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Me and the Animal Bazaar in TalasSo two years and change have passed since I moved to
Kazakhstan. I learned some Russian, experienced
village life and have gained much patience. I also
read a good deal, studyied for and took the GMAT,
applied to graduate business school, taught at a local
high school, and learned what I really want from life.
That last one was not just a realization but a
culmination of years of indecision.

It is too difficult to explain here and I will spare
you the details but for the record I do want more than
a life of travel and what many feel is leisure but is
really hard work, very tiring, and all consuming. Life
on the road is full of trials and tribulations as they
say. You must deal with many headaches before you
realize any success yet one really successful day
makes up for a week of pain. Finding a place that you
really like is something that is probably the most
rewarding of all because it seems so easy to find a
place you don’t particularly like. Kazakhstan was a
little bit of both and for the most part I was glad to
be leaving and ready to Horse Transportsee other places. It was hard
to leave my friends and the families I had lived with
but that is life and you must go on.

For a few months I made plans with another Georgia
boy, McKay from Atlanta. We wanted to ride horses
across Kyrgyzstan and into China to sell them at the
famous animal bazaar in Kashgar. Well early on the
plans changed as we found out that it was against the
rules to bring animals into China without a permit we
were told takes years to acquire. We gave up without
trying but we weren’t finished with our plan of
crossing Kyrgyzstan. For those who don’t know
Kyrygyzstan it is in itself the anti-thesis of
Kazakhstan in my opinion. Small and mountainous with
lots of water and very friendly people who live a more
traditional life, Kyrgyzstan was on my doorstep for
two years but I couldn’t cross the border I could see
from my window.

After clearing up all my paperwork with Peace Corps
and finishing my last medical exam that told me that I
had giardia (the reason for two years of gas!!) I went
back to send back the rest of The Enchanted Forestmy stuff and say my
good-byes. I crossed the small border and found a car
going to the house next to the volunteer I was to stay
with in Kirovka, John M. He was having a small party
and it was good to hear the experience of other
volunteers in Kyrgyzstan and tell the stories from
Kazakhstan’s volunteers. We spent a good night eating
liposhka(large flat bread) pizza and then capping it
off with a little Joe Dirte. The next morning we went
to the animal bazaar(mal bazaar) to check out the
horses and to get an idea of the prices. It was
Saturday morning and the bazaar was hopping. There
were animals galore, all but the dreaded swine. John
and I and a local butcher friend of his went and test
rode a few horses and gathered quite a crowd of people
watching in amazement. I have been to most of the
famous bazaars of Central Asia and this was definitely
what I had been looking for and missed in the others.
It was like stepping back in time to a different age.
There was an early morning haze hanging over the
fenced in area and to get anywhere Me and the Ibex Hornsyou had to push
aside bleating sheep tied together in a bundle. The
overwhelming number of people were Kyrgyz but there
were also a few Turks and a surprising number of
Kurds, the women with colorful head scarfs. We didn’t
buy a horse that day but there was another bazaar the
next morning in Talas, a city an hour and a half away
where I was to meet McKay that night. We went back and
played disc golf on a course near the large resevoir
and I took a taxi up to Talas. I had gotten John to
ask another volunteer Willie if we could stay with him
and he graciously agreed. I waited for almost two
hours for McKay at the bus station before finally
calling Willie and arranging to meet him in ten
minutes at the bazaar. When I arrived at the bazaar it
was turning dusk. Lots of drunk Kyrgyz guys hassled
me, one even wanted me to go to his art gallery and
buy a painting. I said I was meeting a friend and
struggled to get away. It was a scene that had grown
somewhat familiar in Kazakhstan. Though you never can
handle one of Hike to Sary Chelekthese situations with drunks with ease
you can almost always get away unscathed but it may
take time. Well it turned out that Willie and I had
been waiting at different spots of the bazaar for
almost thirty minutes when he walked up and found me.
We went to get something to eat and I worried that
McKay was either not going to make it that night and
we would have to postpone our horse buying for a week
or that he would be arriving late and not know where
to go. We got back to Willie’s apartment and McKay
called and said he was in the center. He had called
John and gotten Willie’s number otherwise he would
have been stranded at the sketchy bus station without
a clue where to go. We went and got him with a sigh of
relief and went to bed so that we could wake early for
the bazaar the next morn.

