The legend goes something like this…
Arslanbob-Ata, a disciple of the Prophet Mohamed, embarked on an ambitiously vague quest to find a ‘heavenly place on Earth’. That journey led him east to a small valley in what is now Kyrgyzstan. Finding the place beautiful, but lacking vegetation, he beseeched the Prophet for assistance. He was given seeds of many kinds, including those for walnut trees. He walked into the nearby hills and scattered the gifts to and fro, planting the seeds for what would become the largest walnut grove in the world–now measuring 11,000 hectares.
By many accounts, Alexander the Great was so taken with the walnuts, he had some sent back to Greece–introducing walnuts to the Western world, where they are sometimes referred to as ‘Greek’ nuts.
Today, the town of Arslanbob bears the name of the inspired traveler, and relies on the massive walnut grove for its sustenance.
The grove is massive and covers the hillsides along the valley. Dirt roads wind through ancient, gnarled trunks while green grass carpets the forest floor. The contrast from the dusty, dry terrain of the non-forested hillsides is stark.
Families either own their own plots of forest or rent one from the Forest Cooperative for periods of up to 5 years. Some families, like my host family, rent their plots of land out to others. During that time, the renters are able to harvest whatever nuts the trees yield.
In September, much of the town heads into the hills for the harvest. Entire families will often go up, setting up a small tent, a cooking pit, and even swings for the children.
Many of the nuts fall to the ground of their own accord, but waiting can be a tedious task. While walking through the forest with another traveler, I heard what sounded like a tree falling. Looking up, we spotted a man at least 20 meters up a tree shaking the branches, causing a deluge of walnuts to pelt the forest floor. His wife and daughter stood to the side, presumably beseeching God for his safety.
I assumed he had some sort of harness–even a rope–but was shocked when he slid down the tree trunk as casually as I used to slide down the 6 ft. pole at the playground. Brushing himself off, he gathered up some nuts and brought them over to us. We thanked him and complimented his insane climbing ability before moving on.
After knocking the nuts to the ground, the harvesters gather them and lay them out on tarps in the sun. This is to dry the nuts, trading a bitter taste for the familiar nuttiness walnut lovers expect.
I learned an interesting tidbit from Abdullajan. Apparently, the Forest Cooperative requires a 5 kg ‘tribute’ of sorts. It’s not uncommon for families to satisfy this requirement with a bag full of undried nuts, bitter and with a little extra water-weight. Sneaky.