In the crowded market, there is no respite. The endless scurry and buzz of the buyers and sellers flies in the face of the dusty heat of mid-afternoon, which commands lethargy. Scarved women move through, wearing long dresses of printed fabric in screaming loud colors, their ready smiles revealing walls of golden teeth. Stocky men in long overcoats and four-sided embroidered caps clasp their hands together in the small of their backs and study the goods with a wary eye and a practiced indifference, ready to haggle for even the smallest reduction in price.
Young men, some of them boys really, watch over stalls selling tape cassettes of unclear provenance, with photocopied insert cards but no labels. Other boys man stalls that offer cold drinks mixed on the spot, dribbling candy-colored syrup from racks of glass tubes into carbonated water. Butcher stalls reek in the heat from the blood of freshly slaughtered animals as shoppers inspect the offerings and argue for a better cut for their money.
No respite, that is, except for the tea houses, where people sit in the shade, sometimes on elevated platforms with divans and low tables; at other times around western-style tables and chairs. Placed before them are pots of tea — green or black? with milk or without? — sweetened with golden nuggets of grape sugar. Almost invariably, the tea comes to the table in simple ovoid teapots glazed in blue, gold, and white with the stylized image of the cotton boll, representing the major cash crop of the region.
We order our tea — зелёный с молоком, пожалуйста — and consider the journey we have undertaken, to this far side of the world, this most landlocked of places, this Andijon, in the cornucopious and fabled Fergana Valley of eastern Uzbekistan. Here, the foreigner is always watched and cannot rely on the crowd for anonymity. Eyes follow us everywhere, sometimes wary, sometimes curious or bemused, perhaps wondering why we have come, of all places, to this corner of the globe.
We slowly sip, and give our swollen feet a few minutes to shrink a bit from the confines of our road-weary boots, and we watch the baker as he supervises his young assistants, who are loading ball after ball of raw dough into a traditional pit oven, each one destined soon to become today’s fresh bread.