Jalal-Abad (pop. 75,000 people, sometimes spelt Dzhalal-Abad, Jalalabad or Jalalabat) named after a 13th century warrior (literally translated as the City of Jalal) may be Kyrgyzstan's third-largest city but you wouldn't know it from its laid-back, easy-going feel. Most visitors whiz through Jalal-Abad in their haste to reach Osh, which is a shame. This laid-back town of broad avenues, chaikhanas (teahouses), three universities and hot mineral springs is worth a visit in its own right and is also the springboard for trips into primeval walnut forests 80 kilometres away and the Uzbek mountain village of Arslanbob.
The city has a bright, relaxed feel that is different from the towns of the north. The streets are wide and well-shaded with trees, and many of the houses are typically Uzbek, hidden away behind walls and tall metal gates with rooms that face inwards onto a communal family area with the inevitable grapevine. The city's spirit of gentle liveliness is partly due to its youth: there are several universities based in the town and students throng the cafes around the centre.
Jalal-Abad lies at the foot of the Ayub-Tau mountains, near the confluence of the Kok Art and Kara Darya rivers, and is the capital of its eponymous oblast. It lies at the southeast corner of the oblast, very close to the border with Uzbekistan in the foothills of the Babash-Ata mountain range. The city's proximity to the Fergana Valley is reflected in its mixed population, of which about two-thirds are Uzbek. A branch of the Silk Road used to pass this way to trade with the settlements of the Fergana Valley, and although little evidence of this remains today, Jalal-Abad still has something of a timeless feel, in spite of its modernity.
The town has a long history of attracting travellers. As well as traders passing through on the Silk Routes, sick people and pilgrims have long sought hope and healing from the curative springs of the holy Ayub-Tau mountains. It is said that Jalal-Abad is named after Jalal-ad-din, who set up caravanserais and chaikhanas to cater for the hundreds of pilgrims who came each year.
In 1878 the Russians set up a garrison in the area, along with a military hospital. Attracted by the rich soil, warm climate and numerous hot springs, some of the servicemen settled here and are the ancestors of today's Jalal-Abad Slavs (the oldest Slavic community in southern Kyrgyzstan). Villages with Slavic names like Arkhangelskoe and Podgornoe were originally Cossack settlements. Jalal-Abad was later linked to the so-called 'cotton railway' between the Fergana valley and Russia, and developed into an agro-industrial centre producing cotton, wheat, tobacco, walnuts, fruit, vegetables, maize and silk worms. In the Soviet era, it was also a supply centre for the now run-down local coal mining towns of Kok Jangak and Tash Kumyr.
In Soviet times Jalal-Abad was a resort town and people flocked to bathe in the nearby mineral and mud springs. The town is shabbier now but its mixture of peoples (two thirds of the population are Uzbek) gives it a unique and appealing flavour of its own. A Soviet times upmarket health resort is still alive today but rather run down. On the grounds of the sanatorium is a natural spring (6.30-9am, noon-2pm & 5-8pm) enclosed in a wooden circular building. Locals queue anxiously for the building to open in order to collect the curative, sulphuric waters. Both the mineral water and medicinal mud have long been used to treat nervous disorders as well as skin, rheumatoid, kidney, liver and other problems. The mineral water business is still going strong and the sanatorium just outside the city continues to receive its share of visitors, although nothing like the old days. The springs and sanatorium are 4km from the town centre in a shady park, at an altitude of 975 metres, up the almond-grove slopes of the Ayub-Tau mountain, so taxi ride is needed.
Jalal-Abad is a great place to relax and watch the world go slowly by, especially if you've just made the long trip from Naryn or Bishkek. Street cafes such as the Diamond Cafe on the square on Lenina Street, with its fountains, umbrellas and statue of Lenin, are often full of groups of young people drinking beer, eating meatballs or chicken and chips, or simply chatting together.
The big eclectic bazaar in the middle of town sells a huge variety of produce, including delicious fresh circles of bread sprinkled with sesame seeds and still warm from the oven. It's also a good place to buy samsi, light pastry triangles filled with meat, and kashan, meat deep-fried in dough, or watch people play nardy, a national game which looks similar to backgammon. Near the market, on Lenina, is also the place to catch minibuses or taxis to the bus station.
Visitors arriving in Jalal-Abad in July or August will immediately notice how much hotter it is than most places in the north of the country. This is partly because of its comparatively low altitude, but also a consequence of its proximity to the cauldron-like microclimate of the Fergana Valley.
Sightseeing - Jalal-Abad has a pleasant atmosphere and a good bazaar but no specific sights to seek out. The central square has a gilded statue of Lenin who, unusually, is in a seated pose. The 'Kurort' sanatorium, 3km out of town, is worth a visit, if only for the view it offers over the surrounding countryside. There is a cafe close to the entrance of the sanatorium, Ikram-Ajy, where the panoramic view may be admired.
Visa red tape - The quickest way from Jalal-Abad to Osh is through Uzbek territory, but the visa wrangle has complicated the journey. Local people are supposed to get off the bus at the customs point, cross the border on foot and then change into an Uzbek bus for the absurdly small distance through Uzbekistan, repeating it all in reverse when they reach the Kyrgyz border. Foreigners can only do this if they have a multi-entry visa for both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The better alternative is to take the longer route via Ozgon.
Getting There & Around
Air Kyrgyzstan flies six times a week to/from Bishkek. Buy tickets at the airport or at ticket offices.
Marshrutkas 1 and 5 from the centre go to the airport via the bus station.
Marshrutkas and buses depart regularly from the bus station, 3km west of the centre. Scheduled buses depart for Bazaar Korgon (for Arslanbob) every 20 minutes (30 minutes) and to Osh every half-hour or so until 5pm.
Shared taxis depart from Lenina near the bazaar. You can catch rides to Osh, Ozgun, Bazaar Korgon and Bishkek.
For villages neighbouring Jalal-Abad you’ll need to head for the local bus stand in the far northern corner of the bazaar past the fresh produce. Shared Nivas and 4WDs for the mountain route to Kazarman also depart from near here.