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Lost, and found in the bazaars of Bishkek

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Half past noon. Heat index well above 32 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit). My mission: to find a place to cool off, and fill my howling stomach. The only problems: I speak practically zero Kyrgyz, only know basic Russian, and don’t have a clue where I am. Dressed like a poor rendition of Indiana Jones in a checkered green button-up shirt, khaki pants and over-the-top flat cap, if this were a movie it would be called “Benjamin Mack and the Kingdom of the Empty Gut.”

Streetscene, BishkekI surveyed my surroundings. Bishkek is a relatively young city, founded in 1825 as a Khokand fortress and only acquiring its current name in 1991, mere months before Kyrgyzstan’s independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union. I was in the Osh Bazaar, one of the greatest marketplaces in all of Central Asia. The sprawling complex on the west side of the city is massive, but even that word does little justice for how big it really is.

Labyrinthine, like a giant anaconda coiling itself around several city blocks, the Osh Bazaar is the type of place one thinks of when asked their ideal image of the Silk Road. Comparable to Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market or Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, it is one of the main entrepôts through which consumer goods from China arrive to shops and markets throughout the region. The hodgepodge of exotic aromas wafting about is an olfactory fete: here one can smell lavender, or thyme, the mustiness of hand-woven carpets, the polish used on shoes slathered in the stuff. Name the country or product, and it can be found: Clothing from Europe, electronics from Japan, CDs from South Korea, woodcrafts from Thailand and anything and everything else. Shoppers charter buses from as far as Western Siberia to purvey the products on offer, many of which are sold in repurposed shipping containers that give the bazaar a pop-up feel despite existing for decades, if not centuries. The number of languages one hears is a veritable Tower of Babel; though Russian and Kyrgyz may be the predominant languages of trade, snatches of Mandarin, Turkish, Hindi, Pashto, Dari, Farsi, Yakut, Mangolian, Kazakh can all be heard with the frequency one finds traditional Kyrgyz felt kalpak hats.

Osh Bazaar, BishkekBut for all its dizzying array of items and sensual overload, it seemed to lack one vital component: food. For a cathedral of capitalism of this scale, why wasn’t there anything to eat?

I plunged deeper into the bazaar. Like a black hole or pit of quicksand, it sucks visitors in with an inescapable pull; the incredibly tight spaces are more cramped than any New York or Tokyo subway, shoppers and shopkeepers more aggressive than any in Istanbul or Cairo. Winding through the maze, I was jostled by tiny elderly women hunched over as they dashed as if possessed from one stall to the other, pulled aside by eager salesmen offering trousers for 200 som (about $4.10; €3.05), and accosted by curious fellow travelers surprised by the presence of a Westerner in the bazaar and eager to try on my hat and have a photo taken. Yet still there was nothing to eat.

Left, right, left, left and right again; orienting oneself in the bazaar is as impossible a task as molecular displacement.

Right, left, right, left, left. I was still lost amid the endlessly crisscrossing corridors mottled with specks of sunlight poking through holes in corrugated roofing and torn canvas. More jostling, more shouting.

Osh Bazaar, Bishkek KyrgystanSuddenly I found myself stumbling almost head over heels down a short flight of uneven stone steps and into an open room. Conversation peppered the air as it battled against the buzz of electric fans whirring overhead, precariously close to plain light bulbs dangling by thick cords that swayed ever so slightly in the artificially created breeze. Families, couples, friends and others sat around a dozen different tables, laughing and joking as two different women in modest dresses kept disappearing in and out of a small doorway at the far end of the room. A restaurant.

Sitting down at the only open table, a small laminated menu crusty with use was handed to me by a smiling waitress. Kyrgyz is one of the world’s oldest spoken languages, but one of its youngest in written form. The old Arabic alphabet and Turkic runes were replaced by the Soviets with the Cyrillic alphabet in 1940, which has remained to this day.

Using my imagination to decide what a dish would taste like based on its blurry monochrome picture, my instincts proved correct when a steaming plate of nan and lamb dumplings known as manti was placed before me. Carried across Central Asia by the Mongols during the 13th and 14th centuries, manti is one of the most popular Kyrgyz dishes, a sort-of everyman’s food due to its low cost and relatively simple preparation. On the surface it may appear similar to the popular Georgian stuffed dumplings known as khinkali, but for one important difference: whereas khinkali are filled with copious amounts juice like a water balloon, manti are as dry as the Kyrgyz terrain itself. That was fine with me, as the fizzy apple-tasting drink I was given to wash it down with proved the perfect liquid complement. The bill for all this amid an atmosphere one can only find buried in a nameless hole-in-the-wall establishment tucked inside a bazaar: just 110 som ($2.25; €1.70). A bargain if there ever was one.

Stomach finally full and feeling I’d sat and people-watched long enough, I ascended the stairs and returned to the bustle of the bazaar. Right, right, left, right, left. Somehow I managed to emerge from the semidarkness and out onto the main roadways of Kiev Street and B. Beyshenalieva Street to catch a marshrutka minibus for 20 som (40 US cents; €0.30) to the other side of the city and my original point of origin.

Ala-Too Square, BishkekThe Kyrgyz have been nomads since time immemorial, following their flocks to pasture lands as the seasons change and living in portable round yurts. Although most now live in fixed abodes and even nomads come down from the mountains in winter, they still welcome guests as warmly as they did in the days when visitors were the only source of news from the outside world. The aptly named Nomad’s Home is a continuation of that tradition.

Located on Bishkek’s quieter east side in a residential neighborhood behind the East Bus Station at Drevesnaya 10, Nomad’s Home offers a lodging experience as authentic as any that can be found in Kyrgyzstan. Run by a cheery family with a knack for remembering names and faces despite the large number of people that come and go, more than 30 beds are available in a variety of accommodations: hostel-style dorm bunks, private rooms, and of course the ubiquitous yurt.

But I wasn’t the only desert wanderer or mountain trekker in town, as the plethora of travelers that pass through Bishkek on their own Silk Road journeys can pitch their tents in the backyard for the night before moving on. They, too, had discovered the understated charm of the mysterious capital of an even more mysterious nation. After a long day of exploring, sharing conversations and drinking copious amounts of tea with my new friends – which included a loyal Manchester City football fan riding a bicycle from London to South Korea, a group of Germans on their way to India, and some Russians who had just returned visiting Kyrgyzstan’s popular lakeside region of Issyk-Kul – under the clear night sky flecked with stars as numerous as grains of sand on a beach while the homely scent of blooming flowers and baking bread swirled about proved to be just the mellow yin to the bustling yang the day began with. Temperatures still about 20 Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) as midnight rolled around, the door remained open as we slept.

Benjamin Mack is a U.S.-born, European-based travel writer. He has written for a variety of publications including Deutsche Welle, Air India Magazine, GALO, Tape, The Local Sweden and The Swedish Institute.

He currently lives in Germany.

More by this author on his own website or follow his tweets.

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