Saturday, October 22, 2016

Travels in Kyrgyzstan: Arslanbob

After a couple of days in Osh I went off to Arslanbob, a village north of Jalalabad where a lot of Kyrgyz vacation in the summer, which is turning into a bit of a draw for foreign visitors as well. The area's main attraction is a huge walnut forest near the village, which happens to be the largest walnut grove on earth. Other than that, there are also a couple of waterfalls that attract both tourists and pilgrims. Getting to Arslanbob from Osh involved taking a marshrutka for four hours. We rolled through a typical Central Asian scenery made up of majestic, scarcely inhabited plains and mountains, which in some places started to resemble the surface of the moon. The other passengers were curious about me, but as usual the language barrier kept meaningful communication to a minimum.

The scenery on the road from Osh to Jalalabad
At Arslanbob there is a tourist office that organizes homestays for foreign visitors. We arrived in the village's main square, and as soon as I had gotten off the marshrutka I was approached by a man who asked me in English if I needed any help. He turned out to be the man in charge of the tourist office. Whether he hangs around the main square all day waiting for a tourist to arrive, or whether he had been warned of my arrival by the driver, or even by my guesthouse back in Osh, I do not know. The village is mainly inhabited by Uzbeks, and it is quite conservative, as I could see from the veils worn by all the local women. The tourist office organized for me to stay with a local family for the night, in exchange for 700 som (about 8 euros). I stayed with a family made up of an elderly couple who looked quite picturesque, the man wearing a traditional hat and trimmed beard and the woman wearing a veil, and their son who must have been in his early twenties. They also had a cow.

The conditions in the home I stayed in reminded me of the Chinese countryside, especially the toilet, which was a basically a hole in the ground surrounded by a wall. At night it got cold, but luckily the room I stayed in was equipped with an electric heater. Unlike in the Chinese countryside, in this place you were supposed to take your shoes off when indoors, so as not to spoil the carpets. This is the norm throughout the region. I was served a very nice dinner of stewed meat and potatoes and naan bread, which I had to eat in the traditional Kyrgyz manners, in other words sitting on a raised platform under the table, rather than on a chair. It strikes me that in all of China's neighbouring countries people tend to sit on a flat surface when eating, and only the Chinese will always sits on chairs.

Aslanbab's main square

The house where I stayed

My breakfast

My guide

The next morning I went back to the tourist office, where I was assigned a local guide to show me the area's sites. My guide turned out to be a friendly young man who spoke a reasonable amount of English. He led me out of the village and up a mountain path. On the way I saw an incredibly depressing Soviet-era fun fair, which in the summer is apparently filled with holidaymakers. As we went further up the scenery became strikingly Alpine. Kyrgyzstan is after all known as the Switzerland of Central Asia. After a long trek up the side of a mountain, we got to the area's main waterfall, which was indeed quite impressive. We then climbed back down and walked towards the famed walnut forest. On the way we picked up and eat an awful lot of walnuts. The forest was dotted with local families living in tents. Apparently when it is time to harvest the walnuts a lot of locals move to the forest and live in a tent for a month, in good nomadic tradition.

A family of seasonal nomads

While walking through the forest we had an unpleasant run-in with a bunch of policemen vacationing in the area. It was a group of well-built men on a pick-up truck who all carried very visible guns in holsters, although they were not in uniform and were clearly off-duty. When they saw me they immediately took an interest in us. They invited me over to their truck and offered me a shot of vodka, which I dared not refuse, and spoke to me in extremely rudimentary English. My guide made a big show of shaking hands with each one of them, but he was clearly uncomfortable, and they were clearly pushing their weight around. I wonder if there was also an ethnic issue involved, since the policemen were outsiders who had the Mongol features of the Kyrgyz, while my guide like most locals was a more Middle Eastern-looking Uzbek. I was afraid they were going to look for an excuse to extort a bribe out of me, but in the end they left us alone.

Afterwards my guide told me how uncomfortable they had made him, and that he could tell they were not good news. He told me that the police in Kyrgyzstan are very corrupt, but that it was much better under Stalin(!) In those days, apparently, the police knew how to stay in their places. Before going to Central Asia I had read numerous horror stories about foreigners getting harassed by policemen looking for an excuse to receive a bribe. I am glad to say I never had to pay any bribes either in Kazakhstan or in Kyrgyzstan, and the closest I came to having any trouble with the authorities was that experience in the forest, which made me see how the local police can be unpleasant and overbearing.

After getting out of the walnut forest we made our way back to the village, where I ate lunch in the only local restaurant, a tiny hole in the wall place serving only chicken and naan bread. Then I hitched a ride in a private car to Jalalabad, where I got a marshrutka back to Osh.

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