When I stand in bazaars in these foreign lands, I feel myself to be standing inside their beating hearts as well. To me, the bazaar is the face of the country, and nothing like how a bazaar is run, what is sold, what kind of social customs and behavior to provide a better understanding of the features of the person on which that face rests. Each bazaar I have been to so far in this part of the world was unique, though there were obvious consistencies in product, feature and social protocol of the bazaars that shared a country. These articles will attempt to determine what distinguishes a Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Kazakh, or Uzbek bazaar from all the others and what makes each unique.
Kyrgyzstan: Eclectic Soul Bazaars
Well, well, well, how YOU doin’ Kyrgyzstan? This place has been my stomping grounds for the past few months. I love this country, and I love Bishkek. It reminds me of back home where I grew up (Buffalo, New York), and with good reason too. Its blue collar, hard, snowy and got that nice rusty old factory thing about it too. The bazaars really add a little something to it to drive that feeling home from the people, to the meteorological phenomenon, to the stacks in the background billowing out smoke. I have been to three bazaars in Kyrgyzstan, two in Bishkek, and one in Karakol, and while each has their own little charm, there were a few things that were similar about all of them.
Kyrgyz bazaars are, in a word, schizophrenic. The Dordoy Bazaar in Bishkek, which is the largest in Central Asia, stretches on forever, and will sell you anything you want really. I mean anything. “Yes, sir, I would like a human-sized spongebob squarepants stuffed animal with my right-side drivers seat manual transmission minivan.”
Kyrgyz bazaars in general are also marked by their “organic” layout. There is a real impromptu feeling about them, and you can tell that people show up, set up, and sell on the day to day and don’t have their own turf. We can do a whole anthropology lesson on nomadic tradition and how that would play a part, but I’ll spare you that one for now. You can really feel that whole turf thing because you got young guys in tracksuits everywhere looking to hustle anyone they can, so if you are going to a Kyrgyz bazaar put on your mean mug and keep your head on a swivel to avoid eye contact, less the salesman tractor beam latch onto you (Osh bazaar in Bishkek has the worst reputation for this kind of thing).
Kyrgyz bazaars are like a fortune cookie: don’t expect anything, but expect everything. Enjoy buying your dog fur insoles for your boots, the snowy wind in your face, and the babushkas scream-offering tea. Then eat some shwarma that puts more emphasis on the 30 different types of condiments on it than the meat itself.
There is everything here, everything.
Kazakhstan: The Indoor Upper Class
There is a saying in Kyrgyzstan that “If you want to be rich live in Kazakhstan, and if you want to be free live in Kyrgyzstan.” When I was in Kazakhstan, I hit only one bazaar, The “Green Bazaar,” which is the main bazaar of Almaty, the country’s capital. Unlike the Kyrgyz bazaars, this was not a giant shanty-town that sold anything you could possibly imagine. It had that supermarket aroma to it, unlike Kyrgyz bazaars that felt like a place where a gunfight in a James Bond movie was about to take place. There was a whole central layout to The Green Bazaar and you could easily navigate the sections from food, to clothes, to little horsewhips, to portraits of the country’s ironfisted ruler, to kalpaks, the country’s traditional headwear (what normal souvenirs!).
I found it a bit boring; it didn’t make my heart beat and give me that excitement that the Kyrgyz bazaars did. Maybe I need to go to A.A… (adrenaline anonymous). However, I got a little fix of that excitement. When I was there, we got ourselves a little bit of fermented camel’s milk. I heard legend of this kind of stuff, and its supposed medicinal treatment of how it “works on your body and cleanses you,” which sounds actually tip for tap symptoms of dysentery. I am not a very smart man, but I know well enough that inducing diarrhea and vomiting are not exactly the best ways of keeping yourself healthy. So I did the obvious thing, and I drank the stuff.
Not my thing. It tasted like carbonated salty expired drinkable yogurt (my uvula was doing a tap dance in the back of my throat). So I drank what I could and we ended up handing a half full cup of the stuff back to the lady selling it, and she dumped what we didn’t drink right back into the container. Luckily none of the “medicinal side effects” took hold on me.
All in all, the vibe in this Kazakh bazaar was like that of one you would feel in a very busy supermarket in the United States, except they were selling some different stuff. The Kazakhs are seen as the rich guys around town among a lot of Central Asians, and it shows in their bazaars in permanent, ordered structures.
Turkmenistan: The Monolith
So this is paradise, eh? The long and the short of it: Turkmenistan is a pretty brutal authoritarian regime that built a cult of personality surrounding its leaders and national identity and practices extreme isolation. It has a lot of those little (or pretty gigantic) similarities with North Korea, in government practice, like the bizarre aesthetic of most things in the country. Here is an example: it is illegal in downtown Ashgabat (the capital) not to have a certain amount of white marble covering your building. Every building looks like a giant pillar almost. They like to garnish these buildings with flashing neon lights of all colors. Let me put it to you this way, if you are prone to epileptic seizures, this place would be hell on earth.
I went to a few bazaars in Turkmenistan: two in Ashgabat and one in the city of Mary. The first one I went to is lovingly referred to as “The Russian Bazaar,” because it was built during Soviet times. If there is one thing I can say about the Ashgabat bazaars that I couldn’t say about most of the other bazaars in Central Asia that I have seen, it’s that they are clean. And I am not talking like a once over clean. I am talking a “Jeez I just dropped ice cream on the ground, at least I can eat it off of the floor!” clean. It is called the Russian bazaar because it was built during the time of the Soviet Union. In Turkmenistan, the merchants felt a little bit more laid back, or maybe that was just crushing apathy.
