The Sunday Animal Market is held on the edge of Karakol and is deemed a tourist ‘must visit’, although when Marat asked the way the old boy in a kalpack just shrugged his shoulders. Fortunately, at the next junction we glimpsed a man trying to lead a young horse that didn’t appear to have understood the concept, or perhaps it had an inkling of what was in store for it. Following at a sensible distance as it leapt from side to side, lunged forward and then reared back, we abandoned the minibus and soon were weaving in and out of every sort of quadruped being pushed or pulled in the one direction. It was difficult to make out where the road ended and the market began but apparently there were officials checking comings and goings and charging accordingly.
During the Soviet period Kyrgyzstan supplied much of the wool for Russian military uniforms but as the indigenous fat-bottom sheep don’t produce good fleeces Merinos were imported from Australia for crossing to upgrade the wool. We saw a number of Merinos on sale among every other colour, sex, age and shape of sheep, goat and shoat. Little kids bleated in vain for their mothers and fat bottomed rams proved defiant matches for those trying to lead them, on bits of string, through the jostling crowds. Mules are legendarily stubborn but single sheep, preferring to travel in flocks, are a close run thing. Some were tied to car bumpers; some lay trussed in the back of pick-ups; others stood on flat bed trailers while the owners were deep in news exchange. Buyers prodded to see how much flesh lay on bones and pinched tails – 16% of the carcass weight of a fat bottomed sheep can lie in its tail, the fat of which (kuirak) is highly prized. Those looking for a breeding ram studied testicles.
A beautiful horse was tied to the guttering of a breezeblock shed and as we moved to admire it we noticed someone selling horseshoes in pairs nearby. Jonny fixed his farrier’s eyes and we went with him to inspect. A small girl counted nails into a matchbox for a customer with som in his outstretched hand. The shoes were all one size and made of steel re-enforcing rods. The vendor said something to Marat that gave us the impression that tourists weren’t particularly welcome to block his display from potential customers’ view. Marat explained Jonny’s profession and Jonny unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a T-shirt with his name and horseshoe logo. All was smiles and we were welcomed as ‘proper’ people. Jonny asked technical questions.
As we wandered through the cattle area a kerfuffle broke out in the horse zone beyond. A man had jumped on a nice looking chestnut stallion to take it through its paces. It wasn’t clear whether he was buying or selling but what was clear was that the horse wasn’t having any of it. It bucked and reared and whipped round. Eventually with much shouting and the unsparing use of a kamcha the horse shot passed, scattering the crowd. The man’s tenacity was impressive but whether the horse changed hands for the hoped-for price was doubtful.
We crossed to the far corner where horses were being shod. In the UK the idea is to accustom foals to having their feet picked up, handled and trimmed as soon as they are a few weeks old. By the time they need shoes they stand willingly. Well that’s the theory and it usually works. In Kyrgyzstan the foals are in the jailoo with the herd until big enough to be ridden. What we watched left no opportunity for the horse to decide whether it would stand or not. Led into a crush made of scaffolding poles it had lorry tyres cut into two strips, looped from the sides of the crush, and placed under its ribs and belly. These were then ratcheted up with a lever attached to cogs until its feet barely touched the ground. One by one, as each foot was due for attention, the leg was roped tightly from knee or hock to horizontal bits of scaffolding. Although there was not much the horse could do it didn’t stop it from determined struggles and it was a wonder that joints weren’t dislocated. I imagine that they often are. One size of shoe fitted all, that one size being more for ponies than horses. Feet were cut to fit the shoes. The nails were hammered in with an accuracy that depended on the energy with which the horse remained struggling. Some nails went teeth-whistlingly high. When one horse was led out of the stocks it was hopping lame but we were assured that it would soon get used to it. As if to prove some point the opposite foot was then hit very hard with a hammer to make it lame on that foot as well – thereby making it look even. We were expected to understand that our concern was misplaced.
Perhaps fortunately for the horses this ordeal happens only once, maximum twice, a year. In the UK we reckon horses’ feet need attention every six weeks or so. Given that their hooves grow like human fingernails the shoes have often disappeared into Kyrgyz hooves before they are re-shod. By clamping the horses in these stocks farriers can shoe thirty in a day at US$1 per horse. This of course was only on the Sunday market day but it gives blacksmiths the rest of the week to top it up with other work. The minimum Kyrgyzstan wage in 2014 was US$16 per month.
There is an earth bank round the edge of the market and most of the transporters reverse up to it to make it easier to load the animals. However space is at a premium until nearing the end of the morning when early sales have been transported away, and we watched one family trying to persuade a large bull to jump from the market floor up into the back of a lorry. The lorry did not have a ramp. To persuade a horse would have been difficult but bulls aren’t famed for that sort of agility. One man pulled on a rope from above, another twisted its tail to encourage it forward. Eventually it knelt on the lorry bed and was then dragged, kicked and pushed up, one back leg at a time. It was tied to a bar above the cab. They tried with another bull however he was determined not to co-operate and lay down, despite his head being held neck-crickingly high by the man in the lorry. Eventually they gave up and reversed the lorry to a recently vacated slot by the bank. We noticed that lorries without ramps were the norm which is surprising as the Kyrgyz are so resourceful in so many ways
An elderly lady under a crocheted hat with a large floppy brim covered in applique flowers in pastel shades, tried to sell us her beautiful cow. We agreed it was the most shiny and lovely cow but that we weren’t after a cow at that moment. She told us that it could be ours for only 48,000 som (£525) and we agreed that it was a steal but Marat helped us to explain that our packhorses were already weighed down and we couldn’t really take what we didn’t eat back to England. “Ah Anglia… Great Britain?” Those of us who had voted Remain smiled wryly as Britain had not felt that Great as we left Heathrow. It was too complicated to explain. We enquired tentatively why the cow’s toes were so long. They curled like Aladdin’s slippers. She replied that as she had kept it in a shed for over a year to fatten it up, it hadn’t needed to walk anywhere. Despite what we would regard as dereliction of care she stroked it with genuine affection.
The Kyrgyz are carnivores and there is no time that this is more evident than at a funeral. A middle class funeral will involve about three hundred guests who will expect to eat horsemeat. A horse feeds 100 people and costs in the region of £800. The prized delicacy is sausage made from its hindquarters. A cow costs between £500 and £600 and a sheep about £80 but only the very poor serve cows at wakes and never sheep. Death is an expensive business. In Osh the neighbours contribute but in Bishkek the family picks up the tab.
It was mid-morning and slowly the market was clearing. Tired elderly men and women, who hadn’t managed to sell their beasts, sat on upturned boxes looking glum. They half-heartedly tried last minute deals that would probably render them out of pocket but at least they would have something in their pockets instead of having to find more som to continue to buy food for the animals. Huge double-tiered livestock containers rumbled off towards Bishkek where the cargo would be sold at increased prices. A youth drove a telega partially loaded with grain filled sacks. A cow was hitched to its back and it somehow managed to keep up with the horse trotting in the shafts. Animals of every type and breed baulked at being loaded whether into lorries or onto the back seats of Ladas.
We joined others heading out of the market and while we waited for Costia to retrieve the minibus, an old woman passed us pushing a pram full of large thermos flasks. A few packets of dry biscuits took up the space where a baby’s paraphernalia would have been put. She wore a floppy white hat reminiscent of those worn by some umpires of village cricket and despite the increasing heat, many layers of skirts and cardigans over thick black stockings, and of course flip-flops. I recalled the babushkas charging people to weigh themselves on bathroom scales near Bishkek’s bazaar. There are many ways that babushkas increase their meagre State Pension and they are nothing if not resourceful.