The little village of Arslanbob is nestled in the valleys that wind their way down the West side of Kyrgyzstan, towards the Uzbekistan border. The land is mountainous and lush, with rivers and streams gushing and trickling down the hills from all directions - the veins and arteries pulsing through Kyrgyzstan.
Arslanbob valley is most famous for its huge walnut forest. So plentiful are the walnuts here, that Kyrgyzstan's first export to Europe was the walnut. Locals lease a plot of the forest for five years and then harvest and sell the nuts and fruits from the land.
Harvesting nuts and fruits
Nuts, or more specifically, the walnut forest is the main attraction here and yet we end up staying at a guesthouse that couldn't have been further from the start of the forest trail. To walk would have probably taken about 2 hours up a pretty steep hill leaving from the village square - we got about an hour in before a lovely family took pity on us.
Hitchhiking is a thing in Kyrgyzstan so we stuck our thumbs out and sure enough, 2 minutes later, we’re standing at the back of an open truck, the wind in our faces while we bump along and hold on for dear life. Mum and Dad (not mine!) sitting inside while we ride out back with their two boys. An American we'd meet the day later did a similar thing but shared with some cows, so this was basically luxury!
After about 15 minutes, the road flattens out and we enter the forest onto a set of mud tracks. The leaves of the trees are turning orange and brown and it all looks so marvellously autumnal.
When the truck stops, we all jump out as the Dad points and tells us the panoramic view is that way. They then start to walk the opposite way and I linger for a few moments too long. At this moment a short game of charades ensues where they motion picking fruit and I motion that perhaps, we could join them. They look bemused but shrug as a yes, and their little family doubles in size for the day.
We help with the walnut harvesting to start with. First we watch, then we learn, then we do. Well, that was the plan except the doing goes really badly. There is a knack to it, as well as starting with the right tools.
And the youngest boy in the family, Ahmad, knows how to choose his tools. His sticks seem perfectly suited and his aim exact. Each throw brings down a dozen or so walnuts that he swiftly throws into his blue plastic bag.
Mike and I manage to successfully collect a handful between us. I’m delighted.
We all then move onto apple picking. They manoeuvre their little truck under the little apple trees and the whole family clambers up to pick the apples. The tree is left bare within 20 minutes.
Satisfied with their yield for the morning, they pull back a blanket in the truck to reveal a teapot, some wire, bread and some cups. Then they pop on the kettle (collect sticks and dry leaves and start a fire from scratch while using the wire to dangle the pot over) and we sit with Dad, Chaldal, for a nice cuppa. This sums up Kyrgyz hospitality. It always involves tea and bread. It’s a lovely moment. We chat through the app, Yandex, about jobs and marriage. The usual.
Eventually, we say our thanks and goodbyes and head off to the panoramic view we’d come to see.
We walk about 1.5 km away before we hear ‘Mr, Mr’ and see Ahmad and Chaldar chasing after us, Mike sunglasses in hand. They’d both run down a massive hill to catch us up. They couldn’t have done more for us that day and it was such a perfect way to spend some time.
Pears and a new pair of pants
Arslanbob, day 2 and we experience yet more hospitality. We’re climbing the same hill from
the day before but with a different destination in mind. Today we’re walking to a small waterfall pretty nearby. We make it this time with our own fair feet.
As we’re walking up, I’m distracted by three babushkas sitting in the sunshine in front of an open gate, squatting on their back heels, scarfs held over their heads to protect their sun from their eyes. We say hello and remark how lovely the garden behind the gate is, taking a photo and giving an enthusiastic thumbs up.
And that is all it takes. We’re swiftly invited in for chai (tea) and bread, and a delicious homemade honey that’s so thick, it's unspreadable, giving me the excuse to eat it directly from the bowl with a spoon. A younger woman is called over and everyone gathers around. I'm not sure who is more excited by this spontaneous girls get together.
We have three generations all together. The younger woman (Houra) is our age and she has three children. Then her mother sits opposite and babushka or Grandma also joins. They don’t eat anything but like all great mothers and grannies around the world, they make sure that our tummies are full. I have a full on honey high by the end - even my teeth are fuzzy.
After eating bread, we go on our merry way but not before we’ve been gifted pears - a dozen of them! They’re delicious, straight from the tree and very juicy.
Houra tells us to stop by again on the way home in a few hours. I don’t need to be invited twice and of course stop in again. These are the interactions I love and the things I remember more than anything else from travelling days.
When we stop by a second time, I’m ushered and shooed into a room on the opposite side of the street. Inside, rolls of fabrics are lined up on one side of a room and there are bits of elastic and all sorts of frills, lace and other decorative ribbons on the floor. Some other ladies from the village start to gather at the door. Whispering commences and news spreads fast as other heads start to peer around the doorframe.
I’m told to pick a fabric and within five minutes, Houra has measured me up, cut the fabric, sewn the fabric and sewed in the elastic at the top. I’m delighted and the fit is great.
It was a bit like that scene from Cinderella and, although I still wasn’t quite ready for the ball, it was an improvement that my wardrobe (backpack) was thankful for!