Cathedrals of Commerce: A Trip to the Bizarre

Build it, and they will come.

Dordoi Bazaar is akin to a medieval village while being emblematic of the new Silk Road in Central Asia. As in the twelfth century when thousands of pilgrims and whole crusader armies journeyed through the south of France to the port city of Aigues-Mortes on the way to Outremer, a small cathedral, such as the one at Psalmodi, would be the cornerstone for a local economy to build on. Stonemasons would arrive patronized by the biggest purse of the day, the Church. Money flowed and opportunities flourished. Soon, a warren-like network began to sprawl circularly outward, centered on the rising house of God. Medieval towns grew organically, without planning beyond the central square and cathedral itself.

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A sign advertising Schwarma and Gamburger (döner kebab)

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Concrete steps formed in front of a container. There is a Coke bottling plant here, but the only American chain store is the Apple store. That’s right folks; no McDonald’s.

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Shashlik and plov

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The food was amazingly good, and everything was shared freely

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Today is my day. March 8.

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Salad bar, Kyrgyz style

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Brollies for sale at Dordoi

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The knife man at Dordoi

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Repurposed pram.

Commerce draws commerce. In areas of commercial devolution, such as America’s rustbelt, when the central employer fails, so does everything else. Until 1991, the central employer in Kyrgyzstan was the Soviet Union. Towns and cities flourished in Central Asia because Stalin needed a dumping ground for resettled European minorities such as the Crimean Tatars and Volga Germans. Bishkek was an administrative center for the refugee state. The Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic thrived. But, once the Soviet largesse ended in 1991, independent Kyrgyzstan began to wither. Now, the capital Bishkek resembles a Roman ruin (albeit built from concrete and rebar), slowly decaying amidst grand boulevards of birch and oak, still watered from aquaducts overflowing with summer glacier melt. Commerce is uncertain, catering only to the corruption class, those who successfully siphon money from international aid.

Yet, Dordoi’s success is undaunted. The Bazaar itself, Zhongai Market, is at the heart of a complex of arriviste suburbs that expands haphazardly every day. Various shopkeepers sell wholesale goods imported from China, Turkey, and Russia to consumers and other merchants. Dordoi centralizes goods imported from east, west, and north for redistribution throughout Central Asia. It is the region’s largest employer. Commerce begets commerce.

Even in the world of cyber commerce, actual goods must still change hands. The physicality (geographality?) of exchange is invisible to most who buy over the Internet. Wares are still made in factories, distributed from centralized hubs, and travel en masse across continents in the new caravans: hordes of shipping containers. Stacked higher than Notre Dame de Paris, these small cities are the new caravansaries. The dominance of consumer capitalism has created new cathedrals; since they serve the god of efficiency rather than Yahweh of old, all expense is spared for beautification. Dordoi is not built of the finest marble or by crafters who take pride in the beauty of creation; rather the very materials that transport goods from here to there are Dordoi’s building blocks: purloined shipping containers.

As I tell my students, culture changes throughout history, but human nature stays remarkably the same. Human ingenuity persists. In this dirt-poor nation comprised mostly of the remotest mountains on Earth, building is limited to what is essentially wattle and daub or imported materials. Rather than importing wood and concrete, merchants peddle wares from the package they came in: shipping containers. Over two square kilometers of mammoth steel quaders rise out of the steppe, one stacked upon the other, accessed through end doors still bearing the names of their original owners: Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd, names in Chinese, Japanese, Cyrillic. Oddly enough, the complex also features a newly built mosque to satisfy the needs of denizens and visitors alike. There is no wall, but there is a fence, and the mosque is on the outside. Allah might be present, but the house of worship is a sideshow to the main event.

A short drive north of Bishkek, getting to Dordoi is itself an experience for comment. Birthed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 and built from the vehicles that supply it, Dordoi is naturally accessed by some vehicle powered by fossil fuels, usually a poorly maintained, not-safe-at-any-speed taxi belching diesel fumes or, for those with the patience of the chronically impecunious, a marshrutka minibus. Driving anywhere in Kyrgyzstan (the land without auto insurance) is dangerous, a full-contact sport. Since the streets are neither plowed nor salted, multiple bumps and scrapes are the norm.

