After a series of marshrutka rides taking me from Osh to Jalal-Abad to Bazar-Korgon, I entered the Chatkal mountain range and into a region famous for its expansive surrounding walnut forest, one of the largest in the world. My destination was a small, rural village called Arslanbob.
After getting dropped off in the village center, I went to look for the Community-Based Tourism (CBT) office. In all the traveling I’ve done, this was my first time encountering a concept like the CBT. The office was a lot like one of those “Tourist Info” offices except for one major difference; these offices have a list of home-stays with different price tiers (based on how nice the room or house you’re staying is) in the area which you can pick to stay in. Upon reading the descriptions of homes, the CBT office staff member (who can usually speak some English) will make a call to the local family whose home you want to rent a room from and when the family agrees, the staff member will give you directions to get there, or if you’re lucky, someone will come pick you up. Looking at the map of the village on the wall with markers showing where all the homes we can stay in are, I decided on a random home that looked cozy and got picked up within 10 minutes by one of the hosts’ family friends. It was a 5 minute up hill car ride and when you have a backpack, it’s nice to be able to skip the 20 minute uphill walk.
A picture is worth a thousand words but a video is worth a million so check out the video below to see the home I stayed in:
(Muhammad, the boy in the blue shirt, was such a friendly dude. When I was chilling in my room, he would come by to check out what I was doing on my laptop. I’d then put on an animated movie and we would watch it together. I think I played ‘Isle of Dogs’ once and ‘Spiderman’ another time. Even if he didn’t understand much English, he was enthralled. I miss that kid.)
My host “mom”, whose name I don’t know how to spell but was pronounced “Naz-Gul” (like the bad guys in Lord Of The Rings), is ethnically Uzbek, as are the vast majority of Arslanbob denizens. Initially, I made the mistake of saying Kyrgyz phrases for “hello” and “thank you” and of course, the family was polite and didn’t correct me but I later amended it. (It turns out, the Kyrgyz and Uzbek phrases like “Hello” and “Thank you” are similar but phrases like “How much?” aren’t so it was a crap-shoot.) I actually wonder how much Kyrgyz a predominantly Uzbek community in a rural village like Arslanbob would know. Possibly the basics? Within the community, I’m sure they all spoke Uzbek with other Uzbeks and Russian with the Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, or Tajiks but what if they were to go down the mountain to say, Bazar Korgon, Osh or the capital, Bishkek? Do they revert to Kyrgyz? Or do they just speak Russian, universally understood by many Central Asians? I didn’t ask or find out at the time… but I digress.
Although many travelers come here so they can do guided horse-rides, day-hikes or multi-night camping trips, I just wanted to get away from city-life. However, there’s no way I was going to sit in my room the entire time so one day, the weather was lovely and I was itching to go for a long walk. I learned of a popular waterfall (there’s a big and small one, I chose to visit the big one) and decided to go check it out. Of course, the walk there was not simple by any means; there was no map provided and I was going off descriptions I found online on how to navigate my way there. I took a wrong turn at one of the forks and ended up walking in the wrong direction for a solid 15 minutes. When I came upon an outdoor market, and coincidentally, running into Naz-Gul and Muhammad, I was told that the waterfall wasn’t there but in the other direction. Naz-Gul tried to hook me up with one of the many jeep vehicles loitering in the area gathering passengers for the drive to the waterfalls but feeling adventurous and also not wanting to earn my trip the easy way, I declined. The driver was trying to tell me something about the distance to the falls but I didn’t fully understand so I kept waving him away with a polite “Spaciba.”
So I backtracked and finally came back to the fork which I made the wrong choice for. It turns out, there WAS a sign to the falls, just that it was blocked by a vehicle parked in front of it… Anyway, I soldiered on, for quite a while. All in all, after about 2 hours walking uphill through neighborhoods, along a river, up a series of hills with rocky, uneven, unpaved roads which only those 4×4 jeeps could handle well (and which many passed me along the way, full of people who knew better than myself), I finally came to the footsteps of the entrance to the waterfall itself. Another 30 minutes of stair climbing and I was there. The waterfall itself was nothing mind-blowing but it had a significance for locals seeking holy blessings, magical and spiritual powers. Being quite high up, I admired the view of the walnut forests from afar.
On my way back to the village, I came across another Arslanbob gem; the amusement park. These Soviet-era amusement parks are quite common in Central Asia and as it was a weekend, this one was quite packed with families.
You know what the best part of my days there were? Dinner. As part of my Kyrgyz AirBNB experience, I opted for home-made dinners by Naz-Gul’s family (for a fee of course). I was hoping to dine with the family but I think it’s understandable if they believed most tourists who came wanted privacy to eat dinner by themselves or with their fellow foreign guests. I am also sure the family wanted their own privacy since language was a huge barrier that creates a lot of awkwardness in these situations. Anyway, I ended up eating at the dining table, alone one evening and with another duo of travelers the next, in the area of the home I stayed in.
All in all, Arslanbob was definitely a good spot for an introvert like myself to recharge. I am grateful that a local family opened their home to an outsider like me. I like the win-win concept of CBT as it provides a source of income for local families and allows people like myself to see a little bit more into what the local people’s lives are like. Apart from needing to fumble my way in the mornings, without my contacts on, through the garden path to get to the sink to brush my teeth and the bathroom to relieve myself in the filthy fly-filled squat toilets, the home was cozy. It was 2 nights for me but it’s life for these people so I shouldn’t be complaining about anything. Like any unfamiliar situations in life, all it takes is a little getting used to.