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Major Sights in Osh

Today, there is little evidence of Babur's residency, or of the city's 3,000-year-old-heritage. While the city is an instantly likeable and friendly place there are no 'must see' sights, although the ageless Jayma bazaar and the hill of Solomon's Throne are both well worth a visit. Before the Russians arrived and developed Bishkek as the regional capital, Osh was the largest urban centre in the territory of present-day Kyrgyzstan. With chaikhanas, busy mosques, Uzbeks in skullcaps and a bustling bazaar, Osh still feels more authentically central Asian than the upstart capital.

Jayma bazaarJayma Bazaar - The bazaar stretches north from Alisher Navoi, divided by the Ak- Buura River, which has a number of traditional chaikhanas along its west bank, dishing up chai and laghman in a relaxed convivial atmosphere. It is a vibrant, crowded place with a constant stream of shoppers weaving their way through it, dodging out of the path of men pushing loaded carts who urge 'Bosh! Bosh!' as they inch their way through the crowd. Most of the people working here are Uzbeks, but Kyrgyz and Tajiks are also highly visible too, set apart by their distinctive headgear.

Jayma Bazaar is one of Central Asia’s best markets, teeming with Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks dealing in everything from traditional hats and knives to pirated CD & DVD discs, horse shoes (forged at smithies in the bazaar), Chinese tea sets and abundant seasonal fruit and vegetables. This is arguably the best market west of Kashgar, today it pulsates to the sounds of a vigorous trading town, as buyer and seller try to outwit one another. It stretches for about 1km along the west side of the river, and crosses it in several places. It’s most dynamic on Sunday morning, and almost deserted on Monday.

Aurally and visually, it's very much a Central Asian mix of trading and nomadic traditions, where Soviet intrusions-the tannoy, the concrete, the music-are just a veneer. Among the green and orange headscarves of the women rise pyramids of fresh and dried fruit. There are hats for every occasion; traditional Kyrgyz felt kalpaks; Uzbek hats of colourful velvet, glancing with minute inlaid stones and mirrors; Uighur hats looking much like a 1930s European cap; and Russian fur hats for winter. Alongside age-old traditional goods and foods, imported clothes, TVs, fridges and electronic paraphernalia from Turkey and China offer evidence of increasingly open borders.

As with any true bazaar, the goods on sale are demarcated in clearly defined zones: moneychangers, dried fruit, lepyoshka (flat loaves), meat, gold jewellery and so on. The bazaar is open every day, but Sunday is generally the busiest day and Monday the quietest.

Near the bazaar is the Shaid Tepa mosque, the largest mosque in the country, which was originally constructed in wood between 1908-10, but which served as stables and blacksmiths during the Soviet period. It reopened in 1943 and in recent years has been renovated with Saudi backing.

Solomon's throne in OshSolomon’s Throne & around - Sacred Suleiman's Throne (Tacht-i-Suleiman) is the biggest of five mounds of barren limestone and quartz rock. Known as Bara-Kuh ('Beautiful Mountain') until the 16th century, the hill was renamed when the Muslim prophet Suleiman (Solomon) prayed (and some say was buried) here. It has since become one of the holiest places in Central Asia, nicknamed Kichik-Mecca ('Little Mecca'). A more tangible visitor to the shrine was Babur, last of the Timurids, who retired here during the late 15th century to carry out his chilla, the annual 40-day retreat performed by all Sufis. The rock is bedecked with 'handkerchief' trees; tying a piece of cloth to a tree or bush is believed to bring good luck.

Solomon's Throne is the city's focal point: an arid rocky outcrop that arises abruptly from the city centre above a large Muslim graveyard. This jagged, barren rock seems to loom above the city wherever you go. From certain perspectives it’s said to resemble a reclining pregnant woman, and is especially favoured by hopeful mothers. 

