Monday, April 03, 2006

Zum the Pirate King

Not, as you might think, some kind of local Kyrgyz bandito – and fairly unlikely given the country’s landlocked status – but my own name for the temple to dodgy goods and illegal stuff that is Bishkek’s central department store.

Yes, I know that in many countries you can buy pirated DVDs, software, knock-off mobile phones etc, but they are very few where you can buy them in the capital’s biggest and most prominent department store. In ‘Zum’, I’m pretty sure nothing has been obtained or produced in a legal fashion. Every DVD or piece of software is a copy, every mobile phone you buy was intended for some other market – I’ve had two phones here so far: the first was clearly meant to be sold in Britain (the plug was a bit of a giveaway) and the second in France (the start-up screen welcomed me with a hearty ‘bienvenue’). And it’s such a wondrous and shifting metaphor for the country’s struggle to come to grips with entrepreneurism and capitalism. The little shops and kiosks inside it close, open, expand, contract on an alarming regular basis – the chances of you buying a product there and going back six months later and finding the same shop/owner are pretty slim. The warranties you get are normally hastily scribbled on some random piece of paper and are about as legitimate as…well, about as legitimate as the product you’re buying.

I absolutely love the place and have no qualms about buying stuff from there. To start with, there is no alternative legal market. As far as I know, it’s impossible to actually buy legal DVDs and software in Kyrgyzstan; well, it may be possible but I can’t imagine any business would last for more than five minutes. I mean, how much does an official copy of Windows or Office go for these days? $200? $300? Given that the average Kyrgyz salary is about $50-75 a month (source: my wife, her sister, and a taxi driver I spoke to), I don’t think Bill Gates is going to get his bathroom retiled based on the sales of his products here. And why should the Kyrgyz people be denied the latest software? It’s not really their fault that the economy is screwed and it’s not exactly going to pick up if the only exposure to technology they had was some crappy old computer running Windows 95.

So, if you’re ever in Bishkek, go to Zum and see what you can pick up….Oh, souvenirs are on the fourth floor in case you’re wondering (they may actually be the only genuine things in the whole place).

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