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 heaped with fresh dill, or piles of manty covered in sliced onions. In addition to these are a startling array of other odors, 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.
Sherali Joʿraev, Birinchin mukhabbatim
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 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 in his portable machine and I hear brief passages, rejecting most of them outright. Finally, he puts in a cassette by Sherali Joʿraev, and I purchase several by this artist, and we part, both satisfied with the transaction.
Sherali Joʿraev, Olis yullar
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 the scrawl is completely 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 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.