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Walnut expedition – mission complete

February 11, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

Kyrgyzstan walnut expeditionI undertook an expedition to Kyrgyzstan in 1997 to collect walnut seeds from the wild walnut-fruit forests.

Following our last day collecting walnut seeds in the mountains near the spectacular Sary Chalek lake (see post) we travelled back to the capital Bishkek via a three hour jeep journey, first through the mountains on dirt tracks and then 13 hours in a minibus along winding roads – mostly in the dark of night.

We spent two days in the capital resting and making final arrangements for our departure.   The success of the expedition was dependent ultimately on the transportation of the seeds back to the UK.  I now faced my longest-standing fear: that after nine months of planning and three weeks hard work during the seed-collecting expedition, we might face some difficulty with customs at the border, even though our expedition had been undertaken with the support of Kyrgyz scientists.

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

Walnut journal entry – 11th October 1997
It was with some trepidation that I reached the airport today.  I waited with dread as my turn at customs drew closer – over the last nine months this stage has been a constant concern.  After all the successful elements of the expedition – a problem now could ruin everything.

I approached a surly customs official who looked at me and my two bags: a holdall full of clothes and equipment in my hands, and a bulging 75 litre expedition rucksack on my back.  He pointed to the rucksack, containing the 2000 walnut seeds, and indicated that I should take it off and open it.  I was tense as he first felt the outside of the rucksack, his eyebrows rising in interest at its hard lumpy contents.  On opening it he looked very surprised as he lifted first one, then another, and another cloth bag from the rucksack’s insides; each one filled with walnut seeds inscribed with a number.  I said “semina” [seed] as his brow now furrowed and he called a colleague over.  I had at the ready an official letter from the Kyrgyzstan Forestry and Nut Breeding Institute approving of my work in Kyrgyzstan, a letter from the University of Oxford confirming my research, and an official statement from the UK Government confirming that the import of seed to the UK was permitted.  In the end, I need not have worried, as the custom official waved me through with a cursory nod without asking to see any documentation.

After nine months of  labour and my 2000 walnut babies safe in the hold,  I walked on to the plane bound for London, looking forward to starting the next chapter of my walnut research in the UK.

Gabriel Hemery

The last tree and an illusive Lake

January 1, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

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

Walnut journal entry – Tuesday 7th October 1997

Walnut-fruit forest at Sary-Chelek

Walnut-fruit forest at Sary-Chelek on the last day of our expedition. On the ridge tops the indigenous spruce Picea schrenkiana replaces walnut.

We were up at 6am and started collecting seeds in the forest just after 7am.  We were welcomed to the day by a beautiful dawn, the sun rising above the high mountainsides as we collected from our last ten trees of the three week expedition.  It was quite an emotional moment collecting the last walnut seeds from our last selected tree.  A total of 2349 seeds from 253 mother trees.

Afterwards we returned to our ‘guesthouse’ for a second breakfast; this time the usual mutton and vegetable stew.  Then we set off for the lake.  It was a dramatic drive lasting over one half hour of climbing steep and dusty mountain tracks.  When we arrived we were stunned by the scale, beauty and isolation of the lake.

Sary-Chelek Lake

My journal entry and sketch of Sary-Chelek Lake

Sary-Chelek Lake is apparently over 5km long and is situated at just under 2000 metres altitude. It is closed to tourists, and theoretically the local people too.  The five of us were completely alone and the silence was deafening.  The strangest aspect was the lack of wildlife, except for a large fish that jumped out of the water nearby, and a mountain goat on one of the distant cliffs that caused a thundering rockfall that echoed across the lake. The rocky slopes were covered with pines, mostly along the ridges.  It is a local species –  Picea schrenkiana.

Sary-Chelek lake and our expedition team

Sary-Chelek lake and our expedition team. Left to right: Peter, Askar, Mamajan, Sergei and the author.

