Sunday, July 17, 2011

From the Market to the Mall: a Meaty Adventure

My Sunday began at the Green Market, the pinnacle of a Central Asian bazaar, and ended at Mega Mall, an American-style commercial shopping Mecca. After visiting the Green Market and Mega Mall in the same day and observing the sharp dichotomy between the two centers, I realize the growing disparity between the western Kazakh nouveau riche and the less affluent populations.

Exploring the Green Bazaar, I really felt like I was in Almaty – it was quite spectacular. The Green Bazaar is where locally produced fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products, candies and Korean salads are sold.  While the market primarily focuses on foods, there are also some vendors selling soaps, household products, clothing, souvenirs and even dog food. When you enter the building, tables of dried fruit and nuts in every color of the rainbow greet you. To the left, poultry, to the right, flowers, straight ahead, fruits and vegetables, cheeses, pickled products, Korean salads, and fish. The first level includes the most expensive vendors, as renting a space inside costs the most. The lower level and outside vendors are cheaper. To be honest, the quality of the produce is the same throughout.  I walked through the market several times admiring the goods and interaction between the vendors and patrons.

I am not a particularly carnivorous eater, but I was absolutely infatuated with the meat section. Massive slabs of red, fresh meat carpet table tops while tongues, hearts, heads, tongues and limbs hang from metal rods. The meat section is organized by animal, as there is a special section designated for cow, pig, horse (multiple varieties) and lamb products, respectively. Behind the counter, butchers were chopping up meat with axes and sharp knives. No refrigeration systems, just fresh meat. Moreover, the vendors wore no hairnets and touched the meat with their bare hands – no plastic gloves!!  I saw one vendor eating her lunch behind the meat-filled counter. I was so disgusted and yet, so intrigued.

After exploring the Green Market, I met up with Roberto and we hiked to Mega mall. We knew Megamall was located on Rosabakiyeva, a street already on the outskirts of town, but we did not know that it was another 20+ blocks up. After walking for ninety minutes in the Almaty heat, we took a cab and arrived at Mega mall within ten minutes. Megamall is an American-style mall, which I found incredibly boring after visiting the Green Market. Zara, the Gap, Addidas and many other Western-brand stores are in the mall, and many signs are in English. Aside from one store selling Kazakh souvenirs, there was no indication that you were in Almaty.  Even the food vendors were Western - Baskin Robbins and Pizza Hut - a far cry from camcca stands.

Roberto and I had sandwiches and coffee before visiting our favorite Kazakh supermarket chain, Ramstor! While there are many standard products such as Nestle instant coffee and tea, there are also Kazakh-specific products like Kephyr, and other regional brands. While I previously visited a Ramstor with Roberto, returning to Ramstor meat section on the same day as the Green Market was quite an experience. At Ramstor, all the meat is individually packaged in plastic and stored in refrigerated containers. To demonstrate the dichotomy, I have included photos of the meat section from the Green Market and from Ramstor.

To me, the Green Market and Ramstor represent two extremes of Kazakhstan. On one hand, there is the nouveau riche generation of wealthy Kazakhs who are eager to embrace a Western lifestyle and consumer culture. On the other hand, there are local Kazakh vendors who want to own their own businesses and generate an income, but want to retain their traditional ways of life and culture. Granted, as a student of Central Asia, I found the Green Market to be fascinating and so much fun. But it is also an important symbol of Kazakh culture and a Kazakh way of life. Kazakhstan's economic development should cater to localized pre-existing economic models and attempt to integrate pre-existing economic structures into the formal economy. After all, who wouldn't want to buy a freshly butchered cow heart?


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