The Only White Man in Karakol Animal Market

You should be wearing boots!” The driver looked at my hiking shoes.
Because there is going to be shit up to here.” He touched my knee. “Shit and mud!

No Mountains, Just Clouds
I was going to the Sunday morning Karakol animal market, the “mal bazaar”. The guide books said it was one of the largest in Kyrgyzstan and you could see people push sheep unto the back seat of old Ladas and the grandiose view of the mountains in the distance.

Entrance to Karakol Animal Market

When I arrived all I saw were thick grey clouds, waiting taxis and Kyrgyz men in boots walking around with ropes.

From Sheep Street to Cattle Quad
In the first part of the market, which is probably called Sheep Street, people sold sheep.


Some just stood there in the rain, holding on to a rope tied to a sheep’s neck and waited for someone to come and buy. Others stood with multiple sheep.

Others walked around ropes in hand, ready to tie it around a neck of an animal they would buy.

Animal Marshroutkas
The sheep baaed. The people haggled and shouted. When they had bought a sheep, they loaded them onto trucks. Some of these trucks even had signs with place names. Marshroutkas for animal transport.

There was dung everywhere, sheep dung, cow dung, horse dung, but I hardly smelled it. Maybe it was so much my nose just went on strike. Or it got evened out by the fresh mountain air and the cold spring rain.

At the end of Sheep Street I turned right and came to Cattle Square, a wide muddy quad, with four large metal roofs.

Loudly mooing cows and steers were tied to low metal bars, some under the roof, some out in the open.

Shopping for Horses
Somewhere in the middle, Cattle Square turned into Horse Square. Men rode around on horses, maybe they were trying out the ones they’d just bought. Others were shopping, leading horses around to see how they were walking.

I walked around carefully not so get to close to the behind of a horse. They seemed to take being tied up less well than the cows.

Some bit the horses next to them, others violently fought against the ropes, some even kicked out with their hind legs.

At the end of the square a blacksmith hammered nails into a horses hoof.

When I started taking pictures a boy carrying halters made out of thin white nylon ropes started to talk to me.

“Are you sorry for 50 Som?”
He asked where I was from, what I was doing here. His name was Shamil, he was 13 and he had already sold six of his halters. “Do you want one? As a souvenir! Only 50 Som!
No, thanks, I don’t have a horse, I don’t even know how to ride one.
Come on, take one, take one! Are you sorry for 50 Som? As a souvenir!

He told me the market started at six in the morning. Now it was around 10 and many animals had already been sold. Yet there still was time to buy one of his halters. “Come on, take one, take one!”

Haggling in the Rain
I walked back over the muddy square and Shamil followed me. Shouting to attract customers and occasionally urging me to buy a halter.

It started to rain harder and people quickly disappeared under the large roofs. I stood in the middle under a roof, leaned on one of the low bars and thought “I’m in a special place.

Exotic Kyrgyz Characters
A market like this was something I would never get to see in Europe. The different animals, the dirt, the shit, the shouting, the different Kyrgyz characters, old men with white beards and kalpaks, young men in Adidas suits, men in military pants and black leather jackets, all of them haggling, pulling animals, smoking, talking to each other, all that was exotic. It was more different from what I was used to than anything I’d seen in Bishkek.

Yet while I consciously knew I was experiencing something special, I didn’t feel that way. I felt neither happy to be there nor appalled by how some of the animals were treated. I didn’t feel much at all. I  didn’t feel interested in how much the animals cost, where they were from, what they were being bought for and so on. I could have asked all these things, but I didn’t. I just stood there and looked at steam rising from the horses tied up out in the rain and I was cold and rubbed my freezing hands.

The only non-Kyrgyz
Was I missing out by not being more interested? Did I lose something by not feeling much except the cold? Why was I even here? I had come to see Karakol, to make use of my time in Kyrgyzstan by experiencing something else than Bishkek. And I had come to this bazaar because I had read on Wikitravel and in the Lonley Planet, that it was one of the attractions of the town. I had come to create myself a memory , to be able to tell myself that I had done everything there was to do in Karakol.

Was I still creating that memory now, even though I didn’t feel like I was experiencing something special? I had felt something while walking around, awkward for walking around in the mud and rain for no reason. Worried that one of the horses would kick me. Out of place among the animal traders. I was the only non-Kyrgyz, the only one taking pictures with his phone.

This wasn’t a memory I could tell people back home. “I went to that animal market in Kyrgyzstan one time, I was cold, walked around in the mud for two hours and didn’t talk to anyone except to a boy trying to sell me overpriced rope.

After thinking it over for a while I decided to leave. As I walked to the taxis I worried that the driver would be angry when I got into his car with dirty shoes.