Finding a ride south towards our destination, Arslanbob, at Osh bazaar was straightforward enough. We wandered up to the crowd of people near the parking lot, mentioned where we were headed and were immediately ushered towards a waiting minivan. Actually GOING anywhere was another matter. We sat around being hassled by a drunk Russian man (it was before 09:00 when we arrived) for a good forty fine minutes before enough other passengers were located and we all piled into the minivan and were on our way.
The first part of the journey was one we’d done before during our trip to Suusamyr: across to Kara Balta, south up the river valley, climbing up, up, up to the Tor Ashuu pass, negotiating the narrow tunnel at the top before finally giving back the altitude we’d gained by descending down to the Suusamyr Valley.
Soon after reaching the valley floor we moved on into new territory. The Suusamyr Valley was even larger than we’d realized our first time around and we spent a good hour travelling quickly at, despite significantly different winning pelong its fertile green floor. The roadside was lined with yurts selling Kyrgyz dairy products the whole length of our trip through the valley and on up the hillsides as the we climbed to the second of the two high mountain passes on the route.
Following the pass the road descended into a narrow river gorge full of dry, sandy coloured mountains, where we stopped for lunch. From the gorge we emerged into a wider expanse of low mountains, still with dry slopes but with a big, opalescent blue lake at their feet.
The final stage of the journey took us through the flat, hot, fertile farmland of the Fergana Valley, the bread basket (and the rice basket, and the melon basket, and the cotton basket…) of Kyrgyzstan.
A two story(!) yurt in the Suusamyr Valley
Lunch stop. I had chicken soup (simple, but tasty enough), while Sarah contented herself with bread and coffee
Lake Toktogol and its nearby multi-hued hills
After about an hour in the valley (which is so wide and shallow it’s not even really identifiable as such from within.) We came to the town of Bazaar Korgon. Sarah and I were the only passengers disembarking here (everyone else was headed to Kyrgyzstan’s second city, Osh, 150km further south) so we pulled our bags out of the van, said goodbye to our driver and fellow passengers, then tried to figure out what to do next.
This was made fairly simple by the appearance of a mashrutka (public minibus) headed to our final destination a few minutes after we’d arrived.
Up in Arslanbob, the moment we stepped off the mashrutka, a man walked up and asked us if we were looking for CBT (the Community Based Tourism office.) We were indeed, and walked a couple of minutes up the street to the office where we received a tremendously warm and helpful greeting from Hayat, the CBT co-ordinator for the village.
While Community Based Tourism is a big part of the industry everywhere in Kyrgyzstan, nowhere has it come so close to reaching its full potential as in Arslanbob. The office walls were covered in maps of the region, photos of the area’s sights, a list of trips and activities that the CBT could arrange (including ski touring, mountain biking, trout fishing, trekking… the list was almost endless) and most importantly (for the moment anyway) a list of the 14 homestays in the area, with photos of each.
We picked one of the two unoccupied homestays, Hayat made a phone call and within ten minutes the owner of the home had arrived in his jeep, thus saving us the trouble of walking the 1km to our accommodation in the newly started rain.
Upon arrival at the homestay it just got better and better. Our host ushered us into the house and sat us down at the table. Minutes later a pot of tea appeared. We sat and drank with him, doing our best to explain the details of our lives. A few minutes more and the first of a long series of dishes of food appeared. The tea continued to flow. As each pot was emptied he would say “chai yes?” and call for his daughter in law or grandchildren to replenish the hot water.) We stuffed ourselves silly on laghman (noodle soup), chocolates, biscuits, salad, cherries and possibly the best apricots I’d ever eaten.
The unnecessarily large (but certainly not unappreciated) dinner spread
Our host proudly displaying his garden. He’d come and sit with us for a while every evening at dinner, talking, asking about what we’d done each day and periodically calling for re-fills of the teapot from his daughter in-law who was the cook
When bedtime came, the rain had intensified to a pounding on the sheet metal roof, intensified by cracks of thunder. Nonetheless we were warm and cozy inside and slept wonderfully.
The next morning we set out to explore Arslanbob and its environs. The town itself was a delight. Though its in Kyrgyzstan Arslanbob’s residents are almost all ethnically Uzbek. And whether it was because of this, or because of the small town attitude, or because of the major contribution that tourism makes to the local economy, virtually everyone seemed happy to see us. Smiles, waves. “salam”‘s and “hello”‘s were everywhere as we wandered around the old but pretty residential parts of town.
