The Nomadic Kyrgyz

The Kyrgyz are a very nomadic people by tradition. In Bishkek, Osh, and other major cities you would hardly be able to tell, but just drive 10 minutes outside the city and you will see people living in yurts, or flocks of sheep being moved from one pastureland to another. It is a tradition they are very proud of as it defines their heritage and their national symbol found on the flag is the shape of their nomadic homes, the yurt.

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During the month of May, mountain valleys begin to thaw out after the harsh winter and luscious, fresh grasslands begin to appear. The owners of livestock use this opportunity to move their flocks from the over grazed lowlands to these newly accessible pastures. As you drive through the mountains you will witness these vast migrations as hundreds of sheep, goats, and cows fill the road, slowing down the traffic. As the flocks migrate, so do the people. In order to be adaptable to the changing natural conditions, the nomadic people developed the yurt as their home. The yurt is made of a curved wooden structure, wrapped in natural animal skins and canvas. The structure is very mobile allowing it to be tore down and reconstructed in only a few hours. When the season changes back to the cold, unbearable winter, the families can then easily move back down to the lower fields to avoid being covered in snow and allowing their animals to graze all year round. 

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As we were climbing the mountains of Jeti-Oguz, we came across a few families who were in the middle of this migration. They were transporting their yurt building materials to the alpine plains and rebuilding their homes. It was very interesting to watch them as they so quickly erected their new residence. As they took a break they laid down a few blankets and invited me to join them for tea and fresh baked bread. What a beautiful setting they have for their new home at the base of these rocky mountains! And what a simple life they lead as they so freely move their life from place to place with such few material possessions, but putting so much importance on living together as a family and taking care of their animals. It was such a privilege to witness this transition and partake of their first meal in at their new home for the season.

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Finding Peace and Beauty in Karakol

Just to the east of Issy Kol, the worlds second largest alpine lake, there sits Kyrgyzstans fourth largest city. Karakol is not a large city with less than 62,000 residents, but it doesn’t boast big infrastructure or modern architecture. The small town is surrounded in every direction by huge mountains providing central Asias best hiking and skiing resorts. The view in every direction is breathtaking as the sun reflects off the bright white snow capped peaks. Walking through town, your eyes are forced upward to take in the wonderful nature that towers above.

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Just 5 kilometers from the town you will arrive at the town beach on the shore of Issy Kul. But unlike the jam packed beaches of America or Europe, here you will find solitude amongst the horses grazing beneath the mountains, and the few crazy locals who are willing to brave the frigid blue water. But sitting on the shore you can see the rolling green hills turn into the jagged mountain peaks above reflecting off the bright turquoise blue lake.

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Despite not having a lot to do in the actual town of Karakol, a stroll around some of the older parts of town can be quite lovely. The antique homes are chipping their bright red, blue, and white paint in contrast to the wall of mountains in the distance. The local parks are filled with pines and tall grasses giving you a fully immersive nature experience. Small restraints and bazaars bring out the life of the town as locals meander the streets in no hurry. An old church and old mosque sit on opposite sides of town, yet both are built with a very look. Wooden siding to fit in with the nature of the area and brightly colored accents paint the roof and walls. Most of your time here will most likely be spent high in the mountains as they lure you from every angle, yet the peaceful tranquility of the small, quaint town may make your stay longer than expected. Either way, the drive to Karakol from Bishkek will be one of the most rewarding aspects of a trip to the east as you circumference the beautiful Lake Issy Kul.

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The Perfect Mountain Getaway: Altyn Arashan

Ever looking for that complete mountain escape? Living in a remote little shack, with no people around, only you in a giant valley overlooking snowcapped peaks. Wild horses roam the vast pasturelands as an ice cold glacial river flows through, adding a ribbon of blue to the bright green landscape. Pine tree forests add texture and contrast to the grey, rugged rocks that tower above. Frozen peaks disappear into the shifting clouds above that bring unpredictable weather. Up bubbles a mountain hot spring bringing warmth and comfort to the weary hiker. This place exists, and is only rewarded to those willing to hike the 17 km to this peaceful mountain oasis.

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Altyn Arashan is one of the most popular hiking destinations of Kyrgyzstans fourth largest city, Karakol, yet still a place where you can escape humanity. There are only 2 or 3 guest houses up in their mountain valley and they are accessible only by hiking or the occasional, expensive 4×4 vehicle. However, the road road is considered one of the worst in the world and transports you only a little faster than the 4 or 5 hour hike. 

