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English major at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, Sarah Garnett joined FFI for an internship in August, travelling to Kyrgyzstan to see some of our work in one of the world’s most beautiful places…
From Bishkek we traveled to Osh and drove to the vibrant city of Jalal Abad inching us towards our village destination in the fruit and nut forests of Kyrgyzstan.
The city is sun-filled and dusty and the smell of naan and tea wafts through the air, the village cafés full of friends conversing over a long lunch. The market place is hectic, but – unlike other bazaars – the proprietors refrain from pressuring potential buyers, creating a pleasant shopping experience. Peaches, apples, grapes, plums, spices and nuts tempt the visitor to have a snack, and the prices are so fair that it’s worthwhile to oblige!
We leave the city and head for our first village. Our driver’s swiftness earns him the nickname “King of the Road”. He flashes his lights encouraging slow drivers to yield, and keeps steady, disapproving eye contact as he passes them. As we drive south we see cattle, sheep and horses moving towards new pastures, herded by boys and girls on horses and donkeys. After moving across a valley that, in late August, resembles a desert, we arrive at our destination which is comfortably nestled on the lush mountain slopes.
I am instantly enchanted by the steep mountains and the smell of sweet fruits in the air, and exhilarated by the powerful rivers that gush towards the valley. You could be mistaken for thinking you were in the Andes if it weren’t for call to prayer that echoes into the early evening.
If you walk up from the village of Kara-Alma you will find yourself in a forest full of walnuts and apples. Unfortunately, an urgent need for firewood in the winter months (which have been compared to those of Siberia and often last until April) has contributed, over time, to serious deforestation here.
To address this, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is working to establish plots of land with fast-growing trees, which can then be sacrificed for firewood rather than the ancient trees of the Fergana valley.
FFI has also been working with an organisation called Community Based Tourism (CBT) to encourage different ways of generating income in the villages. We arrived in the village of Kara-Alma for an FFI-sponsored seminar on generating profit from tourism. CBT’s employee Rukhsora spoke of her hope that twenty years from now the villages will have improved infrastructure and will be known to the rest of the world. She discussed the natural beauty of the pastures where horses graze and bees are busy and explained how foreign visitors would widen the horizons of children.
The beauty of the Fergana region and its charming, smiling and insightful people urges one to visit again and again.
In Kyzyl Unkur (our second destination), the village coordinator – who has been a teacher for 23 years – tells us that children are required to meet outside class and discuss the importance of preserving the fruit and nut forests. Such modern thinking is sure to save these ancient forests, and it is encouraging to hear how local interest in sustainability is helping FFI’s efforts to preserve them.
We arrive at Issyk-Kul for a workshop with the Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve team, who endure brutal winters to ensure that animals are not poached. The team show great hospitality, frying local fish, baking bread and serving us mango juice with joyful smiles and lots of conversation. They show us a video of daily life on the reserve where they patrol the mountains on horseback.
Karakol is right on Issyk-Kul, a lake that resembles an ocean and is colder than the North Sea. On the day of the workshop fifteen men and women gathered to create a management plan for the conservation of the reserve. FFI staff gave advice in Russian and English, and emphasised the importance of a management plan.
Cookies and coffee were provided every few hours and it seemed that everyone had a keen interest in preserving the mountain habitats and species.
The reserve team have wise faces from years of braving fierce conditions for the good of nature. They discussed the importance of preventing poaching and preserving the mountain ecosystem for future generations. One member of the unit escorted us to the plateau of the mountains in Issyk-Kul and the higher we got, the more breathtakingly beautiful it was.
From the smiles on our faces, there could be no question of the importance of maintaining this place, which is surely one of the most beautiful and unique in the world.