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An Emporium of Souls

February 16, 2011

I’d been holed up inside all day, feeling grey, doing laundry, feeling ambivalent about my solitude. Sometimes living alone can be a blessing. You have your own space to think your own thoughts and do as you please. But sometimes it turns on you, and you ache for human companionship. It’s a basic need, I think, to be around others and share your life with different souls. Pacing around my place, I was starving for conversation, for spectacle, for something new. An antidote came to me like a revelation. The bazaar! Go to the bazaar!

The swarming masses, the piles of produce and stacks of CDs, the pure vibrant ecstasy of humanity – it would be my medicine. Staying in my cave, it’s easy to forget that other lives are being lived. At the bazaar, that fact is unavoidable. There are a million stories waiting to be told. Why is that grandma selling her socks? How did that woman ever become a purveyor of curdled cheese? How old is that kid, alone in a booth, selling pirated discs of dated cinema? I could just pass through and stare at their faces in wonder, a transient visitor, but they stayed all day, packed up their cheese, hauled it home, fed their kids.  The struggle they wore on their faces would remind me of my good fortune, and I would take them with me back home, where they would live in my head and visit my dreams. These were my brothers and sisters of worldly existence.

Osh bazaar was the place to go, the place where I could meet my new family. Half the marshrutkas in town, it seemed, rumbled their way towards it. I went on foot, and as I got closer and closer it was like the bazaar came out to greet me. Long before the official gates, the sellers appeared. Tables stacked with tabloids or just tablecloths stacked with silverware, they crept out onto the street, eager to snatch my eager attention. Pensioners sat pensively with scales at their feet, ready to tell you your weight for the weight of a coin. They were quiet and sad, but most everybody else seemed to speak louder than usual, like they had all tapped into some collective excitement. Somebody was so excited that they had plastered printed-out papers on all the poles for blocks. “I love you Ainura!”, they said with barely containable glee.

Outside the entrance, I saw a man with a table of dried fruit. “What are they?”, I asked him. They were apricots, he said, shrunken to dehydrated shells. I picked up one to feel it in my fingers, and it was hard like a nut. I wondered how you eat it. He noticed my wrinkled brow and told me they were for making compote – kind of like fruit tea. Boil a pot of water, he instructed me, throw a few of these in there, and let it steep. It tastes good, he insisted, and it’s good for your heart. He put his hand over his and pressed a bagful of his goods into my open palm. He was happy to meet me, he said. Consider it a gift.

A woman had a pot of steaming meat pies, and I continued my routine – point and ask “What’s that?” She told me they were called hashan. I had never seen them before so I took a picture. She turned her back, embarrassed, and I poked her on the shoulder and teased her. I bought a hashan and paid her half a dollar, then walked through the stalls, munching on my snack. It was oily and delicious, as proper street food should be.

Under a big plastic canopy, row after row of merchants hawked rice and beans and piles of greens. The spices weren’t hidden away in neatly labeled salt-shakers but were heaped in bags, open to the air in all their multi-colored glory. I wanted to take it in handfuls and throw it in the air, make clouds of red and green and orange. I resisted the urge and bought some noodles instead. I bought a spicy tomatoey sauce, fried it up later with the noodles, and enjoyed it with my compote. I liked the idea of different parts of the bazaar converging on my dinner table.

One woman stood hidden behind a stack of fried dough that was coiled in a rope. There were a bunch of other fried goodies, too, and she showed me them all, telling me their names. I promptly forgot them. One was glazed and looked like a flower. I asked for that and she was happy to oblige. All of them were Uyghur pastries, she said, and she was Uyghur herself. My first hashan, my first compote, my first Uyghur – it was a parade of novelties, and I couldn’t help hurling myself through it.

In a row beyond, man after man was selling coke bottles full of little black beads. Were they seeds, I asked, or what? One of the men spit on the ground and stuck the beads into the pocket of his lip. It’s tobacco, he said; it’s called nasvai. I asked him if that was all, and he asserted it was, but I knew better. People have written that it’s laced with camel shit and glue. It gets you high, though – and it was all the rage for the young and the poor. I got to talking with the nasvai demonstrator, telling him about baseball players and their chewing habits. He marveled at the idea of baseball itself, swinging an invisible bat. I asked him his name and he said Batyr. Looking down, I saw it written on a sign in big block letters. I guess people came here looking for Batyr by name, looking for his pure nasvai.

Outside the canopy, under the open grey sky, three men stood around a table game throwing dice. They were playing a game with black and white bottlecaps, moving them around a board. I asked what it was called and they told me narda. Was it Kyrgyz, I asked? No, it’s from the Caucasus, but Kyrgyz people play it too – anybody can play it. When I went home I looked it up and realized that narda just means backgammon in Russian, and I felt like a fool. The men asked me about my travels as they shuffled around their pieces and called each other names. They didn’t mind me watching. They were happy to have the company.

And so it went, different folk selling different things but really just happy to chat. The conversations invigorated me and I smiled more and more. The smiles made more smiles and those smiles made more conversations, and the farther I walked into the bazaar the more I learned and the more I saw and the more I felt alive. I didn’t want to go home to the tedium of solitary living. I wanted to stay here and sleep amongst the spices, imagining myself in a family of thousands.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2011 7:27 am

    I had the same revelation last Sunday, so I decided to leave my dear soviet era hole and I went to the tiny Orto-Sai bazar close to my home, to enjoy life.

    I also shared smiles and started a very funny lived chats in my poor Russian with locals. I found one kyrgyz woman who speaks very good Spanish, She had lived in South America during 6 years and She could not speak a word of Spanish in Bishkek during years. She was more happy than me to speak a bit.

    Nice to read your blog. I discovered it last week. I suppose that you’re also enroled at the London School. I am very interested to know more about kyrgyz music and falcon hunting. I used to listen a bit of kyrgyz music in Spain before coming to Bishkek. I listened Tengir-Too ( I am thinking about meet them or other kyrgyz folk musician and record a short videoclip or minidoc about music. I would like to take also some photographs.

    May be we can meet and share some ideas. May be you can use my photos for your research or work. What you think? I hope to meet you soon. I am also doing a bit of research for some articles that I would like to write.

    Best wishes!

  2. linda permalink
    February 21, 2011 7:08 pm

    Enjoy your descriptions of life in Kyrgyzstan very much. And particularly like the way you write. I’m a friend of Cal Preece’s, who recommended your site.


  1. Three Keens in Kyrgyzstan – Part I « Keen on Kyrgyzstan

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