Nestled in a lush valley of Kyrgyzstan’s Chatkal mountain range lies the village of Arslanbob, home to both the world’s largest natural walnut forest and a legend, the truth of which is harder to crack than the nut itself.
“This is a secret,” said Roma Tohtarov, a guide with the village’s Community Based Tourism (CBT) organization, before continuing: “During the Soviet times, Red Army soldiers came with saws and cut down a large number of walnut trees and sent them to Rolls-Royce in England to be used to decorate the inside of their cars. Mr. Churchill had seen a piece of wood from here before the war, and asked Stalin for some wood in exchange for weapons.”
Verification of the story proves elusive; the luxury car manufacturer did not reply to questions and the story does not appear in any public records.
But it is an example of the kind of legend that villagers have passed on through the generations about the forest. Such is the central importance that walnut trees play in Arslanbob.
Hugging the 6,500-foot-high slopes in the shadow of the Babash-Ata mountains, the sprawling, ethnically Uzbek village is home to 16,000 people, most of whom have livelihoods that revolve around the annual harvest of the walnuts.
The snow-capped peaks of the Chatkal mountain range. All photos by Peter Ford.
Families spend the long winters extracting the nuts from their soft outer covers and cracking the hard shells. Pretty much everyone, old and young, is involved in the process.
“Full nuts we sell, broken ones are made into oil—we rub it on our skin in winter to keep warm,” explained Tohtarov. “Of course, we also eat them,” he added, “but by the end of autumn everyone has eaten too many and are sick of them.”
Fortunately, there is a wide international market for walnuts not consumed locally. According to the United Nation’s trade statistics database UN Comtrade, 1,200 tons of walnuts were exported by Kyrgyzstan in 2016, worth $2 million.
They come from a forest that spreads east and west of Arslanbob in a confusing network of trails that weave through the dark green of the forest, punctured by patches of grass pasture and blossoming wild apple trees.