Osh Bazaar: The Dirty Heart of Bishkek

Each Bishkek bazaar has it’s own personality.  Orto Sai is neat and quaint with orderly grids of shops and the clean-stacked mounds of vegetables from Korean vendors. Madina is a business bazaar busy with textile shop owners and the odd housewife.  And Osh Bazaar – Osh Bazaar is the dirty heart of Bishkek.  Containing everything in a muddy warren of sidepaths and subsections, covered bazaars within the bazaar where aisles stocked high with shoes and so narrow two people can barely pass butt into each other at odd angles, hidden basements and second floors home to hundreds of unseen shops selling items of every shape and form from cheap clothes from China to light fixtures, drapery, cigars.  Push-carts crowd the sidewalks with sellers shouting their wares – tomatoes, dubious ‘snake oil’ skin rubs, Muslim prayer mats, bananas, women’s stockings, girl’s sweaters, lightbulbs and super-glue.  Before the bazaar the second hand-market stretches over the sidewallks, crowding around the bus stops, down a muddy hill half-covered in half-decayed stone structures. Paths weave between old fur coats strung between the trees, carpets folded and piled in tilting towers, sheets and tables covered with cut glassware, knick-knacks, half-chewed children’s toys, cooking utensils and incomplete sets of teacups.  It’s like someone shook up a supermarket and a whole summer of garage sales, hurled the contents over several blocks of sidewalk, and allotted one pile of the mess to each resident of an entire small town.  osh 2nd hand bazaar pots

Today I went to buy gifts for family members, as it’s my last weekend in Kyrgyzstan before we meet. For among the mess and clutter the Osh Bazaar hides perhaps the largest selection of local handicrafts (rivaled only by the top floor of Tsum). But unlike Tsum, shops in the Osh bazaar are completely scattered along perhaps 3 or 4 ‘veins’ surrounded respectively by shoes, bedding, saddelry and women’s underwear.  So finding anything is always an orienteering adventure.

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The uglier side of the second-hand bazaar

Today’s hike began at the Southern end, which also happens to be the general location of the second-hand bazaar.  Now this is not quaint like the second hand bazaar that stretches from Beta 2 to Orto Sai.  It’s not a place for a Sunday morning stroll, cappuccino in hand. The second-hand bazaar here quite honestly looks like someone upended a Soviet-themes Salvation Army Warehouse and several hoarder’s basements onto the remains of a slum city.  Which is why I’ve never gone in it before.  But today a blue painted plate caught my eye and I wandered in – only to discover that among the tremendous amount of junk and under the layers of mud and dust the second-hand bazaar hold some amazing finds (along with a much more complete snapshot of soviet life): a silver-plated accordion sitting on a table with dusty books, well-worn hand-painted wooden spoons, enough cut glassware and decorative swans to fill a basement Macy’s.  I found my plate (and a few others) for the price of a latte, squished back through the mud, and wove my way through the covered bazaar to the Kyrgyz handicraft shops in the back.



Becoming an Expat

Being an expat is decidedly less exciting than being a traveler.  We worry about cat food and cleaning schedules, mundane little things that go by the side – or become the base for an exciting adventure – when you’re traveling.  Here it’s just cat food.

I would describe my lifestyle in China as a slow traveler-cum-researcher, or “explorer-expat”.  I settled somewhere during the school year (generally Sep-July) and took extended vacations hopping across the country and tracking dozens of town, hundreds of miles, for two months each every winter and summer over the holidays.  Everywhere I went I researched, pulling apart the layers of the country, always trying to figure out what was under the surface.  Searching for that key to explain how the system worked. I learned and practiced language without cease. I was forever redefining my topic.

Though I spoke Chinese and understood a great deal about the country and the culture, I was never at home.  It doesn’t matter how many people call you a “zhongguotong” (China Hand) or mistake you for a local minority – China will never welcome you, and you will always see the country as a strange and foreign (if frighteningly familiar) land.

China does have settled expats – people who go there to pursue their careers, who send their kids to international schools and live a rather Americanized life.  But for me the job I held was never the most important piece. I followed locations, and saw this string of jobs as something that would allow me access to the places of greatest research interest.  Something temporary before I settled back into academia in the states.

