Arslanbob (Written and pronounced in Kyrgyz as “Arstanbap”) is one of the most famous places in Kyrgyzstan. Arslanbob (Kyrgyz: Арстанбаб – Arstanbab; Russian: Арсланбоб; Uzbek: Arslonbob) is the name of the large wild walnut (Juglans regia) forest, but is also the name of the big Uzbek village nestled right at the base of some of the most spectacular mountains in Kyrgyzstan in addition to the similarly named sub district, valley, and mountain range all located in the Jalal-Abad Region of Kyrgyzstan. The vast tracts of lush green woodland with nut and fruit trees in the valley of the River Arslanbob are actually the largest of their kind in the world. This scenery combined with some of the best guesthouses in Kyrgyzstan make it one of the places not to miss on any visit to Central Asia. The fairy-tale walnut forest of Arslanbob in southern Kyrgyzstan is a year-round destination for hiking, skiing, horse riding and food enthusiasts. The suffix ‘Bob’ is commonly used in the region meaning “a traveler and explorer”; so COME be a ‘Bob’ to Arslanbob!
Kyrgyz-Travel is now happy to offer tours that include hiking, horse riding, sightseeing, and photography of the quaint village and beautiful surrounding orchards, caves and waterfalls. For trekking and horse riding, anywhere between April and October works, but late September or October is the best time to go if you like walnuts! Locals coming back from the harvest will load you up with walnuts, and it’s the time when many other fruits are ripe for picking. You will also be welcomed to lend a hand in the harvest, if that’s your style.
Walking in autumn through the lights and shadows of Arslanbob Walnut Forest is an unforgettable experience you shouldn’t miss. The trees are massive and old and it makes fun joining the locals searching for the nuts. Many describe that this place seems to be lost in times so take your time here to listen to the afternoon breeze. There are very limited marked paths, so hiring us to guide you or make sure to get some good explanations from locals (language permitting!) is essential. Aside from the active hiking options, it is just a wonderful place to be, to sit on the doorstep and watch time pass by with a pot of tea within easy reach. The dense shade of the walnut forest is great for a leisurely walk in high summer, picking up some raspberries along the way, possibly spotting a raccoon, a deer or a lost donkey. For those who wish their walks a bit more strenuous, there is plenty of opportunity for that as well.
Arslanbob Walnut Forest
In addition to the 1,500 tons of walnuts harvested in the Arslanbob valley, 5,000 tons of apples, pistachio and cherry plums are also picked. Various wild forms of other fruit-bearing trees including apples, pears, and plums also grow in this National Reserve of Kyrgyzstan. People are grateful for these generous gifts of nature and seek to preserve their source. Already for many years the Arslanbob area (which some call the “King of Forests” in Kyrgyzstan), has been a forest zone protected by the state and the land leased by many families. The walnut, Juglans regia, is native to a wide region in Central Asia, but most of it has disappeared over centuries of development.
In addition to the nuts themselves, which are rich in nutrients, walnut wood is a valuable commodity and is used in the manufacturing of furniture and other wood crafting projects. Recent deforestation (for the timber, despite the fact that the forests are protected by law) has been very controversial. The whole region is like an orchard and boasts much different variety of fruits. The trees can live to about 1000 years old, and with their dome shaped crowns atop two meter thick trunks, can reach a height of 30 meters. The walnut trees are found growing wild on mountain slopes and along river banks at an altitude of between 1000 and 1800 meters above Sea Level. Walnuts were Kyrgyzstan’s first known export to Europe!
The walnut groves are within the 60,000 hectares (150,000 acres) of forest situated between the Fergana and Chatkal Mountains. The walnut forest is located at altitudes varying between 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) and 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) above sea level on the Fergana range’s south-facing slopes. At 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres), the Arslanbob woodland is the largest walnut grove on Earth. Arslanbob’s grove produces 1,500 tonnes of walnuts per year and is the largest single natural source of walnuts on Earth. It is considered a treasure of the southern forests of Kyrgyzstan as the trees have a life span of about 1000 years and yield large amount of fruits known for their medicinal qualities as the walnuts contain contains vitamins, microelements and other nutrients.
The economic activity of the town likewise centers around the walnut. In the walnut season, which lasts for one month during September, the villagers of Arslanbob and other neighboring villages engage themselves in collecting the nut. For this purpose, they rent a small plot of land for a fee on a five-year lease from the Forest Department. They collect the nuts, fruits and the wood. It is also an occasion of social rejoicing. Walnuts are priced high as they are a source of “oil, protein, anti-oxidants and omega 3 fatty acids.”
