Arslanbob – In Walnut Tree Shade

IMG_9321It had been almost eight years since I was last in Arslanbob, a tantalisingly spread-out settlement in Kyrgyzstan’s Jalal-Abad province. As before, I had arrived at the start of Ramadan – the moon was new, the mosque was full; a holiday mood gripping the steep rocky streets of this sprawling mountain village. This time though, it was stifingly hot late June rather than pleasantly cool mid September, and the walnuts that the area is famous for were still forming on the trees – ovoid green jewels dangling from silvery branches, their sweet ripeness yet to develop. The last time I was here it was during harvest season and walnuts were everywhere – stacked in pyramids at the bazaar, piled in dishes in every home, filling pockets, bags and every potential container. To walk in Arslanbob at such a time was to invite walnut generosity – for foreign visitors even the shortest excursion into the streets resulting in bulging pockets, stuffed rucksacks and camera bags. Walnuts even appeared to serve as legal currency – on first arriving in the village I witnessed a pair of laughing schoolgirls paying their minibus fare with a handful of nuts; the driver didn’t seem to mind at all.IMG_9163IMG_9394Of course, Arslanbob is not just about walnuts: the village has multiple identities. A relatively conservative Uzbek enclave in a predominantly Kyrgyz nation, Arslanbob has strong historical ties with Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley that lies not so very far away over gerrymandered Soviet-period borders to the south (never was the political strategy of ‘divide and rule’ more apparent than with the convoluted and sometimes utterly nonsensical lines of demarcation that separate the now independent republics of Central Asia – Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan). Almost totally Uzbek in population and culture, Arslanbob is also a spiritual centre of sorts, with holy rocks and sacred lakes in the mountains above the village and religious shrines in the surrounding forest. Islamic it may be, but there are strong animist and shamanist overtones too – the peoples of Central Asia have always had a strongly developed sense of place that has its spiritual expression beyond the normal confines of formalised religion.IMG_9172IMG_9597So walnuts and sacred shrines . . . there are another elements too. Since Soviet times the village has had a turbaza, a sanatorium that provides R&R for weary city folk. These days it is predominantly Uzbeks from the sweltering cities of Kyrgyzstan’s southern basin – Jalal-Abad and Osh – that come to stay. There is local sightseeing too – a scenic waterfall against the backdrop of a ravine lies quite close to the village centre. When I first visited this eight years ago, there were almost no visitors and little to be seen apart from plummeting water against a rugged rock face; the votive rags tied to the branches of a tree above the waterfall, the only evidence of human interest. Now things are rather different: a dust-cloud of lumbering Toyotas ferries visitors up from the bazaar where, after paying a token entrance fee, they pass through a phalanx of makeshift wooden stalls en route to the falls. The stalls sell all manner of tourist tat – plastic trinkets, cheap jewellery, carved wooden souvenir eagles and lions, souvenir Astanbap (Arslanbob) hats, medicinal mountain herbs in cellophane packets, lengths of fruit leather like seaweed and ‘I heart Islam’ T-shirts.IMG_9225IMG_9280It is easy enough to escape though. Take the path beyond the falls and the tawdry commercialisation swiftly drops away as a dazzling landscape reveals itself – towering snow-capped peaks, emerald pastures and farmhouses peeping through poplars on steep ridges. To the east and south extends a vast green swathe of walnut forest that stretches sublimely to vanishing point. Just two minutes beyond the falls the only sounds to be heard are those of running water, rustling leaves, birdsong, a distant complaining donkey and perhaps the woody squeak of a horse-drawn plough. All is transformed, and this is a heart-gladdening landscape to behold.IMG_9304IMG_9446Having struggled up to the Holy Rock before (at 2,900 metres elevation it lies at 1,600 metres above the upper part of the village), a long walk through the walnut forest seemed the sensible thing to do this time round. I set out with two German cyclists and a local guide from the uppermost part of the village, our starting point reached by means of a redoubtable ex-Soviet Army UAZ, which, although uncomfortable, you feel could go almost anywhere with a skilled driver and plenty of vigorous wheel twisting. From our dropping-off point a shady woodland path runs all the way to the settlement of Dashman in the heart of the forest. Along the way, we enjoy the unparalleled dappled sunlight – perfect camouflage for the green, yellow and black of golden orioles (which, sadly, we don’t manage to see). Here and there we pass through clearings filled with flowers – clary, marjoram, orchids, bugloss and tall yellow daisy-like blooms whose names we will never know.IMG_9530IMG_9554Dashman could hardly be described as a village, more just a scattered collection of houses each with its own bit of land in a clearing. This isolated settlement was, however, once home to displaced Chechens, uprooted and displaced from their Caucasus homeland by Stalin during World War II. The Chechens have long gone (one solitary Chechen remained in Arslanbob I was told, ‘a good man but too much drinking problem’) and now the houses are occupied by a handful of locals who keep animals to graze in the forest. There is a crossroads of tracks close to Dashman. Today it was a quiet place, with just a woman out fetching water, a beautiful blonde-maned horse wafting flies way and the liquid song of a blackbird trilling from the bushes. But it was at this very same location, our guide told us, that things came alive during the September walnut harvest. Many villagers would come from Arslanbob to camp here for a few days, gathering nuts by day and celebrating and socialising by night. There would be music, dance and laughter; traders from Arslanbob would set up temporary stalls; shashlyk would be grilled, much chai would be consumed. Naturally enough, the main currency of exchange would not be Kyrgyz som or US dollars but freshly harvested walnuts: a timely opportunity for nature’s bounty to show its true worth and for just a brief few days turn capitalism on its head.IMG_9573IMG_9563IMG_9510