Arslanbob is a wonderful place to simply be. Just to sit on the doorstep and watch time pass by with a pot of tea within easy reach. To amble through the village streets and strike up a conversation with passers-by. To look closely, without distractions, at a rivulet running past.
A great place to recover for a bit if you have been traveling for a few weeks already and you need some time to do little of consequence. Get to know a small place at a slow pace. Because Arslanbob is situated at an altitude, in summer it offers cool relief from the stifling heat of Osh and the Ferghana Valley.
If you are looking to get active, the forest on Arslanbob’s doorstep is still the world’s largest source of walnuts. You can spend several days hiking, skiing or botanizing through the forest and the mountains around. Or you can visit one of the other villages in the forest that are not tourism-oriented.
About the forest and its people
The walnut trees dwarfed any I had ever seen before, even in France or Italy. Some were as much as ninety or a hundred feet tall, and most were sixty feet, all with immense, sculptured trunks. Beneath the canopy, the wood felt airy and open like wood pasture, with little sunny glades and paths, and a great sweep of silver-grey trunk before the first branches between fifteen and twenty feet off the ground.
Beneath the cathedral of great walnut trees an understorey of wild apples, cherry plums and the sweet fruiting hawthorn, Crataegus ponticus, grew in thickets and clearings. Everywhere in the woods we heard the sound of scuffed dry leaves and the thunder of nuts drumming to the ground in sudden cascades.
Roger Deakin – Wildwood
The walnut forest of southern Kyrgyzstan has been around for 1000 years, some stands 2000 years at the most. They were most likely planted. This means the famous story of Alexander the Great taking the walnut home to spread around the world is false (like 99% of Alexander the Great stories you hear in Central Asia).
According to another local story, the walnut forests were established under the leadership of Arslan-Bop, the legendary founder of the village, who died in 1120. This coincides neatly with the information scientists have gleaned from carbon dating.
About 10 000 people camp out in the forests of the Ferghana Valley for several weeks in autumn to collect the walnuts. The harvest is an essential feature of their lives, economically and culturally. For many, it’s the best time of the year; a kind of family holiday where you get to spend time with friends and family away from home, earning some much-needed cash as a bonus. Besides picking walnuts, they gather wild apples and cherry plums for jam, and all manner of berries and medicinal herbs.
The size of the forest is under debate, but everyone is clear about the fact that it is shrinking. The main issues are cattle grazing and haymaking, but collecting nuts, hunting, gathering firewood and timber, as well as climate change all reduce the ability of the forest to regenerate.
This is a problem, because local people depend on the forest as a source of food, money and leisure. The forest also works as a giant sponge to absorb the rains and even out the flow of water through the many mountain rivers. Without the forest roots to hold the soil together, and trees to take up water, landslides and floods are set to increase. The climate of the whole valley will alter too, deprived of the humidity of the woods and the leaves of walnuts precipitating dew and rain.
The forest is also home to wild varieties of rose, honeysuckle and pear, and a variety of forest fauna that will disappear along with it.
When to go
Late September – early 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 also 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.
For skiing, December and January have the best snow, but February can still be good too. For trekking and horse riding, anywhere between April and October is good.
Things to do
Perhaps the top thing to do in Arslanbob. The town has a lot of homestays that know how to bridge the potentially awkward gap between traditional hospitality and the commercial reality underpinning the homestay system.
The pleasant summer temperatures in Arslanbob’s shaded gardens combined with the mountains of food you will be expected to eat make a weary traveler prone to extended afternoon naps.
Arslanbob is also a tourist hotspot for locals from the Ferghana Valley, especially Uzbeks now that the borders are open again. You can meet them at the turbaza at the top of the village, which has a large theme park and an evening disco.
Two easy walks to waterfalls are great for picknickers. The small waterfall is reached by a path leading up behind the mosque. The big waterfall is around 4 hours two-way with the last part a bit of a bouldering exercise. Everybody in the village can give you directions.
If you want views, a nice full-day hike goes up to the holy rock of Babash-Ata. If you want to see more of the walnut trees, the day hike to Kyzyl-Unkur crosses the forest.
For multi-day walks, the most popular one is a 4-day loop of the Holy Lakes. In 5 days you can reach the petroglyphs of Saimaloo Tash. In 3 days you can reach Ortok. Gpx tracks for most of the hikes mentioned above can be found at Wikiloc.
This is just a sampling of ideas. Feel free to get a map and think of a route yourself.
Skiing and snowshoeing
Arslanbob is a fun place to do some ski touring in Kyrgyzstan, a mix of village charm and decent, snowy slopes. Since there are no ski lifts, all skiing is backcountry skiing by default.
Read all about it at backcountry skiing in Kyrgyzstan.
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 January is 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.
Accommodation and food
CBT is the main provider of tours and homestays for foreign tourists in Arslanbob. Just pop in to their office in the town centre and discuss your plans. There is no need to pre-book. As far as we know, even in peak season there has always been space available.
Prices revolve around 500 som for a night. Dinners tend to be a bit expensive for Kyrgyzstan’s standards (250 som), so if you want to save some money there, head to the turbaza or the ashkana in the centre of town.
Comments and questions are welcome in the CBT Arslanbob forum thread.
Transport and money
There is a direct Osh – Arslanbob minibus, leaving Osh bus station every day in the early afternoon (around 13-14) and Arslanbob in the early morning (around 7). If you don’t make that one, you need to take 3 minibuses: first from Osh to Jalal-Abad, then from Jalal-Abad to Bazar-Korgon, then to Arslanbob. Whichever way you end up going, it’s 4 to 5 hours driving and total cost will be 200 som.
Inside Arslanbob, a ride up to the turbaza costs 20 som. Prepare some cash: the bank closes on weekends and the bankomat might not take your card.
The walnut forest extends beyond Arslanbob. Pretty villages off the tourist trail are Ortok, Kara-Alma and Kyzyl Unkur. There are others as well. You can find (hastily improvised) homestay accommodation here. Very lovely.
There is little or no public transport to these villages, so if you are not hiking or coming on your own wheels, you will need to organise a taxi.