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Wallnut time in Arslanbob

Arslanbob is at the centre of the world's largest expanse of relict walnut forest. The forest, which grows at altitudes between 1,500 and 2,000m on the south-facing slopes of the Fergana range, has a high diversity of trees and shrubs that includes major species like walnut (Juglans regia) and various fruit-bearing species in their wild form such as apple (Malus siversiana), pear (Pyrus korshinsky) and plum (Prunus sogdiana).

During the walnut season, which begins in late September and lasts for about a month, most families in Arslanbob and other villages of the valley are involved in the gathering of the harvest. Walnuts are central to the village's economy; the majority of families in the valley depend on the harvest of the woods for at least part of their income, which is usually supplemented by the renting of an arable plot for growing crops like potatoes and sunflowers.

Families generally rent a territory for nut- and fruit-collecting and wood-cutting, for which they pay a percentage to the forestry authority in Arslanbob, the leshoz. Five-year contracts are issued for each territory and these come with special responsibilities, such as the planting of new trees and maintenance of old stock. If the conditions of the contract are seen to have been respected then the contract can then be extended for a further 10 years. It is up to the leshoz and its locally appointed representatives to police the forest activities and ensure there is no illegal felling or nut smuggling going on in season.

For the outside visitor, the walnut harvest is a good time to visit as it is a particularly beautiful season with cool, bright days, clear skies and turning leaves. There is also an up-beat atmosphere about the village as nut-gathering is an essentially social activity that is carried out mostly by family and friendship groups, particularly women and children. Foreign visitors to Arslanbob at this time of year will inevitably find their pockets bulging every time they go for a stroll, as they will be plied with nuts by local collectors delighted to show off their bounty by making a small gift to the visitors they come across. It would be ungracious to refuse.

Walnuts are highly prized and with good reason: they have undeniable health benefits and are a good source of oil, protein, anti-oxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. They have even been used as currency from time to time: Alexander the Great is said to have brought sacks of walnuts back from central Asia, but had to give them up en route as payment to the Greek boatmen who transported his troops. The custom may have passed down into modern times: there is an Iranian film blackboards, in which impoverished Kurdish tribesmen pay itinerant teachers in walnuts, the only thing they have that is of value to both parties. Travelling to Arslanbob on the bus from Bazar-Korgon, I saw a number of village schoolgirls doing much the same sort of thing as they paid the bus driver... with walnuts.