20 September 2017
If you’re anything like us, the thought of being crammed into the back of a hot taxi for 12 hours while racing at reckless speed down a Kyrgyz mountain pass, sounds like an absolute nightmare.
Though from our early research, this seemed to be the only option for getting between Bishkek and Osh.
Our dread for the upcoming journey was probably a big factor in why we spent quite so long mooching around Bishkek, indulging on Korean fried chicken and fresh raspberries, in complete denial of the hellish trip ahead of us.
And then we came across the night cargo bus. An overnight service that shuttles supplies between Bishkek and Osh. And they take passengers.
Though the ride was said to be a little longer than the taxi and, no doubt, we’d still be hurtling at an unnecessary speed between the cities, words like ‘sleeper bed’ and ‘space’ made the whole ordeal seem far more appealing.
In the end, the journey wasn’t entirely comfortable, but we’re confident it was far better than the shared taxi option and, at the very least, a slightly bizarre adventure.
Here’s how to travel the alternative way between Bishkek and Osh, by cargo bus.
The cargo minibus leaves from the Kerben section of Dordoi Market on the outskirts of Bishkek (see the map here) daily between 4PM and 6PM. There’s not just one bus though – there are generally several minibuses to choose from each with an upper and lower sleeping berth for passengers.
The bazaar acts as a major wholesale base for goods coming from China that are redistributed to elsewhere in the region and the chaotic congregation of shipping containers that make up the market overflow with just about anything you could be looking for.
Arriving at Kerben, almost every car is met with a small flock of drivers calling their various destinations through the window. Simply pick the one heading to Osh that has a sleeping berth available and hopefully, a driver likely to obey the road rules.
We arrived by taxi to Kerben from across town which cost a little over 200 som ($3), though we saw several marshrutkas (#290) waiting around heading to Osh Bazaar if you were light on luggage and looking for a cheaper option.
The buses tend to have set departure times and from what we saw, this was mostly between 4PM and 6PM. We would suggest arriving by at least 4PM to find a bus and secure your spot. They also seem to leave when all their cargo has arrived and their hold is full, rather than when the clock ticks over.
The trip from Bishkek takes around 14 hours, following a winding road through the mountains before hitting the flatter highway that heads toward Osh. The scenery in this early stretch is said to be spectacular – reason enough for some to make the trip by day. As we had high hopes for similarly stunning mountain views in the Pamirs, we decided it was worth it to miss the scenery for the extra level of comfort.
For such a long trip, we made surprisingly few stops – just one for fuel and another for dinner around midnight. There were a couple of other very brief stops for the drivers to switch, definitely not for us to stretch our legs or use the bathroom. Our advice – don’t drink too much before your trip.
When we left Bishkek, we were lucky enough to have just the two of us in the lower birth and three others squeezed up top. A few hours into the journey though, as we reached the Kara-Balta intersection, another woman climbed in to join us. Admittedly, it wasn’t all that spacious with three, but at least we were able to lie down and be relatively comfortable rather than sitting up all night.
Though we can’t compare, we definitely felt that the bottom berth was the best choice. The roof was high enough that we could sit up (unlike the upper berth) making it a lot less claustrophobic. The downside was that we could see only a little out of the windows and had to wait for someone to open the door for us.
A pillow each and a blanket were provided though we’re not sure if this is commonplace on all buses. Our companion arrived with her own set of bedding, complete with duvet, pillow and extra blankets.
Though we much preferred being able to lie down rather than sitting up for the 12-hour taxi ride, it wasn’t quite as comfortable as we had hoped, largely because of the condition of the road. We hit the winding mountain pass somewhere between 10PM and 4AM where the drivers seemed to enjoy hurtling around every hairpin bend meaning we were essentially stuck trying not to roll around in the back.
Things improved greatly once we had passed through the mountains and the road straightened out.
From what we had read, we expected to be dropped at the Kara-Suu Bazaar, a good 20 km outside of Osh.
Instead, we were rather conveniently taken right to the centre of town from where we could walk to our guesthouse.
If you are dropped in Kara-Suu, you should be able to take a marshrutka or taxi directly to Osh.
To make the journey in the reverse direction, minibuses still leave from the Kara-Suu Bazaar. Ask at your guesthouse for the schedule.
Still looking for accommodation in Osh? Search for available hostels and guesthouses here.
We were told by our hostel not to pay anything above 800 som ($11.60) per person, but our driver wouldn’t budge below 1,000 som ($14.55), indicating toward our pile of luggage as the reason. Our two main backpacks did take up valuable space in his cargo hold after all.
Unlike with Kyrgyz taxi drivers, the negotiating process here was very calm and matter-of-fact and you’ll generally know when you’ve reached the lower price limit.
In case we haven’t said it enough, people in Kyrgyzstan drive like absolute maniacs, day or night!
In general, it is advised not to drive at night, but of course, this is when most of the long-haul trips are taken. While one of our drivers seemed to be in no rush to get anywhere, the other certainly was.
Though we’re not beyond telling a driver to slow down, we’ve heard from others this only egged them on, so choose how you want to play this.
The route to Osh passes over the Too-Achuu Pass which leads through a notorious mountain tunnel. Thankfully we didn’t see this, but from what we’ve heard it’s a rather harrowing experience, though we assume this would be the case day or night.
Finally, there are no seatbelts in the sleeping berths, as with almost all Kyrgyz vehicles. We took some small comfort in the fact that at least we were in a large vehicle rather than a tiny taxi. We also decided it was far better not being able to see out the windscreen so as to avoid spending the entire 14-hour trip stressing over every near miss and corner taken too fast. In this scenario, ignorance is certainly more blissful.
By Shared Taxi. A shared taxi seems to be the most popular option between Osh and Bishkek, particularly as you are able to enjoy the beautiful mountain vistas. The shared taxi is slightly faster than the cargo-minibus but it’s also a little more expensive, around 1,200 som ($17.50) per person.
By Plane. A flight is easily the fastest and most straightforward option, and with prices hovering around $40 for a 40-minute flight, it’s probably the best value choice as well, especially if you’re short on time. Note though that all Kyrgyz airlines that fly this route are on the EU blacklist of airlines for not meeting safety requirements.
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