Batken Oblast was created in 1999 from the three most westerly rayons, or regions, of what was then part of Osh Province: Batken, Chong-Alay and Kadamjay. This came as a result of more direct and visible governing in the region following an unstable period in which there had been frequent incursions by militants from the Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan (IMU). A couple of well-documented kidnappings involving Japanese geologists and young American climbers put the region firmly off-limits for several years. Travel to the Batken region was advised against until quite recently, but this advice has since been relaxed by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), although it would be wise to check the current FCO recommendations before proceeding to travel to the region.
The north of the oblast occupies part of the southern Fergana Valley that extends into Uzbekistan, an area of rolling dry hills and semi-desert steppe; the province's southern boundary is defined by two stark, treeless mountain chains - the Alay, which extends east into Osh Province, and the Turkestan range, both subsidiary ranges of the Pamirs. The most remarkable feature of Batken Province's geography, however, is political rather than physical, as the oblast is host to no less than six island enclaves that belong to neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
In terms of tourist potential, the province is the least well known in all Kyrgyzstan, partly a result of its isolation and partly because travel was proscribed here until recently. Another considerable problem is the existence of the enclaves that demand visas even for swift transit and create logistical problems for those wishing to travel through the province.
Mountaineering expeditions have long favoured the province, which offers speciality mountaineering challenges like the sheer walls of 5,504m Ak-Suu peak southwest of Batken and the sharp peaks of the Turkestan range that are carved by wind and ice to resemble sharks' teeth.
BATKEN The journey west to Batken from Osh passes through a dreamy agricultural landscape of tobacco and rice, with the stunning backdrop of the snow-capped Alay range ever-present to the south. The road is generally good apart from some of the dusty stretches skirting the Sokh enclave that are barely more than dirt tracks. Close to Batken, the road itself is used for drying and threshing rice, and piles of rice-straw line the roadside in places at harvest time. The Batken region is also well known for its apricot orchards and the oruk (dried apricots) they produce.
The provincial capital is a pleasant enough town and a reasonable place to spend the night en route to Khojand in Tajikistan. Batken was awarded city status in 2000, although the place has more of the atmosphere of a large village. Since it became capital of the recently created oblast a number of new government offices have been opened. In contrast to the Tajik-populated enclaves of nearby Vorukh and Sokh, Batken's population of around 12,000 is almost entirely ethnic Kyrgyz.
Getting there With an Uzbek transit visa and a double-entry Kyrgyz visa it is perfectly possible to reach Batken from Osh by the regular daily bus service or a shared taxi. Without the appropriate visas, things are more problematic as the direct route goes straight through the Uzbek enclave of Sokh. Some taxi drivers insist that it is possible to pay the Uzbek border guards a small 'appreciation' so that they turn a blind eye to the foreigner in their midst; others say that the Kyrgyz guards do not bother stamping visas in and out of Kyrgyzstan and so a double-entry Kyrgyz visa is unnecessary - this is probably true but it is all rather uncertain and dependent on the guards, the mood they are in, and whether or not they like your face. It is best to seek up-to-date advice as this situation appears to change constantly.
A more reliable alternative is to take a taxi that goes around the Uzbek enclave on rough, dirt roads, thus avoiding the problem altogether. Naturally, this will cost more because of the greater distance travelled.
Shared taxis to Batken from Osh leave from the square behind the Hotel Alay next to the equestrian statue. They tend to leave fairly early in the morning, usually around 07.00-08.00. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to find other passengers who want to take the longer route because the visa requirements do not affect locals in the same way as they do foreign travellers. If this is the case, a private taxi will cost around 2,000som, otherwise it should cost 500som per place. Be sure to ascertain that the driver is going cherez obyezd ('via the detour'). By this route the journey time from Osh is around 7 hours.
Batken's small airport has flights to and from Bishkek three times a week in summer with Altyn Air. The flight takes 1 hour 10 minutes and costs upwards of US$50.
From Batken to Tajikistan Transport to Isfara in Tajikistan leaves from the west side of Batken's hospital. There are fairly regular buses and taxis making the short hop to the border from where it is another 10 minutes on to Isfara. Border formalities here seem to be astonishingly brief, the Kyrgyz post not even looking at passports and, at the Tajik post, just a cursory examination and a passport stamp is required, without even the need to get out of your taxi. From Isfara there are frequent buses onwards to Khojand, and money changers at the bus station who will change any remaining Kyrgyz som into Tajik somani.