Excerpt from Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia published by the Ohio University (Swallow) Press (2016)
A man walks into a shop and asks, “Don’t you have any fish?” The shop assistant replies, “You’ve got it wrong. This is a butcher’s—we don’t have any meat. They don’t have any fish in the fish shop across the street!”
In the Soviet era, all shops—from the Tsum central department store to the small corner store—were state-owned and operated and numbered, with fixed prices and limited selection. Shoppers complained of long lines and surly customer service. In some areas, seasonal shortages of basic foodstuffs—bread, meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables—were common.
An underground retail sector existed alongside the state-run shops. Prices were higher, but the quality was better and some items were simply not sold in state-run stores; for Levis or Marlboros, you needed to talk to the guy in the leather jacket who hung around behind the Palace of Culture. In agricultural regions such as Kyrgyzstan’s Fergana Valley, some city dwellers had dachas where they grew apples, apricots, peaches and cherries, and raised vegetables; they canned for the winter months, and sold surplus to neighbors and friends. The police periodically cracked down on the underground economy, especially when it involved large shipments of alcohol, cigarettes or consumer electronics. But it was not worth the effort to stop a babushka selling tomatoes or strawberry jam to her neighbors in the apartment block, or even to stop the production and sale of moonshine called samogon (translated literally as “self-run”), the homemade distilled alcoholic concoction, usually made from sugar, beets, potatoes, bread or fruit.
In many ways, the state shops were a Potemkin Village—impressive facades, with empty shelves inside. And so the Soviets quietly allowed business in the informal economy to keep running, especially on the bazaars. In Osh, the massive Jayma bazaar which sprawls along the western bank of the Ak-Burra river, winding up dozens of side streets and alleys, had been one of the great markets on the Silk Road since medieval times. Today, it is open seven days a week, and thronged on Friday and Sunday, the traditional market days. It is still primarily an agricultural market, with slaughterhouses and warehouses. One section is piled high with bales of hay; in another, live chickens are sold, in another, raw cotton and wool; nearby, blacksmiths forge horseshoes, nails, stovepipes, kazans and traditional Uzbek ornamental knives. In the summer, the market bulges with fresh produce--peaches, apricots, oranges, cherries, grapes, melons and vegetables. Even in winter, apples, pears, figs, pomegranates, potatoes, onions, and carrots are abundant, and dried apricots, raisins, pistachios, almonds and walnuts are sold year round. Uzgen rice—the main ingredient of the Uzbek national dish plov, a lamb pilaf with carrots, onions and hot peppers—is sold from open bags. Lipioshski (flat bread) is baked in tandoori ovens. Butter comes by the slab, sugar in huge yellow crystalline lumps. Shashlyk (marinated mutton or beef kebabs, served with vinegary onions), laghman (a Uighur spicy noodle and vegetable soup), manti (dumplings stuffed with diced lamb and onion), and samsa (pastry filled with spicy meat or vegetables) are sold from stalls.
Even for a seasoned traveler, the sights, sounds and crush of people can be overwhelming. Ear-splitting commercials for local businesses blast out over the tinny speakers of the public address system, forcing the bootleg music vendors to crank up the volume on their boomboxes, playing the latest Turkish and Chinese pop hits. In the auto section, there's a brisk trade in used alternators, batteries, worn belts and tires; engine oil, sold in mason jars, looks as if it's already serviced a fleet of diesel buses. Although traditional silk, wool and cotton fabrics are sold, the garment district has largely been taken over by vendors hawking cheap imports from India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey with fake (and often misspelled) designer labels. The unofficial money exchanges do brisk business. In the mid-1990s, large denomination notes were often in short supply; one day, I received 1,170 som (about $75), all in 10 som bills. For the brave investor, there was even a financial services sector, of sorts—a group of burly men with shaven heads dressed in trainers hawking share certificates for newly privatized companies.
Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube, http://bit.ly/davidhmould