In the crowded market, there is no respite. The endless scurry and buzz of the buyers and sellers defies the dusty heat of mid-afternoon, which commands lethargy. Scarved women move through, wearing long dresses of printed fabric in screaming colors, their ready smiles revealing walls of gold teeth. Stocky men in long overcoats and four-sided embroidered caps clasp their hands together in the small of their backs and study the goods with a wary eye and a practiced indifference, ready to haggle for even the smallest reduction in price.
Young men, some of them boys really, watch over stalls selling tape cassettes of unclear provenance, with photocopied insert cards but no labels. Other boys man stalls that offer cold drinks mixed on the spot, dribbling candy-colored syrup from racks of glass tubes into carbonated water. Butcher stalls reek in the heat from the blood of freshly slaughtered animals as shoppers inspect the offerings and argue for a better cut for their money.
No respite, that is, except for the tea houses, where people sit in the shade, sometimes on elevated platforms with divans and low tables; at other times around western-style tables and chairs. Placed before them are pots of tea — Green or black? With milk or without? — sweetened with golden nuggets of grape sugar. Almost invariably, the tea comes to the table in simple ovoid teapots glazed in blue, gold, and white with the stylized image of the cotton boll, representing the major cash crop of the region.
We order our tea — зелёный с молоком, пожалуйста — and consider the journey we have undertaken, to this far side of the world, this most landlocked of places, this Andijon, in the cornucopious and fabled Fergana Valley of eastern Uzbekistan. Here, the foreigner is always watched and cannot rely on the crowd for anonymity. Eyes follow us everywhere, sometimes wary, sometimes curious or bemused, perhaps wondering why we have come, of all places, to this corner of the globe.
We slowly sip, and give our swollen feet a few minutes to shrink a bit from the confines of our road-weary boots, and we watch the baker as he supervises his young assistants, who are loading ball after ball of raw dough into a traditional pit oven, each one destined soon to become today’s fresh bread.
On another day, the crowds in the Osh market jostle and push, always moving on to the next thing, as perhaps they have always done in this 3,000-year-old city at the eastern end of the Fergana Valley, near the Kyrgyz border with Uzbekistan. A restless flow of handcarts, women with bags, and men with burdens of heavy sacks on their shoulders pound the ancient fragments of stone and dust that pass for pavements here. The aromas from the smoky shashlik grills mingle with the odor of sweat and the steamy tea houses, serving greasy bowls of laghman (mutton stew) heaped with fresh dill, or piles of manty (dumplings filled with meat) covered in sliced onions. In addition to these are a startling array of other odors, earthy and fresh, activated in the heat, and too numerous to remember, much less describe. The sunlight and dancing colors, and the local popular music playing everywhere from portable casette players, as Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Russians, and no doubt others, each in their own variant of local clothing and headwear, all commingle here.
Awnings of bright fabric provide some shade for the thoroughfare that wends past stall after stall of local produce, cheap clothes from China, handmade hats, fat carrots and potatoes, huge open sacks of rice and other seeds, all the staples and sundries of a Central Asian life. People grin and scowl, sit sullen, laugh boisterously, stare, avert their eyes, and with a word that sounds like ‘boosh!’ urge the crowd to part so their heaving loads can pass.
There is a blinding flash of sunlight as bodies sway first apart then again together, walking in halting streams, glimpses of floral fabric and black-haired children, women in scarves and printed frocks that reach to their shoes, and serious-looking men with faces neither Asian nor European, but something in between.
We stop at a stall selling cassette tapes, watched over by a boy with a strange haircut, long in front but very short in the back. He seems baffled by my request for “traditional music,” which I phrase as best I can, considering my inadequate Russian. “Disco? Hip-hop?” he probes, not quite getting the gist. He pops a few cassettes into his portable machine and I hear brief passages, rejecting most of them outright. Finally, he puts in a cassette by Sherali Joʿraev, which I like, and I purchase several by this artist. We part, both well satisfied with the transaction.
I ask a particularly picturesque elderly gentleman if I may take his picture. He agrees, and when I show him the image on my digital camera, he insists that I print one for him on the spot. I explain to him delicately that it is not possible, and I am only permitted to leave once he has fetched a young boy with a pencil and paper to write down his postal address for me to send it once I arrive back home. Shoving the note into my hand, he reminds me, “Do not forget!” And I did not forget, but unfortunately, I discover later, the boy’s scrawl is hopelessly illegible.
We are stopped by a man in policeman’s uniform, with an extavagantly broad Pershing-style policeman’s hat. “Come with me,” he says to us. We are lead to separate rooms. After a close inspection of my passport, he takes the small shoulder bag I always carry and begins to take items out of it, one by one.
“What is this?” he inquires, holding up an asthma inhaler.
“It is something against asthma,” I reply, in my limited Russian.
Tsk, tsk. His hard face softens momentarily as he expresses sympathy. He goes on to the next item.
“Where are these from?” He holds up a few Czech banknotes. “They are from Czechia,” I reply.
“Where is that?”
“Near Germany.” He nods, understanding.
“How much is this worth?” indicating a 200-crown note. “About 10 dollars,” I say, without excessive precision.
He suddenly appears to lose interest, and concludes the interview. My companion is already waiting for me outside, and we continue on our inspection of the Osh bazaar.
The video segments were recorded by Ken Ganfield.
This text has been published under different titles on the blog Poemas del río Wang variously in English, Hungarian, German, Spanish and Italian, as: “Bread” and “Bazaar”.
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