The mountain village of Arslanbob, which lies at over 1,700 metres, up the southwestern slopes of the Fergana range, about 90 kilometres from Jalal-Abad, is almost exclusively Uzbek. The large, sprawling village of Arslanbob serves as the market centre for the entire region as well as a summer resort with a gentle climate. Arslanbob is an elevated oasis, a vast tract of blossoming woodland and home to the largest walnut grove on earth (11,000 hectares) and part of the even larger (60,000 hectare) walnut forest that extends between the spurs of the Fergana and Chatkal ranges. The high mountains and verdant valleys of Arslanbob are a quite literal breath of fresh air for any traveller jaded by the rigours of the Ferghana Valley.
Clear rushing waterfalls, subdued silvers, autumnal reds and dense groves of ancient walnut trees all lead up to the towering rock wall of the Bagbash Ata Mountains, sheer and gnarled, capped by snow and ice. Uzbek farmers tend grids of beehives, Kyrgyz shepherds lead their flocks up to high, lonely pastures and grazing horses roam the hills freely. Arslanbob is indeed one of the few places still able to realize the ideal of an untouched, Utopian, turn-of-the- century rural Turkestan, as depicted by Paul Nazarrof in his book Hunted:
The red tint of the soil harmonises with the green of the fields and the forest, and the deep blue of the sky with the white fleecy clouds. The whole scene offers an enchanting picture of nature unspoilt, and this escape into the depths of the mountain country, away from communist experiments, brought peace and consolation to my aching soul.
The village, which is sometimes referred to as Arstanbap, its Uzbek name, is named after an 11th-century hero known as Arslanbob-Ata (or Arstanbap-Ata), whom legend suggests may have been an Arab, as his name can be interpreted as deriving from aslan (lion) and hab (gate) in that language, the suffix - ata meaning 'father of' in various Turkic languages, so Arslanbob-Ata means 'father of the lion gate'. Another explanation of the name may be due to the tradition in the Fergana Valley at that time of adding -bob to someone's name if they were a traveller and explorer.
Arslanbob's actual name was Salman Abdul Rahman, a scientist and military leader who is credited with planting the vast walnut forest that is central to the region's economy. Legend tells of an honest, hardworking man who had been given the task by the Prophet Mohammed of finding a paradise on earth. He eventually came across a beautiful valley with a swift-flowing mountain river flowing through it but no trees. Reporting this to the Prophet, he was issued with a bag of walnuts and Arslanbob climbed to the top of a mountain and cast the seed in every direction to create a shady garden, which he tended until he died. The name of Babash-Ata, the mountain peak that dominates the village to the north, reflects this, meaning 'father of the garden'.
Beautiful as this legend is, it does not quite match the millennia-long presence of vast walnut forests in the region. Walnuts are known in Russian as gretski or 'Greek nuts' because they were said to have been sent back to Greece from Alexander the Great's campaign to central Asia; whether or not this is true, the forests certainly pre-date the 11th century. The walnuts of the area have always been highly prized and were one of the goods transported west along the Silk Road when it was in its prime.
The minute you enter Arslanbob, you know you're in a different culture: the men wear the traditional Uzbek skullcap instead of the Kyrgyz kalpak. Elderly men in long white beards stand chatting in groups, wearing knee-length coats, coloured scarves around their waists and call-high leather boots, even in the heat of summer. In winter they just slip on a pair of galoshi, like a Wellington boot cut off at the ankle.
Unlike Kyrgyz women, who only adopt a headscarf upon marriage, virtually all Uzbek women and even quite young girls wear them. As is common in a more devout Muslim society, the women and girls also wear narrow-legged trousers under their dresses for greater modesty. In Arslanbob many women also darken their eyebrows, creating a long thick slash that meets in the middle. For all its air of being locked in sleepy tradition, however, social change is affecting Arslanbob: unmarried young women with a particularly modern outlook are leaving their scarves at home and going bare-headed. Nevertheless Arslanbob is still a conservative village so visitors should dress appropriately; don’t walk around in shorts and tank tops.
By Kyrgyzstan standards, Arslanbob is considered to be a conservative place due to its isolation, its predominantly Uzbek population and its religious associations - there are several sites in the vicinity of the village that are considered holy by local Muslims. The atmosphere of the village is extremely friendly and relaxed as long as visitors adopt reasonably modest dress. Many of the older men - the aksakals of the village - wear traditional Uzbek clothing and most women sport headscarves, but this cultural conservatism is tempered by traditional Islamic hospitality, which welcomes visitors with a warm smile.
