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

Journal entry: Saturday 27th September 1997

We’ve been here one week today but time seems immeasurable: it feels like a lifetime ago that my companion, Peter Savill, and I left London Heathrow.

Kyrgyz people harvesting walnuts

We had another good day collecting walnuts; this time in a new area further East.  Mid-morning, we’d stopped in a remote area for our usual snack of chai and lepyoshkas; Peter, Askar [translator], Sergei [guide] and me.  As we tucked in, a man appeared over the nearest ridge.  It turned out that he was the son of an Elder that we’d met when we first arrived in the area this morning.  He had walked up the very steep slopes carrying a huge bowl of yogurt and a bowl of  cream; both of which were totally natural and very fresh.  They made for a fantastic meal.  The local people are remarkable for their generosity.

I’ve been carrying some small treats that I had brought here from Britain; mints and mini-boxes of smarties.  It’s been good to have had something to give out to the local children in return for everyone’s generosity.  I met two children in the fruit-forest today and I gave them a treat each, when suddenly their mother who was nearby, sprinted off down the steep-wooded slope towards her camp, clearly intending to fetch chai and yogurt.  Mayhem ensued as, between us all, we had to shout to her that we had just had our fill, hoping to stop her before she got out of earshot!

The fruit-forests are surprisingly full of people, here to gather walnuts, and transport them on large sacks draped over their horse’s backs.  They stay in canvas tents under the walnut canopy and in a way it looks idyllic, although life must be hard especially during the winter.  I am especially affected by the young children who look so content.  They really contribute to the work effort, and compared to our way of life, it seems a far better introduction to life.

Lepyoshka and bread oven at Mamajan's farmstead - notice the car seat for baking in comfort

When we arrived back at the farmstead this evening, we were offered our first bath.  A fire was lit in a hole in the wall and 20 minutes later there was piping-hot water in the tiny room – almost like a sauna – where I could stand up and use the supplied tin mug for dousing.  GLORIOUS!  The only hiccup was the blackout that occurred just as I had removed my trousers (the local people joke that these are caused by the President turning on his lights in the capital Bishkek!).  A fumble in the dark eventually produced my waterproof headtorch: I wonder if anyone else has tried washing their hair while wearing a headtorch?

Gabriel Hemery

Read more from my Kyrgyzstan walnut journal

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