A Journey through Kyrgyzstan
– The Road to Aslan-Bob
I said farewell to my friends at Baazar Koran, in the south, close to the Uzbek border. We had been together since I had arrived in Bishkek two weeks earlier. A year previous I had bumped into Matthew and Sherin at a Ceildh Collective in Edinburgh. They lived and worked in Bishkek and if I ever came to Kyrgyzstan they would be happy to be my guide.
We had spent several wonderful days together, attending a Kyrgyz wedding in Mayluu-Suu. They were to travel on to Jalal-Abad and Osh, the city of the great 3 tiered yurt. I would rejoin Almash and Anara (also wedding guests) in Jalal-Abad, once I had explored Aslan-Bob and the mighty walnut forests of Central Asia.
Before I found a shared taxi it was time for Chi (always the Green China Tea). It became very hot, very quickly, in the early part of the day, and it was always time for chi and opportunities to take in the landscape and the daily comings and goings. I chose one of the many yurts offering green tea and honey along the roadside. Quite often on travels and journeys one sees much more by sitting quietly amidst the hub-bub and watching the world pass before your eyes. Men on horses, young boys on horses, donkey carts laden with house high loads of hay, or mountains of tomatoes, onions and water melons. It was harvest time, the snow peaked mountains, (95% of the country is mountainous) looked down on the fertile plains and everyone seemed to be busy. The taxi drivers toting for business…“Jalal-Abad, Osh, Bishkek!” They would take you anywhere any distance. It had taken us 10 hours to travel from Bishkek to Myluu-Suu for £10 per person. Petrol is 25p per litre. It seemed that the whole country is mobilized in taxis and all of them have smashed windscreens.
The village air was thick with charcoal smoke coming from street vendors wafting the shish-lak barbeques, there were women stirring wooden barrels of fermented mare’s milk and nomadic travelers taking bowls of fragrant burning charcoals among the passers by, offering good health and greetings. An elderly blind, musician, playing the national 3 stringed Komuz lute was being escorted by a young lad between all the busy stalls. He attracted great respect as many approached him, offering money which they put into his bag. It filled very quickly.
Within seconds of leaving the roadside yurt-café I was ushered into a mini-bus, already full of children, women and an old man wearing an Uzbek hat.
“Aslan-Bob?” We were off, maneuvering our way out of the town, horns sounding, toward the distant snow capped mountains.
The road out of Baazar-Koran was lined with pollarded Mulberry trees. A corridor of white washed trees grown for its harvest of leaves which feed the silk worm grubs in the spring…and beyond the trees on each side of the road, fields of sunflowers and ripening maize.
It was a lively ride, everyone wanted to know my age, and how many children I had and delighted that I had travelled from Scotland. Oh, they certainly knew all about the kilt, and, “why hadn’t I brought mine?” Every few miles we passed the all too familiar truck stop yurt restaurant, sometimes as many as 10 lining each side of the road. All with their outside, raised eating places, like big double beds, covered in shyrdak felt carpets and a low eating table on the top. The yurts themselves looked quite often dilapidated and shabby with the dust and constant traffic flow, but inside they were like little palaces, decorated with colourful wall carpets and woven bands and giant tassels, hanging from the red burgundy stained rafters. Then there were the abundant fruit and vegetable stalls shaded by willow, birches, ash and oak and more mulberries.
Everywhere you look in Kyrgyzstan there is water. Torrents of turquoise glacier melt water flow over rocky river beds which help to irrigate the plains, villages and towns, and cool the cities. They flow from the melting glaciers, 4,000 metres high in the mountains but even here, global warming is increasingly having an impact on the environment. The glaciers are melting too quickly.
As the mini bus begins to ascend gradually towards the walnut forests, a pair of red-tailed kite’s flashes across the road and out over the plains of scrub and farmland. A hoopoe hops in and out between hobbled legs of roadside horses. The hot dusty air is soon cooled by a refreshing breeze as we turn off the main road and begin to climb along a treacherous, pot-holed riven road. We were often brought to a halt by flocks of sheep, droves of cows and horses, been driven to fresher pastures. Children begin school at seven and the younger ones are often seen herding with their fathers and uncles and grandfathers on their own horses.
Despite its remoteness the countryside is teeming with life. Colourful costumes worn by the women, the variety of men’s hats and children in natty school uniforms, boys in black suits with bow ties and girls wearing typical Russian pom-poms in their hair, added to the awe inspiring scenery. Then there were the bee-hives. Often hundreds together on the back of big trailers, ready to be taken off to another location.
Finally we arrive at the square of the mountain village of Aslan-Bob. Time for chi. It’s not long until I find, across the river, the Chai-Khana Chinor which has been serving Green Tea and delicious honey, complete with half a dozen waggling bees, for centuries.
It is Ramadan and eating takes place before sunrise and after and sunset, but later that night I was in for a treat. At Ramadan the lamb is sacrificed, and of course there is always Vodka at celebrations. Come to think of it vodka seems to flow as liberally as the melted glaciers; even at breakfast, especially when there is a bit of lamb left over.
Asalan-Bob is surrounded by a back drop of high steep faced mountains amidst thousands of acres of walnut forests. Each tree as high and mighty as our oak trees. Further up the track, out of the village I settled on an old blue weathered boarded Russian holiday chalet, with an outside shower, for £1.50 a night. It was surrounded by the mighty walnut trees and gardens of cosmos, dahlias and roses. Once I was refreshed I was called out of my hut by a group of Uzbek guys who had come up from the town for a weekend camp out. Just a good excuse to bar-b-que, and drink vodka. Soon we were laughing and joking together wearing each others hats and not understanding a single word. Great fun. A goat was led out of the back of their truck and we all lent a hand to prepare the beast for supper.
It was hard to get away for a wander up the hill to explore. It was even harder to amble my way up the path. With a muzzy head I left them to their drinking and smoking and promised to meet up for supper.
Coming down the dusty track came an old Russian motorbike, fully laden with youths, their beaming smiles showed mouths fully laden with gold teeth. The motorbike slid and skidded by me in a cloud of dust, pinging pebbles from its wheels. I soon approached the first trees of the walnut forest and was immediately bombarded by a cascade of hard green fruits.
A villager with his whole family was out climbing the trees and shaking the branches to gather the walnuts. Seeing their black hands I realized then the reason why everyone I had seen along the road and in the village had black stained hands. I helped them gather and they rewarded me with fistfuls and pockets loaded with walnuts.
I knew that my adventures were soon to come to an end. It seemed fitting to take these gifts and later that evening to celebrate a meal, of a young goat, with a bunch of guys out for the weekend to enjoy the forest.