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This small market town at 1,800m above sea level in northern Naryn Province stands at the crossroads of many foreign visitors' journeys around the country. The town, which with just 14,000 inhabitants is really more of a big village, is considered to be the site of the first settlement in the valley.

A sprawling town in a flat open plain in a cup-shaped valley, one's first impression of Kochkor (Kochkorka in Russian) is one of trees. Its broad avenues are lined with tall white poplars and silver birch. For years there was a big German community here, but most have left now. Today it is a quiet place, with children playing on the dusty pavements or manning street stalls selling chewing gum, tea and pens.

People and vehicles congregate around the roadside bazaar on Orozbakova. One side of the road has colourful vegetable stalls, the other side a clothes market. Mountains loom in the distance, a reddish light playing off their snow-capped peaks at dusk.

Kochkor's location just off the busy Bishkek to Naryn road makes it a useful stopping-off point, so it sees a lot more tourists than Suusamyr valley. In particular because of the town's convenience as a jumping-off spot for excursions to the surrounding countryside, almost all first-time visitors to Kyrgyzstan end up spending a day or two here. They could do far worse: Kochkor may be the sleepy sort of place where cattle can lie down in the road with impunity but, as far as visitors are concerned, the town has everything they need - good accommodation and food, adequate shopping facilities and a well-run information centre. This is the place to organise forays into the eastern end of the Suusamyr valley and 'yurt stays' in the jailoo.

Kochkor was originally named after the Tsarist prime minister Stolypin, who promoted the Russian colonisation of Central Asia and opposed the October Revolution. After the revolution the Bolsheviks renamed the town Kochkorka. However, local people have another story about how the town got its name which, bizarre as it may sound, involves a fighting sheep.

According to the legend, a couple of men were taking a flock of sheep to market in Anchjan (Uzbekistan) when a woman asked if they would also take her sheep called Kochkor and sell him, using the money to buy some good clothes. They agreed but along the way they mistreated Kochkor, beating him and not feeding him properly. By the time they arrived at the market, Kochkor was thin and scrawny, and no one wanted to buy him so instead they entered him into a contest of fighting sheep. Kochkor's thinness became his advantage and he nimbly dodged his aggressive opponent until the bigger sheep collapsed, exhausted. Encouraged by this win, they entered poor Kochkor into another contest with the same result. In the end, not only had Kochkor won a lot of money but his fame had spread wide and a wealthy merchant bought him for a price equivalent to that of 90 sheep. So the woman got her good clothing and the village got its name. Another suggestion is that its name possibly deriving from the Kyrgyz kadi kar, which means 'go away snow' (apparently it rarely snows in Kochkor).

There’s not much to do in the town except visit the small regional museum (9am-noon & 1-5pm Mon-Fri). A fine enormous yurt capable of housing 50 people is on display along with a collection of local Kyrgyz crafts, plus displays on all the usual Soviet-era local heroes such as the local scientist Bayaly Isakeev, and a ridiculously large stuffed sheep. More Soviet heroes are celebrated in the busts to the east of the museum.

There is also an excellent animal bazaar in town on Saturday morning. It runs from 8am to 12.30pm. Because of the fine wool produced by sheep on nearby jailoos, Kochkor has gained a reputation for high quality shyrdaks, and this is evident in the goods on sale here. As well as shyrdaks there are also cushions, slippers and cuddly toys all made from high quality felt. A shyrdak will cost anything from US$20 upwards if bought here, depending on size and the intricacy of the design. The quality tends to be better than many of those found in souvenir shops in Bishkek or elsewhere, and the prices are generally a little lower. It is also good to know that money goes directly to the maker of the shyrdak rather than into the pocket of a middle man.

Kochkor makes a good base for horse treks and yurtstays in the region.

Getting There & Away - Most people take a seat in a shared taxi from opposite the bazaar to Bishkek, Balykchy (40 minutes) and Naryn (2 to 2,5 hours). Infrequent afternoon buses and minibuses pass through to Chayek (two hours) and Ming-Kush via Jumgal, picking up passengers by the bazaar at Orozbakova.