The Karakol animal market is a walk of several kilometres out of town. We follow the passenger cars turning off the main road, but then they disperse into several different alleys. Are we heading in the right direction? But as we approach the market area, we realise that it is large enough to require several access roads.
Along one long axial path through the centre, hundreds of sellers have congregated. Every one of them is selling the same commodity: sheep. A middle aged women with just one fat sheep. A small boy straddling two of them. A cool young guy leaning against his car with four animals in front of him. Someone else is just loading several sheep out of the car boot. There are stalls selling mutton soup and sweets at the next intersection.
The cows and horses are assembled on a muddy field to the side. At the far end of that field, we see just a few cars, but no animals. Someone had told us about the used-car market, so we go and have a look. Squeaking sounds are coming out of the open car boots. In fact, they are full of pigs and piglets, and we note that sellers and buyers here are ethnic Russians.
Orthodox Christians are a minority in this traditional, overwhelmingly Muslim corner of the country. But only a few hours away around the lake, the beaches of Cholpon Ata swarm with Russian and Kazakh holidaymakers, who travel long distances to enjoy the balmy waters of Lake Issyk-Kul – a huge high-alpine lake that is up to 700 m deep and completely surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
We have come here to visit the impressive boulder fields outside town, where every other stone seems to bear an ancient stone carving of goats, deer and hunters. But when we use the opportunity to visit the beach the next morning, our neighbours are a group of middle-aged women. They are wearing headscarves and large flowery dresses – until they strip to their underwear to enter the lake! "We are Kyrgyz, but from the Ferghana valley, and it's the first time we have come to Lake Issyk-Kul," one of them tells us after some bantering with her companions. They graduated from the same class many years ago and are clearly enjoying their alumni trip away from their families.
And then a minibus brings us back into the metropolis – comparatively speaking – of Bishkek.