Horse-riding nomads and remote mountain lakes usually draw the visitors of Kyrgyzstan. But the real gem of Kyrgyzstan are these Walnut forests.
These are the forests of Arslanbob, in the south of the country. Arslanbob is an uncommon landscape in a country more famous for being 90% mountainous.
These forests have also become the social and economic heart of Arslanbob. Villagers usually move to these forests after every two months.
These forests are small peaceful pockets of the country. But Arslanbob has been quietly attracting many travellers to the village and its surrounds. Hospitable local culture and some incredible landscapes are the main reason behind it.
Walnuts have a unique origin in the forests of southern Kyrgyzstan. Alexander the Great conquered this region in the 4th century BC.
He decided to take some local nuts home with him. On the way back to Greece, some nuts fell to the ground through holes in the bag. Thus new forests emerged throughout the Orient.
Asian bob is now known as the capital of Kyrgyzstan’s nut-forest.
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There are many interesting things to know about the ancient forests of Kyrgyzstan. Certain facts about life among walnuts are also presented here. Also, take a tour of this ancient forest, and discover some facts about walnuts.
Community-based tourism in the forests of Arslanbob
Every year, the village remains full of some international visitors. Especially in late September or early October. The visitors wander through the village.
They visit here not because of the skiing, trekking or hiking. As the Babash-Ata mountains are over-all covered in snow. They visit here because of the Arslanbob’s annual walnut harvest.
This tradition has been repeated over hundreds of year and remains unchanged through every year. Villagers spend days in these beautiful forests, drinks tea with their loved ones and enjoy meals among friend and family.
Many villagers spend months in the forests. They live their life by collecting walnuts, preparing them for sale and carting them off to the village to make a profit.
Arslanbob is known as the third largest city in the country. It is situated in the centre of Kyrgyzstan, at the end of a long road of Jalal-Abad.
The villagers usually remain busy in streaming in and out of minibuses and calling prayer from the village mosque. There is a long line of shops along a small road, across the river to the main bazaar.
Many villagers are seemed to be bargaining with vendors in the main bazaar. Get some peaceful sounds of a rural village by wandering down any street in Arslanbob.
Community-Based Tourism is a wonderful initiative that exists throughout the country. It connects travellers with the local community through skiing trips, organized treks and homestays etc.
Arslanbob itself is a stunning place, something out of a fairytale. Its tourist-facing identity is built on the village vide and CBT office.
Installing park benches, setting up ski courses and running bike races are some of the numerous social projects of CBT. They think that tourism should help spread income across the local country.
Visitors can experience more thoroughly with the cooperation of villagers. Visitors can stay in the family-run guesthouses and eat home-cooked meals.
Also, get an opportunity to explore the nearby mountains and lakes with the help of local guides.
Moreover, CBT office is always looking for volunteers to teach English to their staff members. They also provide the accommodation and meal to the volunteers in return.
So, this is a wonderful chance for anyone looking forward to improving their Russian. Also, learn about Kyrgyz culture, conduct research and have an authentic Central Asian experience.
As the walnut harvest starts in autumn, visitors venture deep into the forests to experience this local tradition.
Life among walnuts in the ancient forest of Kyrgyzstan
While living with the local family in the walnut forest, you can meet some very friendly people. The Kyrgyz villagers are what that make this place special.
They reside amongst an enormous walnut forest at the base of snowcapped mountains. This fact just makes them perfect.
The local families of Arslanbob:
The local families of Arslanbob usually love hosting international travellers. Every morning, the children leave their family tents and start searching for walnuts fallen from the branches overnight.
They usually take borsook and fresh cream in the breakfast. After breakfast, the local young boys climb the high limbs of these trees and use their whole weight to shake the more nuts.
This noise of shaking punctuates the day at irregular intervals from every direction. When local boys complete the shaking, the local young girls collect all the walnuts in their sacks.
The collection is usually 500kg in a slow year, but a good harvest brings more than triple that. These nuts contribute to thin profits through the winter season.
Things do other than walnuts:
Other than collecting walnuts, there are some other things that villagers usually do in forests. Some women in the forest offer sweet sodas, candies and cigarettes on a table.
The locals give them one kilo of shelled walnuts and in return get a small bag of sweets in return. One kilo of shelled walnuts is equal to two dollars.
People here rarely pay cash, just collect some walnuts under the tree and get themselves something to eat or drink.
The bricklaying profession is also very prominent in the region. Some new buildings and additions are constructing constantly.
The people here are like you, first, find the money and then the wedding, that’s why the birth rate is falling. Nearly half the population of Kyrgyzstan is under the age of 24.
Kyrgyzstan is full of water:
Many young ones fill the barrels of water which are enough for only one day. This water is usually used for washing hands, making tea and washing dishes.
Kyrgyzstan is full of water, most of it is coming from the Central Asia region. A snowy peak rises above the Arslanbob’s horizon of ancient walnut forests.
From these peaks, the wild River Arslanbob and dozens of the stream of pure water flow through forests and meadows.