Inhabited by some of the friendliest people in all of Kyrgyzstan, this village in a picturesque setting is one of the must-see places for any visitor to southern Kyrgyzstan. Arslanbob is an ethnically Uzbek village in the mountains north of Jalalabad nestled under the snowy cliffs of Mount Babash Ata (4,427 m) while the town itself lies at 1700 meters above sea level. Tourism is still young and being developed in and around Arslanbob city. While trekking is a fairly well established activity to the nearby hills and valleys; visiting the walnut wood land by walking through the village up to the red cliffs has become the most popular tourist attraction during the warm summer season. The Arslanbob River flows down the middle of the quaint village of about 15,000 people (11,291 in 2009) which are unanimously Uzbek (less than 5% of the population here is ethnically Kyrgyz or Russian). The village is a traditional Muslim community and conservative dress is a good idea. Climbing to the top of the village there is a ТурБаза (“tour baza”_ here dating from Soviet times when the village was a popular center for various activities. This Turbaza still maintains a beautiful park with some cafes, gift stands, and bizarrely a discotheque popular for dancing with local schoolkids. In town there is a Community Based Tourism (CBT) office which we use to provide accommodation and other services. The village stretches a long way up the valley, resting on the hillsides – giving many of the houses spectacular views.
Arslanbob is so photogenic, everywhere you turn there is a moment waiting to be captured. In the small village square is a statue of a lion. Nearby is a new mosque. A shrine (tomb) to Ibn Abbas, now in ruins, is near the forest. There is also the Arstanbap-Aty mausoleum (dating from the 15th century), also known as the mazar (shrine or tomb) is near the center of the village. A new brick building, painted white, surrounds it and was built in the 20th century. The entrance to this tomb is made of a walnut wood door frame and decorated with ram’s horns. There is also a new mosque adjoining the tomb which has an impressive ceiling. The center of the tariqat of the indigenous Sufi order of the Hairy Ishans, and offshoot of Yasawiya is in the city of Arslanbob.
The hospitality of people in Arslanbob is renowned in Kyrgyzstan. The homestays are the best in the country and they’ve been winning awards from CBT for years. Sadly, indications are that the services and hospitality levels have started slipping recently as some tourists unluckily reported that the quality of services, the food in particular, has dropped. However, you will likely experience traditional Uzbek hospitality and be fed mountains of food. The majority of home-stays take excellent care of their visitors and we at Kyrgyz-Travel are committed to finding the very best host families for our guests!
The combination of rain, dirt roads, and boulders, means that most of the roads after the town center are less identifiable as roads and more as steep piles of boulders with tracks in them. Upon initial arrival many tourists are shocked that these roads are still used by motorized vehicles, but locals rely on these roads daily to get around. Now if you had thought the roads in town were bad, the roads to the trailhead are so bad that even hiking them takes courage. A few skids sideways, and you might think you are about to roll over and down the hill so hire drivers with caution.
Trekking around Arslanbob
The village itself is OK but the nearby mountains are the major attraction. There is a big choice of treks but the most popular one, takes four days. The hike passes by Holy Rock then goes over the Friendship Pass to Holy Lake etc.
The trek is visually one of the most spectacular; however, this is a moderate to hard trek and might not be everyone’s preference. It may even involve gentle rock climbing at one stage as some guides avoid the route directly up the pass which involves no rock climbing. The amount of the steep ups and downs is phenomenal for such a short trek. This could be extended to a five or even six day trek if you want a slower pace. There are 25 guides affiliated to Arslanbob’s CBT, but only five are willing to take the trekkers up Friendship Pass, that tells you a lot about the trek.
This trek probably shouldn’t be the first one of your holidays; get to certain levels of fitness elsewhere before coming to Arslanbob. What especially stands out on this trek are the snow-tipped peaks of the Babash Ata massif, the rolling green jailoos typical of much of Kyrgyzstan, and the blue-green alpine Holy Lakes. The lakes are a major pilgrimage spot for villagers so there is a fair amount of activity on the shore and a lot of picnics anywhere in nature. However, beyond the occasional slaughtering of sheep it is difficult to ascertain any real religious ritual occurring. Another beautiful 3-day trek on foot or on horseback is the way to Ortok, the lesser-known cousin of Arslanbob.