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Because you are following a rough dirt road that follows a river, the hike is actually a very lovely, low incline, well marked trail, as opposed to most hiking trails I have been on in Kyrgyzstan. But finding the trail is the hardest part for those who don’t speak the local language or Russia. We had a local help us, but essentially a local minibus drops you off on a random side road well our of town that takes you through a local village and then slowly snakes you along the river through the mountain valleys. No trailhead, no map, no indication of direction or distance, but just a road alongside a river. Once the road is found though, and you are confident it is the one that takes you the right way, it does turn into a wonderful stroll along the river. At a few clearings you will get little teases of the mountain peaks that loom in the distance. A few times you will even get a breathtaking vista of the peaks that await you with the bright blue river pointing the way through the valley. As you slowly ascend up out of the pines you start to see more and more of the snowy peaks until you are just a few hundred meters yourself from touching the snow. After a few hours, the valley opens up to the wide pastureland revealing a few tiny shacks that will house you in one of the most scenic overnights you could ever imagine.

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Descending to the guesthouses you will be greeted by a few lovely dogs, but the guest house occupants might be a bit harder to find. They might be out in the field or tending to their animals, but once you do find them, they will make sure your stay is a very accommodating one. The guest house will provide you with proper bedding that will keep you warm during the frigid mountain nights, a few warm meals, and access to the hot springs that will soothe and cure your tired muscles after a long day hiking. Once the guest houses are reached there are a few other hikes that can be made, using this shack as a base. You can hike up to a mountain lake, or towards the glacier, or just through the pasturelands as you marvel at how small you are compared to these giant mountains. Altyn Arashan definitely did not disappoint my craving for outdoor adventure in a beautiful setting and allow me to feel like a real mountain explorer!

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Bishkek: The Post Soviet Capital of Kyrgyzstan

As you travel from southern Kyrgyzstan, past the Tian Shan mountain range, you will notice an immediate difference in the culture and the people. Suddenly we weren’t the only white people around. There are a lot of Russians and other foreign workers and students. Every block is filled with concrete apartments and soviet statues. A mountain wall lines the southern border and a flat plain opens Bishkek up to the Kazakhstan border. People fill the streets dressed in modern clothing rushing to and from meetings or classes. All the signage is written in Russian as the post soviet language dominates the cities communication over the national Kyrgyz. Kyrgyzstan’s capital is a happening place with almost a million people taking part in the daily commerce. 

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However, Bishkek has a relatively short past due to the Soviet control of the area. The capital was named Frunze for almost 70 years after a Russian war commander. In 1991, the Soviet lost control of the area and the city was restored to its original name. Walking through the streets though, you can see how much the Soviet influenced the architecture and infrastructure. Many of the buildings have very blocky, simplistic, geometric shapes without much making them architectural wonders. Yet the simplicity and symmetry is something to be marveled in itself. Many statues and busts of soviet rulers are still seen walking around the city and usually placed symmetrically in front of the prominent buildings. In front of the museum, you can see the statue of Lenin pointing north towards the former soviets capital. In front of the theater, however, we see a Kyrgyz hero, Manas. It is said that Manas united all of the Kyrgyz tribes pushing Kyrgyzstan to its glory age in the 9th century AD. In front of the Government House, patterns of flowers brighten up the other wise cold architecture. 

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Although the architecture of Bishkek is not the most unique or creative, its streets are filled with an up and coming culture. Hip coffee shops fill in the city blocks and delightful cultural restaurants from Georgia, Indian, and Italy bring to life the tourists taste buds. The Mountains create an adventure junkies playground for hiking and skiing. And the buildings hold stories of recent soviet rule for the budding historian. 

Sulaiman-Too: The Heart of Osh

The second largest a city in Kyrgyzstan, Osh, sits right in the middle of two massive mountain ranges. And right in the middle of Osh sits a huge rock that defines the city. Sulaiman-too is very significant to the history and being of Osh. It is one of the countries only recognized World Heritage sites and is a very holy place for the people.

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The mountain was referred to as the stone tower during ancient times and marked the halfway point for Silk Road traders traveling from Europe across Asia. The mountain also has a lot of religious significance for the Muslims. One of the prophets Solomon is said to be buried on the mountain and a mosque was constructed on the top by Babur in 1510. Legend holds the mountain as a significant fertility site. Women hike the mountain barefoot and slide down its rocks to bear healthy children. One of the rocks is polished to a shine from the years of women sliding down its face.

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However, to the average tourist, the mountain simply serves as an incredible platform to observe the lively city below and the miles of beautiful mountains that surround the Fergana valley. Hiking to the main viewing platform only takes 15 minutes but some of the other peaks require a little bit more time as you have to make your own way, scrambling over boulders. The view is incredible and a great place to watch the sun rise or set over the valley that occupies both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Entrance to the park only costs 20 som (30 cents) so there is no excuse not to climb it!

