Saturday, March 12, 2011

On Such a Day

Osh Bazaar is the ultimate Bishkek experience; a disorienting crush of buyers and sellers spread over several acres of ancient cobblestones. All marshrutka routes lead to Osh Bazaar. It's the cheapest place by far to buy anything, from lightbulbs to vegetables to jeans, but this experience is only for the stout of heart (and shoe) and you want to be armed with determination and a decent sense of direction before plunging into the melee.

From my second-floor window this morning, the overnight snowfall appeared to have had a beautifying effect - a feathery layer of white over everything. On stepping out the front door to meet my friend V for an Osh excursion, though, it quickly became apparent that this was the very worst kind of snow, thick and slushy and akin to wading through a shallow river. Along the way I had to dodge wet clumps of snow falling periodically from tree branches, and the even bigger avalanches from rooftops. I arrived at V's house with a fine layer of ice over my hood and a tidal mark on my boots.

We stepped off the marshrutka and into the muddy slush of the bazaar, Shortly thereafter, battling our way through a crowded pathway pitted with puddles, we were greeted by the sight of several enormous pieces of tripe wobbling on a hand-drawn trolley up a small hill, which is the regular way of transporting meat in these parts. With one accord, we decided to walk the other way and buy some tushuks and gifts, which were relatively straightforward transactions. Things only started to get unhinged when we wandered through the clothing stalls and V decided to try on a skirt. This particular stall had a sheet set up in a corner for the trying on of such garments, which was more than most stalls offered. V went behind the sheet, tried the skirt, and found it was too small; I went to find a bigger size; having found it, the seller accompanied me behind the changing sheet, along with her assistant, someone's elderly mother, an interested bystander, and the bystander's friend. Poor V stood there in her too-small skirt surrounded by five helpful Kyrgyz women and a floral sheet, while I held up a mirror for her and quietly dissolved into giggles that wouldn't stop. Somehow, V got changed back and we managed to extract ourselves from the experience unscathed.  

We decided then to buy some food to cook lunch, rather than buy the ubiquitous samsi, a decision which was possibly influenced by our earlier encounter with tripe. So, we entered the expanse of fruit and vegetable stalls, covered over with tarpaulins that dripped steadily with melting snow. We decided on some oyster mushrooms and tofu. V's Russian is good enough to buy food with, and the seller we chose was friendly and asked us about Australia; but things went awry quickly when we realised that she'd misinterpreted our request for 300 grams of mushrooms, and was busy filling a shopping bag with 300 som worth. V's increasingly frantic attempts to rescue the situation were met only with helpless giggles from me (still breathless from the hilarity of the skirt episode) and a rising ire from the mushroom seller, who eventually understood and unpacked the bag with muttered profanities about stupid Australians. Needless to say, we skipped out of there as soon as possible, took one of the world's more ridiculously crowded marshrutkas - at one point, the armpits of six individuals were mere inches from my face - and had a perfectly nice lunch back at the apartment.

Bishkek may be a grim place at times, but I relish the unpredictability and the humour and the adventure of it. Spring is showing her face in fits and starts and in a couple of weeks the streets will be green and beautiful. The roses will be out - and Bishkek was the premier city for flowers in the Soviet Union, which is really something given the Russian program for city beautification - and the city will be transformed. Except, of course, for Osh Bazaar, which will remain chaotic and colourful and as disorienting as ever. Which is just as it should be.


  1. You have tofu there?!? It's better than Greece!

  2. Yep! Well, it is an Asian country, after all, and there are a disproportionate number of Koreans who live here, which means that we all reap the benefits food-wise! Lots of good Korean salads and curries to be had. Honestly, if you know where to look, you can eat very well indeed, which is yet another reason why you should seriously consider coming to visit :P