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Kyrgyzstan’s Wild Walnut Woods

Kyrgyzstan’s Wild Walnut Woods

Chris Aslan is an author who has lived and worked across Central Asia. In Kyrgyzstan, he lived in the world’s largest natural walnut wood and established a wood-carving workshop.

The first time I visit the world’s largest wild walnut wood, I’m struck by how at home I feel, as if this were a woodland somewhere in Britain rather than in South Kyrgyzstan, I’m also pretty sure that I would not do well in these woods at night, particularly on my own. As we move deeper into the forest, the trees are much older, with gnarled and bulging trunks, twisted branches and pocked with dark holes, these trees feel almost sentient, as if they might move a step closer to you when your back is turned. And that’s in daylight.

Some of the trees are badly scarred, savaged at their base.

“This is where the bolls were cut out,” explains Ibrahim, my Uzbek guide. “Some, over a century ago. The bolls are those bulges you can see on some of the other trees, that are now all labelled, numbered and protected.”

“Why were they taken?”

“The grains of the wood are totally different, and they were used for making the butts of rifles, but now, luxury car manufactures want them for their dashboards. It’s forbidden to gouge them out, but they’re worth a lot of money, so it’s a temptation.”

Nor is it the only temptation. Ibrahim is from the village of Arslanbob, nestled in a valley with the walnut woods to one side, and the soaring 3000 metre peaks of Baba Tasha sweeping up behind it. Arslanbob boasts not one but two waterfalls, including the longest one in Central Asia. In summer it is a bucolic paradise. In winter – as I learn when I move there – it’s another matter entirely. Houses are poorly insulated and its not unusual for Arslanbob to get a metre of snow at a time. Coal is expensive and bad-quality, so people resort to pillaging the wild walnut woods, even though this isn’t allowed. Despite various padlocked gates designed to control the ancient jeeps – some actually from the Second World War era – there are ways and means for smugglers to cart off wood from the forest.

They usually collect fallen branches, rather than illegally felling trees, but another major issue is that cows graze in the forest. During harvest time, they’ll race you to a freshly fallen nut, happy to eat the whole thing, husk and all. But the main issue is that they eat new saplings, which means the forest is struggling to replenish itself. I’ve seen maps of how enormous the forest was, seventy or eighty years ago. It’s now a fraction of its former size.

Above the forest, evidence of what happens without trees and bushes to anchor the topsoil in place, is in worrying evidence. The meadows are as close-clipped by cows and horses as a grass tennis court, so that when the heavy rains come in late spring, there are mudslides and erosion.

“That’s one reason why tourism is so important to us,” says Ibrahim. “Tourist dollars give people decent incomes so that we don’t resort to over-grazing or de-forestation.”

I see evidence of illegal logging in the winter woodpiles inside most villager’s gardens. Picking up a log destined for burning, I marvel at the heft and the grain of this beautiful hardwood, and decide that I’d like to do something about it. We start a woodcarving workshop, hoping that young men will learn the value of this wood when it’s turned into something beautiful and long-lasting, providing an income that means less wood is chopped down for fuel.

Wood-carving, along with school and everything else, shuts down in Arslanbob in September. The village empties out as the villagers decamp to the forest. Most villagers have rental rights to a particular section of the woods, and they’re allowed to harvest the walnuts there. I’m invited to help Otkirbek, the son of one of my neighbours, and soon find myself jolting along the dirt tracks in an ancient vehicle which can only take ten litres of fuel at a time, which means that we’re surrounded by old vegetable-oil bottles filled with petrol.

Otkirbek ducks down. “That’s my teacher over there, with the bucket of nuts,” he says as we pass one encampment. It turns out that Otkirbek is bunking off school.

“Well, isn’t your teacher bunking off school as well?” I point out.

Some people have modern tents, others have Soviet-era ones, or permanent bivouacs over which they tie plastic sheeting. That’s what we do when we arrive at his. There’s a mud-stove outside designed for our cooking pot to fit perfectly, and we lay down fresh straw inside the bivouac and then put down our sleeping mats.

I go for a wander. For the most part, there’s just the peaceful rustling of cows and horses munching on the fallen leaves and nuzzling the ground in search of nuts. That’s until Otkirbek shimmies up a thirty-metre-high tree, almost effortlessly, and holds onto one branch whilst walking out along another, stamping it with a foot as nuts cascade down in a patter, and his sister and I rush to find them before the cows do. Three years ago, his father fell and broke his leg. Every year there are injuries, but the boys still climb to dizzying heights and seem impervious to fear. It doesn’t take long to fill our buckets and then decant them into sacks.

That evening, after his father and sister have left, we sit by the fire removing the nutshells from their husks. Green husk juice soon stains our hands black and turns our finger nails bright orange. This doesn’t come out, and it’s only months later that I finally grow out the last tip of coloured nail.

Ibrahim told me that Alexander the Great is reputed to have come to Arslanbob. He was based in what is now Khujand, at the mouth of the Fergana Valley, and sent his troops out on reconnaissance. One group discovered these forests, full of nuts and game, and dawdled, eventually getting snowed in for the winter. They were able to hunt and forage and the following spring returned to Alexander and told him of the paradise they’d found. He then sent their wounded soldiers there to recuperate. According to Ibrahim, it was Alexander who took walnuts back to Europe with him, which is why they’re called Alexander nuts in some languages.

Otkirbek will be staying on for two weeks, but after a couple of days I need to get back to work, and I’m fairly keen on having a shower. Before I cadge a ride with another ancient jeep, Otkirbek gives me a bucket of nuts to say thanks for helping, and I leave well-laden, just like Alexander’s soldiers.

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA

Read more from Chris Aslan

Unravelling the Silk Road: Travels and Textiles in Central Asia
Three textile roads tangle their way through Central Asia. At this intersection of human history, fortunes were made and lost through shimmering silks, life-giving felts and gossamer cottons. Chris Aslan expertly unravels the strands of this tangled history and embroiders them with his own experiences of life in the heart of Asia.

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