Unpretentious, yet wonderful Kyrgyz town with charming architecture, and a famous animal market
Diving into Karakol one crosses some spectacularly sombre Soviet-style suburbs. You know, the now familiar apartment blocks, the palatis I have described before, but here completely lacking any form of decoration, any attempt to make them look attractive at all. And for the most part, slowly falling apart.
Yet, the inner town, if I may call it that way, is far more charming, with lots of small, originally Russian cottages – according to the local people we talk to, some close to 150 years old. Which is quite possible, as Karakol was built by Russian colonialists as a garrison town halfway the 19th Century, strategically positioned near the Chinese border. Contrary to most Soviet architecture, these pre-Soviet houses are decorated with carved window shutters and intricate wooden roof trim. The bigger ones even have nice porches and balconies. As so often, there is some variation in level of maintenance, from freshly painted in blue or green to, once again, total abandon, but nevertheless a pleasant change from the palatis. The determinedly Chinese-looking wooden mosque and the Orthodox church, also entirely made of wood, are early 20th Century, equally pre-Soviet, and quite pretty constructions that have been beautifully restored with the relaxation of the Soviet secular regime.
What is curious in Karakol, is the use of containers all over town. They are everywhere, as part of a garden fence, as part of a construction of a barn or warehouse, or apparently just randomly positioned along a side road. And most obviously, as we have seen in Osh, too, as construction frame for the town’s bazaar. ‘Street’ after ‘street’ of containers, remodelled as shops, sell everything from cloths and shoes to fishing gear, spices and nuts. Quite efficient, I suppose, as one can lock things away at night – or even stay away for a few days without losing your spot.
I know I have been torturing you with bazaars, this journey, but Karakol has a special one. Every Sunday morning, thousands of people gather at the weekly animal market, which sells mostly sheep, cows and horses. The market starts at dawn, which, so far east, is around 5 am, at this time of the year, but when we turned up at seven, trade was still going on. What can I say? A busy coming and going of people, pulling animals on to the market, or off to a waiting truck or trailer. Men trying horses by riding them fast, in a designated part. Others walking around, grabbing the fat lobes of a sheep’s behind, or inspecting a cow, or a calf. Colourful, pretty chaotic, and a fabulous spectacle to watch, from a secluded corner. Or to wander around, carefully avoiding animals, and certain animal waste that tends to spread around.
We spent three days in Karakol, checking out the town and the bazaar, a local museum, some mountain valley nearby, or just relaxing in our exceedingly comfortable hotel, well deserved after some of the less well equipped places we have stayed so far, and ahead of our Pamir Highway trip, which will most likely lack any form of luxury. In the process, we finished the town’s rather limited stock of Georgian and Moldovan dry red wine – an equally unlikely provision along the Pamir Highway. A wonderful three days.