The central market of the New Silk Road.
What did I think I was I doing? While I’ve been working as a journalist for a rather long time — traveling continuously collecting info and stories — I’ve never actually written for a travel section of a publication before. So when an opportunity came up for me to do that I took it. However, it was clear that I needed one round of edits to find my footing.
The story was essentially a travel guide for people looking to travel the New Silk Road — the new trading hubs and ports that are rising out of deserts and barren wastelands from the west of China to the east of Europe. But I wrote the story for fools like me — researchers who are interested in the deep cultural interplay and going off to the proverbial middle of nowhere to see what’s going on — and not the publication’s readers — reasonable people who would much rather sit back and eat some lamb skewers and drink a beer in the shadow of a beautiful Tamerlane built mosque in Samarkand. It was my miscalculation — I’d violated the number #1 rule of journalism and avoided asking the question, “Who am I writing this for.”
I redid the story and submitted a draft that’s acceptable for a travel section, but when I look back on what I originally submitted I have to laugh: Did I really just recommend tourists to go out to places like Khorgos and Dordoi? That’s ridiculous. Anyway, I figured I would include the cut Dordoi section here, as the place is truly fascinating … if this is what you are looking for in your travels.
Like Chatuchak in Bangkok, Yengi and Mal Bazaar in Kashgar, and Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, Dordoi is one of the great markets of Asia — albeit it’s one that you’ve probably never heard of. Stretching for more than a kilometer on the northern edge of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Dordoi has emerged as one of the primary entrepots for Chinese goods entering Central Asia and has become the central hub for a network of markets spanning the region. Traders come in droves from Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and even farther afield locales to buy up cheap goods that they can redistribute elsewhere for a profit. The Dordoi market is one of the main economic drivers of Kyrgyzstan, and according to the World Bank roughly 55,000 people work there, bringing in upwards of $3 billion of revenue per year — which is a significant chunk of the country’s GDP.
Unless you have a particular hankering for cheap Chinese goods, the biggest draw of Dordoi is likely the architecture of the bazaar itself and the various cultures who meet up within it. Most of the Dordoi market isn’t a permanent structure, but a conglomeration of tens of thousands of shipping containers stacked on top of each other like some kind of impromptu, ephemeral fortress. Each “shop” is made up of a double-staked shipping container — the one on the ground is where goods are sold, the one on the top is for storage — that is placed side by side other container shops which bend and twist with the contours of the market lanes like a catacomb of Corten steel.
Like many other Asian markets, Dordoi is divided into sections based on product type and also by product origin. Clothing is in one part, shoes in another, furniture has its own zone, as does electronics. There are sections for cheap Chinese junk, cheap Turkish junk, and cheap Korean junk. The cheap Korean junk is especially prized.
Many of the customers at Dordoi are not locals merely looking to pick up a few goods for personal use, but are full-fledged traders who often travel for many days across multiple countries to get there. Russians and Kazakhs, Turks, Afghans, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Chinese are there in force, creating a kaleidoscope of faces that could represent nearly the entirety of the New Silk Road.
Dordoi is the real deal, and is more akin to the bazaars of the original Silk Road than any made-for-tourists Chinese anachronism. The vendors here are not performing for tourists, and the place can come of as a being a little rough. The gravel lanes between the shops are potholed and fill up with puddles when it rains and tough looking men lift tattooed fists in your direction when you point your camera in theirs. This is the real Silk Road: a place where people from elsewhere come to exchange goods and, by extension, ideas, language, and culture.
Getting to Dordoi is easy: just take a minibus or taxi from anywhere in Bishkek.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
October 13, 2018, 7:42 pm
Indeed. Bought a pair of jeans there and had a rather greasy Ash Lan Fu. Met a chinese boy who couldn’t understand/was gob smacked, as to why all these containers, from his country, where ‘stranded’ all over Central Asia. I suggested it was cheaper to leave them be than to get them back home.
Container bazaar!!! I miss my Karakol life , well, some of it.
pls delete the 1st comment
October 13, 2018, 10:01 pm
That was good, containers as the market place & people from all over.
November 8, 2018, 5:11 pm
This place looks to be a hidden gem. While it may not be for luxurious travellers, it definitely has a charm that can be appreciated by those who get the opportunity to see it and immerse themselves in it. I love what you said about the vendors not being there for the tourists, because it should be the other way around. Great piece!
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