Once at the market, streets and walkways are unpaved. When the steppe melts following the famed Russian winter, puddles of mud are hastily bridged by whatever means possible. As in American boomtowns of the nineteenth-century, a network of wooden planks hastily forms to create sidewalks. The experience is far closer to previous centuries than even a stroll through a lovely medieval town in France, England, or Germany. Stray dogs roam seeking a morsel amongst the detritus of a plastic age.

Dark, dank, and energetic all at the same time, one must dodge hawkers, rambling food sellers offering tea, cakes, corn on the cob, and still hot Kyrgyz samsa distributed from repurposed baby carriages, police soliciting bribes, and pickpockets seeking tourists and the generally distracted. The alleyways are too small for motorized transport, so goods arrive and depart on large carts navigated at breakneck speed. Right of way derived from both economic centrality to Dordoi’s function and pure inertia, crowds part and everyone dives into a shop to avoid serious injury as a monumental pile of toilet paper or microwave ovens speeds by, drawn by a burly man shouting in Russian to step lively or be mowed down.

Containers are stacked two or three high. In most areas, pieces of corrugated metal have been welded over doors to provide cover from sun, snow, and rain. As time has passed, however, whole sections have acquired roofs made from plastic sheeting. What was once ad hoc has acquired a sense of permanence, much like the Grand Bazaar must have once been; plumbing and electricity are scarce but available. Tailors and cobblers have stalls; some shopkeepers have prospered enough to install glass fronts and provide heat and refreshments. North Face products are sold from a North Face store, probably authentic merchandise made in the same Chinese sweatshop as the goods sold to the label conscious American-European but at greatly reduced prices.

Dordoi, despite its stands offering mouthwatering shashlik and plov and a small market offering Korean foodstuffs and veg, is not particularly human friendly. I have not yet summoned the courage to visit the toilets, and although the money-changers are present in their temple, there is no ATM. Multiple levels insulate the ground from the heat of the day, but the steel boxes manage to capture the cold and hold onto it like a dog with a bone. Inside the complex is actually colder than out in the elements. There is no planning, and landmarks shift, so finding anything specific for a second time is a combination of spatial awareness and dumb luck. Dead ends abound, main thoroughfares are few, and maps are non-existent. Compasses are useless, since one is surrounded by steel. However, the area has its own cellular tower.

One does not travel to Dordoi to shop, although I have yet to come back from a trip empty handed. Kyrgyzstan seems to be dumping ground of another sort; products that did not sell in the consumption-savvy West suddenly appear en masse and then disappear just as quickly. In the expat community, word goes out quickly if someone sees a particular brand or item for sale. For example, Doritos are rare, and when they do appear, they are most likely in a flavor that did not suit Stateside Americans. If it didn’t sell in the States, it will end up at Dordoi. American toothpaste is another frequently appearing and disappearing commodity.

Dordoi is a destination unto itself. I stumbled into a tradition in 2012 and enjoyed it again this year. As in much of the former Soviet bloc, Kyrgyzstan is one of the few countries in the world to celebrate formally International Women’s Day. Because capitalism cannot wait, Dordoi is nonetheless open on most holidays. People over 30 remember the Soviet Union with fond nostalgia. Women definitely remember the enforced equality they lost when the Soviet overlords vacated the premises. March 8 is a holy day here and an excuse to celebrate with a picnic (even in sub-zero temperatures). Tables are assembled, dishes are prepared, vodka, cognac, and bubbly flow like water, and Western passers-by are invited to join in the celebration. We go shopping, tipsy from the hospitality, while the men watch our backs. On March 8, there’s no complaining.

In conservative estimates, Dordoi employs over 100,000 people, and the site continues to grow. On the outskirts, new containers appear, nomads set up yurts, and shepherds graze their flocks, seven kilometers north of the capital city.

Chinese wares for sale

Chinese Coke

Hustle and bustle at Dordoi

The ladies still had to do the cooking.

The ladies still had to do the cooking.

There is still room for the craft worker

There is still room for the craft worker

Much of post-Soviet Bishkek is built in similar manner

Much of post-Soviet Bishkek is built in similar manner

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3 Comments

Filed under #bishkek, Expat life, Travel

3 responses to “Cathedrals of Commerce: A Trip to the Bizarre

  1. Can’t wait to travel here in April. Looks great

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