This water just breathes life into the landscape of Kyrgyzstan and its inhabitants, both animals and humans.
Some villagers collect the walnuts by tightening a bag to their son’s bicycle. Then they begin to gather nuts, moving from tree to tree.
Some walnuts remain unshaken through harvesting. So, the wind blows down many walnuts that are enough to keep the family supplied.
Winter is a dangerous time in Arslanbob
Summer will be a better decision to travel Kyrgyzstan. The local itself need to heat their homes with wood, as there are no gas pipelines connected to remote down.
People are only allowed to collect dry twigs and dead branches because of the vulnerability of trees.
Even when they accidentally strike a living branch, they have to hide the evidence. Many villagers had to go far for cutting those branches.
Many axes hack away throughout the wide valley, where heavy chopping can echo as far as two kilometres away. It is the sound of every family living here, trying to survive.
They create a vast community spread over thousands of hectares. This community helps in sustaining the small town of Arslanbob.
Traditions of hospitality
Hosting the travellers and passers is a long tradition in Arslanbob. Many of them claim as a sort of origin story that Alexander the Great’s soldiers tarried here.
The tale goes that the soldiers were weary and wounded. They rested and hunted in these forests before resuming their long journey back to Europe.
On the way back, they filled their pockets with nuts that would plant Greece’s first walnut forests. We don’t know that the story is true or not, but the modern tourists find this amusing.
Rest of them give a chance to immerse themselves in local life.
The life among walnut:
The life among walnut is simple, where visitors can expect a few services or infrastructure. They provide an incredible opportunity to with local culture.
By sharing meals and joining in their wandering through the forest each day. The climbing of young ones high in the trees is amusing. Discovering the economic insights on how the unshelled fruits become a currency.
The other interesting thing about this forest is the colour of these oily shells. This colour will linger long into the winter as a souvenir of the annual walnut harvest.
It also stains the skin of tourists and locals alike as they live together among the trees. Many travellers looking for an authentic cultural experience can find some local tradition among the forests of Arslanbob.
The Ancient Forest of Kyrgyzstan
As you enter the forest, the smell of coal fires and wood near the village gives way to an earthy richness. The walnut trees line up in regimental rows looks amazing while the older trees stand alone.
According to Tohtarov, some trees are 500 years old. Walnuts from these trees also get prizes for their superior flavour.
During the harvest season, the walnut collection becomes easier, and the whole event has a carnival feel. People share their food and gather around to sing and share stories.
Whereas, storytelling is an important part of Arslanbob culture. It leads to various explanations over how the walnut trees came to be in the valley.
The ancient forests of Kyrgyzstan:
The ancient forests of Kyrgyzstan have played an important role in the village since the fall of Soviet Union.
In the Soviet-era, everyone has a basic income and guaranteed work, with potato farming the primary occupation. They are simply the additional source of food and income.
But in 1991, Kyrgyzstan lost the financial support that Russia provided. Due to lacking resources, the citizens of Kyrgyzstan found difficult to make ends meet.
After this, residents quickly looked to the forest to provide their needs.
Economic Fortune of Villagers:
The economic fortune of villagers now rises and fall on the strength of the walnut harvest. For the second year in a row, villagers are concerned that the walnut yield will be disappointing.
The harvest season has led to efforts to diversify employment option in Arslanbob, probably in the form of tourism. Efforts have been made for the visitors to experience the natural beauty of the area.
The walnut forests of Kyrgyzstan represent a recreational asset for the tourism. The pure air with the fragrance of trees and flowers. Hundreds of picturesque gorges, clean water, mountains and lakes attract thousands of tourists.
The government is also playing an important role in the concern with the growing tourism industry. Important steps are taken to protect the forests from overuse and exploitation.
They provide the villagers with a nursery tree where new walnut trees are grown and later transplanted to the forest.
They have banned the cutting of trees firewood, but villagers are allowed to use the branches of dead trees instead. High fences of dead branches are now partitioned the forest areas closest to the village.
In exchange for a percentage of their harvest, locals can rent land from the forest ranger.
Outside visitors had begun to influence how people in the region care for the forest. They also encourage a culture of not littering during excursions.
Plan it now
Take a three-hour drive from Osh to get to Arslanbob. Arslanbob is situated in southern Kyrgyzstan. The local Community-based tourism office can arrange walnut excursions during the autumn harvest season.
You can also enjoy treks, camping, horse riding and homestays with local families all year round.
Enjoy the smell of sweet fruits and get enchanted by the steep mountains and the powerful rivers. It feels like to be in the Andes if it weren’t for a call to prayer that echoes into the early evening.
The beauty of this region and its charming, smiling and insightful people urges one to visit again and again.
While being in forests, also take a tour to Kyzyk Unkur. It is a small village where you can learn the importance of preserving the fruits and nut forests.
Issyk-Kul is also a better place to tag around when you finish a walk around in the ancient forests of Kyrgyzstan.