Babur HousePilgrims from all over the region visit the mount. Even for non-Muslims it is worth the climb to Babur's House for the fabulous view of the shimmering snow-bound peaks of the Pamir Alay, especially at sunset. Start your walk at the chrome-domed souvenir shop on Kurmanjan Datka and go through the archway to climb up the long, steep flight of steps. A 20- minute climb takes you to the top of the hill to Babur's House, which marks the spot where in 1497, 14-year-old Zahiruddin Babur, newly crowned king of Fergana, first built a shelter for his chilla - a 40-day retreat of silent meditation with just bread and water to eat. In later years this came to be something of an attraction in its own right. Babur describes the town in his famous autobiography, the Baburname, recalling how local scallywags would open the nearby town canals, drenching unsuspecting travellers. The shelter has been rebuilt twice, first after an earthquake in 1853 and most recently in the 1990s, after it was destroyed in 1961 by an explosion, which locals blame on the vigorous Soviet 'anti- superstition' campaign.

Local people call it Dom Babura, Babur’s House. If you speak Russian, the friendly Uzbek caretaker will tell you more, and offer you a prayer for a few som. Dusk is a good time to visit. The rocks around Babur's House make an excellent vantage point for enjoying the sunset and it is especially busy with people, mostly families and young couples, in the late afternoon and at dusk.

Just behind the shrine is a smooth, sloping slab of rock where the custom is to slide down foot-first; there is usually a queue of local families lining up to do just this. Sliding down the rock is said to confer considerable health benefits and many believe that it also helps with fertility problems, a belief linked to the fact that the hill itself is said to resemble a pregnant woman.

All manner of legends are attached to the hill: a tiny cave on the main path around the mount is said to have curative properties. Pilgrims come to pray there, especially in spring. Pilgrims shuffle inside, placing hands and knees in the assigned rocky dips, polished smooth by centuries of devotees. Holy men recite passages from the Koran in exchange for about US$0.50 cents in som. Legend has it that if you roll clown the inclined slab of limestone at the summit you will be cured of all bodily ills.

A more prosaic reward for the unbeliever is the commanding, albeit hazily toxic, view of the Ferghana Valley floor to the west and the high road to the Pamirs to the east. The north face of the mount has 2,000-3,000-year-old rock carvings, depicting horses, ibex and Marco Polo sheep. Unfortunately, trying to find them is virtually a lost cause, due to the amount of graffiti. Your best bet is to look out for the blue numbers slapped on the stone, often on top of the ancient rock carvings themselves!

Historical museumA slippery slope, worn smooth by pilgrim piety, continues downwards, above a scorched cemetery of crescents and stars, to the local museum  (open Weds-Sun, 9am-5pm). The rather space-age entrance bores sacrilegiously into the holy mountain, carving out a bizarre fairy grotto of a museum, whose lonely exhibits range from anonymous bits of pottery to an exhausted-looking stuffed bear. Upstairs houses a fully functional yurt, displayed by the Soviets as a relic of a lost ethnic trait.

This museum has great potential, but would be vastly improved with better lighting and English translations. Of most interest are the photo exhibits and artefacts relating to local shamans and the different religions practised in Osh, past and present. Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and water faiths are presented in a respectful tone. The craft stalls upstairs are worth a quick browse. You would certainly get more out of the visit by bringing an English-speaking guide; there are none on site.

At the base of the mountain is Osh's newest attraction, the excellent Silk Road Museum (also known as the Cultural Museum), which opened in early 2001 to mark Osh's 3000-year anniversary in October 2000. It’s strong on local archaeology and ethnography but has little info in English. There are some great weapons, displayed as if caught up in a mad whirlwind. A photo exhibition in the entrance hall describes different aspects of life in the city. Upstairs, the sweep through local geology and botany has a slightly Soviet flavour, although the pressed medicinal herbs are interesting. A big attraction is the broad perspective on the history of the region, covering three millennia. Archaeological artefacts, guarded by fiercely keen attendants, include Bronze Age implements and vessels, petroglyphs from Saimalytash, 11th and 12th century clay dishes and beautiful, glazed, azure medieval tiles. There is a measured section devoted to the Russian colonial era. Amongst an abundance of exhibits relating to manaschi, felt handicrafts, traditional Kyrgyz songs and horseback games, it is easy to forget the regions ethnic diversity. Outside, the giant three-storied yurt (9am-6pm) has a fairly lacklustre collection of national clothing, traditional textiles and shyrdaks.

