Tire Shopping

I parked my car at a tire shop in the city, got out, and began scanning the faces of all the people milling about, trying to determine who worked there for one (as opposed to who were customers) and out of the workers, who spoke Kyrgyz (as opposed to those who spoke Russian). Another customer pointed me to a man who worked there, but that worker didn’t know Kyrgyz, so the customer agreed to translate.

At first I didn’t know if the crack that had developed on the side of my front left tire could be fixed. Through several rounds of back and forth through the translator/fellow customer, I understood it couldn’t be. We knew we needed new tires soon anyway, so the logical step was to ask about buying new ones.

“How much per tire?” I asked through the interpreter.

“All four tires—1200 som.”

Under $20 for four tires? No way. Not here and not anywhere. There’d been some breakdown in communication.

More back and forth through the translator. The worker wasn’t impatient, but there were a lot of other clients waiting, a lot of other business to be done.

Then we finally understood each other. It’d cost 1200 som just for the labor. That was if you brought your own tires. I hadn’t even realized that was a thing.

“Do you sell tires?” I asked. I emphasized we wanted all-season.

He did. He took me to a room full of them. On the way he passed me off to a man who spoke Kyrgyz, and I lost track of the translator. I think I thanked him at some point.

The guy asked me the size of tire I needed. Oh, yeah, the size. That’d be helpful, huh? I didn’t know it. I had to walk back down the street to where the car was parked and take a picture with my phone of the numbers printed on the side of the tire. Then I returned and showed him.

215/70R16. Whatever that means. He looked around, talked to another guy, and directed me to four tires on a bottom shelf.

I looked at their numbers: 265/65R17.

OK, so not the same, but what was the difference?

“These ones are wider, a little higher, and softer,” he told me. But he assured me they would work for my car.

“How much per tire?”

“4500.” ($66.00.)

“Let me think about it and then I’ll come back, OK?” I said.

Then I called my personal assistant, a wonder worker, the reason I’m not dead in some ditch somewhere.

“What do you think about the size difference?” I asked Laura.

She asked her personal assistant, Mr. Google. And that’s how we learned about tire width measurements, aspect ratios, tire radii, and the effect they all play on breaking and accelerating.

We decided it would probably be best to get tires identical to the size we currently had on the car. The ones they had would probably stick out from beneath the wheel well. We’re cool and all, but not that cool.

So Laura looked up other tire places online. I went to a shop up the street, but they only sold big tires for big vehicles. I asked the guy at that shop where I could find the size I needed, and he told me I’d need to go to the bazaar.

The bazaar, huh? I psyched myself up and decided to take the plunge.

At the bazaar they sell tires like they sell shoes. All the tire sellers are together; all you have to do is find that specific section and start walking up and down the aisles in search of your size.

Now I’m no expert, but I’ve developed a sense that confidence—whether real of feigned is completely irrelevant—is of utmost importance when shopping at a bazaar. You just need to look like you know exactly what you’re doing. Personally, I’m terrible at it, but I’m trying to learn the game. It was time to put all my bazaar experience into practice.

I quickly scanned the sellers as I walked, careful not to make eye contact. Do that and they tractor-beam you in. After quickly passing by several Russian faces, I spotted one seller standing next to a row of tires. He didn’t look like a typical Kyrgyz man. In fact, I asked him if he knew Kyrgyz, to which he answered, “Of course I do.”

He showed me the tires he had that matched the size I needed. I said I’d look around and maybe come back, but he had a different idea. I’d just gotten myself a tire agent. I have no idea who watched his stall while he was out walking all over the bazaar with me. He led me from stall to stall, at each place asking if they had what I needed: four, all-season tires, size 215/70R16, good quality. We found a seller with a brand out of China that they both assured me was top quality. Price: 3700 som ($54.25) a tire. That beat 4500 a tire from the place I’d started at.

I told my tire agent I needed to think about it. I told him I needed to go do one other thing while I was at the bazaar but that I’d come back in 10 minutes or so. I started off down a broad street in the bazaar lined with car parts shops and pulled out my phone. The thing I needed to do, of course, was call my personal assistant. We decided we might as well get those. The only unknown was whether or not they’d put the new tires on the car or not. If not, I’d have to take them back to the first place I’d gone that morning. I hung up with Laura and consulted Mr. Google myself. The brand was actually sold in the North America and at least one site I read said that they were very good quality despite their lower cost.

Let’s do it, I thought. Why not?

I checked on windshield wiper prices on my way—one other thing I needed to get from the bazaar while I was there. The woman at one stall told me I’d need to bring my car around and stop in front of her shop so she could look at my windshield wipers and give me the right size. I told her I’d be back later.

I got back to my tire agent and told him I’d take the tires. He informed the shop owner. I asked him if he or someone else could put the tires on the car. He said yes, but even then, I wasn’t sure if the word I’d used for “put on” translated like I intended. I wasn’t sure if I’d asked him to put the tires on the car (as in replace the old ones for me) or simply put them in the car (as in carry them to the car and throw them in the back). I figured I’d soon find out. From somewhere my agent’s friend appeared, and before I was done paying the shop owner, the two guys were holding my four tires—an arm through each tire, the inside resting on each shoulder—and were waiting for me to follow them, so follow them I did.

We didn’t walk too far before we stopped in front of a shipping container that had been turned into what I thought was a storage shed. My agent and his friend dropped the four tires on the ground, and my agent pulled out a key. Once he had the door open, I realized this was his tire shop. So he was going to replace the old tires after all. All the better.

