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Visiting Dordoi Bazaar

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.

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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.

Filed under: Kyrgyzstan, New Silk Road

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3421 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

10 comments… add one

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  • Trevor 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

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    • Wade Shepard October 19, 2018, 4:32 am

      Definitely, man. I believe they sell the containers once they get to a certain age. The next time I go back I will look into how SO MANY actually make it to Central Asia. So many people started building houses with them in Kazakhstan that the government made it illegal. When people started simply covering the outsides with mud to make them look like traditional houses regulators began sending people around who would try to stick stakes through the sides to see if they hit the steel of a concealed container. It’s a very fascinating industry.

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      • Trevor October 19, 2018, 9:11 pm

        Great. And if u think about it…KGZ import everything and export .. almost nothing. – some mines Canadian owned nr. Karakol – containers going home empty is not worth the hassle/cost/logistics

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        • Wade Shepard October 20, 2018, 12:43 am

          That’s true. It’s kind of an end of the road kind of place.

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          • Trevor October 20, 2018, 9:59 pm

            but i dunno if i will get back there. i was 5 months in central asia in 2015 then lived 2 summers in karakol. 2016 + 2017

            too many places i wanna go to and possibly chase some stories… Africa…. i have unfinished business there.

            u back in Prague yet?

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            • Wade Shepard October 22, 2018, 9:32 am

              Yes, we got back yesterday. Africa? Sounds good.

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  • Rob October 13, 2018, 10:01 pm

    That was good, containers as the market place & people from all over.

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    • Wade Shepard October 19, 2018, 4:29 am

      Yes, it is a really amazing place. But not really the type of destination to recommend to luxury travelers.

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  • Nikki at Calculated Traveller 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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    • Wade Shepard November 10, 2018, 10:23 pm

      It really is. What’s really interesting about it is that it could be wiped of the earth in like a day … and it probably will be someday relatively soon.

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