Osh to Bishkek: The Most Beautiful Drive

Kyrgyzstan is not a huge country. Its about the size of South Dakota or Kansas, but crossing the country is no easy feat. The country is filled with mountains, leaving only about 30% of its land on flat ground. Bishkek to Osh is only 310 km, if you were able to fly like a bird. But because of the difficult geography, the roads wind back and forth taking you 620 km and between 8-10 hours! But you don’t want to miss a single hour because it is one of the most stunning drives you will ever take.

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The drive starts off fairly easy as you cross the Fergana valley. You must skirt around Uzbekistan as it juts into southern Kyrgyzstan. Mountains to the north and south line your view as you drive right along the border to Oozgen and then Jalalabad. The Arslanbob mountains eventually dominate your view as begin to drive directly toward them as you approach Jalalabad. After passing this massive group of peaks, you will start to follow the most blue river you have ever seen. The Naryn river cuts across northwest Kyrgyzstan and it appears that it is lined with opals. The color is a tremendous teal that makes it almost appear fake against its brown, dusty surroundings.

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The river slowly takes you to the massive Toktogul the so perfectly reflects the Suusamyr-Too mountains range. As the road continues due north of the lake, the only way to get there from the southerly approach is to drive around the shore. The road steadily climbs the range until you reach a snowy bluff that descends into a long valley between beautiful mountains. The driver may hit 150-160 km/h as he zooms down this long, flat, straight piece of pavement. The horses and yurts zip by as you fly down these open pastures. 

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Then comes the climb of your life. The road snakes back and forth for almost 30-40 minutes as the only way past the mountain range is over it. Each switchback offers a more and more stunning view of the valley and mountains below. As far as the eye can see, the white capped peaks fringe the horizon. The road eventually cuts straight through the mountain and the 3.5 km tunnel marks the end of the climb. The light at the end of the tunnel is breathtaking. You are face to face with tall snowcapped peaks everywhere with a small valley winding through which is presumably where the road will take you. 

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What took ages to climb, flies by as the driver takes each switchback with terrifying speed. The only thing slowing him down is the occasional flock of sheep that is migrating to higher lands with now thawed green pastures. And in no time we are down off the mountain and in the northern flatlands of Kyrgyzstan. The flat road takes us through a few villages as the natural landscape slowly turns into more and more suburbs of the capital city Bishkek. The ride is slowly coming to an end, but the view of the majestic mountains we just crossed continues to loom in the south with the suns last rays making the snow glow. Welcome to Bishkek.

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An Afternoon with Kyrgyz Shepherds

It was an ordinary Sunday. We went to church and then out to lunch with some new friends trying out some new cultural foods. We shared some laughs and shared some stories. As the lunch was dying down, a few of us remained, including the mornings preacher. We both soon realized there were no further plans for our afternoons, so Aman, our new Kyrgyz friend casually asked if we would like to visit his relatives in a nearby village. And that’s how the adventure began.

Right before we left Osh, we were spontaneously asked if we would care to spend the night in the village also. Throwing in our toothbrushes, we happily agreed! Between hitchhiking and local minibuses, we made our way an hour and half outside of the city to these beautiful pasturelands on the border of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Right on the other side of the narrow river lies a whole new country, one who’s past has at times caused problems on these borders but for now is at peace.

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Our past experiences showing up unexpected in remote villages has always been pleasant and full of many unexpected surprises. When you think remote mountain village, you typically picture simple homes of mud and corrugated metal. However as we enter the first home we are greeted by brightly painted walls, the most beautiful hand crafted curtains, and an Easter morning display of candy baskets lining the dining room table. They immediately had us wash our hands and offered us the seats furthest from the door, a sign of honor. We were then paraded with a buffet of local candies and delicacies along with American favorites such as Twix bars. A very hospitable welcome and a far cry from what we expected entering a small Kyrgyzstan village.

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After our buffet, we went around the village visiting Aman’s relatives and their neighbors. Every ones initial greeting is “Come to tea!” We had to politely decline many times as it would have taken us days to drink tea at every home in this village.