We got to the bazaar around 7 and looked for the
butcher who had come up to buy a sheep. We found him
with ease and made our way over to the horse section.
The prices were a bit higher Rainbow over Sary Chelekthan we had expected from
a country known to be not rich in any sense. After
numerous test rides and asking the prices of multiple
horses we settled on two young brown horses. It was
our first horse buying experience and we had a
rudimentary idea of what we needed to look for. First
of all a horse is no good without good feet and legs
so that was number one. Then the back void of too many
scars or open wounds. Then good teeth means the horse
is healthy as well as a shiny coat. The sellers didn’t
want our dollars that we had gotten instead of our
plane tickets back home so we had to go and change
them. All three of us went to the center and found the
only exchange booth open but they didn’t have any of
the local currency, the som. That was a problem as the
sellers were waiting for us and the exchange people
said we would have to wait for locals coming up and
selling their som for dollars, then we could get our
som. That would take a while we figured because as I
said earlier the country is quite poor and we thought
it would be a while before they exchanged 1100 USD.
Well we were right and wrong for after one beer we had
half of the money and McKay and the butcher went back
to the bazaar to make sure the guys didn’t leave. I
waited and waited for another few hours before finally
I got the money and headed back to the bazaar. When I
arrived most of the people were leaving or had left
the bazaar so it wasn’t hard to find our two horses
and the group of people squatting on their haunches on
the other side of the field. I walked over and McKay
and I talked a bit and then we handed over the money,
shook hands and took control of two horses. Things
then became confusing because our things were at
Willie’s, in the center of a city, and we really
didn’t have anywhere else to take the horses except to
another volunteer’s, Gabe, who lived in the village we
planned on starting our trip from but we couldn’t get
in touch with him. We didn’t have his home phone
number and his mobile phone wasn’t ringing when we
dialed. We had really no other option but to hire a
truck to take our horses to Gabe’s village and hope he
was at home, but we didn’t have his address. He had
sent me an email a few weeks before saying he should
be around but hadn’t included his address only his
mobile number and village name.

We took a look at some really bad saddles and decided
that it would be best to buy used ones in Gabe’s
village so we loaded up our horses into the back of a
large truck and took off towards Bakai Ata (old name
is Leninopol). We were sitting three across and as we
left the driver made me duck to avoid being seen by
the police. During the 30 kilometer drive I had to
duck three more times, the last two been in haste
because the police had already seen me and the driver
had to pay a fine of two dollars. We passed a bus stop
in the shape of a large traditional white felt hat
called a kalpak as well as a circular sign that
included the hammer and sickle of the USSR.

We arrived in Gabe’s village thinking it would be
relatively easy to locate the only American but this
was not the case. We drove around as the driver asked
any and every person we came upon until an hour later
we had found his house. A few knocks on the metal gate
and finally Gabe stuck his head out the window. He
seemed a good bit shocked and disheveled that we had
arrived without notice at his front gate with two
horses. Luckily he had a barn and when his family
arrived home they were very nice and immediately tried
to help us locate some saddles but to no avail. That
night we realized that one of the horses was blind on
one side. This was not a good omen, nor was it good
since we were planning on using that horse to cross
the country. A few days went by and everyone just said
we would have to wait for the next weekend bazaar to
buy a saddle. This was not very positive news for us
since we had seen the saddles at the bazaar and beside
being of low quality they were overpriced. We began to
think about our options. One day while out grazing our
horses a man came up and asked if we could let him use
our horse to plow his field as the Talas valley is
full of agriculture and eveyrone walks around with a
hoe over his or her shoulder. We said we would think
about it and tell him the next day. Each of the people
we had consulted said that our horses would die if we
were to take the route we had planned and this made us
a little hesitant. Since we really wanted to go and
see this one lake, Sary Chelek, and we had to take the
horses on a route that would bypass this lake we
considered walking to the lake. It was something that
was in our guidebook but one of the locals had
suggested we go not from the village we were in but
from the one I had stayed at when I first came across
the border, Kirovka. We talked with Gabe’s host
brother and he agreed to take one of our horses and
the family down the street would take the other and we
would pay for the daily food for each horse while we
made a trek over the mountains to the famed lake. It
sat easily in our minds because Gabe’s host brother
could ride our horse out to his field an hour away
instead of walking and the family down the street
could use one of the horses to plow their field and
they would both be getting some money out of the deal
as well.

