Bishkek Bazaar

By Rob Packer

I stand in awe of bazaars in Bishkek. When I told my colleagues I sometimes go to Osh Bazaar at the weekend, their reaction was best described at horrified: they think of it as one of those “dangerous places” where bad things happen (mainly theft) and really not a place foreigners like me should be venturing. Which is odd, because I think of Osh Bazaar as one of the most chilled markets I’ve been to in a long time: I used to be a lot more wary in the markets of Mong Kok, Hong Kong where there was also the nightmare scenario of being doused with acid, as well as the usual missing-wallet market antics and coming back very much empty-handed after once again finding nothing to buy, or even worse, with bags of stuff you’ll want to throw out within a couple of hours.

By comparison, Osh Bazaar actually has some things you might want to buy. On my most recent trip, I went for the souvenir section, which is full of the felt slippers, felt carpets, felt hats, little felt yurts and felt camels that everyone will be getting for Christmas. Weirdly, the souvenir section blends seamlessly with the army surplus section if you need any Red Army boots, coats or hats, and round the back of that are a few stalls of old sewing machines. Other parts of the market include the Uzbek fruit section, spices and row upon row dried fruit. The salad section also has kimchi-inspired products (see Sunday’s post). You can get pretty much everything you’ll need for day-to-day life in Bishkek, especially if what you need for day-to-day life is a Kyrgyz hat.

In the fabric section at Osh Bazaar

Taking a rest in the fabric section.

Felt slippers. One of the things that people are getting for Christmas.

Kalpaki, or Kyrgyz felt hats. Who wants a kalpak for Christmas?

Felt camels.

Counting the money after I bought yet another hat.

Traditional Kyrgyz chests.

Spending time with the sewing machine man.

Boxy sewing machines.

Curvy sewing machines.

Osh Bazaar Spices

More spices

The salad section.

Dried fruit.

Fresh fruit from Uzbekistan.

Dordoi Bazaar, Osh’s bigger, scarier cousin, is another matter and can only be called chilled in terms of temperature. It really has to be seen to be believed: it’s the largest markets in the CIS, and one of the largest in the world; from what I can tell it’s second or third largest in Asia after Tehran’s Grand Bazaar and (maybe) Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market. The place is huge and entirely made up of a labyrinth of shipping containers; it’s easily the largest collection of shipping containers I’ve ever seen this far from the sea. The bazaar sprang up after the fall of the USSR as other markets in Uzbekistan went out of style as it became harder to visit and do business in Tashkent. There’s something incredibly unplanned about the whole place with power lines bisecting it at some points and trees growing through some of the containers – I have no idea how that happened. But this isn’t a tourist or produce market. The name of the game here is wholesale, so its customers include stallholders from all over Central Asia, including Osh Bazaar. You could spend hours navigating this container city with its vague claims of “organization”, i.e. vague grid system; first-timers are probably most likely to give up after sifting through haystacks of low-quality merchandise for the proverbial needle. Going with a colleague meant that many days of sorting were condensed into a few hours with his help. But I fear the day I have to go there on my own.

Dordoi Bazaar. Container City.

More containers. The top level is used for storage, the lower levels are the shops.

One of the reasons why Dordoi feels very ad hoc. Pylons coming through.

A Flat with a View

By Rob Packer

One of the best things about living on the 9th floor of a Bishkek apartment block is the view of the mountains I get from my living room. The mountains by Bishkek are enormous at around 4,500m and barely half an hour away from the city. Today was yet another fantastic sunrise, so I thought I’d share the photos.

This morning's view out the window.

Face on. Also this morning.

Looking west this morning.

And again, earlier this month.

From the window again. Autumnal colours this time.

