Sunday, December 05, 2004

The Best Place to Buy a Cow

I got up just before seven this morning and took a taxi to the livestock bazaar, picking up a Kyrgyz coworker, Kanylbek, along the way. My Russian driver had light blue eyes, gold front teeth, bristly red skin and a brown fur hat. He was rather gruff, constantly bantering with other drivers on his CB and showing clear annoyance when my companion was four minutes late. “What are you doing, coming so late?” he asked, when Kanylbek got in. The expert looked at his watch and remained silent.

Children were using ruddered sleds and pairs of short poles to slide down the streets, enjoying the emptiness in the morning pink sky. The roads were covered with a thin, slick layer of snow and ice packed into the dirt.

We arrived at the livestock market and pushed our way through a doorway in the fenced, open-air compound. I was amazed at what I saw. Below us, the entire square was packed with people and animals. All around them, like a second fence enclosing them in, were the white mountains, the peaks glowing pink in the morning light.

“The cows are on the right, the horses on the left,” Kanylbek explained. “The sheep are outside the market, in an adjoining area, so as not to mix them up.”

A local had warned me a few days before, “There is no order at all at the livestock market,” he told me. “It’s not like where you live where they have stalls and line up in order. Here it is just a mess. You’ll be shocked by what you see. And be very careful walking in between the horses. Two people have been killed already this year by walking in between horses and getting kicked.”

A giant mass of people and animals jumbled together. Ninety percent were men and most were Kyrgyz, dressed in dark hats and coats. Few wore kalpaks. “It’s cold already,” Kanylbek told me. The headscarves of the few woman provided small flashes of color among the browns and blacks and ivories of the people and animals.

We were looking for a particular person selling a cow, so we waded through the crowd, trying to find one person among the masses. There was no order. We walked in between muddy cow rears, pulled cow horns to allow us room to pass, and moved with caution when we heard the fountain-like tinkling of a cow urinating or saw steaming fresh cow dung hit the icy ground. It smelled of manure and leather and fresh mountain air. It was also cold, -15 one person guessed, and my feet could feel the ground underneath.

We made several trips from one side of the cow vendors to the other, without luck. We then went to look at the sheep, and finally stood near the stands selling double shots of vodka to men crouched in a circle. Kanylbek went to make one more round through the cow vendors while I went to look at the horses, careful to keep my distance from the regal animals. Several people stood on horseback, rising above the crowd. Occasionally the crowd would bustle, as if a drop of oil fell into water, when a horse would rear up and neigh or one cow would mount another.

I saw people tying up a small cow by its legs and loading it onto a horse-pulled cart filled with hay to take home. I saw a blacksmith hammering horseshoes onto a horse. And I saw people eagerly engaged in transactions, genially bartering, exchanging money, and seeming to enjoy themselves.

I took a picture of several old women selling a cow and they smiled and laughed, especially when they saw the picture.

“How much are you selling it for?” I asked, pointing to the cow.

"18,000 ($450), but we’ll let it go for 15,000 to a pretty girl.”

Finally we found the man we were looking for. He had arrived at the market at 4 a.m. and together with a relative bought three cows, one small one and two medium sized ones. He had just sold the last one when we arrived. Kanylbek told me that the wholesaler sellers arrive at the market at 2 a.m.

“People like this man come very early and buy at low prices,” he told me. “Then they can resell the same animal within hours. The prices rise from the early morning until 9 or 10 a.m., then start to decrease again as sellers worry that they won’t make a sale. By noon or 2 everyone has gone home.”

This man had sold all three cows by shortly after eight and said that he rarely fails to sell what he has bought in the morning. He and a relative together made a $75 profit within several hours – not a bad business, but unfortunately it only happens one time a week.

It was really cold and we were ready to go, so we left the festive atmosphere to find a taxi. We found a taxi and while we waiting to get into the car, another Lada pulled up close by us. A group of men opened the trunk and pulled out a brown sheep.

Our driver told me that he and his father had come to the market today to sell two sheep. They planned to sell one for 2,000 ($50) and the other for 3,000 ($75) som.

“Why are you selling them?” I asked.

“Because we need money at home. We went as guests to people’s homes. And when we do that, we tend to spend a lot of money, 1,000, 2000… I took a loan and now I need to return it.”

In addition to his work as a taxi driver, he keeps 50 sheep (“not bad” as he described it). I’m starting to gain a new respect for the investment value of livestock.


Anonymous said...

Glad to see you back to posting, JJ. Your entries of the 4th and 5th inst. did not appear until the 14th; I don't know if the delay was yours, or email's, or Blogger's.

I'd like to read the story of the bride-thefts that happened at your workplace in Osh. Were these true abductions or were the girls complicit? How did they turn out?

Was the Przhevalski you mention the same guy after whom a small species of wild horse is named?

jj said...

Yes, this was the same guy who discovered a small predecessor to the modern horse, a type of horse now named after him.

About the stealings among employees, this is what I've heard so far. One Osh male stole another female who he'd been dating at least several months. I've heard her family didn't have enough money to pay the dowry (which is not required when a woman is stolen). While she may not have known she was about to be stolen, she probably wasn't against marrying this guy. I've also heard she is now pregnant. I'm hoping to see if I can talk to the male and female directly about this at some point to learn more about it.

The second case was a male employee in Osh who stole a female worker in Jalal-Abat (a town about 3 hours to the north of Osh). My colleague in Jalal-Abat said the theft was a complete surprise and she was upset to have lost an employee without notice. According to her, the male and female knew each other when they both worked in Osh, but they weren't dating. The female then moved to Jalal-Abat. "He must have missed her," my colleague said. "Because when he found out that she was going to attend a wedding in Osh, he planned to steal her that evening." In this case, I think the woman might not have wanted to marry this guy.

I also heard of a third case that happened in the last few months, a female employee stolen by someone who works in a different department. I don't know any details of that case.