And then in the last year when I moved back to Bishkek that changed.  I went from being an explorer to just an expat, someone who lives abroad and happens to be residing in their current locale for reasons other than their ardent desire to be in that particular place.  Where daily life is more important than the place we live.  It’s something I scorned while living in China – oh-so-lowly franchise school English teachers who could order two items off a menu, couldn’t even give coherent directions to a taxi driver, and spent all their time with their X-Box and English-speaking girlfriends.  They weren’t in China.  They weren’t creating a ‘valuable’ cultural experience for themselves.  They barely knew the city they lived in, apart from the best burger and beer joints.  And yet here I am, an expat with two cats sleeping on the sofa (though still with no X-box). Guilty admission: some days when I don’t have meetings, I don’t leave the house until 3.  In part because it’s easier to work here than in a crowded cafe with spotty internet connection (that’s you, Sierra Cafe on Manas, with all the Kyrgyz kids blasting music videos on their cellphones in the supposed ‘conference room’).  But it’s also because I don’t feel an incessant desire to explore.  It’s not like I’m going to miss something if I don’t leave the apartment.

I no longer think either side is better than the other, and there are quite a few things I’ve learned in the transition.

The first is the above-mentioned diminishing drive to explore, to find something new or uncover something of the secret culture. I wrote about this before, in “The Danger and Adventure of Living Abroad“. Among travelers (especially, I might note, travel bloggers) there’s an immense pressure to discover and share something new, whether it be an insightful perspective, a local experience, or the best underground music.  There’s an anxiety – I might even call it a “fear” – that you won’t discover something authentic, that you’ll go to a place and just have normative experiences, and come home with nothing to brag about. Here I feel like I have time, and time stretches infinitely.  I’ve been to the bazaar.  I’ll go to the bazaar again. The bazaar will still be there tomorrow. And while I love the bazaar (and sometimes marvel at the strange things on display), it’s more and more becoming just the place where we get our weekly groceries.  The desire that drives one to explore every corner, the feeling that there’s something unthinkably authentic beyond that display is more muted.  Sure, I still love discovering a new restaurant, but I don’t have an undying impetus to stake out every corner of the city – and I don’t feel guilty if I don’t discover the ‘most authentic’ Kyrgyz experience.  I don’t like kumis or boiled mutton. No thanks, no need.

Living abroad longer, we also marvel less. The wonders we first saw slouch towards the mundane.  I might also surmise that we see a different, and perhaps more honest (more nuanced), angle.  Nothing is blanket beautiful, or unarguably ugly; much more of it’s in the middle. Those decaying soviet-style apartment blocks that first looked picturesque and somewhat romantic? With all the electricity cuts, they would be a pain to live in…but it would be nicer to live closer to the city center.

In the same vein, while in Urumqi I had a couchsurfer who later visited Bishkek for a few days, and had the following to say about the female population:

“The Kyrgyz girls have an elegance, they move like a river viewed from afar, always perfectly coiffed, inhabiting their long, thin dresses rather than wearing them, eyes hidden behind aviator sunglasses that suggest cool disaffection. I’ve never sat across from such elegance as a Kyrgyz girl, face a pleasant enigma, a reticent smile dancing across her lips that curled up at the edges. You wonder if one has ever stuttered. There’s a fierceness underneath: a surprising number of girls have stories of bashing other girls’ faces in, but it’s hidden with such grace, such incredible smiles, such calm.”

He obviously came during the one week when everyone wasn’t wearing fluorescent green, and I doubt he ever tried to stand in line in Bishkek (lines don’t exist except as surges), for I’ve rarely seen a Kyrgyz girl wait with “such grace”.  Earlier this week I saw a similar comment on twitter from a traveling couple I usually respect:IMG_1126

The other week a fifty-something Kyrgyz woman thwacked me on the head with her hefty handbag when I didn’t immediately give up my bus seat (I was listening to Turkish podcasts and staring out the window at the time).  A great photo op bearing the heart of a nation? Possible. Photogenic? Most definitely not.

I’m not saying that either of these quotes come from bad travelers.  But they do definitely come from explorers, as opposed to settled expats. What happens when you explore – and why people, countries or cities will look “beautiful” when it’s obvious to full-time residents that they’re not, is probably akin to the cheerleader effect – when you spend less time on an experience, the distinct features blend together to give you a general impression. The longer you live in a place, the more nuance you notice, and the harder it is to form and pass on general statements.

