Thursday, December 2, 2010

Day 4 in Almaty - the BIG Bazaar

Wednesday, 1 December

When I say big, I mean BIG. I mean ENORMOUS. I mean, entire cities are smaller than this place.

Over Fall Break, I went to Central Market in Astana. After four hours of shopping, I realized I wasn't even halfway through.

After 6 hours of shopping in the market on the northern outskirts of Almaty, my co-worker and I were exhausted, and we hadn't come close to halfway through. Probably not even one-tenth through. We had seen some of the clothes and coats. Definitely nowhere near all of the clothes and coats. And not the hats, boots, appliances, furniture, knick-knacks, or whatever else we missed.

(We did see some hats, but I suspect that there were aisles of them somewhere.)

A few hours into the experience, we stopped at a restaurant that was pretty much hidden--down a dark hallway/alley, through an unmarked door. It was your basic Kazakh restaurant, cafeteria-style, and for 450 Tenge I got barley with chicken & a few vegetables, bread, tea, and a cake. I asked for a half-plate of my main course, which was quite large!

The bazaar is on two sides of a somewhat busy, definitely crowded road. The stalls are partly inside, partly outside--shacks, lean-tos. They are located down long, cramped aisles. You are inside, but outside--the floor is mostly packed dirt, there is a ceiling, and little light from outside.

Men with carts overloaded with goods raced down these aisles, shouting in Kazakh, and ready to knock over anyone in their way. Bent women pushed carts selling tea, some pastries, and candies. And women who resembled gypsies wandered around, seemingly begging but also selling. My co-worker L had sympathy on one and gave her 50 Tenge. Then the woman gave her a pin. L thought this was sweet, but the woman wouldn't leave her alone. Our Kazakh friend translated--the pin cost 300 Tenge. L said gave back the pin, although the woman did not want to accept it. She'd rather the 300 Tenge.

My Kazakh friend had stayed home with the girls, which turned out to be good. It was a long day, cramped and crowded, and needing patience and a love for shopping. We had to take two buses there, it took about an hour. Our new American friend had a Kazakh friend from Almaty; it was she who took us there and showed us around.

I found a few good finds--including an angora hat with matching scarf and gloves for 500 Tenge ($3.40) and a sweater for Sophia for 1000 Tenge (about $6.70). Our Kazakh friend found a fur-on-the-inside, leather-on-the-outside coat for not much over $100. Amazing.

But in the end my co-worker and I wore out well before the other two women and we headed out, armed with a copy of the directions I had written down while we took the bus over here.

Outside, we crossed the road and headed in what we thought was the direction of Almaty, and I wondered at how the mountains were really hidden in the haze. When we had arrived at the bazaar, I had noticed that the mountains--and Almaty--were behind us. Then my co-worker recognized a building as one we had passed coming in (on this side of the road), and I turned around -- lo and behold, those majestic mountains! To make sure, we asked a man where Almaty was. He seemed a bit confused by the question, he gestured towards the mountains.

Then I remembered, that sometime early in our day, we had climbed down some stairs--we must have gone under the road!

So we crossed the road again and walked to where it seemed that other people were waiting for buses. A few buses later, we saw our bus--Bus 120. just to be sure, I asked the bus attendant, "Tolebi?" He said yes and helped us on the bus.

Earlier that day, on our way to the bazaar, we had changed from bus 126 to bus 120 at the intersection of Tolebi and a street whose name I could not pronounce. Since bus 120 only crossed Tolebi, I figured I was okay only asking for Tolebi.

The bus got more and more crowded, and the attendant pushed us further and further back. My co-worker had found a seat right by the door, luckily. The street in front of the bazaar was so crowded, the bus just inched along, as the attendant leaned out the door, smoking a cigarette and calling out the names of various stops along this bus's route.

It took probably half an hour to get out of the bazaar. The bus was so crowded, and I became worried that I would not recognize our stop, and I was sure that the attendant wouldn't remember my question from so long ago. (Especially since the question was a one-word question--"Tolebi?") But now I was too far from him to go up and ask him to let me know when we got there.

The man next to my co-worker wanted to get off. I saw this, but my-coworker didn't notice. The attendant started talking to her in Russian, probably asking her to let this man off. She didn't understand and soon the two were very frustrated with each other. "Nyet Russian!" she shouted. "American!" I called out to her what I thought the attendant wanted--her to let the man next to her off. She did, but soon the attendant and others were laughing and saying something about "Americans"--so, I thought, now might not be a good time to ask him to tell me when we got to Tolebi.

But then, we got to a stop and he said, "American, Tolebi!" and even helped my co-worker and me off the bus.

We were a short walk from the intersection, and nothing looked familiar. We started wondering if the attendant had purposely let us off at the wrong stop, us being stupid Americans and all.

So my co-worker encouraged me to ask a passer-by for help, she picked out a good-looking young man, and he happened to speak English and be good with maps. We were indeed on Tolebi, two short blocks from the intersection where I had assumed we'd be let off (the bus might have a slightly different return route?). And bus 126 did pass by here, all we had to do was cross the street.

We thanked him, got to the bus stop, and bus 126 showed up before we had time to ask anyone for confirmation that it would show up.

Now we had a half-hour ride, but in peace, since we knew we would recognize the Silk Way City shopping complex where we had to get off.

I was so proud of myself, returning home from the bazaar all by myself!

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