I go to the bazaar every two weeks, about, to buy a few supplies and sometimes just because it's interesting. In Uralsk, there are three bazaars, right next to each other. The cheapest - the Kitaiski (Chinese) bazaar, is the easiest to get to by bus. It has the food sections and booth after booth of the same goods. The Turkish bazaar is across the street from the Kitaiski bazaar, and I've only walked past it. Most of the beggars hang out there, and women selling enormous gray pressed-wool knee boots (they're about an inch thick, pure wool. To walk outside in them, you buy rubber slippers to put over the bottoms.) Hidden behind the Turkish bazaar is the Moscow bazaar, which has more expensive goods, rugs, and fur coats, which aren't sold in the other bazaars. You can buy a cashmere scarf for about $5. You can buy batteries for about $2.
Tips on buying from the bazaar:
- Snickers bars are warmer and fresher and the same price in the stores.
- Batteries are less dented and the same price in the stores.
- Every item is more expensive on the edges of the bazaars. You can get a first offer on a sweater - the same sweater - for 700 T cheaper (about $5) in the center.
- Keep your bags in front. All it takes is a swift bump - perfectly normal here - for someone to empty your pocket.
- Wear boots with traction. If it's not covered in ice, it's covered in mud. Snow either can't reach the ground or is quickly trampled into some other substance.
- Don't intend to buy clothing on a cold day, since when you try it on, it will just be little old you and a fabric curtain vs. January.
- The bazaar is scheduled to close at 5pm, but it's more likely to close by 4, if people feel like it.
- Pick your own fruit.
- Check your change.
- Try not to think about finding a particular item, a specific booth, or anything. It's bazaar magic - when you want something it's not there. If you go shopping with a friend who is looking for a nice skirt, however, you will probably fall in love with a bag and two shirts for more tenge than you'd budgeted, and she will find nothing.
- It's all the same. Clothing vendor sells the same clothes as the next vendor. Almost no one specializes in anything, and almost nothing is handmade. This ain't no guild, folks. This is Kitaiski.
Most of the bazaar is outside, of course. The people who work there wear about twenty layers of clothing and the wool boots. At the corners, women and sometimes children sell packettes - plastic bags. If you're smart, you have your own to re-use. The whole country is filled with men and women carrying around carefully chosen packettes they bought last summer and have used ever since. One of the favorites has a picture of children and says in English, "Real Girls, Live Show." Another says "Este Lauder" in Cyrillic. The "Lego" bag was for the funkier sort of consumer, and it was only in circulation for a month or so, and it was a bit more expensive than the others. The current trend in Uralsk is the various colors of the "SpringFields" bag, which has nice handles and can carry heavier goods. Take that, Dominicks.
But for me, trying to find a particular section or stand is like trying to enter Narnia. The harder I try, the more elusive transparency papers, zippers, bananas become. I could spend hours turning corners and walking through the long, barn-like buildings, weaving through the crowds or waiting while I'm pushed along. You can count on lots of human contact, people bumping you hard without flinching, turning your shoulders so they can get past, only to be stopped by a few men who've bumped into each other and realize they know each other. Long, happy greeting rituals follow. The crowds back up and into the booths.
I did once successfully buy what I had intended to: a head scarf for autumn. I found a lady whose scarves varied somewhat from everyone else's and asked to see the red, the beige, and the white versions of it. She liked me and told me I wasn't ignorant, like other Americans (all those Americans she's met). I also got some free fashion advice: the white looked terrible on me because it matched my skin. (Good heavens, am I that sickly?) She showed me the colors I could wear with my complexion: turquoise, lime green, and neon pink. And the red. I bought the red.
The Kitaiski bazaar has a building full of honey and cheese. You can go in and walk down the aisle and all of the saleswomen will give you honey samples, from almost white honey you can pick up and eat like maple candy to golden runny honey. You can buy several sizes of jars. There's another building I've come upon a few times, never when I was desperate for it, that sells fruit and vegetables. This building is your only hope of lettuce, which goes at about 40 cents a leaf. It's warm, with high ceilings and a non-meaty smell. News travels especially fast here. I once bought bananas from one lady and walked across the room in about 7 seconds to a woman who was selling lemons, at least 9 vendors over. The lemon-seller knew that I was American and spoke Kazakh. However, usually I can only find the meat building. Women hand each other raw mutton with bare hands, or stand in front of the glass counters, pointing to animal heads. The only thing I haven't acclimated to is the smell, which is enough to make me wretched.
There are also always the hawkers, who sell camca, tea, and bananas, and go walking through the aisles, yelling alternately in Kazakh and Russian. And sometimes, young men with goods piled high on sledges (or in summer, on wheels) suddenly come around the corner and the crowds either clear out or are plowed under.
Of course, a person could write a whole book on a single bazaar, and all of them are different. There is the taxi section, the car parts section, the places where you can buy candy. And it changes a lot from summer to winter. I guess one should conclude: try very hard to find the meat section, make your heart long for the meat, and then you'll be fine. Or, simply go as a spectator. Buy something fried and stroll around.