Sunday (livestock) Bazaar
If you can contrive to be in Karakol on a Sunday, the skotniy bazaar, as it is known in Russian, will be a highlight of your visit. This is no match for Kashgar’s Sunday Market, but it is still one of the best animal markets (mal bazari) in Central Asia. While Kashgar's Sunday bazaar reflects the increasing modernisation and motorisation of life in China, Karakol's bears witness to a growing reliance on traditional livelihoods and means of transport. Locals like to load their Ladas with livestock – quite a spectacle if the beast in question refuses to be pushed into the back seat.
The market is a vast concentration of horse, sheep and cattle, but mostly the first two, which are traded in two separate enclosures. Pigs are sold here too, but these are kept separate from the main market animals because of their proscription by Islam. Kyrgyz come from all over the region to visit the market, and to buy, sell and socialise, sometimes travelling for days with their livestock to reach it, bringing fine fleeced herds of sheep and sturdy horses from high altitude summer pastures. It is an atmospheric place; stallions in home-made rope halters line the walls, flexing their muscles. People push through the packed throngs of animals, lifting sheep by the rear to assess their kordyuk rump fat, and in winter slither uncontrollably on frozen animal urine. Locals test-ride horses with great elan, scattering the crowds.
Whether you're interested in the animals or not, the weekly bazaar gives a good insight into the culture and the livelihood of the people here. Scattered among stands of tightly tethered, complaining livestock are Kyrgyz who have come to examine and bargain for the goods on offer, trying out horses with a short test trot or assessing the weight of the fat on the behind of a fat-tailed sheep with their palms. This is Kygyz rural life in its unadorned form and here, as much as anywhere in the region, will you see wizened Methuselahs with straggly beards and white kalpaks going about their everyday business.
Fat-tailed sheep, worth their weight in shashlyk, don’t come cheap. Depending on its age, sex and size, a sheep can cost as much as US$120. Horses start at around US$300. The market is divided into two compounds, one for sheep and goats; the other, for horses, cattle and the occasional camel. Next door is another area reserved for used cars and parts. A rock-bottom Lada goes for around US$300 but you’ll have to bargain hard. The men here (and it is only men) set their prices high.
The market, which is remarkably calm and dignified given all the activity going on, is as much a country fair as it is a place of commerce. It is a great place to wander, take photographs and watch the morning unfold: it is also a good place to buy horse or a sheep if you know what you are doing (take a sympathetic local along for advice).
Those who have visited the Sunday market in Kashgar, across the border in Xinjiang, may find the scale of the Karakol market a little disappointing, but there is certainly nowhere else in Kyrgyzstan where such old-style commerce can be witnessed in such a hassle-free, tourist-friendly manner.
Go early if you want to see the market at its best: it starts at 5am and is all over by 10am.