In the Djalalabad region of Southern Kyrgyzstan, at the foot of the Babash Ata Mountain, lies the village of Arslanbob surrounded by an enormous walnut grove—the world’s largest. For centuries, this grove has been providing for the residents of this ancient village, now numbering some 13,000.
Every autumn, nearly three thousand families that make up Arslanbob leave their homes and head into the mountains’ south-facing slopes where walnut trees grow. For the next two months, this forest becomes their home. Living in makeshift shelters each and every able member of the family, young and old, engage themselves to the task of collecting walnuts, only returning every few days to deposit their harvest and restock provisions. The whole event has a carnival-like feel, with people sharing food and gathering around campfires to sing and share stories.
The walnut grove in Arslanbob. Photo: Teow Cek Chuan/Shutterstock.com
Arslanbob’ grove produces between 1,000 to 1,500 tons of walnuts each year, making it the largest single natural source of walnuts on earth. Renowned for their dark kernels and rich flavor, Arlanbob’s walnuts are regarded as some of the world’s best, and are very popular among buyers in Europe and across Asia. The walnut tree has a life span of about 1,000 years and yields large amount of fruits. Walnut trees also make fine wood for furniture.
Legend has it that the seeds that gave rise to this wonderful resource was planted by a disciple of Prophet Mohamed, to whom the Prophet had entrusted the responsibility of finding a suitable place to plant a forest. After travelling far and wide, the trusted disciple reached Arslanbob, where he decided to scatter the seeds.
A different legend associate the grove to Alexander the Great. According to this story, Alexander was on his way to East Asia when he decided to take shelter in the valley. Wounded and weary, Alexander’s army rested and hunted in these forests before resuming their long journey back to Europe, with their pockets filled with walnuts. Greece’s first walnut forests is said to have sprung from these walnuts.
Harvest season begins in late September or early October, with families moving into the mountain groves along with their cattle. The grove is sprawled over an area of roughly 27,000 acres. This is divided into plots of several hectares each, which the families rent from the local forest department. Within this area the family can gather walnuts.
Harvesting walnuts from trees. Photo: Andrea Kirkby/Flickr
A family in front of their temporary shelter in the walnut forest.
A walnut tree can grow up to a hundred feet tall and trunks up to 6 feet thick. The men of the family including young boys climb the trees and vigorously shake the branches, while the women and children collect the fallen nuts. On a good year one family can harvest two to three tons.
But over the years, Arslanbob’s walnut harvest has fallen due to a combination of factors such as climate change, soil erosion from the overgrazing of cattle and unseasonal rains and snow.
“The collection of nuts is a very unreliable income. In 10 years, there will probably only be three or four good walnut crops,” a former forester from Arslanbob told Outpost Magazine.
“The breakup of the Soviet Union 20 years ago has greatly reduced employment opportunities in the region,” he explains. “Nothing was left, other than to go to the woods and fields to take care of the families.”
Looking for walnuts.
A temporary dwelling in the forest.
Summer pastures of Arslanbob. Photo: Sathish J/Flickr
# BBC, http://www.bbc.com/travel/gallery/20191126-the-worlds-largest-walnut-harvest
# Outpost Magazine, https://outpostmagazine.com/kyrgyzstan-arslanbob-forest-walnuts-way-life/
# Roads and Kingdoms, https://roadsandkingdoms.com/2017/inside-the-worlds-largest-walnut-forest/
# Lonely Planet, https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/life-among-walnuts-the-ancient-forests-of-kyrgyzstan