikes to waterfalls and walk around the village and the walnut forests. Some more challenging multi day hikes are possible too.
Osh Travel Tips
Where to Eat in Osh
Osh has a great number of restaurants with pretty good food. It’s a welcome change from the cuisine you get in rural Kyrgyzstan or on the Pamir highway.
Tsarski dvor: This restaurant has a quirky Russian cabin decor and is specialized in shaslyck, although the other items on their extensive menu are delicious as well.
Brio: Brio is a nice cafe with a great atmosphere. It’s a great place for breakfast and sandwiches. The pizza’s were honestly better elsewhere.
Oasis: Oasis is a small fast food place with the best shoarma in Osh.
Where to sleep in Osh
Guesthouse VIP: I stayed in this great appartment and for the price I payed things couldn’t have been better. Great facilities, friendly people and we could choose what we wanted for breakfast. If I ever come back to Osh I will stay in Guesthouse VIP again.
Park hostel Osh: Park hostel is a new and clean hostel with comfortable dorms and friendly staff
How to get to Osh
From Bishkek: you can either fly or take the scenic long drive from Bishkek to Osh by shared taxi. They leave from the new bus station in Bishkek. Start early and enjoy the views. Read more information in my post on how to get from Bishkek to Osh.
From Tajikistan: From Murgab there are shared taxi’s crossing the border to Tajikistan at the Kyzyl art pass. There is no set schedule and taxi’s leave when full. In practice there is at least one car from Murgab to Osh every day.
From Uzbekistan: when you are in the Fergana valley in Uzbekistan it is easy to cross the Dostyk border that is only 10 kilometers away from Osh.
From China: When coming from Kashgar you can cross the border at the Irkeshtam pass. The first city in Kyrgyzstan will be Sary Tash from where it is only 3 hours to Osh.
When to visit Osh
The best time to visit Osh in Kyrgyzstan is during the months of May to September. This period corresponds to the spring, summer, and early autumn seasons when the weather is at its best.
In spring, Osh experiences pleasant temperatures with blooming landscapes and greenery. Summers are warm in the city, but are the most ideal time to go trekking in the Alay mountains.
September is also a good time to visit Osh. The weather is still pleasant and warm during the daytime, but nights start to get cooler. This month offers a more tranquil atmosphere compared to the peak summer months.
Winters are another time that sees few tourists, but it will be very cold and some areas might become inaccessible due to heavy snowfall.
Sustainable Travel in Osh
Osh is seeing more and more tourists every year. Where possible, I can recommend staying in a homestay for an authentic cultural experience. You might want to bring a small book with pictures of your family to break the ice. Traveling sustainably in Osh, involves conscious choices that both minimize your environmental impact and support the local community.
Support the local community: You can support the community by purchasing goods and services from local vendors, artisans, and restaurants. It is better to try Kyrgyz cuisine that uses local ingredients rather than imported foreign foods.
Stay in small scale sustainable hotels: It is also better to stay in locally-owned guesthouses or homestays to support the local economy directly. These accommodations often have a more positive impact on the environment compared to large hotels.
Osh has a number of interesting community-based tourism initiatives. For example, I highly recommend staying in a homestay for an authentic cultural experience. You might want to bring a small book with pictures of your family to break the ice.
You can try to look for guesthouses or homestays that prioritizes sustainable practices. That said, environmental awareness is still low. It’s up to you to use water sparsely, turn off lights, air conditioning, and heating when leaving your accommodation.
Leave no Trace principle: Kyrgyzstan is famous for its pristine landscapes, and it’s crucial to keep them that way. To avoid single-use plastics, invest in reusable items. For example, you can bring your own water bottle with a filter that you can refill at your accomodation. At last, use biodegradable and eco-friendly personal care products to minimize pollution of water sources.
Osh is not far from the Alay mountains. When exploring the area, stick to designated trails when they are there, avoid disturbing wildlife or picking plants, and leave no trace of your presence. Ensure you take all your trash back with you and dispose of it responsibly. Even better, is when you bring something to pick up any of the trash that other people left behind.
Respect the Culture: Besides environmental concerns it is also important to be sensitive of the community’s way of life. Kyrgyzstan is an Islamic country with a nomadic culture that is just opening up to tourism. Therefore, learn about the local customs and traditions beforehand and be mindful of your behavior.
People will appreciate it, if you dress modestly, especially at religious sites. Learning a few basic phrases in Kyrgyz or Russian, can go a long way in building meaningful connections and to learn more about the local culture. Not everybody is happy to have their picture taken. When in doubt, ask permission.
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