And last comment for today… you won’t love every country, every culture, every people.  There’s no shame in that – with around two hundred countries and quasi-independent territories in the world it’s impossible to be attracted to every one.  I’m not fascinated by Kyrgyzstan.  I don’t love the country or hate it.  I don’t think I’ll ever return here after we move.  I hope it develops democratically and society becomes more open and equal for all, but it isn’t my lifelong cause.  And that’s OK.  I don’t have to love the culture, to give my every waking moment to discovering the city or learning the language or rooting for some local cause.  I can live here without being immersed in the country, just as I lived in Chicago without being immersed in the culture of the city (it didn’t help that Chicago was really, really cold and I didn’t have a car). Some places we will love and want to explore every inch of, whether at the end of the workweek or during holiday.  Some places won’t have the same hold on us, but we can still live there without feeling the shame of avoiding complete immersion.

So let me end with a photo of our cats:IMG_0979

Sunday Bazaar Finds

Sunday Bazaar Finds: Ancient cameras and elk antlers, miscellaneous electronics and old crocheted hats)

From another Sunday afternoon half spent pursuing the second hand bazaar on Karl Marx. Like the camera, there always seem to be one or two really interesting artifacts among the (mostly) junk.  But of course you have to wade past the faded, second-hand lace lingerie to find them.  We’ve gone to the bazaar perhaps twenty times, and I’m still slightly disgusted/shocked at the number of used bras (and thongs…) out for sale on the sidewalk.


New Bishkek Favorites: Orto Sai Bazaar

01afbfe08e800002be08c982367956e7fa6b02be47 017a7f7b71cf672745167f1bdd4d68e1af2912e3dd 0117b078ed4313b0a9428908ea7edd0da6352ef47e 0159d3883da8409f44d5431b004669d360014794b4The Orto Sai Bazaar is my new Bishkek favorite.
I know that the Osh bazaar is bigger, more colorful and chaotic. And it’s true that it’s basically the emporium of Bishkek (not counting Dordoi, which is over an hour away) – if something is available in Bishkek, you can probably buy it at Osh. I even had pillows made there once – bought the fabric, had it cut and sewn, bought the stuffing, had them stuffed. And where else can you buy both a blow torch and a kitten (both under $10)?

But for the everyday, Orto Sai has swayed me.
I visited once in summer (the raspberries! The apricots!), but we didn’t return until this Saturday, when we went bazaar shopping with another foreign couple residing in our complex. Orto Sai is about a third the size of Osh, but it’s accessible, it’s clean, and it’s far more organized (i.e. really easy to find things, as like things are actually grouped together in covered rows on a grid system). And the produce… I was starting to despair, because by this time of year basically the only fresh produce you can find in most places are organizes and carrots. Even the apples look sad. But Orto Sai has beautiful produce, including a lot of things (like baby bok choi) I haven’t seen for months. For winter, the prices were also reasonable (unlike the grocery stores, where squished bruised fruit goes for $3-9 a kilo in the months before spring, or our local bazaar where prices for seasonal vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes have gone up twenty-fold). Osh bazaar generally has good inexpensive produce, but even their stalls are a little barren after November. The difference seems to be that most produce sellers at the Osh bazaar are from Southern Kyrgyzstan (hence ‘Osh’ bazaar), and rely on supply lines to the Fergana Valley. The Fergana valley is fertile and warmer than northern Kyrgyzstan, but still limited in what people produce. A lot of the stall sellers at the Orto Sai bazaar, on the other hand, seemed to be Korean. Many of them had produce from China, most likely from Xinjiang, where food is grown in greenhouses year round. So even in winter they had a steady stock of fresh food.

Other perks of Orto Sai:
There’s a normal tool, household, and clothing section *and it’s clean*.
It’s close to Beta 2, where you can round off your weekend shopping with imports from Turkey like olive oil, coffee, spices, and white cheese.
There are a few cafes just south of Beta 2 for an after-bazaar coffee break (the Giraffe Coffee stand outside Beta 2 also sells super-caffeinated cappuccinos for under $2).
And the second hand street bazaar with fascinating soviet era relics among the junk runs between the Eastern entrance to Orto Sai and Beta 2. So if you fancy antique cameras, 60’s summer postcards, Lenin pins, old socks (also seen underwear…), gas masks, used dentil equipment, or an accordion it’s a great place for a weekend stroll.