Sick and the supermarket

By Rob Packer

I was ill last week with the flu (not a cold, this was flu alright), and when you’re ill, what makes more sense than soup? It’s wholesome, good for you, delicious and universal. The CIS is deservedly known for its borshch and shchi, and there are some excellent Kyrgyz soups like shorpo, which was part of our Eid celebrations at work. Supermarkets in Bishkek are normally palaces of Romanian pop and their permanent loop always manages to give me a twinge of ancestral pride; current flavour of the month is Akcent’s That’s My Name, which my friend Annie described as where Lady GaGa’s Poker Face meets accordions. I was expecting my local supermarkets to be palaces of soup too.

Unfortunately in Kyrgyzstan, things don’t always work as easily as that. I must’ve trawled every aisle of that supermarket looking for canned soup. But it seems that in Kyrgyzstan soup is something that you really only make at home, because canned soup is not imported to Kyrgyzstan (I now check every supermarket I go into, just to confirm this). Normally, I’d support this kind of enforced soup-making, but does an ill person really want to make chickpea soup from a powder? I’m guessing the answer is no.

While I was at the supermarket, I did pick up some salt. This is the smallest packet they had.

The smallet pack of salt I could find.

Kyrgyz Kimchi

By Rob Packer

The first time I mentioned kimchi in Kyrgyzstan to some of my friends, I could tell that a collective eyebrow was raised because I was actually expecting it to be good. The fact is that I was, not because I automatically expect kimchi thousands of kilometres from Korea to be good, but because Bishkek (and Central Asia, in general) is home to a reasonable population of Koreans who were uprooted by Stalin and resettled in Central Asia. One of the influences of this on the food culture in Kyrgyzstan is the way that something called “kimchi” keeps cropping up in unlikely places.

Standard kimchi in Kyrgyzstan is something else though. The first time I had it, I thought it was disgusting, but by the time it was brought out at work for lunch, I’d got used to the idea of it. It really needs to be put in perspective: there’s a deep pickling culture in the former Soviet Union, but it’s more of the briny kind and most locally produced kimchi ends up following the Russian method. It’s almost like someone left the recipe behind in Vladivostok and it had to be taken down over a crackly phone line from Pyongyang. Once you’ve got used to the idea that what you’re about to eat is a kimchi-inspired pickle, rather than kimchi, the soggy, briny, not very spicy cabbage on your plate starts to make sense. And once you reset your expectations, it’s actually pretty good.

Kyrgyz kimchi. It's not really kimchi, but it's not really not kimchi either. More of a kimchi-inspired pickle.

Luckily for me, Bishkek actually does have decent real kimchi at Cheong Gi Wha at the far eastern end of prospekt Chuy, although the improbably named Santa Maria is more famous and more central. They have good kimchi (Korean-style), their kimchi jjigae has real spice (no pseudospice here) keeps out Bishkek’s winter chill and – this is what makes it authentic – like many other Korean restaurants around the world they have a selection of Korea Sparkling posters, including the one of the young girl in traditional dress with two red spots on her cheeks. The only thing they don’t have is tabletop cooking. It may not be Seoul, but it’s one of the best restaurants in the city.

Found it! The object of my cravings.

Kimchi jjigae, or kimchi soup. Keep that winter cold out!

Ait mairik bolsun! (Eid Mubarak)

By Rob Packer, KF9 Kyrgyzstan

This is a repost from the Kiva Fellows’ Blog.

Islam in Kyrgyzstan feels different; more of a personal matter compared with other countries I’ve travelled in. While it’s probably an exaggeration when the Lonely Planet for Central Asia says that the Kyrgyz “limited it to what they could fit in their saddlebags”, there is probably some truth in the matter in a culture where kymyz, fermented mare’s milk, is a key cultural pointer and a toast with vodka is often not that far away, especially amongst the more Russified population of northern Kyrgyzstan. When you remember that the Kyrgyz are a people with a nomadic heritage who were first permanently settled under the Soviet Union’s policy of ‘militant atheism’, you might expect the relationship with religion to be a little different from the norm. (more..)

An Islamic cemetery outside Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan.

