He climbs with a skill that belies his girth. Hand over hand, feet hitching up behind, he hauls himself deeper into the golden canopy. Twenty metres below, two small boys – his sons – watch every movement with wide-eyed apprehension.
He grips his chosen branch, flexes his arms and, employing a centuries-old technique, shakes. The boys break into whoops of glee as the bounty that has made this area famous comes crashing to the ground.
Trees aren’t something that one automatically associates with the great fastness of Kyrgyzstan. Its icons – the open steppe, the thundering horses, the sheep-felt yurts – have no place in this story. But Arslanbob, a village in Jalalabad Oblast on the northern rim of the Fergana Valley, is a place that delights in confounding stereotypes.
A sprawling constellation of metal-roofed homesteads, set amid a meandering jigsaw of homesteads demarcated by serried ranks of spruce and cedar, Arslanbob is a pretty island in a sea of post-Communist utilitarianism. Its buildings are made of wattle-and-daub rather than concrete; the roads interlace haphazardly, rather than in grids.
The people who live here, sharper-featured than their Mongol countrymen to the north, are predominantly Uzbek. And the mountains that surround their homesteads loom over trees – 6,500 square kilometres of relic walnut forest, the largest such forest in the world – meaning that the region’s most remarkable geographical feature is distinctly arboreal.
But it’s also home to one of Central Asia’s most impressive exercises in sustainable tourism. First port of call for any visitor is a small, low-ceilinged room just north of the main square, which serves as headquarters for the local branch of the Kyrgyzstan Community-Based Tourism Association (commonly shortened to CBT). Established in 2001 with help from the Swiss development agency Helvetas, the CBT has 16 branches, which arrange guiding services and homestays with local families across the country. But it’s this little office, its walls plastered with photographs and hand-drawn maps of the surrounding countryside, that’s considered to be the most dynamic.
I’m offered a bed in Homestay 10, five minutes’ walk from the village square, where Almaz, the young almond-eyed owner, shows me upstairs to a simple guestroom. On an adjacent balcony brimming with flower boxes, Nitzan, a softly spoken, harmonica-playing Israeli, is already revelling in the Zen. ‘Such a peaceful place,’ he enthuses through five days’ worth of stubble. ‘And wait until you see the forest.’
‘The forest’. He says the words with a kind of reverence. The next morning, that’s where I head, crossing the Arslanbob River before climbing northeast along dirt roads lined with adobe homesteads.
The trees begin at the top of an escarpment: tall, sinuous trunks of mottled bark with rambling, wide-splayed canopies of gilded leaves. And then, as I delve deeper, I hear a kind of percussive music: cracks and rustles as branches are shaken, the staccato thud of something hitting the ground, then the rattle of hard objects falling into a metal pail.
It’s early October and north of here, on the plains, Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic herders have folded up their yurts for winter. But here in Arslanbob, the walnut harvest is in full swing. The method of collection hasn’t changed in centuries: father in the tree, himmying along the boughs, mother directing from below, children scurrying around to pick up the bounty. It’s dangerous work, and every year a few people die from falls.
This land, like much of Kyrgyzstan’s forested areas, is owned by the state. Known as leshoz, these nationalised forests are parcelled out as leases, with stipulations on the quantities of nuts and firewood that can be extracted.
However, there’s lots of unregulated harvesting, too. Everywhere, groups of children in shalwar khameez are combing through the leaf litter for overlooked nuts, or throwing sticks into the branches in the hope of dislodging a few more. Most of the nuts are exported, but some go into cakes, oil, conserves and bread. ‘The children use them as currency,’ Almaz says. ‘They swap it for ice cream.’
Such bucolic scenes make it easy to forget that this is a forest under threat. As local administration unravelled with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the pressures on the forest’s resources became more acute. Those child collectors are just a little too efficient. There are no saplings poking through the loam; every visible tree is a mature giant. As Arslanbob’s population expands and the demand for resources intensifies, the forest is becoming increasingly senile.
I’ve walked no more than a kilometre when a man ‘salaams’ me from the base of a tree before rushing over, his hands overflowing with walnuts. Minutes later, at his cajoling, I’m sitting before a cloth brimming with broken bread and shards of honeycomb as a blackened teapot boils over kindling.
We communicate in gestures and halting Russian monosyllables. I learn that the man, Taleb, has four sons and one daughter, that last year’s walnut crop – he holds his arms wide – was bountiful, but this year there is ‘niet’ due to a cold snap in spring. The fistfuls of wrinkled spheres he had poured into my rucksack earlier represent more than half of his harvest so far.
In these times of climatic uncertainty and ecological unsustainability, the CBT’s low-impact ecotourism has come along as a timely and necessary diversification.
A couple of days later, at a nameless riverbank restaurant, the architect of the town’s ecotourism revolution holds forth in between mouthfuls of noodles. A charismatic man with the rolling gait of someone who has been to 7,000 metres on Pik Lenin and a face creased with good humour, Hayat Tarikov is the local CBT coordinator and a self-professed pioneer.
Born in 1965 in the house that now doubles as the CBT office, Hayat has always worked in the forests around Arslanbob – first as a forestry officer, later as a freelance guide and porter. When Helvetas pitched up looking for someone to oversee its new community tourism venture, he found his calling.