Gabriel Hemery

Gabriel's walnut journal

Read more from my Kyrgyzstan walnut journal

A champion walnut tree

December 24, 2010

Gabriel Hemery

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

Walnut journal entry – Monday 6th October 1997
The rushing of the mountain river, whose banks we cooked on last night, soothed me to sleep. I woke up to another beautiful sunny day; the sun striking the steep mountainside beyond the river. Its glowing red rock is covered here and there in junipers, walnuts and scrub. Our ‘guesthouse’ is bizarre. It is quite nicely built but had no glass in its windows and has no running water, therefore no sinks nor taps are built-in. The toilet (squat) is 400 metres away – let’s hope I don’t need it in a hurry! All our washing here is now done in the river. Every place that we have stayed at has been slightly less luxurious than the last. Anyway, last night’s mutton stew was wonderful!

A superior walnut genotype

The champion walnut tree K10.17 in Kyrgyzstan

We worked hard in the walnut-fruit forests at Sary-Chelek today, collecting one and a half provenances (i.e. populations of trees from two separate valleys), finishing by 7pm. Our little team became very motivated because we have agreed to visit a lake here tomorrow. By all accounts it is a lake that is difficult to visit as this whole area is protected and out-of-bounds to those without a visitor license. Maybe it’s also because there are so few large expanses of water in Kyrgyzstan too! So we’ve worked fast and collected many seeds today, so that tomorrow we should finish the second provenance in good time.

Today we found a champion walnut tree of fantastic quality (coded as K10:17): it had 18 metres of clean stem (i.e. free of branches) and was as true as an arrow shaft.

Gabriel Hemery

Gabriel's walnut journal

Read more from my Kyrgyzstan walnut journal

Mutton stew at the walnut oasis

December 13, 2010

Gabriel Hemery

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

Last day in the walnut-fruit forests at Gava

December 6, 2010

Gabriel Hemery

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

Journal entry: Saturday 4th October 1997

After yesterday’s inactivity it was good to get back to work collecting walnut seeds today.  However, I was in a bad mood after we were kept waiting for a long time this morning without an apology!  Once that we got collecting in the forest my mood improved and we had a useful day.

Walnut view at Kyok-Sarai

The view during our lunch break at Kyok-Sarai, 4th October 1997. Mature walnut with burrs and walnut-fruit forest and high mountains beyond.

Tomorrow we leave for Sary-Chelek; departing Gava at about 0500.  It will be interesting to visit a new area, particularly as we are told it is less populated in the walnut-fruit forest.  I expect that our home here will seem like paradise as I have a feeling that although there is a plan to stay somewhere, no-one seems to know where this might be!  Baths here have been very frequent recently – actually every day.

Gabriel Hemery

Gabriel's walnut journal

Read more from my Kyrgyzstan walnut journal

An enforced rest day

December 1, 2010

Gabriel Hemery

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

Journal entry: Saturday 3rd October 1997

Just as we thought things were going very well – last night we were told that our hosts needed to make a phone call.  Ordinarily this would not be a major event but here at Gava, this means a round trip to the nearest phone that will take at least six hours!  Peter and I asked if we could work alone in the forest but our hosts are nervous of us being unaccompanied, so we stayed at the farmstead.

Rahmonali asleep on the soro

Rahmonali asleep on the soro. The bucket is full of freshly-picked apples from the orchard.

At least this gave me time to catch up with some more data entry, and I wrote a good part of my report for the Royal Forestry Society (one of my sponsors).  I had plenty of ‘help’ from Mamajan’s grandson Rahmonali, who seems to have taken a liking to me today.   We sat on the soro [an outside area used for eating, resting and sleeping outside in the summer] and I read all my books with pictures for him until he fell asleep at my feet.  The complete language barrier didn’t stop us having a good time together.

We were fed fried potatoes and an egg each for lunch; a real treat.  Apparently I have been referring constantly to food over the last few days.  For some reason, coffee and jam doughnuts seem especially appealing.  I think that our eggs today were as a result of a casual remark I made a few days ago, about whether they eat eggs and that I liked them.  Our hosts try really hard to look after us.

We have one more day collecting seed here before we leave Gava for Sary-Chelek.  Apparently all arrangements have been made for our transport to Bishkek on the 8th October.  Other news: we were told today that in fact the clocks have not change afterall (see  previous post)- so we’ve just lost an hour!  I was just beginning to get used to waking naturally at the right hour.

Gabriel Hemery

Gabriel's walnut journal

Read more from my Kyrgyzstan walnut journal

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