We went the next day to Willie’s and left some more
things with him and we got in a taxi to Kirovka where
we immediately bought some gas for the stove and found
a taxi that would take us 30 km up the gravel road,
past the dam being built by a Dutch firm, into the
middle of nowhere hoping we would be somewhat near the
pass that would lead us into a big valley leaving only
one mountain range between us and Sary Chelek. Before
the trip we had calculated it would take us 5 days to
walk to the lake and then we would go and see a few of
the southern cities before coming back to begin our
trip, hopefully with saddles bought along the way. We
told Gabe’s host family that at maximum we would be
back in 10 days but this turned out to not be the
case. The trip was very arduous and we spent the next
7 days walking 12 hours a day with full packs. Our
maps were accurate but the trails were little used and
at some times disappeared completely. One day we spent
half the day looking for the trail. It was unmanned
territory except for hunters and shepherds which would
be arriving in a week or so. We went for 4 days
without seeing anyone and finally arrived to a ranger
station at the north tip of the lake. We were too
exhausted to fully appreciate the beautiful lake. Our
bodies were covered in welts and puss-filled blisters
from the oil of a plant we never identified. The
ranger took pity on us and the next day loaded our
backpacks onto his horse and got his 10 year old son
to guide us to their village, Arkit. The journey
followed the ridge above the lake and dark fell before
we arrived to a locked gate where we had to go over a
part of the fence that had fallen. A full moon rose
over a mountain as we made our way through a
pitch-black city. No dogs barked as we travelled
stealth mode to the ranger’s full time house. We
arrived and the ranger’s wife was duly summoned and
served us luke warm tea, cold soup, stale bread and
yellow butter. She apologized for not being able to
cook for us but the power was out and they only had an
electric hot plate. It explained why the village was
so dark with only the rare paraffin lamp lit behind a
shade. They said that dogs were not allowed because
the village was in the middle of the national park and
they would cause a disturbance to the local wildlife.
It was a revelation and it confirmed my view that it
was not necessary to have a guard dog as the people of
Kazakhstan had so often told me.

The next morning we were up bright and early catching
the only bus out of the village. We spent the rest of
the day travelling along the Uzbek border until we
reached the town of Osh. We got in touch with another
volunteer, James. He agreed to help us find a place
and if we couldn’t we could stay with him. The guy he
had in mind turned out to be sick and we stayed with
James. He was very accomodating and even slept on the
floor of his kitchen next to his refrigerator that
sounded like a tractor so that I could prop up my feet
on his bed. My ankles were really swollen so we bought
some pills to take down the swelling and applied a
creme to do the same. After a few days and a nice
banya the swelling had gone down and the puss had
dried up. We made it to the bazaar and found all the
horse equipment we needed at half the price of the
Talas bazaar. We got two thick canvas-like saddle bags
sewn by Uzbek girls. I also bought a traditional
Korjun (saddle bag) that had a nice carpet sewn on
each side and was connected by a kilim (a woven
instead of knotted carpet). It had a rose on it which
wasn’t too thrilling but it ended up being vital for
our success as we had some problems with the other
saddle bags along the way. We went to dinner at a
traditional teahouse with James and another volunteer.
It was the best plov(pilaf) I had eaten in Central
Asia. It consisted of Uzgen rice, yellow carrots,
garlic and mutton. For some reason it really hit the
spot, the half kilo we ordered and couldn’t finish.
The next morning we took a long haul taxi to Bishkek.
We paid 25 of the forty dollars only to have the taxi
break down in the middle of nowhere a little over half
of the 12 or 14 total hours. We hitched a ride with a
road crew to the nearest village and then got another
taxi which took us all the way to Bishkek. We stayed
with some friends of friends from Kazakhstan. For
three days we renewed visas, stocked up on supplies,
burned our pictures onto cds, and relaxed before
heading back to Talas and Bekai Ata to begin our
journey. Bishkek has a nice tree-lined center with
people walking around unhurridly in fashionable
clothes that aren’t going overboard like in Almaty. It
was a relaxing time where we met lots of cool people
and had an overall good time.

It seemed like a weight was on our shoulders as we
headed back to begin our journey. We were worried the
horses wouldn’t make it and that some unforseen
problems would arise…

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