Central Asia has been famous for its bazaars for centuries, but in recent years they have undergone radical changes. Cheap Chinese goods have been flooding into Central Asia, as Beijing’s trade surges with its neighbors to the West.
Concern is growing in some quarters that the influx of cheap consumer goods churned out in Chinese factories threatens to render locally made traditional crafts obsolete. Uzbekistan, whose modern-day borders cover territory that was at the heart of the ancient Silk Road, is a good place to test this possibility.
Urgut, a small Uzbek town not far from the Tajik border, sitting in the foothills of the Zarafshan Mountains, is famous for its local handicrafts, particularly a distinctive version of the embroidered hanging called the suzani. Has this survived what some see as a relentless onslaught of Chinese goods?
Trawling through the rambling bazaar, among row upon row of stalls piled high with cheap clothes, plastic kitchenware, “I Love You” teddy bears, and imitation perfume, it would be easy to think not.
Outside the bazaar is a clue to where all this came from – a sign on a lamppost offers trips by air or bus to Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang Province, just across the border from the post-Soviet Central Asian states.
Urumqi is a hub for shuttle traders, who pick up cheap goods and bring them home to sell. A bus trip of nearly 2,000 kilometers from Urgut to Urumqi through Kazakhstan is certainly quite a journey, but it is a way of making a living in an area with few other employment opportunities.
China is Uzbekistan’s second largest trade partner after Russia, but trade between the two has taken a hit from the global credit crunch: official Uzbek figures show it totaling $815.5 million during the first half of 2010, down 30 per cent on the same period last year.
The farther one plows into the Urgut Bazaar, the more goods from China start to mingle with locally-made wares – a row of Chinese tea kettles, for example, stands above a display of qozon, the huge pots used to cook the national rice and meat dish, plov.
Gradually the sea of Chinese goods recedes, swallowed up in the part of the market the traders call Eski Bozor (Old Bazaar). The first stop is the hat stalls, with piles of tyubeteykas – skullcaps – in various patterns, from plain black with white stitching to brightly colored floral designs.
Nearby, there are ceremonial clothes for special occasions, such as weddings and circumcisions – pointed silver hats decorated with jewels and feathers, velvet jackets richly stitched with gold or silver, and evening dresses made of atlas silk and featuring startling color combinations.
The sound of tapping betrays the presence of local craftsmen, toiling away in their workshops making delicately designed, intricately painted baby’s cradles (beshik) and glittering silver trunks for storing possessions (sandiq).
Finally there is a glimpse of the distinctive Urgut suzani, square cotton hangings with bold circular panels stitched on. The local style is most famous for its black and burgundy shapes sewn onto a white background, but there are all kinds of swirling psychedelic variations on the theme.
The sellers rush to display their hangings, and Sabohat Samadova explains what they are for. “For beauty!” she says. “When guests come, they see it and say ‘how beautiful!’” The hangings, she says, bring joy to the family and make guests feel at home.
Many of them have an attention-grabbing central motif – a teapot, another reflection of the warm welcome given to visitors. “When guests come we drink tea, and this is a symbol of hospitality,” says Sara-Bibi Hamidova, proudly displaying a pink suzani with a purple teapot in the middle. She explains how traditionally a corner of the hanging is left unfinished, so that each generation can make a personal contribution to the suzani as it is handed down within the family.
This is painstaking work – it takes one woman up to two months to embroider a suzani, which she then sells in the bazaar or passes to intermediaries for onward sale in tourist hotspots such as Samarkand, an hour’s drive away.
Local skills, it seems, are alive and well in Urgut, and Sara-Bibi explains why: they’re handed down, she says, from “our grandmothers and our great grandmothers, from generation to generation.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.