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A Visit to the World’s Largest Walnut Forest

In the valley of the Kyrgyz mountain range Chatkal, the village of Arslanbob is spread – the birthplace of the world’s largest natural walnut forest, a legend whose truth is harder to split than the nuts themselves.

Walnut in the tree
Walnut in the tree

“This is a secret,” says guide Roma Tokhtarov. – In Soviet times, the Red Army soldiers came here with saws and cut down a lot of nut trees. They sent them to Rolls Royce in England, which used wood for car decoration. Even before the war, Churchill [the British Prime Minister] saw a tree from this forest and asked Stalin to send it in exchange for a weapon. ”

To understand whether this story is true is difficult; the maker of luxury cars did not answer questions, and the story itself did not appear in public records.

But this is one of the legends about the walnut forest, which the villagers passed through generations. So significant for them are the walnut trees of Arslanbob.

The village where ethnic Uzbeks live is stretched in the shadow of the almost two-kilometer slopes of the Babash-Ata Mountains. It has become home to 16,000 people, most of whom make their living by harvesting walnuts.

People spend long winter evenings chopping nuts and cleaning them from the shell. Practically everyone – young and old – is involved in this process.

“We sell whole walnuts, and we make butter from the broken ones – we put it on the skin in winter, it does not freeze,” explains Tokhtarov. Of course, we also eat them, but by the end of autumn, everyone eats so many nuts that it becomes bad from them. ”

Fortunately, nuts are sold not only among locals but also on the international market. According to UN statistics on international trade, in 2016 Kyrgyzstan exported 1,200 tons of walnuts for two million US dollars.

Nuts are mined in the forest, which, with its intricate network of trails, covers the west and east of Arslanbob. Paths intertwined through the whole forest. It is covered in places with pasture grasses and blooming wild apple trees.

As soon as you enter the walnut forest, you begin to comprehend all the riches of this land. You smell the trees, burning coal near the village and look at the paths with ebony trees in the mud soil that intersect over and around the undulating hills.

Traces from the old “Niva” mixed with the hooves of horses and donkeys and turn the earth into an even thicker mud mass, which is difficult to move.

Walnut trees grown recently in nurseries are lined up in a straight line; the old ones grow one by one.

“October 2 is officially considered the beginning of the collection of nuts, but in September, residents begin to collect nuts from the trees closer to the city so that children do not collect them and sell them in exchange for ice cream,” says Tokhtarov.

During the harvest season, people in whole groups run away to the forest, establish temporary shelters to facilitate the collection of walnuts. It all looks like a carnival: people eat together and gather around a fire to sing and share stories

Telling stories is an important part of Arslanbob’s culture, and they explain how walnut trees appeared in the valley.

“There are two similar stories linking the emergence of the walnut forest with the participation of Alexander the Great, and at least two more that tell those important men in Islam brought seeds from paradise to plant walnut forests here,” explains Tokhtarov.

“I do not believe in the history of Macedonian, but the story about the Arab or Persian guest who brought the seeds must be true. Someone had to bring them here, but how else would they appear here? ”He asked, jumping off a tree, and set off along a forest path that was still dirty after the morning rain. Sometimes he had shortness of breath, but he was just joking that he recovered, eating walnuts all winter.

Zahid Ubaydullaev – a former guide, rent rooms to tourists. In his one-story house built by his grandfather, he told me a story about Alexander the Great over a cup of hot black tea with nuts.

“When Macedonian and his army crossed this territory, some soldiers fell ill. Alexander asked for help from the locals. They gave the soldiers to eat walnuts, and they got better. In gratitude, Alexander did not grab them. The inhabitants accepted him as king and built a village here, ”he says.

“Another version says that after the battle near this place, some Macedonian warriors were injured. They could not continue the campaign and remained in the valley, waiting for their death. The warriors ate some walnuts and recovered. They decided to live here, so some locals have blue eyes and light curly hair, ”he said, echoing the generally accepted idea that the European features that people have in Central Asia can relate to the nomads of Alexander the Great.

The walnut forest played an incredibly important role in the village after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet era, everyone had guaranteed work and a minimum income – people grew potatoes. Forest wealth collections were simply additional income and food. But after independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan lost financial assistance from Russia. Then, in Kyrgyzstan, without oil and gas, in contrast to the neighboring “-stations” of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, people found it difficult to make ends meet. In Arslanbob, residents took up the forest to survive.

Woman collecting walnut
Woman collecting walnut in the forest

The economy of the village grows and falls depending on the nut harvest. For the second consecutive year, residents are concerned that the profits from walnuts will be low.