So like the monolithic empty white marble buildings of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan bazaars lacked a certain soul that the others tended to have with people constantly yelling and screaming and trying to shove their products down your throat. I remember in one particularly bizarre instance, the group I was with decided we were going to grab some food from one of the little cafes inside the Russian bazaar. The first place we went into was a little cafeteria type place, with a few aluminum trays with some food that I frankly didn’t trust (this is coming from the guy that drank fermented camel’s milk). We all unanimously agreed that this place was a big no and tried our luck across the bazaar at another little café. We entered and it was dejavu. I try to say this with as little hyperbole as possible, but we were in literally the exact same place. I think they even cloned the same girls that were working in the other one…Funny thing is we just decided it wasn’t worth looking and ended up eating there. I stuck with a salad… But it is little eccentricities like this inside this particular bazaar that really put you in Turkmenistan.
The largest bazaar in Turkmenistan, and Ashgabat (and if you ask anyone in Turkmenistan “the world”) is called the “Altyn Asyr” bazaar, but it felt a lot like a Disney world from some alternate reality. This place was enormous and laid out in a perfectly organized and symmetrical outdoor complex. Monuments galore like all other places in and around Ashgabat, and here is the icing on the cake, approximately 60-70 percent of the people that I could see where dressed in traditional Turkmen garb. Whether this was normal or some rule imposed by the regime, I am not so sure. This place was as modern and clean as modern gets, yet most of the people there were dressing like nomads from the 1200s.
The bazaar I went to in Mary felt a little bit more like the rest of Central Asia, but it wasn’t without its little eccentricities too. See, it’s a law in Turkmenistan that you cannot take pictures at bazaars… really. I still snapped all the pictures I could at all the bazaars I went to, yet the only one were the workers looked visibly uncomfortable at my picture taking was at the Mary bazaar. It also had an empty and deserted feel to it, as though there had been a war and everyone left in a hurry and only a few came back after the battles were over. Bartering is animated at Turkmen bazaars, but less so than those of all the other countries (especially Uzbekistan).
Uzbekistan: Bazaar Ubiquitous
Ah yes, yooz beki beki beki stan stan, (to quote Herman Cain). This place, unlike all the others of Central Asia is the pirates treasure chest of bazaars. The whole place may as well be one gigantic bazaar as far as I am concerned. It would be futile to talk about how many I went to in the time I spent in Uzbekistan because, frankly, I lost count; there is a whole culture of bazaars there, and one of the biggest parts of Uzbek culture now and throughout history is making a buck. I will spare you the details of how Uzbekistan was an integral location on the Silk Road, and as such facilitated more sedentary mercantile communities than the other “stans,” but rest assured that if you are in Uzbekistan ready to buy something, there are hundreds of thousands of people ready to help you with that.
A little pointer for all those bringing money to Uzbekistan: once you exchange your money, bring a bag (any excuse to wear a fanny pack, right?) because the exchange rate is absolutely ridiculous. Ridiculous as in if you bring $100-200 dollars to Uzbekistan you are going to end up with stacks and stacks of local currency. You’ll feel like you belong in a rap music video, throwing bills at the camera… So get that fanny pack ready.
Uzbek bazaars, innumerable as they are, throw up all of the most stereotypical images of bazaars you can imagine. Gorgeous old buildings built during the time of The Timurid Empire as your backdrop, stacks and stacks of dried fruit as far as the eye can see, all with vendors trying to hustle you over to get your money, gypsies left and right begging for your money, hand-woven silks and hand-sculpted pottery from sixth generation artisans in every bazaar, and all of it in the middle of the desert with the sun beating down on you. You will you feel as far from home as possible here.
Charming as all of that may sound, there is some etiquette for Uzbek bazaars that you should stick in that fanny pack with your money stacks, as well as a few things to look out for.
Barter the hell out of them: It is normal in Uzbekistan to barter for absolutely anything. They can smell us wealthy Westerners from a mile away and will probably mark up the regular selling price 1000% because they think they can make that kind of thing work on you. Don’t fall for it, and barter hard. There is a saying that I heard in Turkmenistan, when a guy was talking about the Kyrgyz and Uzbek people “The Kyrgyz are thieves, but not liars; the Uzbeks are liars and not thieves.” They want to make a buck, and you can let them, but just don’t make that fanny pack so light so fast.
Gypsies and other ragamuffins: There are groups of gypsies (often women with their children) who will come looking and begging and maybe conning if you are not careful. These are not gypsies like charming Esmerelda of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, these are tough people from the lower rungs of society looking to survive. For the most part they aren’t violent, or at least in my experience. They most times will come up to you, often carrying a baby to set a sympathy trap (a good hustle) and beg. Don’t give them money, because that just creates a honey pot for the bees and more barefooted children will run up to you and beg you for more money. I advise to just keep walking.
Free everything, enjoy it: These vendors may be loud, and they may be aggressive, but they give you free food, so that helps smooth everything over. I personally like the dried watermelon rollup wound around raisins. Heck, I remember a few times when my metaphorical fanny pack was feeling light, and I had whole meals just walking down the isles taking free samples until I was full. That’s how much they give you.
Uzbekistan likes selling things. So buy things there. And learn how to play their game while doing it too.
Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Kazakh, and Uzbek bazaars are all unique and unique from one and other. So you should appreciate them as such. You should probably also stop by if you happen to be in the neighborhood. Though head my warnings well! I laughed, I despaired, I was excited, I was confused. Yes, I enjoyed the bazaars.