Arriving at our hosts Reliable Soviet car, we drove a ways out of town to near the reservoir. Our passage was interrupted more than a few times to pick some berries, ride horses, and meet with some locals. Eventually we parked the car and had to hike along the edge of the border over the hill to the reservoir. As we were hiking we came across 3 teenage soldiers that walk up and down the border all day guarding Kyrgyzstan and watching the neighboring country making sure they are obeying. They escorted along the border, warning us not to look too intently or take photos of Uzbekistan as we might be considered spies. Arriving at the reservoir, we received an incredible vista of the surrounding green pasturelands broken up by the sprawling water and framed by the distant white peaked mountains. Sitting on these picturesque hills we found shepherds laying in the grass as their flock of over 800 sheep grazed in the surrounding pasture. With Aman as our translator, we payed in the grass with them, hearing stories of their country and sharing ours.

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As we slowly let the afternoon pass in this most beautiful setting, I asked if I could try out the horse. So here I was riding a horse only the second time in my life, learning to steer it as a car and commanding the animal to deliver me over these rolling hills through the throngs of sheep. It was such an incredible feeling being carried by such a powerful, beautiful animal. A feeling I had never experienced before, yet it is the daily mode of transport for these Kyrgyz shepherds. They were so excited to share this daily experience with us and even insisted on trying the donkey as well. It was such a beautiful afternoon hearing about the lives of these hardworking shepherds as we lay in the bright green pasturelands.

We returned to the village as the sun was setting only to make a few more stops at the villagers homes. We soon learned that we were the first Americans this village had ever received. So again we were able to answer eager questions of people curious about our country. We even found a few people who had never heard of Donald Trump! We talked and drank tea until our eyes could no longer stay open. Sharing our day with these villagers and mountain shepherds will be a memorable and enriching experience for both of us as we learned so much from each other. I hope someday they will get to visit and experience the daily life of an American.

Trekking Arslanbob

Look north 150 kilometers from Osh and you will see a huge wall of white jagged peaks. Drive 3 hours north of Osh and you will be close enough to touch and climb these tremendous rocks that uphold the Tian Shan. This mountain range stretches from the edge of Uzbekistan well into the northern reaches of China covering 2,800 meters. Here in this little town of Arslanbob, you get to really experience living in the foothills of this majestic range.

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Arslanbob seems like a tiny little village when you are in the town square, but there are almost 11,000 people living all through these rolling plains and forests. As you go trekking towards the mountains you start to understand this population estimate as you continue to see little houses tucked away in some of the most scenic pastures you could ever imagine. Arslanbob is known also for hosting the worlds largest natural walnut forest. In September the village is vacated as all of the towns people go scurrying to the woods to collect nuts that are sold all over the central Asian region. The forest produces over 1500 tons of walnuts every year and the trees can live for almost 1000 years. Although the wood is very famous for high quality furniture and strong woodworking, it is illegal to cut down any trees from this natural forest. Legend has it that either prophet Mohamed or Alexander the Great contributed to planting the first walnut seeds in this beautiful and fertile region of Kyrgyzstan landscape, but others just attribute it to merchants passing along on the silk Road. Also, worthy of noting is that this town is said to be a mix of Uzbek and Kyrgyzstan people. In this region, these two people groups are known for continued fighting and disagreements so having a place like this where they live in love and harmony is a unique and peaceful place to find for the locals. 

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During my first few nights in Osh, I was invited by the hostel owner to come to Arslanbob to investigate some new trekking routes that they could offer to coming tourists. Having a love for the outdoors and spending nights camped out in beautiful mountains, I couldn’t say no. Arslanbob over the past 15 years has increased it tourist rates from 150 a year to over 3000. This is in huge part due to the efforts of Community Based Tourism. In most rural parts of Kyrgyzstan, you will find this friendly group of locals who will set you up with locals providing village homesteads and local guides to take you through the mountains. As we began our hike, we started to realize the need for these hired guides. We were essentially trailblazing our way through the mountain. From a distance we could assess our best route for hitting the next ridge and hope that we would find footing that would suit our needs along the way. It made for a very unique trekking experience and one of pure beauty as you realized you were blazing trails that have only been taken by a few tourists and pasture men before you. Yet the whole scene was filled with absolute beauty. As the clouds came in and out of the way, beautiful snow capped peaks would stare straight down at us. The green pasturelands below creating such a vibrant contrast against the dark grey and white rocks that stared us straight in the face less than a few kilometers away. As the day went on and we got closer to these breathtaking beauties, unfortunately, the weather worsened bringing a thick fog and cold rain. We eventually found shelter from an unoccupied hut in the hills of the pastureland. On a clear day we would have had a picture perfect, uninhibited views of these rock faces, but unfortunately, the fog and rain forced us to take cover inside where we spent the night. The morning too hid the mountains in thick fog, but fortunately the rain held off. 