Because of their long association with this mountainous region many of the Uzbek inhabitants of Arslanbob see themselves as a little different from their brothers in the lower reaches of the Fergana Valley. There is a popular belief that they have an input of Kazakh blood in the mix, as one of Arslanbob's grandfathers is said to have married a Kazakh woman. The woman's father, Sultan Bulak, gave his name to the local spring that he lived near. Many say that the Uzbeks here look far more Kazakh than those in the nearby lowlands of the Fergana Valley. All of the villagers claim to be descended from Arslanbob, their common ancestor, and say that those living in Arslanbob today represent the 26th, 27th and 28th generations.
What is without doubt is that they are all immensely proud of their village and its distinct traditions. The village's founder, Arslanbob-Ata, did well when he was sent off to find an earthly paradise by the Prophet; looking at Arslanbob, it would seem that his mission was entirely successful.
Other reasons to include Arslanbob on your itinerary are its superb setting. Jalal-Abad oblast's greatest natural treasure is its ancient forest of wild walnut and other fruit and nut trees, of which the biggest is located around Arslanbob. The route to the village is a mouth-watering vista of walnut, apple, almond, plum and pistachio and other trees. A fully-grown walnut tree is an impressive sight: given ideal conditions it can reach 30 metres in height and its trunk can swell to about two metres in diameter.
Local gastronomic specialities include wonderful blueberries and honey (assal in Kyrgyz), as well as the famous walnuts from which the valley gets its Kyrgyz name, 'King of the Forests'.
Whether you’ve come by bus or taxi, you’ll probably be dropped off at the main square by the lion statue. The little-used bus station is downhill from the square. From the statue the road continues uphill, branching left to the turbaza (former Soviet holiday camp) and right to the upper waterfall. Behind the town are the wall-like Babash-Ata Mountains and a raft of trekking opportunities. On the other side of the square is a bridge spanning a rocky stream. Over the bridge are the town’s cafes, a (summer only) bazaar and the local mosque.
From mid-September the town undergoes a mass exodus when locals move into the forest and go nuts. Each year 1500 tonnes of walnuts (and 5000 tonnes of apples, pistachios and cherry plums) are harvested in the Arslanbob Valley and by all accounts gathering nuts is fun. Tradition dictates that during the harvest each family kill a sheep and share the meat with their neighbours. The fire-lit autumn nights are a time to sing songs, retell stories and eat way too much greasy mutton.
Spring and autumn are, however, the most beautiful seasons to visit Arslanbob, although you should be prepared to be self-sufficient at these times. In winter the entire region is blanketed in a metre of snow.
History - The nuts of Arslanbob are somewhat of a misnomer. While native to Central Asia they originated in Malaysia and somehow, many thousands of years ago, spread to this isolated valley. Locals will tell you this was the work of a modest gardener, charged by the Prophet Mohammed (SAV) with finding paradise on earth. He travelled through many lands until he stumbled upon a picturesque valley, framed by mountains, watered by mountain rivers but lacking in trees. Delighted with this discovery, the Prophet sent him a bag of fruit and nut seeds which the hero scattered from a mountaintop.
By the time Alexander the Great led his troops to these parts the forests were already locally famous as hunting grounds. On his return to Greece he took with him the humble Kyrgyz walnut, from which European plantations were founded; hence the walnut is commonly, but mistakenly, referred to as the ‘Greek nut’.
Getting There & Away - Arslanbob lies about 70km north of Jalal-Abad and is reached by way of the town of Bazar-Korgon at the lower end of the Kara-Unkiir valley. The village, which sits at the head of a valley on the lower slopes of the 4,427m-high Babash-Ata mountain, has a mean altitude of around 1,600m above sea level, although it spreads so far up and down the valley from its centre that upper parts of the village are several hundred metres higher than this, and the lower parts several hundred less.
Arslanbob is usually reached from Jalal-Abad by way of a change in Bazar-Korgon. To reach Arslanbob, first go to Bazaar Korgon (just off the main Bishkek–Osh highway) and grab a shared taxi (45 minutes), which depart when full. Leaving Arslanbob, get a taxi from the main square back down to Bazaar Korgon where taxis head to Jalal-Abad, Osh, Tashkomur and Bishkek. Note that Bazaar Korgon is about 3km off the main road, so if possible try to get a direct to/from Arslanbob that avoids this town.
From Bazar-Korgon bus station there is also a small bus to Arslanbob that leaves hourly through the day, taking 2 hours. In Arslanbob, they stop by the lion statue in the main square. The bus station is a little further down the steep road that leads into the village. To reach Kyzyl-Unkur, the main village in the next valley to the east, from Arslanbob requires changing buses at the village of Oogon-Talaa, where the road to Arslanbob joins the Kara- Unktir valley; however, the buses that pass here are likely to be very full.