Kyrgyzstan: Karakol

From Cholpon-Ata, after the WNG, I went to Karakol, the 4th largest city in Kyrgyzstan, by using the “marshrutka” system. I had taken a taxi from Bishkek to Cholpon-Ata because the staff at the Bugu Hotel seemed to think it was the only way to go. In retrospect, I think most tourists are not confident about taking the local transportation or they simply don’t want to chance being crowded, and so the hotel staff steer them to taxis. In Cholpon-Ata, I was able to use the marshrutka within the village, and so I was ready for longer-distance travel.

I don’t know what organization is “in charge” of the marshrutkas, determines their routes, assigns drivers, or determines fares, but it is reliable, cheap, and a great way to see everyday people in Kyrgyzstan. The only catch is that, if you are trying to board a marshrutka between the point of origin and its destination, it will not stop if it is full, and “full” means FULL, not even standing room. (It will stop to let people off.) It is about maximizing revenue, for sure, but it’s also very much about providing transportation for the general population.

Karakol is a village further to the east, and closer to the Tianshan Mountains, which stretch from China, across a narrow section of Kazakhstan, and into Kyrgyzstan. Karakol’s main purposes in life seem to be hosting a university, and serving as a conduit for visitors on their way to the mountains. There is a ski resort not far from the village, and the Destination Karakol office can organize trekking outings.

People who know me know that I drink a lot of coffee, and there are two coffee places in Karakol, Karakol Coffee and Fat Cat Coffee. Karakol Coffee is run by ex-pat Russians. If you’re not interested in coffee, they have a large inventory of liquor behind the counter and they can make you a harder drink if you prefer. Their food is pretty good and Russian in orientation, beet salads and blintzes with sour cream.

Fat Cat Coffee is smaller, run by Kyrgyz, and donates a chunk of its profits to local community projects, some of which it initiates. Progress and results are posted on blackboards where customers can read about them.

The Russian influence is strong in Karakol, where there is a section known as “The Russian Quarter.” Russian and Kyrgyz are both official languages. The houses here, like much of Karakol, seems a little run down – a lot of “deferred maintenance.” Still, at one time, and maybe again someday, they were nice houses on cobble-stoned streets. These are a couple of better examples:

The Karakol Museum has most of the usual items for Kyrgyzstan’s ancient and nomadic history, with their own display of petroglyphs, Manas and the reciters, and a scale-model yurt. They had also some unique features, though.

I enjoyed this display of black and white photographs made by Ella Maillart, a Swiss native and Olympic athlete. Maillart first traveled through Central Asia in the 1930s, and returned frequently thereafter until 1987, the year of her death. Most of these photographs are from 1932 to about 1950, covering the Soviet period. I don’t normally use photos of other photos, but I thought these were interesting – vintage photos of the area during the Soviet occupation.

One of the things I learned from these photos was that, until around 1942, Kyrgyzstan used a combination of Kyrgyz runes and Arabic characters for written communications. If you look closely, the caption on the photo second from the end says that the Arabic alphabet disappeared, and books in Arabic were destroyed by the Soviets, and the Cyrillic alphabet was imposed. Like other “CCPs,” the Kyrgyz took the sounds of the Cyrillic alphabet and applied them to their spoken language, so even though it looks like Russian, it’s not. It’s Kyrgyz. That’s how street signs and others, communicating the same information, appear, that are both printed in Cyrillic, but with differences.

This is a photo of Ella Maillart:

“The nomads are crossing the city of Tashkent.” I wasn’t able to caption all of the photos, but if you look carefully, the captions are in the photos I took. They are informative.

“Frunze” was the name given to Bishkek during the Soviet occupation.

There was another section of the museum that made a big impact:

There is a sample of much of Kyrgyzstan’s wildlife here, all dead, and all the product of taxidermy. It seems almost as if they were “found” items, and are a little worse for wear, but they do illustrate the variety, and they are hard to spot in the wild.

I became pretty good at finding whatever I might want in the local open-air markets. Here, in Karakol, I bought a red scarf with yellow flowers, because I wanted to be able to cover my head when entering the local churches. You may have heard me say that Kyrgyzstan was inexpensive to visit – I figured out my scarf cost about 42 cents in U.S. money.

The “Big Bazaar” sells everything you need for life: all kinds of clothing, meats butchered to order (mostly beef and chicken, no pork,) tools, luggage, fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruits, and huge piles of spices – with ten different grades of ground red pepper flakes. The vendors originate all over Central Asia, from Chinese Dungans to Uzbeks and Russians. It’s quite the adventure in shopping.

The market in Karakol brought the re-purposement of storage containers to new heights:

Soviet era antiques are sold in the “Antique House” in Karakol, run by a very nice Russian man.

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