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Although the weather did not fully cooperate, the glimpses we got of these amazing mountains only filled our imagination of how breath taking the views we would of had on a crystal clear day. Where we camped, we would have been faced with only these towering rocks that were showered in snow and surrounded by the neighing of horses and bleeding of sheep on the bright green pasture land. 

Osh: Through the Old Bazaar

After months of traveling through overcrowded, over polluted, and under construction China, Kyrgyzstan is a huge breath of fresh air. The landscape is dominated by glorious mountains from the the Pamir Mountains in the south and the Tian Shan in the north. Only 35% of the land is even livable because of the harsh climate and rugged terrain the mountains create. And in that livable land, there are only 5.72 million inhabitants. In China alone there are 23 cities that have a larger population than the whole country of Kyrgyzstan. Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, has only 232,000 people.

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The decrease in population in a land full of vast resources is immediately noticed when walking around the city. The morning, mountain crisp air allows you to see the white capped peaks that surround the city. The markets are stocked with the freshest fruits and vegetables I have seen in a long time, and the streets are moving people around town in an orderly fashion. Every thing is green from the fresh spring rains and the people are enjoying the warmth and sunshine of the coming summer months. Right in the middle of this lively urban center in the mountains, the roads slowly descend to the trap covered, corrugated metal and shipping container market place that takes you back to centuries long ago.

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Right along river, the old bazaar takes you to a totally different world from a different time. Down here you will weave through tiny streets covered with colorful silks, aromatic spices, bloody meat, and fresh vegetables. The pace is slow, as shoppers make their way to the neatly assorted stands, buying their goods for the day. The dirt roads are filled with puddles and pothole, while some stalls are located in abandoned concrete structures. The people are friendly and excited to welcome the visitors to their beautiful country and allow us to sample their fresh food and ingredients. This unique Bazaar will take you almost a kilometer through the middle of town, displaying the old agricultural culture of the Kyrgyzstan people.

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Irkeshtam Pass: China to Kyrgyzstan

After 6 weeks backpacking across the huge country of China, we are already more than halfway to our final destination, Istanbul. However, we still have a long time to go and a lot of countries to visit! Today was the much anticipated and very infamous crossing into Kyrgyzstan. We have heard a lot about this border in our research and through word of mouth with others we met in China. Part of the fun of this crossing is that there is no real clear way to do it. There is no railway and a very unreliable bus option, so most backpackers rely on the rumored shared taxi method. Not really knowing what we were getting ourselves into, we ordered one.

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By this time we had found 3 other backpackers just as unsure how this crossing worked and decidedly wanted to combine our efforts into a group of 6. Strength in numbers right? Fortunately, one of them spoke Chinese which definitely helped clear up some otherwise very confusing situations. About 100 km from the actual border of China, we met our first of many passport checks. After realizing we were who we said we were, the guards let us through, only to be stopped a few more kilometers down the road for the guards to make sure we hadn’t changed who we said we were. Eventually there was another stop to ‘technically’ depart China. Then we had to change buses to take us through this no mans land to the border of Kyrgyzstan. We were stopped again a few times to make sure none of us had spontaneously joined the ride since our last passport inspection, despite being in one of the most desolate lands I have ever seen. 

Irkeshtam Pass Kyrgyzstan

Finally we made it to what seemed to be the border, or maybe it was just another passport check. We’re not really sure. But what we do know, is that we showed up right at the beginning of their 2 hour siesta. So instead of checking our passports quickly to check that we were still who we said we were, they took a nap. And so we waited… For 2 hours. Once everyone woke up, we were free to move beyond this last checkpoint in China! Then just a ways down he road we come to a tiny little shack in the road with a sad looking barbed wire fence up to my waist. “Welcome toKyrgyzstan!” Says the big burly guard as we wait at the tiny shack. A small van comes to pick us up and drive us 200 meters to the inspection guard who takes our temperature and grants us our second stamp of the journey! We finally made it to Kyrgyzstan!

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The rest of the ride to Osh was beyond beautiful. The sky cleared up a bit giving us heavenly views along the Irkeshtam pass. The surrounding mountains were breathtaking and we even convinced the driver to let us stop to throw a few snowballs! Then we descended a couple hours through beautiful backcountry villages and through herds of cattle, down to the tiny city of Osh. An absolutely incredible drive and a lot less complicated then imagined, especially after leaving China. There was always a car waiting for us, even though we had to change vehicles 4 times!

The taxi to the border cost us 50 RMB ($8) per person. The second bus cost us 100 RMB ($16) per person. The taxi to the Kyrgyz inspection station cost 20 RMB ($3). The final car to Osh cost 1800 Som ($30) per person.