A Trip to the Lenin Museum

By Rob Packer

First of all, this museum is really called the State Historical Museum. During Soviet times, it was called the Lenin Museum and I’m not sure how much has really changed since then. The first floor is a scene-by-scene re-enactment of the October Revolution cast in Socialist Realist bronze. In my opinion, it’s one of Bishkek’s must-sees. Take a look at the pictures and decide for yourselves.

Outside the State Historical Museum on Bishkek's main square.

Life was pretty miserable before the October Revolution, especially if you were one of the many "emancipated" serfs after 1861.

Hello boys! Marx and Engels to the rescue.

Getting the good news in Iskra.

He's back! Lenin comes out of hiding.

The Proletariat strikes back.

Come with us!

Finding the proletarian Holy Grail.

Which way for freedom?

"All power to the soviets". Any student of the October Revolution will know that this is not what happened next; it was all power to the Communist Party.

Looking very pleased with their socialist freedom.

Marching as to war.

Coming to Uzbekistan!

By Rob Packer

It’s been a tense week and a half while my Uzbek visa process has been going through. Uzbekistan is notorious amongst Central Asia veterans and novices as being the second-hardest of the ‘Stans to get into (number one is famously bizarre Turkmenistan). So I stayed sceptical of my chances when I arrived on a cold Tuesday morning last week at Bishkek’s Uzbek embassy as a citizen of a country, which does not have a fantastic relationship with Tashkent, with nothing but my passport, some photos and a visa form. For a select number of nationalities, these are supposed to be all you need, but for everyone else you’re supposed to be invited by a travel agency and arrive at the embassy brandishing a letter of invitation. None of these were required and as I sit here with an Uzbek visa in my passport, I’m left wondering whether Anglo-Uzbek relations have thawed, the fierce look I tried to give as I went in worked wonders, the woman took a liking to me, the rules really have changed, or I’ve just seen the consular equivalent of an astronomical conjunction.

My Uzbek visa. Worth the wait.

Although I didn’t have to come bearing paper, I did have to deal with the bureaucrat’s other weapons: multiple visits (three), a long wait (10 days processing) and slavishly following your request (I may have the world’s only 11 day visa). And then there was one last hurdle and CIS special: the soiled note. This is when you give someone a US bill and they decide it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on because it’s dirty, torn or has some other imperfection. My $100 bill’s crime? That note had a very small stamp mark, probably done by someone in a bank. This is a fight that can only be won with a new bill. So I jumped back into the car with the driver from work who took me to the nearest bank while I was sweating inside my coat. On the way back from the bank, where they seemed to be getting their dollars straight from the US Mint, Zakir was telling me about when he’d been at the Russian embassy in Tashkent and had been asked to explain why they was a pen mark on his bills and who’d put them there: I decided the best answer would be Barack Obama. At least when my unsoiled Franklin was changed hands, I got the crispest notes I’ve ever seen in return.

A soiled $100 note. See the small grey mark? Not counterfeit, but as good as.

Happy Thanksgiving, any of you USA people!

Money from Siberia (Part 1 of 3 of a Kiva Fellows’ series on Remittances)

By Rob Packer, KF9 Kyrgyzstan

This is a repost from the Kiva Fellows’ Blog and is part one of a three-part post on remittances with other posts by Meg Gray (KF9, Nicaragua) and Agnes Chu (KF9, Samoa).

In the US or Western Europe, we often think about remittances as something that people send from our home countries back to their families in Mexico, Ghana, the Philippines, Ecuador, and so on. Remittances and the hope of wealth are the one of the driving forces in all kinds of global migration, so it seems fitting that the subject of remittances is a recurring theme in the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report from October 2009, which this year focuses on migration and aims to “challenge our preconceptions”. While movement from the West to developing world is one side to the story of remittances, it is not the only side: remittances do not necessarily touch the “rich world” of North America or Western Europe, or they can linger below the radar and have an enormous impact on countries where people are barely aware that they have an emigrant community. The three Kiva Fellows contributing to this co-ordinated post are posted in the countries currently hosting a Kiva Fellow and where remittances make up the largest percentage of the country’s gross domestic product (data from the World Bank): Samoa (22.8% of GDP), Nicaragua (12.9% of GDP) and Kyrgyzstan (19.1% of GDP). (read more…)

