Trade was the lifeline of the old Silk Road, and things haven’t really changed much since then. 2000 years later, it is still the Chinese who supply the bulk of the products, with the landlocked hawkers of Central Asia as their eager accomplices. There are a million bazaars in the region and it is difficult to just choose a few, but if you are on the road, don’t forget to visit these 10 gems.
Yengi and Mal Bazaar, Kashgar
Mal Bazaar is Kashgar’s most famous tourist attraction nowadays. The Sunday animal market is a photographer’s delight as people from surrounding villages still clinging onto tradition make their way to the city to browse and bargain for the best-priced camel or yak. If you’re there, it’s a must.
Yengi Bazaar is the traditional crafts market in the center of town. Kashgar is modernizing fast and the Chinese have little respect for the wishes of Western tourists, but Yengi Bazaar has survived for now. It is not what it used to be, now roofed and boxed in by a big metal structure (the Chinese destroyed the original bazaar that attracted huge crowds as they deemed it a traffic hazard), but traders and craftsmen continue their business, from shoeing horses to carving wood, and the bazaar will keep you coming back for more as you explore more of its hidden corners.
For travelers from coastal China, gemstones are the main prize here. Mainly jade from nearby Hotan, with a smattering of quartz and amber from elsewhere.
Vakil Bazaar, Shiraz
It is difficult to choose just one bazaar in Iran, since there are just too many beautiful, historical places to get your wallet out. Examples include the largest covered bazaar in the world in Tabriz and the Kashan Bazaar with its famous ceiling architecture, both must-sees.
We decided on the Vakil Bazaar in Shiraz for its wonderful mix of courtyards and corridors, bath houses and caravanserais. Despite Shiraz’s fame, it is not as touristy as for instance the Grand Bazaar in Tehran. It is a great place to buy traditional Iranian crafts and spices. Saffron in particular is a great buy, as the region around Shiraz accounts for most of the world’s production of the expensive spice.
Some estimates put the trade at Dordoi Bazaar outside of Bishkek as the second-biggest economic activity in Kyrgyzstan. In terms of products, there is little of interest, as it is mostly cheap Chinese imported goods that pass through Dordoi on their way to the rest of Central Asia. Dordoi is mostly a wholesale market. For food and souvenir shopping, the central Osh bazaar in Bishkek is brilliant, with everything from fresh produce and spices to locksmiths, shoe-repair guys and hand-crafted tools for professions long-forgotten in the West.
Dordoi is a lot more prozaic. Every shop consists of 2 shipping containers stacked on top of each other. The ground floor serves as the actual shop, while the top floor is used as storage.
So, it’s not pretty, and there is nothing traditional or photogenic around. Where is the fun, then, in going to Dordoi? It lies in the sheer size of the market, its thousands of containers with more than 20 000 people at work in, above and between them, the mix of nationalities and the unadulterated scramble for cash by traders from as far away as Russian Siberia, who spend days on packed buses to make it to Dordoi and back.
If you are in Turkmenistan and ready to spend, you better buy a carpet! And there is no better place to do just that than Tolkuchka bazaar. The selection is endless at this bazaar just outside of Ashgabat. The bazaar is a great place to connect with locals and here it is no different.
You can do all your regular shopping here, but the main reason to come is the camel market. For plain visual entertainment, it beats every other market in the Middle East I have seen so far where camels are sold. Be aware: open for business only on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from morning until 2pm.
Urfa market, Turkey
Shopping in Turkey, especially as a tourist, is a drag. Pushy salesmen everywhere when you just want to be left alone, and horny eyes galore if you are a woman. The market in Urfa is nothing like that. Little stalls are spread out over a labyrinthine network of small corridors and alleyways where you can lay eyes on goods you don’t see anywhere else in Turkey, like checkered headscarves and fresh-from-the-oven pistachio pastry.
Large matrons with face tattoos dressed in bright purple headdress are accompanied by greybeards in baggy pants. An altogether fantastic atmosphere. Take your time to soak it all in, play some backgammon in a streetside tea shop and escape the heat in the heart of Urfa.
Not so far away, the craftsmen-city of Gaziantep is another town brimming with caravanserais and beautiful wares.
Green Bazaar, Almaty
Perhaps not as colorful as some of the other markets in this article, the Green Bazaar in central Almaty still made it onto the list for 2 reasons: the great meat and dairy section, and the enormous mishmash of faces.
The meat is generally overpriced in the Green Bazaar, but displayed attractively here, with icons showing which animal you are looking at. The dairy section abounds with an endless array of weird mixes. Fermented camel’s milk mixed with honey? You can buy that. Chips made out of cream? Of course.
The real star of the show are the people here though. The bazaar is the great equalizer, and the hundreds of nationalities in this cosmopolitan city all come to shop for food here. Looking around and guessing the ethnic heritage is a fascinating time waster.
Bargain hunters should either go across the street from the Green Bazaar, where a small Uyghur shopping district lies, or come to the early market before 6am, when wholesale traders block nearby Zenkov street and sell vegetables from their vans. Higher up on Zenkov an interesting antique market starts daily around 10am.
Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent
Uzbekistan is a land of bazaars. The people here are born traders, colorful and friendly, and the markets are laden with fresh produce and beautiful handicrafts. So which one should we pick? The Uzbek authorities came down hard on traders in recent years, especially in Tashkent, but Chorsu has stayed intact.
We opted for the Chorsu bazaar in Tashkent, for its magnificent golden cupola that caps the trading on the floor. Inside it is not so busy as outside of the market, and prices tend to go down as well, but the setting makes up for all of that.
Urgut bazaar, Uzbekistan
Ok, one more from Uzbekistan then. The main bazaar in Samarkand does not stir the soul of the passionate shopper. The small village of Urgut just outside of Samarkand does, however, in a big way.
It is a village bazaar, so you can be sure to get everything from cleaning products to goat heads here, but the real attraction is the fabrics section. For the woman who feels up to the task of spending some serious quality time comparing and haggling with the sales ladies, there are some deals to be made here, from brand-new suzanis for the bride-to-be to 100-year old antiques from pre-Soviet days.
Sunday is the best day to go.
Panjshanbe bazaar, Khujand, Tajikistan
To feel the spirit of this ancient trader’s city at the mouth of the Syr Darya, there is no better place than the bazaar. Everyone is impressed when they see the stately columns that hold up the Panjshanbe bazaar. It is simply the most interesting place in Khujand, where you can meet everyone and be fed the whole day through.
Ishkashim border market, Afghanistan
Last one is a bit of an odd one out. The Ishkashim market is accessible without an Afghan visa across the border from Tajikistan. The items on sale are not that interesting. You should come here to get a taste of Afghanistan without the danger that usually comes with it. Meet Afghans!
Which favorite market of yours did we miss? Let us know in the comments!