“Welcome, welcome! I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long, please have a seat.” said the man before me as he removed his cap and coat. Hayat was a middle-aged man with a designer stubble that would make George Clooney proud. He had cheery wrinkled eyes and gold teeth that winked out to me when he smiled.
“How long have you been in Kyrgyzstan?” he asked.
“Almost two weeks now,” was my reply. “But I spent most of my time in the city and up north horse-trekking near the lakes.”
“Then you are going to love Arslanbob. Here we have walnut forests, waterfalls and long, lovely hikes through the countryside. Come now, let’s take a look at where you will be staying.”
Community Based Tourism
Hayat is the local coordinator of the Community Based Tourism program, CBT for short. What is CBT? It is an excellent network of sustainable tourism initiatives set up in Kyrgyzstan. Instead of staying in hotels, tourists are put up in the homes of local people. In each town or village, a local CBT office exists where the coordinator would liaise with arriving tourists and accommodate them in homes. The whole process is professionally done. Prices for lodging and food are fixed no matter which house you stay. Additionally, local activities like trekking and horse-riding led by experienced guides can be organised for reasonable prices. As a result, everyone ends up with a positive experience: The local people benefit from the additional income source, and tourists get an authentic introduction to Kyrgyz life.
Hayat motioned me to the opposite side of his sparse office, where pictures of various locals’ homes have been put up on the wall. Each one showed the interior of a local villager’s house. Some were labeled 1 star, others 2 stars. The distance of the home from the office was indicated. I was to pick from one of these 18 houses and stay there for the next couple of nights. But which?
He noticed my hesitation and came to the rescue: “Houses number 3 and 8 are near the trailhead to the waterfalls, the owner of house no.10 speaks German. The two star homes are slightly more expensive, but they have banyas.” Banyas? I looked at him blankly.
“Russian saunas”, he helpfully added. I shrugged.
“Or how about house 14? The wife is a very good cook.” Good food? Yes please. I may be ten months and five thousand kilometers away from home, but the Singaporean in me still gets excited at the mention of good food.
And so I ended up in the Nazigul family home for the next couple of nights. My room was simple but clean, luxurious by Kyrgyz standards. The family spoke little English, but were determined to ensure I had a good stay. I was introduced to Nazigul’s adorable young son, and she prepared a light welcome lunch for me, before I set off to explore the area.
Arslanbob, the largest walnut forest on earth
Arslanbob is a small town nestled at the foot of the Ferghana Mountains, in southern Kyrgyzstan. The word ‘Arslan’ translates to lion and indeed a statue of a lion sits in the town center. Arslanbob’s population of 1500 are mostly ethnic Uzbeks. Its main claim to fame is that at its doorstep is the largest single walnut forest in the world, at around 600 square kilometers, which is huge! Compare that to the size of Singapore, around 700 square kilometres. Alexander the Great was said to have travelled to this very region and brought the walnuts back to Europe. Every September, locals would come out to gather walnuts, a social and carnival atmosphere set on the 1600 metre high slopes of the valley.
I wandered around Arslanbob town and followed the trail leading into the nearest walnut grove, carrying with me a rough hand-drawn map and instructions from Hayat telling me how to get there. Looking out for signs indicating the way, the only one I saw was a crude drawing of a deer with the words “водапад” scrawled in Russian above it. I later found out it translates to “Waterfall”. Kyrgyzstan was part of the former Soviet Republic and many people speak Russian as the second language. Even the Kirgiz language is written using the cyrillic alphabet.
I need not worry about getting lost though. Walking past houses on the outskirts of town, the occupants helpfully pointed out the way. And it was clear when I reached the walnut grove. The trees spread out over a huge expanse, reaching up to 30 meters into the sky and extending their branches to create a shady forest canopy, creating a fairy-tale like atmosphere. They grow for up to 1000 years, and provide ample walnuts and wood for Kyrgyzstan.
Beyond the walnut grove the trail led to the waterfall that the sign mentioned. There are actually two waterfalls around Arslanbob, locally known as Small Waterfall and Big Waterfall. They are said to have magical healing powers and give the visitor blessings. I visited both the 23 meter high Small Waterfall and the much larger 80 meter Big Waterfall. Truth be told, the waterfalls while spectacular were not the highlights of hiking in Arslanbob. It was the rolling hills with grazing horses, the up-close encounter with a calf feeding as its mother looks on, the meeting with donkey-riding villagers on their way home who insisted on having their pictures taken with you. All simple moments that make the hike enjoyable. And I did get lost on the hikes on the second day, several times in fact. But the scenery was so beautiful that each time I was hardly bothered. I simply retraced my steps after admiring the scenery.
The way to experience Arslanbob is to sit back, enjoy the fresh air and sunny weather amid snow-capped mountains, and just soak in the surroundings. Indeed, what Hayat said when I first met him had come true. I was in love with Arslanbob.
Singapore Airlines, Emirates,China Southern and Turkish Airlines offer flights (with one stopover) from Singapore to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Arslanbob is easily accessible by bus or taxi from the nearby cities of Osh and Jalalabad. If taking a bus, you will need to change buses at Bazar Korgon.
■ Kyrgyzstan is visa free for most nationalities, including Singaporeans. Some parts of the country are more conservative than others. In Arslanbob, the village is mainly a traditional Uzbek community, so dressing conservatively is a good idea.
■ There are 17 CBT offices throughout Kyrgyzstan. The one in the Bishkek is particularly helpful to get you started with your travels in Kyrgyzstan. They will helpfully provide advice and brochures of places of interest. CBT’s website is http://www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg
■ The hikes around Arslanbob are easy and can be done on your own. The Big Waterfall hike is a four hour return trip from town. If you have more time, you can organise 4 day guided treks with CBT to the Holy Lake, a beautiful alpine lake that lies over mountain passes.
■ Go to Arslanbob during walnut season in September to mingle to with local people as they collect the harvest. You will find your pockets full of walnuts offered by locals. Or you can try going during the winter months when the local CBT offers skiing on the slopes as an activity.