By Jan Westad
The Silk Road is the greatest trade route in human history. At its peak, it wound its way 4,000 miles from China to the Mediterranean. For millennia goods, as well as cultures and religions, passed between East and West along its road.
One region which benefited enormously from the Silk Road was Central Asia.
Numerous ancient sites pay testament to the riches of old. But the most indelible impression left on Central Asia is an enduring market culture. Travellers may be familiar with the stunning historic bazaars, fewer appreciate that open-air markets remain the bedrock of the region’s different cultures and economies.
In many ways, Central Asia’s vast contemporary markets capture the Silk Road’s vibrant culture of exchange far better than the region’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites. And soon this trade culture could be boosted by China’s Belt and Road initiative, which looks set to resurrect infrastructure connections between trading centres in the region.
The Silk Road is therefore not just for the history books, but crucial to understanding contemporary Asia. In the following lists, ASIAN Geographic explores some of the region’s most iconic and influential market sites:
1. Central Bazaar in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Bibi Khanym Mosque in Samarkand
Samarkand in south-eastern Uzbekistan is one of the oldest Silk Road sites, with its first settlers thought to have arrived almost 17,000 years ago. During the peak period of trade along the route, between 500 and 800 CE, Samarkand grew to become one of the most important trading cities, servicing Constantinople and the East of the Tang Dynasty. It remains one of the best-preserved sites along the route and its long, illustrious history cannot be avoided in the main central bazaar, where visitors enjoy the cool shade of the great blue dome of the Bibi Khanym mosque. Today, the market offers a feast of vegetables, fruit, nuts, spices, breads and traditional sweets.
2. Khiva, Uzbekistan
Islam Khodja Minaret, Khiva
Khiva market has a darker history. For centuries, it was the centre of the Silk Road’s brutal slave trade. A million Persians were thought to have been enslaved there in the 1800s alone. Now in contemporary Uzbekistan, Khiva which is surrounded by the Kyzylkum and Karakum Deserts, feels quiet and remote with its population of under 50,000. Visitors can wander this sleepy oasis at their leisure, following winding streets of mosques, blue-tiled minarets and ruins dating back to the 6th Century.
3. Abu Saxiy in Uzbekistan
Abu Saxiy Market
While most travellers picture Samarkand and Khiva when thinking of Uzbekistan’s markets, they are missing out on Uzbekistan’s largest market, Abu Saxiy. Located on the outskirts of the capital, Tashkent, and founded in 2006, this modern bazaar embodies how markets remain the beating heart of commerce and social life. Visitors will find traditional clothes and souvenirs, but will also see locals buying clothes, home accessories and electronics. The market was an innovative venture for Uzbekistan as it was the first market to be created out of shipping containers. A local businessman Timur Tillyaev used 680 leftover shipping containers on an empty plot of land to create Abu Saxiy’s first stalls before converted containers became a trend globally. This cheap flexible option proved popular with local traders and soon the market boasted almost 3,000 shops. At 25 hectares, and without a guided tour in sight, Abu Saxiy is the perfect opportunity to rub shoulders with the locals. Thousands shop at the market every day and thousands more are employed by Abu Saxiy, making it central to the Uzbek economy.
4. Dordoi Market in Kyrgyzstan
Visitors to Dordoi Market, in the suburbs of Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek, experience the same noisy commotion and spirit of exchange that gave the original Silk Road bazaars their unique identity. Set up by Askar Salymbekov in 1991, Dordoi now stands at almost 100 hectares and with 40,000 retail outlets. It is Central Asia’s biggest market and competes with the largest global markets in China. It’s easy to get lost for hours making your way around. And like the Silk Road cities of old, Dordoi is the key trading post for goods coming from China into Central Asia before heading to Russia and Europe. While it’s more likely to be televisions cheap clothing than silk passing through, the importance of this link cannot be underestimated. Dordoi is both Kyrgyzstan’s largest employer and taxpayer.
5. Barakholka in Kazakhstan
Image shows an Almaty flea market from 1964, presenting what an early Barakholka may have looked like
The Barakholka or “flea market” appeared on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, in 1984. It began life as a place to buy black-market books forbidden under strict Soviet censorship laws. But when the Soviet Union fell and the economy collapsed, Almaty’s citizens returned to their earlier habits and survived off neighbourhood markets, the most desperate selling anything they could to survive. Barakholka evolved into an important market for all kinds of commerce – though it’s still known for the service it provided in that difficult period. As with all the markets above, Barakholka shows that it’s the culture of trade that defines Central Asia, surviving each and every civilisational and geopolitical power to define the region.
Image credits: Jan Westad, Wikimedia Commons and 123rf.com