This warm province in the south of the country borders the greatest valley oasis in Central Asia, the Fergana valley, which stretches more than 300 kilometres in length and 150 kilometres in width and extends over the borders of three republics: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The province is bordered to the east by the 200-kilometre long Fergana range, to the north by the 120-kilometre long Chatkal range and to the south by the Pamirs, and has a huge variety of landscapes from deserts and semi-arid regions to mountainous steppes; from thick forests (including its famous walnut groves) to mountainous tundra, while high above soar the eternal glaciers and snowy peaks of its mountains.
Like neighbouring Osh oblast, Jalal-Abad has played host to travellers, traders and tourists for thousands of years, although there is little visible archaeological evidence left of this long history, either in its modern capital or in the surrounding area. One of Kyrgyzstan's main Silk Route branches passed through Jalal-Abad, attracting trading caravans carrying precious silk from China, sweets and dyes from India, handmade silverwork from Iran, and lazurite from Badakhshan.
Kyrgyzstan's west-central province, Jalal-Abad, with its capital of the same name, is one of the most varied in the country in geographical terms. It has several mountain ranges, lakes and vast areas of broad-leaved woodland, and in the south, where the province lies on the northern fringe of the Fergana Valley, arable farming is extensive. The province covers 33,700km in total and with a population of a little less than a million it has a population density of 29 per km2 overall, slightly above the national average and about the same as West Virginia in the USA.
Its economy is based on agriculture, in which cotton, maize, wheat and tobacco are all important products, and the mining of minerals, coal and metals; oil and natural gas are also important resources, as is water, with the Toktogul hydro- electricity station producing the lion's share of the country's power supply, as well as providing neighbouring countries with electricity. The climate is generally warm and dry in summer with temperatures peaking above 40°C on occasion. Rainfall is fairly low but adequate, at about 450mm per year.
The temperate climate and fertile soil means the province grows a big proportion of the nation's fruit and vegetables. Enormous fields of tobacco, sunflowers and cotton stretch around villages whose markets are piled high with all kinds of fruit-melons, figs, plums, pomegranates, oranges, apples-and a huge variety of vegetables in summer. With so much food all around, it's hard to believe that unemployment and poverty are such big problems here.
Jalal-Abad Province has some of the most intriguing and beautiful destinations for visitors in the entire country: the marvellous gallery of 4,000-year-old petroglyphs high on a mountain top at Saimaluu-Tash ; the jewel-like alpine lake of Sary-Chelek surrounded by forests of wild fruit trees; and the remarkable walnut forests around the entirely Uzbek town of Arslanbob. In the extreme southwest corner of the oblast in the inaccessible Chatkal valley is the Besh-Aral State Reserve. The provincial capital of Jalal-Abad has a largely Uzbek character and makes for a pleasant stopover en route to Osh.
The oblast was incorporated into the Osh region in 1959 but its borders were restored in 1990. Its capital, Jalal-Abad, lies in the foothills of the Fergana mountain range at an altitude of 764 metres above sea level. Like Osh, temperatures are much warmer here than elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, averaging only minus 4°C to minus 10°C in winter and up to 40°C or 43°C in July on a bad day.
The mighty Naryn river flows through Jalal-Abad, playing a vital role in the province's hydroelectricity industry. Coal is mined in Jalal-Abad's hills, which are also full of hot mineral springs (there are said to be about 50 in total). But one of its greatest natural treasures is undoubtedly its ancient forests of wild fruit and nut trees, which are scattered across 230,000 hectares of land. Its 60,000 hectares of walnut groves are particularly important. They grow at an altitude of 800-1200 metres above sea level, and also contain apple, cherry plum, pistachio and almond trees. Alexander the Great is said to have passed this way, taking specimens of the walnut trees. In Russian, walnuts are known as 'Greek nuts'.
The population of Jalal-Abad oblast is around 870,000 and is one of the most mixed in the country, comprising about two-thirds Uzbek, most of whom have lived here for generations. The remainder are Kyrgyz, Russians, Ukranians, Tajiks, Uighurs, Azerbaijanis and Germans. This rich ethnic mix is more conservative and devoutly Muslim than in northern Kyrgyzstan and people tend to marry earlier and have bigger families here. For that reason you should not wear skimpy or revealing clothing in the south: bare chests, singlets and shorts are really not acceptable.