Call me a total pikey, but I would rather root around in a market and find what I need without the bag or the "experience" and spend a fifth of the rrp. From time to time, going to a posh shop to buy a lovely few things and traipsing home with lovely bags is great, but fortunately for my husband and our bank balance, this is not my preference. And while I live in such out of the way places, I am pretty much determined to make the most of the markets.
Living in Hong Kong, then Bangkok and then Seoul, I became a massive fan of Asian markets and was forever popping off to Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok, nipping up to China Town on the river ferry, wrapping up warmly and whizzing round to Namdaemun in Seoul for various bits and bobs. In all these cities, you can visit the amazing department stores that will stock everything you could ever need and millions of itemsyou will never "need" but might one day buy! But it is only by going to the Asian markets that you get to hunt out excellent bits and bobs and see some amazing faces, practice your language skills and usually spend much less.
Sometimes, you find some real treasures that have leaked into the markets from factories which are producing for the West. In Thailand, I found Le Creuset table ware for pennies – I bought hundreds of pounds worth of Le Creuset which had found its way out the back of the factory in Thailand and was being sold for a few baht at Chatuchak. In Seoul, at Dongdaemun market, I stocked up on Mark Jacobs scarves and hats in wool/silk mix for a few dollars.
Coming to Kazakhstan, being very close to China and on the ancient trading route of the Silk Road, I thought that I would be in Bazaar central. The first time I went to Baraholka, the large out-of-town bazaar that lies to the North of Almaty, I was interested to see that people were selling things out of shipping containers. The market is basically a ramshackle collection of hundreds of shipping containers piled up along a road in big fields. It is not a looker and was quite charmless, I thought!
On closer inspection, the market, which stretches along side a road heading out of the town, is organized into vague sections, each named with promising titles, 'Europe' being one (although, don’t be fooled, there is nothing European-made in here). There are a couple of places selling mainly carpets, a large sections selling kitchen and glass ware, other sections offer tools, everything for a car, fishing rods, ropes and other attachments, plastic buckets in any size and other household useful items.
People are pretty friendly and occasionally you will find something you really need there, you just need to look. I have recently started going more often because the shops in Almaty are so haphazard in their stocking and supplies, and have an infuriating habit of displaying items which are their last in stock and then refusing to sell them to you. At least in Baraholka they would sell you their grannie if she was sitting there and had her hearing aid out.
Yesterday I took a friend to buy an umbrella shade for her balcony. It was a rainy day and Baraholka was very wet. Ancient green army trucks lurched through puddles at angles that make the obvious welding on their body work look as if it will rip apart at any second. Huge Volvo trucks with 40’ containers clipped on the back slowly lumbered through impossibly small lanes behind the market, their corners pushing against the apple trees that sprout over the top of the neighbouring cottage gardens.
Our driver Baktiyar really hates going to Baraholka. Clearly he has to go there a lot to buy anything for his home and family, and compared to the convenience of going to a European high street or shopping mall, this place is way down the list. The traffic to get along the market strip is horrendous because so many people are parking, reversing into the road, blocking the traffic, or crossing the road with huge bundles of cotton, or plastic, or clothes or fruit and veg. While in most places I have lived, the parking at markets is organized to an extraordinary degree, with guys in self-made parking jackets guiding you into tiny spaces for your car and taking their two dollars, at Baraholka the parking guys just take the two dollars but don’t actually organize it very well.
Baraholka is a great place to practice my Russian language and even though the vocabulary can be limited to shopping terms, when picking your way through a market with a baby in a baby carrier, there are always conversations that stray from the usual chat. And as usual, with each visit you find a new place selling something that youhave nto seen there before. Either there is new stock in, or you just happen to notice things that you have not seen before, or you wander down a new alley that you have not previously explored. I love the randomness of markets, and find I have a reasonable memory for where things are so that I can go back to them – my mind picks out odd landmarks – a coil of rope here, a scary-looking Chinese doll there, a corner where a legless beggar usually sits - and I can usually get back to where I wanted to go. Yesterday, I found a Chinese super market which also sells industrial cooking equipment which is perfect as a new source of rice noodles and bulk-buy chopsticks!