‘In the beginning, tourists who came to Arslanbob would set off to the turbaza,’ he says, waving uphill towards the dilapidated, Soviet-era bungalows that stand as reminders of the village’s tourism past. ‘And we just followed them and introduced ourselves.’
From these improvised beginnings, Hayat has turned tourism into a part of the village’s fabric. Fifteen houses now run homestays and there are plans to introduce more this year. The CBT provides supplementary income for homestay owners, porters, guides and horsemen. Eighty-five per cent of the money that tourists spend with the CBT goes directly to the community.
The outsiders haven’t been universally welcomed. ‘When Western visitors started coming, some people thought they were spies,’ Hayat says, shaking his head wearily. But he has worked tirelessly to bring villagers onside. He holds regular talks at the central mosque during which he exhorts locals to subscribe to the CBT’s sustainable, low-impact credo. And every few months, he takes children from four village schools on ecological tours where they learn about respecting the environment and pick up litter along the trails.
Meanwhile, the ‘ten smart kids’ he has trained to work as guides are encouraged to conceive of new ways to expand the tourist experience. ‘We can just sit drinking vodka and the ideas come flying,’ he says. Actually,’ he adds on reflection, ‘five of them don’t drink vodka, but they have good ideas also.’
The result is a catalogue of activities high on adventure, perfectly suited to the intrepid, outdoorsy tourists that Kyrgyzstan tends to attract. There are day walks – through the forest and into the northern mountains to nearby waterfalls – but there are also longer trails, notably the route over the near-4,000-metre cleft to the right of Babash Ata that leads to a series of sapphire lakes deemed sacred by locals. Mountain bike trails now weave beneath the walnut forest’s golden canopy. In winter, as the mountains are wrapped in snow, visitors are led up to cut lines through virgin powder on donated skis.
Lured by such natural riches, and the region’s ingrained hospitality, tourist arrivals have been growing steadily, Hayat tells me with no small amount of pride. In 2001, just 83 visitors took the hourly marshrutka mini-bus that bounces up here from the Osh–Jalalabad road. Last year, there were more than 1,500.
However, amid his enthusiasm, Hayat is careful to sound a note of caution. ‘We have some crazy people who are planning big hotels. If we do that, we could destroy the thing that makes Arslanbob special,’ he says. ‘We’re trying to grow slowly. I’m always trying to tell them not to focus too much on tourism, because if something happens politically, then tourism could be gone.’
This spectre of politics upsetting the apple cart has recent precedent. The presence of ethnic Uzbeks cast adrift within Kyrgyz borders – a product of Stalin’s divide-and-rule policy – continues to reap a bitter legacy.
In 2010, Kyrgyzstan hit the headlines around the world when protests over government corruption ignited dormant tensions in the south. According to disputed government figures, 426 people were killed as Osh and nearby Jalalabad shook with ethnic violence in an episode that locals euphemistically describe as ‘the problem’.
‘None of us were able to sleep for a week,’ Hayat recalls ruefully. ‘We had people guarding the road.’
It’s difficult to reconcile such turmoil with this happy village. All around, Arslanbob’s citizens are devouring shashlik kebabs and delicious lagman (said to owe its salty flavour to the corpulent chef’s method of flicking the noodles off his belly). Across the river, at the Chinor chaikhana tea house, venerable men in felt hats ruminate at low tables, while the talismanic hulk of Babash Ata watches over all.
A potent sense of shared heritage suffuses this contented atmosphere. According to legend, the village’s heroic progenitor, Arslanbob Ata, was a man sent by the Prophet Mohammad to find Paradise on Earth. Today, the settlement he founded is almost too large to warrant the term ‘village’, with a population of around 15,000. Yet everyone claims to be his direct descendant, and everyone seems to know everyone else. ‘Ah, Taleb,’ Almaz had said when I had returned from my first foray into the forest with a bag full of walnuts. ‘His son married my mother’s sister’s daughter.’
If this social cohesion is endearing, it’s also essential to ensuring that the current trickle of culturally sensitive tourists doesn’t become a flood. Thus far, tourism has yet to be viewed as a commodity to be exploited; you would be hard pressed to spend £60 a week here.
Will it be enough to help save the walnut forest? Perhaps not on its own. But on my final afternoon, as I walk east again along dusty streets where fine-boned women smile from doorways as their children petition to have their photos taken and puffed-out old folk offer their hands in welcome, it’s hard to imagine that well-managed tourism could be anything other than good for Arslanbob. And as I head towards the tree line for a final stroll, I know that, although the harvest this year may be relatively poor, I’ll still come back with my pockets bulging.
When to go
Few people visit Kyrgyzstan in winter, when the average minimum temperature drops to –24°C. With the trees and flowers in bloom, April and May are pleasant, but it’s still pretty chilly. Late June to September is perhaps the best time to visit, although daytime temperatures can reach 40°C in some areas. If you want to see the walnut harvest, aim to be there in September.
The author travelled to Arslanbob village with the Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism association, which offers a range of tours around Kyrgyzstan lasting between six and
16 days. Four of its Active Tours, which involve trekking and/or riding, visit Arslanbob.
Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association: www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg
This story was published in the June 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine