Mutton stew at the walnut oasis

In 1997 I undertook an expedition to collect walnut seeds from the wild walnut-fruit forests of Kyrgyzstan.

Journal entry: Sunday 5th October 1997

We left Gava behind at 0530 this morning.  It has been our home for the last 12 days, which have flown past.  I think that, compared to many homes here, our accommodation has been quite luxurious and we have been very well cared for.

The walnut expedition team
The walnut expedition team and jeep. Left to right: Askar, Peter, Mamajan, Sergei and the Author

After the usual delays, this time only half an hour, we left but not before a long-winded discussion about whether our driver/host Mamajan should bring his son with him.  Last night my colleague Peter and I had been asked our views.  Peter and I both thought that although he’d be useful, having four adults in the back seat of the jeep for the long journey ahead would be very uncomfortable and we suggested “No”.  Of course this morning his son appeared all ready to leave with us.  Askar [our translator] asked “do you agree to him coming?”  We replied “no” explaining that it was too late now to stop him!  We then had a fantastic conversation trying to explain that we did not agree to it but accepted that it would happen – this proved incomprehensible to him and ultimately very funny to us.

So, we left Gava – all six of us in the ancient Russian jeep: Mamajan and his son, Askar, Sergei, Peter and me.  After a couple of stops for food, including 50 minutes spent negotiating the price for some meat, it took eight hours to reach Sary-Chelek, the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Mutton stew in Kyrgystan
Mutton stew for dinner

On arrival we had to wait for a guard to open a locked barrier across the road, and then a further three hours waiting for the caretaker of the ‘guesthouse’ (more on this later) to arrive.  So this was to be our home for the next three nights.  All six of us appear to have a bed and the building is comparatively smart.  There seems to be no kitchen and so we cooked the mutton we had bargained so long for, on an open fire outside the guesthouse.  I made this sketch using some miniature crayons I had packed with my notebook.

It is very picturesque here as we are right beside a river, which I think is only the second I have seen since I arrived in Kyrgyzstan.  All around us are towering hills carpeted with walnuts, junipers and pines.  The landscape is quite different to that we had become accustomed to near Gava and Arslanbob.  Arriving here was if we had reached an oasis: for most of our journey today we travelled through barren hills, a little like the badlands in the USA.  Everywhere were signs of mining; mostly open-cast coal mines.  Abandoned and neglected infrastructure was everywhere: rusting and decaying on the roadside, in riverbeds and on the hillsides.  Maybe when the Soviet Union split all organisation here fell apart?

Soon it’s mutton stew.  Tomorrow we will hopefully make the first of our two planned walnut seed collections here.

Gabriel Hemery

Gabriel's walnut journal
Read more from my Kyrgyzstan walnut journal
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