The Garden of Eden?

I’ve recently returned from a week visiting the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan. Whilst Fauna & Flora International (FFI) works with ecologists in the country to protect various species and assist in managing its mountainous, remote protected areas, the main reason I went was to see how we’re helping to look after Kyrgyzstan’s apple trees.

For those that don’t know, it is widely accepted that the fruit and nut forests where these trees still grow in the wild are the genetic origin of the world’s apple trees. A fact so remarkable it is worth repeating – it is actually possible to visit the place in the world from which all the world’s apple trees stem. What a prospect. In planning the trip I couldn’t get away from the idea it might be like paying a visit to the Garden of Eden.

What presumption, to think one might encounter paradise. Would even a glimpse be too much to ask? What I found in the landscape of Kyrgyzstan were several such glimpses.

There is a curious rapidity and variety to the landscape which startles the newcomer. At one moment the arid south feels biblical, with sculpted sandstone hills and jagged valleys – and bright hot sunshine to match. This alone is remarkable and beautiful, perhaps because the scale is so large. But then as one climbs, one passes through glorious bucolic pastures and faces the prospect of mountains almost absurd in the rapidity of their vertical motion. The mountainous regions I visited one can only describe as Alpine but that feels like a deficiency in the vocabulary. The Alps are more like the mountains of Kyrgyzstan than the other way around.

Wherever we drove we were accompanied by mountain ranges. One’s sense of speed is gently taken away. The mountains close in, as if in calm pursuit and one is hugged and held more and more tightly until, at altitude the vista opens out again. This happens repeatedly in this marvellous country. Narrow passes give out onto spectacular pastures which roll and hide their own narrow valleys and mountain rivers and lakes. These places are peopled by horse herders. Smoke drifts out of the chimneys of their yurts.  Children play in the fields leaping onto horseback and running amidst their lambs and sheep. The place is quite beyond the imagination and I do it far from justice in extolling its virtues. It simply rises and then extends and then throws up surprise upon surprise.

Visiting the national museum in the nation’s second city, Osh, one can see quite clearly how the apples found their way into the hands of merchants and thence to us. One can understand the need for the apples, for food that lasted on a long trip. The Kyrgyz are expert driers and preservers of fruits and nuts. The market at Bishkek is a glory of chewy golden apricots and rich dark raisins – truly delicious food. Outside the village of Arslanbob, overlooking the forests and dominated by yet another mountain ridge I ate apple leather – apples boiled into a syrup then cooled, stretched and flattened as trail rations. One sheet lasted me a day of casual addicted nibbling.

This was a trip of numerous culinary firsts. Generous hosts and people with a formal sense of occasion but the good grace to manage these occasions casually, I was fed fermented horse’s milk to mark the purchase of some rugs – alongside lamb stew, deep fried pastries, the inevitable bowl upon bowl of herbal tea (drunk in this part of the country in the English way, or is that the Kyrgyz way, with milk – and occasionally salt for rehydration), dried fruit, delicious bread, cream to dip it in (do try this at home), various yoghurts and other pastries. And said rugs, by the way, are a glory in themselves – a little index of the wonder of the country.

At another village I was also honoured with an entire stewed sheep, served up in various portions, of which the ear and the eye were the, er, highlights. To the wary, and indeed the adventurous, choose the eye – believe me, I know whereof what I speak. Everywhere there was toasting, over fruit juice for the muslims and vodka for those not – these are delightful occasions where one is given leave to speak of the virtues of the food, the generosity of the hosts, the wonder of the country, the prospects for conservation, the health and happiness of family and friends.

This country needs to be on the list of places you must visit. Speaking professionally, the quality of its conservationists is outstanding, their knowledge humbling, their biodiversity extravagant. The protected areas are spectacular and generous and what they have to protect precious and remarkable. Give yourself a gift and put Kyrgyzstan on your list of must-see countries and give Kyrgyzstan a gift by helping us support its dedicated, exceptional professionals.