Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Kara-Suu traders

Today I made a trip to Kara-Suu, the most important southern bazaar, on the border with Uzbekistan. It’s a place of contrasts. While it is an incredible generator of wealth and many average people have made their fortunes there, it’s also a very drab and depressing place.

When heading in that direction, the air becomes dusty, the fog clouds the sky and covers the land. A woman in a black headscarf and a long black coat crossed the road, in between snow-dusted fields. The fog, the emptiness, the long woman in black created a lonely sight.

Today was wholesale day, and car after car passed us loaded beyond imagination with boxes, panes of glass, rolls of blankets or fabric, tied bundles of clothing. The tires looked like they’d collapse under the weight, not to mention the roofs of the old Soviet cars.

“The fog and the bad weather don’t bother them,” our driver, Malan, said. “Business continues.”

He told me they were Uzbek traders who come to Kyrgyzstan to buy Chinese goods. They are cheaper here because of the high tariffs Uzbekistan puts on imports.

“And there are women inside those cars too. Imagine how they can fit!” He said that woman dominated the trade business because they can fight with border guards more effectively than men.

“It’s all illegal, but they find a way to get it in. They’ve been sitting there since 3 a.m. this morning. And then they have to sell it secretly in Uzbekistan. I talk to them sometimes and they tell me it’s not like here where people can sell openly.”

“Good thing you ended up on this side of the border,” I said.

“If I ended up there, I’d leave. I couldn’t live like that. People in Uzbekistan used to live better than us. But not now.”

He told me most of these traders used what’s called a black entrance – a house that is located right on the border. “The front door can be in Kyrgyzstan and the back gate opens into Uzbekistan. The owner of the house pays the border guards a certain amount so they look the other way. They act like they don’t see anything. Then the owner offers traders to allow them to transport their goods through his property for 200 som ($5).”

In the past few months, now that more promising banks are working in Kyrgyzstan, I’ve been encouraging my local friends and colleagues to think about their futures and save, even if a little. This goes very much against the mentality generated by the bank failure and the devalued currency of the 1990s – spend all you have or at least buy some of value.

Investments, especially in real estate and cattle, are a common and good way of saving money here. But plenty of people don’t have enough to buy real estate, and don’t have the time or space to raise cattle. For them, it’s a shame to have money sitting under the mattress when banks are offering 10 to 11 percent annual interest on deposits.

Also, with the very low levels of pensions offered, which are virtually impossible to live on, young people need to start thinking of their futures in a way their predecessors didn’t have to.

Today I brought some brochures about savings products to the office. Malan, our driver, Baktigul, our office manager, and Valentina, the guard and cleaner, looked at them with interest. Then they began a spirited discussion amongst themselves about what was the best way to save. The previous day, after we’d discussed savings over our chicken dinner, Baktigul calculated how much she’d have if she saved with interest over 20 days.

“It was quite a large sum,” she said, raising her hand to her neck to indicate it would be more than enough to meet her needs.

Malan put 70,000 som he’d saved into a piece of land where he hopes to eventually build a home for his retirement. “Within a few months of buying it, it wouldn’t go for less than 100,000 som. That was my good investment!”

Baktigul wondered if she’d do better than a deposit if she were to buy a calf on credit and have her parents raise it into a cow, then sell it at a profit.

I listened from a distance and thought it was great to hear three people, of three different nationalities, and three different decades, talking openly about how to best invest and prepare for the future. They all have dreams and I hope they are able to reach them.

Tonight is my seventh night in Osh. It’s been wonderful to catch up with the family, with staff, to see the city again, to feel its vibrant current. But in these kind of accommodations, it’s much tougher in the winter than the summer. I’ve actually been longing for my apartment, wishing I could have the Osh city and company with my Bishkek living standards.

I’m tired of going to sleep worried that I’m drugging myself with carbon monoxide, with timing my activities based on the availability of heating, electricity, or an indoor toilet, of sleeping till the very last minute because it’s just too cold to get up and do anything in the morning. I’m looking forward to a hot shower, to my washing machine, to the temperature-controlled climate, to the indoor toilet.

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