Back down at the bottom of the hill is the small Rabat Abdullah Khan Mosque, the city's oldest mosque dating from the 17th or 18th century but rebuilt in the 1980s. It’s a working mosque (male visitors only) and one of the main places of worship in Osh, around 1,000 people regularly pray here. Enter through the wooden doorways, carved with traditional Uzbek skill, to the peaceful courtyard. Three rooms may be visited with permission, shoes off at the entrance.

Following the road from the Historical Cultural Museum down towards the huge Muslim cemetery, the Aibek Gallery is on your left on Gapar Aityev near the Asaf Ibn Burhiya Mausoleum.

Lenin statueCentral area: A novelty for visitors coming from Uzbekistan is the continued persistence of icons of Lenin that are strewn around Osh in various guises. Whereas Uzbekistan's Soviet icons quietly disappeared into the dead of night, only to be replaced by a new variant on a familiar theme, in Kyrgyzstan financial considerations have outweighed ideological statements. However, the largest Lenin in town takes centre stage in the main square at the southern end of town, along with Kurmanjan Datka, the Kyrgyz woman general who was instrumental in liberating the Fergana valley from the Kokand khanate.. The statue once stood in the capital, Bishkek, in the days when it was known as Frunze, but when the capital followed suit with other regional cities and disposed of its communist monuments, the great leader was bussed unceremoniously over the mountains to adorn the republic's second city. Not far from the statue lies the forsaken Russian Orthodox church.

The Kyrgyz have traditionally followed the nomad's somewhat relaxed interpretation of Islam and this is reflected in the secondary position mosques are accorded in Osh. Until the new juma mosque in the northeast of town is finished with Turkish money, local guzar mosques such as the Bakhi (Mohammed Yusuf Baihadji Ogli) on Navoi St or the older Rabat Abdullah Khan, at the base of the Tacht-i-Suleiman, will continue to fulfill the needs of the faithful. The uninspiring Asaf ibn Burchiya Mausoleum is also situated at the base of the hill. The nearby Silk Road Museum was opened for the Osh's 3000 birthday bash and is worth a visit for its ethnographical displays.

The riverbank park, stretching from Alisher Navoi to Abdykadyrov, is great for strolling. A central feature is an old Yak-40 plane for those curious about Soviet aviation, a onetime video salon, looking poised to leap over the river. There’s a palvankhana (wrestling hall) here but wrestling bouts are infrequent. Locals swim in the Ak-Buura River during summer or head to the Bolshoe Riba (Big Fish Pool; 9am-10pm) swimming pool, under the Abdykadyrov Bridge. The smaller pool is cleaner.

Osh hippodrome - A ten-minute bus or taxi ride out of Osh towards the village of Tuleyken brings you to the Hippodrome, the location for the irregular, but highly spectacular, traditional Kyrgyz sports staged on festivals or anniversaries. The fun and games include Kyz Kum (a form of kiss chase where if the woman catches the man she gets to ride behind him, whipping him across the field), Udaresh horseback wrestling, At Chabysh horse racing and even Kyrgyz eagle hunting. However, the highlight is without doubtulofe tartysh, an intense, frenzied game of polo played with the corpse of a decapitated goat. When the rules are observed it will seem to the outsider that there are no rules. When, up in the hills, there really are no rules, injuries and even fatalities are par for the course. Swirling clouds of heavy dust, Mongoloid faces framed in old flying helmets, yurts overflowing with vodka and mutton, frequent half time plov breaks and solo recitals of the Manas, the Kyrgyz national epic, combine to make the event a photographer's dream and an occasion to remember.