I Love Gloves

By Rob Packer

Anyone who has heard anything from me over the last week has probably heard me complain about the cold, and more specifically, the fact that I only have heating in one room of my apartment. Now that I’ve been to Dordoi market to get a coat, my winter wardrobe is complete, and there’s one item that’s easily my favourite: my gloves. There’s nothing like walking along in the cold with your hands in gloves. Even with my Russian-style coat, going without them just makes everything so cold. And I don’t mean to sound like Curley from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, but gloves definitely keep the amount of moisturizer you use in the winter to a sub-industrial level.

I love my gloves. They are one of my prized possessions, and it’s not just because I’ve realized that I can just about use my phone with gloves on. What makes these guys really special is that you can clip them together. Isn’t that great? It’s the non-five-year-old version of tying them together with wool and threading them through your jacket, although I have a feeling not even that stopped me when I was younger. Yes, this means that if you’re going to lose them, you’re going to lose both at once. While that sounds like an absolute pain, there is nothing worse than having a pair of gloves, and then coming home after a vodka-fuelled night in Bishkek (it could happen) and only having one glove. Seriously, one glove is useless: it’s nothing like a lost sock. In a desperate moment, you could just about get away with matching one odd sock with another, as long as you keep it quiet and blamed the fact that you got dressed in the dark if anyone notices. One glove just mocks you, telling how much warmer your hands would be if you hadn’t been such an idiot for losing its other half. And I’ve never found somewhere that really sells single gloves, so it means you have to buy another pair anyway.


Gloves. So great.

Simply put, I love my gloves.

Salad Daze

By Rob Packer

Kiva Fellow Initiation Test: Offal

A couple of weeks ago at work, we had some delicious salad to go with our samsy, a delicious Kyrgyz meat-filled pastry that bears quite the resemblance to the Cornish pasty. The salads were a slightly pickled shredded carrot with mushrooms or tofu. While I was passing through the supermarket after my Russian class this evening, I saw the salad section and suddenly remembered how delicious they were. I pointed at my salad of choice, mumbled some Russian (it’d been a hard class) and went on my way.

I arrived at home toying with the idea of making some pasta, but a gurgling sound and no water from the tap quickly made up my mind. The first place I went to check after that was the gas stove to see if the water was coming out of there. Instead I decided to have some lepyoshka (flat Kyrgyz bread, delicious when still warm), cheese and my salad. I’d had an enormous plate of rice for lunch, so a German-style Abendbrot seemed like good idea. I was not happy when I opened my salad, and saw that instead of tofu skin, I had a carrot and tripe salad.

I feel like a bit of a hypocrite complaining about a spot of tripe, especially after a semi-boast yesterday about my love of thousand-year eggs and durian. In my defence, I like offal slightly more than the next guy, which I why I happily chugged down the lamb bits on the top of the plov, Central Asian pilaf, at the weekend. But tripe is something I’ve never been able to get into: whenever I’ve had it before it has to have a pretty strong sauce and be hot to make me like it. The slightly spicy vinegar dressing didn’t hide the fact that I was eating a carrot and tripe salad. Nor was it hot.

Carrots and tripe

Tripe salad. Even at this distance those could be mushrooms. Caveat emptor!

When I was taking a night-time stroll to my supermarket to top up my internet credit, I decided to stop by the salad section. Sure enough, next to where my tripe salad had been, were more cartons: one was carrot and mushroom, the other was carrot and tofu. Suddenly it became clear my the woman was slightly hesitant to give me the carton I was pointing out when I picked it up.

I feel that it’s almost understood that an offal experience will be part of every Kiva Fellow’s time in the field, and I’ve been patiently waiting for mine. I just never expected it to be self-inflicted.

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