During the last visit to the slush from the late snow that fell by almost 30 cm, the mud from the heavy spring rains increased. What seemed at first sight to be a sea of ​​large green caterpillars was, in fact, a carpet of dead walnut flowers that fell from the trees as a result of the severe frost that followed the snow.

Due to the seasonal nature of the harvest, efforts have been made to develop tourism. For decades, everything has been done to attract foreign tourists.

At the 1995 conference held to determine measures for the protection and conservation of forests, the then Minister for Forestry Affairs, TM Musuraliev, enthusiastically shared: “The walnut forests of Southern Kyrgyzstan represent a huge recreational potential for our people. Clean air, inviting scent of flowers and trees, healthy clean water, hundreds of picturesque gorges, mountain waterfalls and lakes attract hundreds of tourists from other Central Asian countries every year. ”

Since then, the local population has been welcoming tourists. “Locals enthusiastically accepted the idea of ​​developing tourism. True, some older and more religious people do not like to flaunt tattoos or short shorts. With the exception of this, there are no problems, ”said the CBT manager (“ Community-based tourism ”, in Russian“ Community-based tourism ”) and former forester Hyatt Tarikov. “That is life. We must change, ”he added, standing at his photographic office near the village square.

The CBT network has provided employment potential for the village’s population, ”said Khayat. In 2001, seven people worked in the SVT Arslanbob. In 2016, this figure increased to 162, including guides, cooks, porters, host families, and drivers.

Together with the growing tourism industry, the government is making efforts to prevent forest exploitation. “Now we have a tree nursery where we grow new walnut trees, which are then transplanted into the forest. Cutting live trees for fuelwood is prohibited; Now foresters identify dead trees and dry branches that people can use in winter, ”said Hyatt.

In 1995, at a conference on environmental protection, key areas identified as dangerous to forests were identified. 74,000 acres is all that remains of the 1.5 million acres that once covered wild nut, pistachio, almond, apple, plum and pear forests.

Until 1917, logging was not controlled. In 1945, the forest received the status of environmental protection, which limited deforestation, but not harmful to trees. Unrestricted grazing, fuelwood harvesting, hay harvesting, and the harvest of nearly 100 percent of fruits and nuts have a detrimental effect on the growth and spread of trees.

Now the territory of the forest bordering the village is separated from it by barbed wire and high dry fence fences. Locals can rent land from a forester in exchange for a certain percentage of their crop.

According to Tokhtarov, foreign visitors began to influence how people in the region care about the forest because they themselves do not litter during excursions. “Foreigners do not. They pick up the garbage, throw it in the bins, showing everyone how to take care of the environment, ”said Tokhtarov, pointing to a sign in English, Russian and Kyrgyz languages, which was made by local people engaged in rural tourism.

Locals have always lived in isolation from others, but now they meet with people from different parts of the world, read more new information, which is good for the village as a whole. It also helps to reintegrate the residents of Arslanbob into Kyrgyz life after they experienced the horror of unrest on the national soil of 2010 in the south of the country. That year, as a result of the second in five years of revolution, the country was shocked by violent clashes between the local Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations. This resulted in the death of 200 people – mostly Uzbeks – and a large flow of refugees crossing the border in search of security.

“Thank God, there were no problems in Arslanbob. But that year there was a big decline in the flow of tourists, ”said Tokhtarov.

Local guides believe that strengthening the tourism industry and ensuring forest health in the future is the best way to protect the economy and culture of Arslanbob. “I know that in the future this forest will be even bigger, and both old and young trees will grow in it. The roads will be asphalted, and the one that leads to the city will be expanded, the Internet will become better, ”explained his vision of the development of the village of Tokhtarov. – I hope that a factory or a factory will be opened here – maybe, for the production of T-shirts or shoes, to provide people with work, and residential houses will be built to stop the growth of cities. Inshallah, people will better understand the problems of the environment and stop throwing trash everywhere. ”

For the former forester Tarikov, the preservation of the ancient forest is the main thing. “If I had a million dollars, I would build a wall around the forest with checkpoints, hire excellent foresters, provide them with a good salary and actually make efforts to restore wildlife,” said Tarikov. “Do you have a million?” He asked with a little hope.

According to ecologist Emil Shakurov, simply leaving Arslanbob alone is not enough. “The walnut forest in Arslanbob is no longer able to self-renew. This is quite a serious thing because earlier there it was necessary to simply restrict economic activity, but now this will not be enough. Our walnut-fruit forests have become a symbol of what may happen next, “he believes.

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