So, there you go: Osh Bazaar great for taking pictures, finding inexpensive second-hand electronics, buying cheap shurdaks or that thing you can’t find anywhere else, but Orto Sai is definitely better (and quicker) for regular weekly shopping. Plus there’s fresh-pressed carrot juice at Turkey prices))

Bishkek Date Ideas

Every Wednesday evening E and I have a date-night.  In winter this usually means going out to eat, as it seems like there isn’t a lot else we can do in the city when the sun sets at 5pm. This Wednesday we were in Almaty on our visa run, and thus designated date night was moved back to the weekend.  Having tried out nearly every decent restaurant in the city, I started looking online for a few more ideas.  Unfortunately, most listed on “50 Great Date Ideas” etc… are completely impossible in Bishkek.  So I decided to create my own list, just in case anyone else has a similar conundrum:

Weeknight Dates:

  • Great cafes for book reading and conversation: Coffee Cafe (Mira), Cave Coffee, cafe with the unpronounceable name just across the street from Beta 1, La Vita Cafe (by Bishkek Park), the new Adriano Cafe South of Beta 2.
  • Make a list of every cuisine in Bishkek.  Each week try something different.
  • Manas University, some of the other universities, and some of the embassies sometimes host concerts, music competitions, or other cultural events around the city.
  • Watch the latest American Blockbuster dubbed in Russian.  Even if you don’t understand all/any of it, watching Ninja Turtles in Russian could be potentially hilarious.

Weekend Day-Dates

  • Explore all the city’s parks.  The longer parks (Erkindik and Jash Gvardiya – just East of Osh Bazaar) make for really nice long walks.  Ata Turk Park (Axunbaeva) is beautiful in fall and has questionable amusement rides.
  • Scavenger Hunting! If either of you like tools or Soviet-era paraphernalia, both the 2nd hand bazaars/flea markets stretching south of Osh and between Beta 2 and Orto Sai have interesting finds.
  • Bazaar Gifting: go to Orto Sai, Osh, Madina or Dordoi; give each person a budget of 200 or 500 som and one hour to find the perfect gift for the other person.  Or do the same with the 2nd hand bazaar stretching from Beta 2 to Orto-Sai (fantastic soviet-era post cards! plants! real gas masks!)
  • Decide on a recipe that’s actually possible to cook in Bishkek; gather ingredients at the bazaar, and cook together.
  • Bishkek does have museums, and sometimes they’re even open during opening hours.

Weekend Evening Dates

  • Live Music! Chicago Pub, Old Edgars, Blonder Bag, Mid Point, Putin Pub and Promzona all have live music (and food).
  • Russian/Kyrgyz Theater, Ballet or Opera at the old Russian theaters North of Chuy.  It may not be the best theater you’ve ever experienced, but – it should be interesting…
  • Watch and bet on a sports game! (Johnny Pub, Midpoint, Fenerbahce Cafe); only good if you’re really enthusiastic about sports.
  • Go to an expensive restaurant just for dessert

Explore Outside of Bishkek

  • Pack a picnic and go to Ala Archa! If it’s winter, eat plov or soup (basically the only two options) at the hotel/restaurant by the hiking trail entrance
  • Pack a bottle of wine, head out Saturday afternoon, hike in Ala Archa, and spend the night at the little guesthouse.  I think room prices are $60-100.
  • Stop at one of the many restaurants en route to Ala Archa and have lunch + a short hike
  • Go to Jannat Spa and Resort for the day.  You can use the pool, Turkish hamam and Finnish Sauna for 700 som.  Plus their terrace has beautiful views of the mountains.
  • Spend the weekend at Jannat.  They have ‘couples’ packages covering accommodation Friday and Saturday, spa treatment, breakfast (and lunch?) for $296.  A little steep, but so are all hotel prices in Bishkek.
  • Drive past Jannat to Kaverna 12 Kaminov; have lunch by the creek outside and go hiking in the mountains.
  • Grab another couple and spend the weekend in  a cabin at Kaverna 12 Kaminov. (Full reviews on Jannat and K12K here)
  • Buruna Tower is only…two and a half hours away. But it’s really cool, and (again) you could pack a picnic. Photos Here.

…And now I’m kind of out of ideas.  Let me know if you have any.  Bishkek winter months are long, and I’d like a little more inspiration.

Something New

So I’ve *finally* decided to start an online store selling fantastic things from Kyrgyzstan to people who can’t come and browse the bazaars here.
Instead of stockpiling my house with felt, I will be using the site as more of a concept gallery, and focusing on special orders – so customers can look around, figure out what they want, give specifications (no one wants slippers in a size too small), and get something completely unique and chosen just for them.
You can check out the site (which is still in Beta) here:


More pictures to be uploaded over the weekend, after I make the bazaar rounds.6fa6398b1eb33e7b7cee9f2031b8daed