He threw the tires inside and locked the door. He told me he’d walk with me to wherever my car was and then ride back with me to his shop-in-a-shipping-container. We talked as we meandered through aisles and aisles of everything car-related.

Once we were back and he’d opened the door to his shop, he flipped a breaker switch inside the shipping container and fired up his toys. From the sound of it, his air pump began to pressurize. He rolled out a car jack and raised the butt end of the car into the air.

“Go ahead and sit in the car while you wait,” he said. So I did.

He removed the back tires and lugged them into his shop. I watched him operate his scary tire machines. In no time the old tires were off. He put the rims onto another machine that spun them. That’s when he called me to step inside.

“Look at this,” he said, directing my attention to the rim on the machine. “When it spins, it shouldn’t wobble back and forth like this. It should be straight.”

He made his machine do its thing, and sure enough, as it spun the rim wobbled like a bowl of Jello.

“Well, what do I need to do?” I asked him.

“You need to fix this.”

“Ahh.”

“I can do it.”

“Uh-huh.”

At that moment, my skepticism meter spiked. Was I about to be taken for a ride? But then again, what could I do? This guy had just taken my car’s back two wheels off in the middle of one of the biggest bazaars in Central Asia. No way I could put them back on myself.

“Well, could I buy new rims?” I asked.

He showed me the inside of one rim.

“Here it says Japan,” he said. Sure enough, it did. “These are the original rims to your car.” I suppose it’s possible that the rims for the Ford we drive were originally made in Japan. “They’re good. You should keep these.”

“Ahh,” I said. “You can fix them, huh?”

“Yup.”

“How much?”

“1000 som.”

“Ahh.”

I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice.

“OK,” I told him.

“OK. You stay here with your car and the tires,” he said, grabbing the two rims he’d already removed, one in each hand. Then he walked off out of sight.

So I waited for him to come back. In about ten minutes, he reappeared with the rims. He put them back onto his spin machine, and sure enough, the wobble was gone. Well, mostly. If you looked really close, you could still detect slight movement, but it was nothing like it was before.

I admit it though. I was still skeptical. A less than tight fit of the rim onto his spin machine would create a wobble, too. Whatever. He got the front two tires on the rims, bolted them to the car, and lowered the car to the ground. Then he started in on the front two.

Same thing. Those rims were wobbly, too.

“Probably from a pothole, huh?” I asked him.

I’d mispronounced the word “pothole,” so it took him a moment to process.

“Oh, yeah, from a pothole,” he said, pronouncing every word perfectly.

“How do you fix them?” I asked. “Do you beat them?”

“No. There’s a machine. Should I fix these two, too?”

“OK,” I said.

“You stay here.”

He picked up the front two rims and off he went. Again.

As I waited, at one point a woman selling knock off Nike hats walked by. I declined to purchase. Several young men casually moseyed over, probably to gawk at the American that spoke Kyrgyz.

I decided to consult Mr. Google again. From what I could gather from that limitless storehouse of knowledge in the sky we call the internet, it seemed that bent rims were a thing that sometimes happened and needed to be fixed. In fact, I read that bent rims can cause vibrations in the car, something we’d been experiencing in our car, but I didn’t read far enough to know if there really was a machine that could make rims round again.

My tire agent turned rim repairman took longer this time, but still not too long. I spotted some discoloration on each of the rims when he returned. I figured that meant he’d actually done something to them, whatever it was. I was encouraged.

He got the remaining two tires on the front two rims and before too long, my car had four new shoes.

Then it was time to pay. He reviewed all that he’d done for me step-by-step. I think he was adding prices together in his mind as he spoke. After he got to the end, he paused, and I waited for him to give me a price.

“5200 som,” he finally said.

That was over $75. Was it right? I have no doubt that in the U.S. I’d have been charged a lot more. So if he really had been able to straighten out all of the rims and put on the new tires, all for only $75, I knew it was a good price. But had he actually done that? And was that what a local would have paid?

He didn’t seem shady. He’d been a great tire agent though I must admit, I don’t have much by way of comparison. So what do you do?

I asked him if the price was normal. He said yes. I figured there was no use in discussing it any further.

When I paid him, he said, “Now, you’re not upset, right?”

Should I be upset? I thought.

“No,” I said, and shook his hand.

Several young men had gathered in the man’s shipping container shop. I got in my car and rolled the window down so I could listen for any clues as to whether or not I’d been ripped off. There was some talk of different prices of different amounts. Nothing conclusive.

I said goodbye and headed back to the windshield wiper lady I’d talked to earlier. With new windshield wipers installed and a five liter jug of windshield wiper fluid in the back seat, I was on my way home. Mission accomplished. To my amazement, the car didn’t shake all the way home. The steering wheel turned more fluidly than it had almost since we bought it. I did the math as I drove. If fixing the rims had cost 1000 soms a piece for a total of 4000 soms, then that meant he’d charged me 1200 soms to replace the tires, which is exactly what the place I’d stopped at that morning had asked. That meant that if 1000 soms to fix a rim in his secret rim-fixing machine was right, then he’d been as honest as Mr. Lincoln was alleged to have been.

I almost wish I’d given him more, especially in light of the fact that several months ago we took the car to the mechanic specifically to have the shaking problem looked at, and yet the shaking continued.

If you’re ever in the area and need new tires, I know a guy. We can go together.

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