"Bazaar: In Oriental countries, a marketplace." -- Webster's Dictionary
True, as far as it goes; but then, you could define Mount Everest as "an extreme case of tectonic uplift, located in eastern Nepal." Bazaars, as anyone who has explored them will tell you, are much, much more than East-of-Suez supermarkets. They are zones of combination, hybridization, celebration, where different castes, tribes, lingos and styles come together with a clang and a bray and a shower of sparks.
The pilgrim buys his amulets there, and the caravan master from the back side of Nowhere trades lapis lazuli for a transistor radio so he can tune into Khomeini and Qaddafi out in the wind, sand and stars. The anthropologist meets the shaman in those narrow, ancient alleyways, and the silversmith's apprentice puts a photograph of Fela on the wall of his tiny cell, and dreams himself an African king. The percolations know no limit: The Afghan uprisings against the 19th-century British and the 20th-century Russians began in the bazaars of Kabul and Herat, and the revolution that toppled the shah was born in the bazaars of Tehran.
In the bazaars of the world, everything is more than it is: There is magic, a legend, a story, inside every object and item. Salt is not the colorless denatured powder in a supermarket carton, but gray and unmistakably mineral, glittering with crystals, quarried from the sub-subbasement of a dead sea on the roof of the world and hauled by yak caravan across 19,000-foot-high passes . . . A pair of worn black satin dancer's slippers is bartered for opium by a brilliant young Alsatian ballerina who got drunk on beaujolais and fell off a table in Paris and snapped her ankle, then fell all the way across Asia with her broken career, to this hill town in the rain . . .
Even the mass-produced effluvia of the industrialized world take on an air of romance: In marketplaces in remote Tibetan villages, you can buy Chinese "Li Feng" hats and olive-drab jackets that were shipped from Shanghai or Canton to Calcutta, hauled by train to the Nepali border at Raxaul-Birganj, on up to Katmandu in Indian-made Tata trucks painted in colors as bright as a coral reef and carried the rest of the way on the backs of laborers across the Himalayas, where Chinese soldiers bought them with the scent glands of musk deer slain with their Army-issue Kalashnikov assault rifles.
The romance of the bazaars is a romance of remoteness, distance, born of the fact that the official supply lines are so often surreally inefficient. I remember a khaki Boy Scout shirt, complete with merit badges and achievement ribbons, that I bought in the Kabul bazaar in 1972: It seemed as wonderfully exotic as a cargo cult necklace, or a ghost dance tunic.
The bazaar is an astonishingly persistent cultural phenomenon. Bazaarlike trading centers have been unearthed in the neolithic strata of Central Asia; in the New World, prehistoric Amerindians met at places like Casas Grandes, in present-day Chihuahua, to barter turquoise, obsidian, parrot feathers, corn seed, songs.
The phenomenon shows no sign of vanishing in today's industrial world. In Bangkok, makeshift bazaars have grown along the sidewalks in modern shopping districts, selling counterfeit Polo shirts, silk, wood carvings, spices, dried fish. Peculiar, specialized variations have mushroomed along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, serving the Afghan guerrilla movement: In remote mountain villages, rows of stalls sell hand grenades, locally made cotton-stuffed flak jackets, assault rifles, even antiaircraft missiles. Turbaned men buy what they want, climb onto their ponies and ride away over the passes, vanishing into the distance.
North Africa has excellent examples of bazaar culture, with hooded Tuaregs, mountain Berbers, Francophiled Moors, Arab traders up from Timbuktu, gorgeous Africans with tattooed faces bartering bullets for rock salt, hashish for cash, glass beads for alluvial gold, Maria Theresa silver dollars -- with the breathtaking imperial de'colletage -- for sheepskins and curd.
The "Covered Bazaar" in Istanbul, which everyone and his grandmother has been visiting since the days of the Grand Tour, still packs a certain, undeniable charm. In the depths of those catacombs, you can buy everything from your future -- told in cards -- to Armenian icons and queer pickled vegetables that a Turk once swore to me (falsely, I suspect) are a century old.
Because of the decades of shopping by tourists and travelers, the Istanbul bazaar has more than its share of artifice and deceit -- "antique" stopwatches with defective Hong Kong innards, "leopard" coats with spots that run in the rain. In the early '70s, traveling back to Europe from India, two English companions of mine were so taken by two sets of silver and gold wizards' robes offered by a sly crone in the Istanbul bazaar that they spent their last 60 pounds sterling on them. When they got the garments out in the light of day, above ground, the glittering cloth turned shabby and cheap-looking, with stitches unraveling and fragments of the metallic finish crackling off and drizzling to the ground.
The two Brits defiantly wore their dreadful robes when they left Istanbul the next day; they were so low on money, one of them wrote me later, that they had to sell their blood in Salonica to keep from starving on the long journey to Great Britain. Caveat emptor, indeed: Bazaars at their worst can be tricky places, where all that glisters is not gold, and "Sell the sizzle, not the steak" is Holy Writ.
Before the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan had the finest of bazaars. My personal favorite was in Herat, that lovely old earth-colored oasis city, with its sea-green great mosque, close by the Iranian and Russian borders. The bazaar there sold everything from machine guns and snow leopard hats to dromedaries and dangerous drugs: "Hasheesh? Op-ee-um? Heroeen? El es dee?" cherubic urchins would chirrup to the foreign traveler. There were rifle-toting Powindah in the streets, and flat-faced Mongol Hazaras in enormous mushroom turbans, Persian-speaking merchants in tiny embroidered caps as brilliant as hummingbirds' throats, ghostlike women in the head-to-toe shrouds called burkahs.
