I’ve spent the last week or so in Arslanbob, an Uzbek village in south Kyrgyzstan. The area is a home to the largest walnut forest in the world and is nestled below soaring peaks, now all under sparkling white snow. I joined the Arslanbob CBT (community-based tourism) organisation as a volunteer and lived with Husnidin, a CBT tour guide, and his family. My job was to talk – which I can do – to help Husnidin practise and improve his English. The talking was easy, and getting to know Husnidin, his family and the other CBT guides and volunteers made me feel right at home.
Arslanbob village in south Kyrgyzstan.
The beautiful mountains and alpine lakes attract many visitors to the area, and the CBT offers a range of hiking, camping and biking routes. The photographs I saw in the office of Holy Lake made me ache to visit in summer when undertaking the four-day trip is possible. But now, in the winter, the CBT offers ski touring expeditions.
Every Thursday and Sunday the organisation guides some local youngsters keen on skiing. On my third day in the village Husnidin and I climbed up the hill behind the village to spend the day out in the snow and sunshine. Wow, those mountains took my breath away. Untouched snow is a beautiful sight. But also pretty hard to walk through I found out. I had borrowed a pair of snow shoes and quickly figured out the best way power through the snow – like a duck, with my toes pointed out.
The skiers arrived and began flattening out a slope. This involved side-stepping up the slope to press down the deep snow. Towards the end of the afternoon I had a go on Husnidn’s skis. My first attempts were far better than my first time snowboarding, but I still ended up in the snow rather than gliding over it.
The next night, at a celebration dinner at one of the CBT guide’s homes, there was talk of a boom box and dancing. And somehow that turned into the suggestion that we head up the mountain the following day – with said boom box – for a party. Perhaps it was the vodka talking, but by the time we headed home we had decided to meet the next day for a ski touring mission to spend the night at a farmer’s hut on the mountain. (Never mind that I had only spent about 30 minutes on skis before.)
Since the CBT is in the business of arranging tours we got ourselves together fairly easily. I borrowed skis, boots and a sleeping bag. Hayat, the CBT coordinator, strapped the boom box to his pack. Husnidin tucked the 15kg battery into his backpack and Roma squashed a walnut cake into his. What the hell!
This was one of the toughest things I have ever done. Skiiing and deep snow and high mountains and cold temperatures and falling in the snow like an upside down beetle… there were moments when I lost morale (and felt the hot tears of frustration and exhaustion).
We started our trek in the afternoon and saw the sun set pink and glowing from 2500m, finishing our trek by torchlight. We all had skins on our skis which grip the snow and mean you can move forward up an incline, but they tend to slip on a downhill anyway. By the time we reached the last steep slope down to the hut it was dark and there was no way I was going down on my skis. Walking – if that’s what it was – in thigh-high snow was another kind of challenge. I learnt how to swing my knee around, reach forward and let my heel and then leg sink into the snow, find my balance and do it again. I felt like I was doing a slow motion walk underwater.
Finally we arrived at the hut. I have never been that happy to take off my hiking boots and collapse on the ground (inside where Lachin and Anna had got a fire going). We changed our sweaty clothes and laid out our dinner feast, opened the vodka and connected the boom box to the battery. Picture this: six people eating and drinking and dancing and laughing in a warm hut high up in the mountains surrounded by untouched snowy slopes. Husnidin was right. He reminded me that despite the challenge – or perhaps because of it – I will always remember this adventure and that crazy night of drunken CBT guides dancing to Uzbek pop music. I mean, who carries a huge speaker and battery up a mountain on skis?
Team Arslanbob CBT, back in one piece (sort of) after an overnight trek up and down the mountain on skis. From left: Lachin, Hayat, Raquel, Anna and Husnidin.
Call me a wimp, but after falling off a snowboard and skis more than I care to remember, I choose tobogganing as my snow sport. In Arslanbob the kids toboggan down the streets at high speeds, young men sled down the roads rather than walking and old men pull their shopping along behind them on sleds.
The slightly inclined village roads are perfect for tobogganing or ice skating, Arslanbob style.
Walnuts are an important product in Arslanbob – most of Turkey’s walnuts come from here in fact – and collecting and shelling the nuts is a major income generator. Most families buy a 20kg bag of nuts, shell them at home, usually while sitting together and talking, and sell them at higher prices. I helped Husnidin’s son, Ziya, with his task and liked that my hands were busy while my mind was free to wander.
More than the quiet and beauty of the village and surrounding mountains, Arslanbob crept into my heart because of the people I got to know there. Husnidin and his wife Hamida welcomed me into their home with great kindness and generosity. Hamida cooked up a feast for every meal, which was often shared with my new friends – and endless cups of cay.Hamida and Husnidin, my Uzbek family
Sharing meals with my new friends in Arslanbob
I left Arslanbob with the feeling that we can all effect change, and that no matter how small, every effort is worthwhile. I am humbled by the kindness and hospitality of my new friends – and am brewing up plans to visit again in summer when I can walk, not ski, up the mountains.