IN WESTERN KYRGYZSTAN, not far from the Uzbekistan border, you will find a bumpy dirt road. For hours that road will bounce you up and into a narrowing valley, where you’ll slowly approach a wall of mountains. There at the base of the mountains, the road ends. And you’ll find yourself in a remote but surprisingly bustling market town: Arslanbob.
Arslanbob is a place verging on the mythical. It’s surrounded by striking scenery; a sacred Muslim site associated with the Prophet himself; home to a massive and unique forest, and a diverse population of beautiful people who consider themselves culturally unique from other Central Asians.
And what a fine job Bob did: This is now the largest walnut grove in the world.
“We are not Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, or Tajik,” says Hayat, a friendly man with sparkling aqua eyes. He operates the wonderfully useful Community Based Tourism (CBT) office, and hooked me up with a homestay family.
“It’s said that around the 11th century, an Arab man came here. His name was Arslanbob-Ata. Some say he was a general; others, a king. Many say he was a servant of the prophet Mohammad.”
“But all we know for sure, is that he was a good gardener.”
Even the name of this man, Arslanbob-Ata, is a puzzle. It appears to be a mashup of Arabic and Turkic words, and likely means “Father of the Lion Gate”.
Today in Arslanbob the suffix ‘bob’ means “a traveller or explorer” – likely due to their founding father.
When Arslanbob-Ata (henceforth known as ‘Arslan-Bob’) arrived here in the 11th century he built hundreds of kilometres of irrigation channels, which fed walnut forests. And what a fine job he did: This is now the largest walnut grove in the world.
“Decades or even centuries after Arslan-Bob’s death,” Hayat continued, “a young Muslim mullah had a vision. The mullah saw Arslan-Bob’s spirit, and it asked him to build a memorial here in his honour.”
But there was a small problem.
“He lived very far – perhaps in Bukhara. He journeyed for months to come here. When he finally arrived, he completed his mission, building the memorial. He then stayed in Arslanbob maintaining that memorial for the rest of his life. We are the 28th generation since that mullah.”
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WITH AN EXCELLENT CBT program, waterfalls, mountain biking trails, and enormous mountains attracting hikers and mountaineers it’s more than just walnuts that thrive in Arslanbob.
Sadly I had to leave too soon. As I reluctantly carried my pack through town towards the bus stop, engulfed by a blizzard of cottonwood fluff, I couldn’t resist an idea. That despite seeing the place with my own eyes; walking it with my own feet; and hearing people’s stories with my own ears, Arslanbob would still remain in my memory, a myth.
[The town may be mythical, but these photos are not. Scroll down, and click to view full-screen. Pro tip: Use your arrow keys to navigate between images]
[Correction: In the original post, I said walnuts were native to Malaysia. This is incorrect; they originated in Persia. Apologies.]