Bargaining was done over tiny glasses of scaldingly hot green tea, in which one dissolved pellets of sugar, and it went on interminably, with much extraneous talk and laughter. I once spent the better part of three days haggling over a $9 fur hat in a shop in Herat; before the deal was consummated, I had become friends with at least a half-dozen merchants and apprentices, and we had discussed everything under the sun, moon and stars, including Moses, JFK, The Vietnam War, Black People, India, Trucks and Destiny. According to recent visitors to the area, the Soviets have virtually destroyed Herat, bazaar and all, in the course of the war.
There is another fine bazaar in Peshawar, just below the Khyber Pass in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Known as the Bazaar of the Story-Tellers, it occupies the sunken eastern quarter of the city, a warren of twisty streets and alleyways. Fantastical things are sold there: rubies and slabs of lapis lazuli from the mines of Afghanistan; filigreed silver; leather camel-bags, heavy with beads; gaudy pictures of Indian and Pakistani movie idols, plump odalisques in go-go boots and miniskirts, corpulent Punjabi heroes unaccountably garbed as pirates, western gunfighters, James Bonds; pistols, kebabs, money belts, brass pots big enough to disappear into.
I once found a British Empire Commemorative Medal there, dated 1903, with the Potala, the Dalai Lama's palace in Lhasa, embossed on one side, awarded to some Pathan trooper for his role in the Younghusband Expedition to Tibet. The edges were rubbed dull, the bronze aged to penny-brown, but it was a powerful object, charged with historical electricity: Gazing into it, you could see the young bearded Pathan leaving his Khyber village to enlist, the troop train crossing the suffocating green plains of the eastern Punjab, the long files of troopers climbing the Himalayan passes onto the dusty, snowy Tibetan plateau. Alas, I gave the wonderful thing to a faithless woman, and where it is now, I do not know.
For sheer, clamorous plentitude of stuff, the old bazaar in Katmandu, Nepal, between Durbar Square and Thamel Thole, is beyond compare. On one recent walk through its odoriferous and insanely crowded byways, I noted the following objects: pink plastic children's shoes with Donald Duck faces on them; huge Chinese thermos bottles decorated with kitschy kittens and bouquets; a used copy of "Emmanuelle" in paperback; a framed tinted photograph of His Majesty King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev; bricks of compressed tea, for making Bo-pa chai, that peculiar Tibetan decoction of tea, salt, yak butter and soda; a human skull drinking cup, used in tantric Buddhist rituals; cabbages as big as soccer balls, green as jade; a black crash helmet, to ward off falling rocks, left over from some Himalayan climbing expedition; a window full of grimacing false teeth; a red plastic Japanese boom box, with AM, FM, short wave, dual cassette players, Dolby.
If you looked around long and hard enough, I think you might find anything in the world there: George Leigh Mallory's ice ax, lost when he and Andrew Irvine vanished high on Everest in 1924; Nixon's missing White House tapes; Judge Crater's four-in-hand.
One could go on and on about bazaars endlessly, but I will close by mentioning the extremely colorful one held every Saturday at Namche, the famous Sherpa village below Mount Everest. The goods sold there are nothing really special -- you can find far better Tibetan and Sherpa artifacts, and cheaper, in Katmandu -- but the people are fascinating.
Rai and Limbu farmers trudge up from the lower hills with dokos (basket packs) full of fruit and rice. Tamang girls with flashing eyes and cheekbones that could ignite a small war bring in kerosene, biscuits, cigarettes, 70-pound loads they have lugged five days from the roadhead at Jiri. Sherpa grannies from remote, sky-scraping hamlets like Thammu, Thame and Mende sell mountains of potatoes they have humped down from their stony, icy fields. An occasional Tibetan trader from over the 18,696-foot-high Khumbu-La offers dried yak cheese, and yak jerky the color and consistency of teakwood. Mixed through the crowd are Japanese, Americans, Swiss, Aussies, Hindu policemen from the Katmandu Valley, a polyglot, amorphous mob from every corner of the Earth: trekkers and climbers, mostly, here to walk around on the highest mountains on the planet.
Like all bazaars, the one at Namche sells trouble, too; and thereby hangs a tale. A few years ago, a mountaineer friend and I organized a quixotic expedition to search for the Abominable Snowman in the wild valleys east of Everest. We hired our porters in the Namche Bazaar area, among them a doleful Indian cook, his Sherpa wife and their eerily precocious 12-year-old Sherpa servant boy. To make a long story short, the boy turned out to be a jangkri, or shaman, and in a fit of pique he put a curse on the cook, nearly killing him:
The poor fellow collapsed in the trail, saying that there was a hole in his foot and his life force was draining out of it. The other porters threatened to beat the junior shaman to death, and he was forced to perform an exorcism, leaping and chanting around the campfire, to placate them. Later, the cook told us that there was a regular "indentured servants" market at the weekly Namche bazaar, where poor hill tribesmen rented themselves out to their wealthier compatriots; the cook and his wife had gone there, hired the boy wizard for a year's service and found out only later, too late, that they were stuck with a moody and lethal little Magus for the next 12 months.
One leaves a bazaar, always, with a sense of wonder, and a hunger for answers that will never come. Will the Japanese climbers, who just bought 20 kilos of basmatic rice, survive that vertical, ice-draped wall they are climbing? Where is home for the hooded nomad who offers a lump of amber to the passer-by? Where will the Tamang girl, who holds her wrist with its new glass bracelets to the light, sleep tonight? What warlord smuggled this jade over the border from Burma? We meet, we see and amaze each other for a little while, we trade this strange thing for that, and then we go our separate, unknown ways, forever.