While the town itself is lovely, Arslanbob is really known best for its two scenic waterfalls and for the huge walnut forest (60,000 Ha) growing nearby. We began by walking through the rough streets, past mud brick walls and houses up towards the smaller of the two waterfalls.
Arslanbob’s main street just past the square with the Babash Ata range in the background
Lovely old homes in Arslanbob town
When we arrived we were rather surprised by what we saw: the final hundred metres or so of the path was lined with stalls selling souvenirs (wood burnings, carvings, jewelry) and carnival-type snacks. Along with this were at least a couple of dozen people posing, splashing under the falls, taking photos… Apparently Arslanbob was a big attraction for Kyrgyz domestic tourists as well as foreigners. This was the first time since leaving China when we had lots of requests for photos with us, which we dutifully posed for before heading up the hill behind the falls.
The small falls and the crowd (by Kyrgyz standards only, certainly not by Chinese ones) of tourists at the bottom. It was interesting to note that many of the domestic tourists seemed to be entirely happy wearing shorts, miniskirts, high heels, etc. in this relatively conservative part of the country.
Me with a few new mates under the falls
Lovely old homes in Arslanbob town
Up above the falls we strolled through the edges of the walnut forest (sadly they wouldn’t be ripe for another 2-3 months, so the only ones on the ground were green and very bitter.) From the forest we wound our way back down to the river, from where Sarah headed back to our homestay and I went still further uphill and into the heart of the forest. This was easier said than done. As far as I could tell no roads led up from the village, and houses and private gardens were so tightly packed that there wasn’t really any way in between them. Finally I spotted a path that looked like it might, theoretically, lead up to the forested plateau. Fortunately it did, and to a road as well. The forest was gorgeous, with the sunlight filtering through the leaves giving the place a very idyllic quality. I was fascinated and delighted with the neat tree branch fences that divided the hundreds year old walnut grove into sections, making it clear which families had right to collect nuts from and graze their animals under which trees.
Kids riding donkeys were a common sight in Arslanbob
As were donkeys in general. The horses and sheep of the higher elevations in the north of the country seemed to have given way entirely to these lowly (if much cuter) beasts of burden
As is so often the case when I go for walks, I didn’t have any real aim. Following the paths through the forest and taking turns pretty much at random led me back out from the forest into carefully fenced hay and potato fields with spectacular views of the 5000m+ mountains behind Arslanbob. The fields transformed into another area of the village, this one well up above the waterfalls and the main road, and consequently much less visited by tourists. Here the carefully tended houses were spread further apart on the narrow dirt roads. In the yards and gardens, curious children peered out as I walked by, occasionally getting up the courage to yell “Hello!” usually after I’d already walked past their front gates.
About our only complaint about Arslanbob was that after our first evening and morning there, it was pretty much always cloudy, obscuring the views of the mountains. Apparently this was atypical for the time of year.
Some of the braver kids, who actually said hello BEFORE I got to their gate. All through Kyrgyzstan old car parts were used in unusual ways, such as this door being used as… a door
As I walked I thought I’d caught a glimpse of the large waterfall up near the base of the mountains, so I headed back out of the settled area towards it. After wandering through boulder strewn pasture I found myself down near the river that the waterfall poured down from the mountains. There was a group of six or seven people picnicking near the banks and, in typical Kyrgyz (or Uzbek) fashion, waved me over to join them as soon as they saw me. I sat down and even before I’d learned anyone’s name my hosts were offering, nay, forcing upon me such diverse treats as lamb and chicken shashlik (kebabs), roasted potatoes (which tasted just like my grandma used to make as I explained to my hosts later), tea, cherry juice, barbequed river fish and vodka. This was my first vodka in central Asia and it wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as I’d feared. Most of the four men present had already had their fill, so it was only one young man and I who shared out the remains of a 500ml bottle. While Kyrgyz vodka may not be the world’s best, it still beats the pants of Chinese baiju!
We sat and ate and drank and did our best to chat. As we’d experienced previously in Kyrgyzstan, sign language, Russian, Kyrgyz and English were all used at various times, but this time Uzbek was added to the mix, thus further complicating the already complicated language situation. As often happened, some of my hosts pulled out mobile phones and called English speaking relatives to translate, or even simply to just have a chat with me.
It was actually astonishing that I managed to talk at all, given the amount of time I spent smiling broadly, laughing, and most importantly shovelling food and drink into my mouth.
