Visiting countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan tend to take you back in time. Life in the small villages is so much simpler than our life today in the United States – but I suspect it isn’t all that different from life in much of the United States just 100-200 years ago. Extended families living within arm’s reach of each other. Small towns and villages where everyone knows your name. And daily or weekly markets where farmers sell their goods and people do their basic shopping. Heck, even today in many cities, we have weekly farmer’s markets throughout the summer months.
When I visited the Sunday animal market in Karakol, on the far eastern tip of Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan, I couldn’t help but wonder if such markets were also once a regular occurrence in parts of my home country. After all, the need to sell or trade farm animals certainly isn’t unique to Kyrgyzstan.
The market was in full swing when I arrived shortly before 8:00 a.m. I passed dozens of cars and taxis parked just outside of the market area; most were likely used to transport smaller animals to the market or they would be used to carry purchases away. As I entered, I quickly realized that animals were grouped together in sections, giving a sense of order to the otherwise chaotic atmosphere surrounding me. Young children stood encircled by half a dozen young goats. Men struggled to load finicky sheep into a flatbed ruck. Tourists roamed among it all, cameras in tow.
Soon, the bustling sheep and goats around me gave way to large, lazy cows. The crowds thinned out and things felt slightly more subdued. A small group of me surrounded an enormous cow, taking pictures as if they were tourists, too.
I made my way to the back of the cow section, only to discover a half dozen piglets for sale – a couple in a small cage on the ground and several others eating heartily in the trunk of an old Lada. My heart melted; they were too cute.
I could only take so many pictures of the piglets and the cows were a little boring, so I soon moved on to the horses. While I was mostly ignored as I strolled through other parts of the market, here, the Kyrgyz men seemed to get a kick out of my presence, posing on horseback and trying to cajole me into trying one out (I politely declined – I was thrown off a horse as a kid and am terrified to get back on one). A few minutes later, as I headed back toward the goats and sheep, a man tried to convince me I needed to buy a sheep. Again, I politely declined.
I’m just guessing, but I would say the Karakol animal market is probably one of the most popular tourist attractions in Kyrgyzstan. And while most just come to see the animals and take some pictures, a few actually make purchases. The owner of my guesthouse told me about a couple who bought two horses at the market, together with all of the necessary riding gear, and then spent a few weeks exploring Kyrgyzstan by horseback. When their time in the country was up, they managed to sell the horses near the Kazakhstan border, actually making enough to cover almost the entire cost of their trip!
For me, I was just happy to spend a couple hours among some gorgeous animals, getting a closer look at an aspect of traditional Kyrgyz life that is still going strong today.
And I was relieved to escape without stepping in any cow manure or getting peed on by any horses. Believe me, that was a big accomplishment.