Within easy walking distance of the village center is a small waterfall (about 23 meters or 75 ft tall) and in the cliff opposite is a small cave. There are many souvenir sellers just before entering this grotto, also known as the “Cave of Forty Angels”. Locals believe these two prayer caves are where a holy woman used to live and people would come to her and make petitions. A little further off in a tougher climb with a slippery scree slope is a much larger but narrower waterfall, (actually it is split into two sections of 60 meters and 80 meters) that drops an impressive 260 feet.
These are both frequented by visitors seeking holy blessings, magical and spiritual powers. The area around the falls is adorned with prayer flags and wish rags; one was frequented by a holy woman. The walks to the waterfalls are also great for picnickers and you will see many locals stopped aside the paths with bountiful spreads on sunny weekends.
There are some pretty great signs for most of the hikes, and most locals know where you need to go. From the center of town, follow signs to Турбаза (Turbaza) and Чоң водопад (Chong Vodapad) to get to the big waterfall. The big waterfall is around 4 hour hike round trip with the last part a bit of a bouldering exercise. For the small waterfall and the forest, from the center, go towards the bazaar and turn left and follow the road uphill until the sign that says “Small waterfall.” It is reached by a path leading up behind the mosque. At the waterfall, you can walk down to the base of the waterfall and up the other side, or stay to the left on the hillside to continue into the forest. Note that both waterfalls have a small entry fee.
One man, the charismatic Hayat, is turning Arslanbob’s green hills into a winter ski touring and alpine skiing destination. Snowboarding and skiing as adventure sports are under initial stages of development near the Jailoo mountains and special events like the Arslanbob Ski Challenge are becoming yearly events. Some ski aficionados have written reports on what it’s like to ski there. Since there are no ski lifts, some mountain hiking is necessary if you want to reach good slopes. If you are not up for long hikes and staying in an unheated mountain hut at the top, easy cross-country skiing or snow shoe walking into the walnut forest is another option. The snow should be good from October to March, but December and January are the best, as the sun is not so strong and the slopes are less likely to be sun-baked, which means the snow will be better. If you plan to go alpine skiing, beware that this is a pioneering destination and safety measures are low: at any point a pointy rock sticking out of the snow may do you damage, so if you are prone to falling, you should be extra careful. Also, as one blogger in 2010 put it, “it seems that rain is not uncommon, punctuality is not emphasized and the ski skills of the guides is still developing.”
As in many places in Kyrgyzstan, the legends surrounding the origins of places like Arslanbob phenomena are as fascinating as the natural views are beautiful. Arslanbob is likely named after an 11th-century figure, Arslanbob-Ata (alternate: Arstanbap-Ata). He may have been of Arab descent since in Arabic, Aslan (think “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” of C.S. Lewis fame) translates as “lion”, and bab to “gate”, while in Turkic languages (including Kyrgyz), ata means “father of”. People believe that this etymological “Father of the Lion Gate” hero met his death nearby as he was betrayed by his wife to his enemies. His footprints, handprints and bloodstains are said to be still visible at the spot.
Another legend determined that Alexander the Great once led his troops to Arslanbob and planted the first walnut trees there (some historical accounts show that the local walnut forests were already being foraged during his reign). Others say Alexander the Great completed his campaign to the east in Central Asia at Arslanbob and decided to return home. He took with him fruits and nuts grown in the forests and carried several sacks of walnuts with him which he had used to pay boatmen to ferry his troops back to Greece. Alexander the Great took the walnuts from Sogdiana, and these formed the European plantations. So that is how the walnut from the Kyrgyz Mountains appeared in Greece, and it has since been known as the “Greek nut” in many parts of the world. In Russian, for example, the word walnut is nicknamed “Gretski”, which means “Greek” nuts.
Yet, another legend tells of a modest and earnest, hardworking man charged by the prophet Muhammed with finding a heavenly paradise on earth. This explorer traveled through many lands until he found this picturesque valley with a foaming mountain river in Kyrgyzstan, but which lacked trees. Inspired by his reports, the prophet sent his disciple a bag of seeds of many different types of fruit tree – including, of course, the walnut tree. The hero climbed to the top of a mountain and spread the seeds over the valley transforming it into a “garden” which he tended for many years. Because of this association with the Prophet Mohamed, Muslims consider this place as sacred and you will see many cloths tied to trees with spiritual significance to the sojourners.
The competing legends spring up because it is not exactly clear how the trees actually arrived here; they probably originated in Malaysia. Nuts from the area were exported along the Silk Road in its heyday.