There is a town named Arslanbob in western Kyrgyzstan, 70 km from the border of Uzbekistan. This town with a population of thirteen thousand is situated in a fertile valley among the hills of Babaash Ata. Two natural waterfalls in spring and summer tempt the tourists here, but the most unique thing here is in the autumn. And it’s Walnut.
There is a large-scale migration from Arslanbob in September every year. About 3000 families leave their homes here and move towards the southern slopes of the mountain spread over 385 square kilometers.
Well, this walnut forest is situated hardly at a distance of an hour’s walk from the village of Arslanbob. On a major scale; this forest is the largest producer of walnuts in the world. The walnut forest in Arslanbob produces one thousand to fifteen hundred tons of walnuts every year, which is the largest single source of walnuts in the world. Walnuts here are dark-colored. Also, they are famous for their taste and being in a pest-free environment. These nuts are sent to Europe and all over Asia.
How did such a big forest of walnuts come here? It is part of folklore fables.
According to some people, this story is related to Prophet Mohammad [Peace be Upon Him], who gave nut seeds to a gardener and asked him to go to the forest and that gardener reached Arslanbob lastly after a long journey. In the foothills of the snow-clad mountain peaks, he found a place where the weather was very pleasant.
There were rivers of clear water and the land was fertile, so the gardener planted the seeds over there as the land was pretty fertile. After centuries, walnut forests were ready and began to bear nut fruits there.
Tales to tell about Alexander the Great
Another fable from the natives is that most of the walnut trees in Europe have been from the forests of Arslanbob.
Two thousand years ago Alexander the Great spread them. According to this story, when Alexander’s army was marching towards East Asia, it stopped in this valley. Some soldiers could not go forward due to the wounds received in the war, so all of them had rested there in the valley which was almost a kilometer away from the Arslanbob. This place is now called Yardar. Yardar literally means wounded in the Uzbek language.
A few months later, those soldiers became fit and joined Alexander’s army again. Soldiers found walnuts, apples and other fruits in abundance in the forest while resting. After eating them, they got recovered immediately and reported to the commander in chief.
In a result, Alexander was so happy that during his return to Europe he took walnut seeds from Arslanbob and got them planted in Greece. Yet, a tale to tell and enjoy. But how much true… God knows the best.
Beginning of the harvesting
According to the crop cycle, the nut crops get ready by the beginning of the month of October. But Arslanbob’s family starts moving towards the mountain forest from mid-September. They take their cattle along with them. These people walk and collect walnuts from local trees. Up to 20 kg of walnuts come in their bags approximately.
According to the local law, the forest land is the property of the forest department, but Arslanbob’s families are allowed to rent several hectares of land. For two months, these families live in the camps here and work in the fields.
Before the harvest is ready, they offer a chicken sacrifice or sacrifice a small animal as a part of their devotion and worship rituals.
There are many walnut trees here which are centuries old. According to agricultural scientists, these walnut trees can live up to a thousand years and their stem diameter can be up to 2 meters.
Tree climbers job
The way of taking nut crops can be quite dangerous. Without a rope or any security arrangements, the head of the family or another male member starts climbing the trees. Ascending, they reach the topmost branch. Moving upwards, the climbers shake the branches forcefully, causing the walnuts to break and fall down, and women and children pick them and gather them.
Not all families have tree climbers, so they seek professional’s help. These professionals charge a nominal fee but the risk in their work is very high.
According to the local forest department, at least one person dies every year after falling from a walnut tree. Oh! That’s very scary certainly. What my advice is, they could have stretched a big net or fabric around the trees to catch the fallen climber at least. Isn’t it?
Nut picker children
All the family members work during the harvest season. Very young children stay in the village with grandparents from Monday to Friday to go to school. On weekends, their parents come to the village and take the children on a horse and take them to the forest.
Children contribute a great deal in nut deposits. They are very helpful in choosing the walnuts that fall between the leaves.
According to the coordinator, Khayatila Tarikov of a local community tourism organization says that the children accumulate more walnuts than their parents.
If the crop is good then the family, renting 3 hectares of land can have a better collection up to 300 kg walnuts.
Lifestyle in the forest of Arslanbob
A local lady of Arslanbob- Muhabbet Temirova loves walnut season. In the autumn, she generally gets the opportunity to live in the forest. Every morning after extracting the cow milk, she boils it. Then under the chestnut tree, sits down to eat breakfast of homemade bread, fruits, and fresh cream.
Although walnut is the main reason for coming to the forest, most families also cultivate potatoes. They pluck the apples and leave the cattle open to grazing fresh grass before the winter season begins. If anyone visits those families at that time period, he/she can easily witness their lifestyle in the forest and can even watch them using the wood stove to cook their food. They eat milk-curd and drink tea along with the pear, pishta, apple, almond and walnut found in the forest.
Before morning tea, the whole family goes to pick the walnuts that have fallen in the night. The rest of the morning is spent working in potato fields. And in the afternoon, the family goes out to relax and children listen to stories. The whole family then goes again to pick walnuts before the sunsets. People go to sleep early after having dinner.
Nuts regulation exchange
In walnut season, shopkeepers take walnuts instead of money. Nut farmers buy food and household items in exchange for cultivated walnut crops. Children buy chocolates, cakes and ice cream in exchange for crops, the received from family to enjoy.
There are 11 types of walnuts available in Arslanbob. The larger its grains are, the better the price is. Peeled walnuts are costlier than the non-peeled walnuts. In the local markets, it can cost up to 500 Kyrgyzstani Som ($ 7.16). Many customers buy walnuts in bulk and export them to places like Turkey, Russia, China, and Europe. The cost of reaching foreign customers can be up to three times higher.
Farmer families also keep walnuts for themselves. They make walnut-milk from it or prepare Zanskar, a traditional Kyrgyz dessert with butter and honey.
Conservation efforts going on
Due to the efforts of the native of Arslanbob and its Forest Department as well, walnut forests have survived for centuries.
When a family takes a land lease here, its duration can be up to 49 years. People give their best walnut seeds to the forest department to plant them in the nursery and in the forest so that new trees can be prepared. The local ranger’s permission is required too to cut the dry branches and there is a fix fine for cutting trees without permission.
But the future of these walnut trees is uncertain. Due to climate change, unseasonal rains, snowfall and cattle grazing, the soil harvesting got decreased in the last several years. In search of employment, local youths are going to cities, due to which the number of nut farmers is also decreasing.
The local government has enacted laws for environmental protection and in collaboration with the United Nations; scientists are now running educational workshops in which people are told that by leaving some walnuts on the trees itself, the forests will be saved for a long time, God Willingly.
Community Party Tradition of end harvesting
After the two months of harvest are over, all families have a tradition of having a feast in which neighbors are invited.
Depending on how good the crops have been, hens or sheep/lambs are sacrificed to celebrate. Along with this sacrificial food, the feast includes salads, fruits, bread, tea, sweets, yogurt, and fresh cream. Moreover, traditional casserole and lamb meat [Uzbeki Pulao] are included too.
After the banquet, guests pray for the much betterment of the crops, next year too.
Source: BBC Travel