By the time the picnic was done it was getting late, so I gave up on visiting the waterfall and headed down towards the town on foot with two of the young men. One was entirely sober, while the other, who I’d been sharing the vodka with, was very drunk indeed and leaned on me for support almost the whole way down. Or at least until the rest of the party pulled up behind us in their Lada Niva. At this point, the three of us got aboard, bringing the total number of passengers to 11 inside and one standing on the running board outside. We bounced and jostled our way back to town, stopping to let various passengers out at their homes until we reached the end of the line not far from the main road.
Me with my hosts at the riverside picnic
From here I walked back to our homestay (with some difficulty as I’d not really paid attention when our host drove us into town that morning) and somehow managed to consume still MORE delicious food. Enough to not be rude to our host at least…
As Sarah hadn’t got to enjoy the best of the forest the previous day, and as I’d never made it to the larger waterfall, we decided to head up in that direction the following morning. We finished our usual huge breakfast (blini, [crepes] with honey and jam along with chocolates, bread, and huge amounts of fresh fruit) and set out, this time heading straight to the base of the hill.
This was where things started to go badly. We asked a shepherd if the path he was taking led up to the forested plateau. He indicated it did, so up we went. Unfortunately the steepness, looseness of the gravel and later, the rain all combined to make this walk well beyond Sarah’s level of comfort if not capability. With a lot of encouragement and a bit of help, we did finally make the top, though not before about 45 minutes of tricky climbing and general unhappiness.
A look down on the path we took up the hill (taken the next day when the weather was rather nicer.)
Victorious (if slightly tired and unhappy) Sarah at the top of the hill
Thankfully, with this behind us things improved and even though it was still raining the walnut forest was still beautiful, this time in a mysterious, atmospheric way. This was easy enough and pretty enough that Sarah was still willing to head for the waterfall (to my surprise, I must admit.) But between some trouble finding the path and the less than ideal weather we ended up giving up on the waterfall and heading back down to town instead.
The walnut forest in the sun (the first time I visited it)
And in the rain when Sarah got to see it
Which proved a fine choice, as we met Hayat, the CBT co-ordinator who was headed out to lunch at one of the wonderfully characterful chaikhanas (tea houses) overlooking the raging river flowing through town. As mentioned before I just can’t say enough good things about the Arslanbob CBT in general and Hayat in particular. At lunch he helped us pick out something that wouldn’t be excessively filling (which excercise turned out to be a bit pointless, as the lovely chaikhana staff supplemented the stuffed peppers we’d ordered with lamb shank, salad and potatoes) and then kindly let us use his mobile internet connection (probably the only one in town) to make some arrangements for onward travel.
After lunch we took another look at the bazaar. It wasn’t huge, but had a fun array of goods for sale: toys and games, handmade fruit leather, kurut, apricot juice, bread, fruits and vegetables. No walnuts, sadly, but then again it was about as far from harvest time as you could get.
Lunch with Hayat at the chaikhana
The same chaikhana seen from across the river
We finished our time in Arslanbob with two more fabulous feasts for dinner and breakfast. Despite the fact that I walked the steep hill up to the plateau twice more that evening and morning, I think I must have gained at least a kilo or two from all of the wonderful food we ate. The menu (the Arslanbob homestay program was so well organized that it actually had a menu… you made your meal choices for breakfast at dinner and vice versa) contained about six choices for each meal, so it was a bit sad that we only got through half of them before departing.
But the clock was ticking, and time was running our on our Kyrgyz visas, so after breakfast we headed into town (once again our host wouldn’t hear of us walking the 1km to the main square) and caught a Mashrutka back down the mountains towards the city of Osh.
Though I’ve already said lots to this effect, I’ll finish by once again saying how much we enjoyed Arslanbob: in many ways it was just what we’d dreamed Kyrgyzstan would be like. Warm hospitality, beautiful mountains, good hiking, quaint villages… And it also forms a nice stop to break up the ~12 hour journey between Bishkek and Osh. So if you’re heading to Kyrgyzstan we’d highly suggest a visit to this lovely town.
A small water mill on a side stream just downhill from our homestay
The pillars and other eroded forms near the edge of the forest plateau actually reminded us a bit of Cappadocia in Turkey
The mashrutka ride back down to the valley
Tags: Arslanbob, Bishkek to Osh, Kyrgyzstan, Llew Bardecki, Travel