a trip to Osh, part 1

WARNING: Osh (along with most of southern Kyrgyzstan) is currently experiencing severe ethnic violence related to the country’s recent regime change. It is not considered safe for tourism at the present time. – Wikitravel

Farrell and I went to Osh for two days last week on a business trip (along with neighbor Carl and his employee). Barely two days. But it was a big deal. It was my first time traveling to the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, the part that I’ve been told is still on edge from an episode of ethnic violence last June (what some people in the south refer to as “the War”). Journalists and regional experts sometimes describe Kyrgyzstan in two parts; the north and the south, the Russian speakers and the Kyrgyz/Uzbek speakers, the BMWs and the yurts. Osh defines the southern region, or so I’ve been told.

For such a small trip, it was difficult to absorb an accurate sense of the city. I can confidently say it’s different than Bishkek. It’s less familiar. There are more extremes. There’s a definite tension walking past so many burned buildings.

To be honest, my biggest concern was transportation. Before we left, I tried to put down some thoughts about the decision to fly rather than drive, hoping that I would be able to calm myself and see the logic if it were written down.

To fly or to drive? There is an inexpensive flight on Kyrgyzstan’s national airline, the one that is banned from European airspace for its subpar safety record and outdated aircrafts. Or, there is a long, arduous drive, a minimum of ten hours, over roads that are speckled with potholes, wind around pitched corners, and are generally dismissive of the aggressive drivers trying to haul passengers to their destination. In the winter there is snow and fog, neither of which is ideal for the journey by any means. Driving would be longer, but could be a nice way to see the country, slow and rambling. But it’s longer. Bad weather makes it even longer. Breaks for tea make it even longer. Traffic accidents, buried roads, repairs, and photo opportunities make it even longer.

Flying is more convenient, but I have a thing about plane crashes and a general hatred for flying. Statistics show that plane crashes are much rarer than car accidents, but in those rare instances, third world carriers flying domestically are more common. I hear seatbelts aren’t guaranteed and seats occasionally come loose and slip back. Bad weather, on the forecast for Monday and Tuesday, means delays or worse.

But we’re flying. Convenience over my personal neurosis.

Now I know. There were seatbelts. There were vague security check-ins, as in, if the security officer wasn’t distracted by a group of men trying to push past the metal detector, he might check that you have a valid ticket and passport. The seats were not completely secure to their position. Signs were in Spanish and (what looked like) Bahasa Malay, showing that this airline hadn’t yet gotten around to updating their twice-retired plane.

I slept almost the entire way down to Osh, which is how I survive on flights. I woke up once to see the clouds clear away briefly and show a mountain peak unsettlingly close below us. On the way back up it was darker, colder, windier, and stormier. Carl asked if we thought the plane had an altimeter and I went into a silent panic mode, imagining the pilots, “Hey, how high up do you think we are right now?” and trying to play out a Bear Grylls-like survival scenario in my mind in case they guessed wrong.

But, obviously, it all worked out just fine. I would say the most dangerous part of the flight was the toddler who refused to stay in his seat as we approached the runway. He was too distracted by Carl’s iPad, having just discovered the magic touchscreen when a flight attendant whisked him up and into his seat for the landing.

Stay tuned for stories about everything between the two flights.