In the mid-1990s, it wasn’t easy communicating or getting around the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. The telephone switching system was antiquated and overloaded. You could usually get a local call through on the second or third attempt, but to call another city meant dialing a complex series of digits; making an international call required a trip to the city telephone exchange where you waited in line to book the call. The major challenge was finding the number. People who needed to make calls on a regular basis kept numbers in well-worn pocket organizers. Osh, the second largest city in the country, did not have a telephone directory.
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There was also no city map--or at least no one I asked could remember ever having seen one. Even if it had existed, it would have likely featured Soviet-era street names which were fast disappearing as the city authorities dug into history and changed them to the politically correct names of Kyrgyz leaders and literary figures. Ulitsa Pionerskaya (Pioneers’ Street) was renamed for the painter Gapar Aytiev, Ulitsa 25 Oktyabrya (October 25th Street), marking the date of the Bolshevik Revolution, for the writer Kasym Bayalinov. The main one-way south street, Ulitsa Lenina (Lenin Street) became Kurmanjan Dakta kuchasi, named for the “Queen of the South,” the tribal chief who ruled the region after her husband was murdered in a palace coup in Khokand in 1862.
Even for fervent Kyrgyz nationalists, the name changes were confusing, and many people continued to use the old Russian names long after they disappeared from the street signs. Lenin was a particular source of confusion. Even though he was usurped by the “Queen of the South” on the main one-way south street, he simply moved one block east to take over the main one-way north street, pushing aside his one-time Bolshevik comrade-in-arms Yakov Sverdlov as Ulitsa Sverdlova officially disappeared into street-sign history.
The city buses and marshrutkas (private minibuses) plied both the old and new Lenin Streets but I did not know the city well enough to know where they would take me, so I took cabs for most trips. In Central Asian cities, the taxi business is still the most visible part of the informal economy. Although there are commercial taxi services, many drivers in private cars pick up passengers on the street. There’s a brief negotiation over the fare, although experienced passengers know the going rate between most points.
Apart from the occasional Mercedes, Audi or BMW driven by a government official or crime boss, there were few vehicles in Osh in the mid-1990s that should have been on the road at all. The problem wasn’t just the bare tires and noisy mufflers. It was the streets, which had received little maintenance from a cash-strapped city government since independence. Cold winters and sizzling hot summers had buckled the road surfaces and created huge potholes. To avoid them, vehicles weaved and swerved, statistically increasing the chance of accidents. The Soviet-era Moskvichs, Volgas and Ladas looked like casualties of a fender-bender war with dented doors and shattered windscreens, and a few were flamboyantly out of alignment. There were few auto repair shops and parts were in short supply. If you needed a radiator or distributor, you headed for the bazaar to scour the used parts laid out on tarpaulins and old blankets. A shortage of auto parts can spur innovation, and drivers routinely made repairs with scraps of metal and wire or a part salvaged from a different type of car. Gasoline cost about the same as in the U.S. (making it expensive by local standards) but there was no quality control. Because there were few gas stations, most drivers filled up at the roadside from roving tanker trucks called benavoz that sometimes dispensed a mechanically injurious blend of diesel and gasoline.
On days when I had to visit several newspapers or TV stations, I hired a car and driver for about $30 a day. My regular driver Babur, a broad-shouldered, grinning Uzbek with a perfect set of gold teeth, fearlessly gunned his Volga through the rutted side streets, dodging pedestrians and farm animals, shouting (in English) "No problem!" It turned out that he was a police driver who took time off work because I paid more than the police did. Whenever we got stuck behind other vehicles he put a flashing light on top of the car, and bellowed orders through a small speaker mounted on the hood. The cars magically parted in front of us.