Discovery Kyrgyzstan
Discovery Kyrgyzstan travel guide #10/2008

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Fruits of the orchard
Fruits of the orchard

The markets of Central Asia often amaze visitors with the vast array colours and varieties of sweet, succulent and fragrent fruits that are available.  Such as: apples, pears, apricots, rhubarb - technically a vegetable, plum, prunes, cherry, tomatoes - technically a fruit, berries such as rowan, buckthorn, barberry, hawthorn, currant, and raspberry strawberry, walnut, almond, peanut - groundnuts and pistachio nuts).  The roadside stalls selling mountains of melons (watermelons, honey dew and a host of other exotic varieties) and other fruits are a common sight on a trip, for example, from Bishkek to Issyk Kul. 

Although during the Soviet period, Kyrgyzstan was mainly seen as a meat-producing region, fruit has always played an important role in the life and agriculture of the country. 

Varieties of apples abound – varying in shape, colour, size and sweetness.  This should not be surprising as the origin of the modern apple lies in the heart of the Tien Shan mountain range, (actually, just over the border in Kazakhstan).  Recent research suggests that the ancestors of the modern apple evolved here many millions of years ago and seeds were transported westwards over the course of time, at first by birds and animals, and in more recent times (the last 10,000 years) by human travellers.  Everywhere, the fruit proved to be a popular food and the cultivation of trees began with grafting and new hybrids were developed wherever mankind settled. 

The south of Kyrgyzstan has the world’s largest relict of walnut forest.  (Nuts are technically a fruit).  Although it is probable that the walnut originated elsewhere and migrated to Central Asia, it was from here that they reached Europe when Alexander the Great, having encountered the fruit during his conquest of the region, sent samples back to his Macedonia homeland.

Babur, the founder of the Moghul empire of India who was born in the Ferghana valley, describes in his memoires how there was an abundance of fruits.  He particularly mentions the melons, grapes, pomegranates and apricots.  

The Apricot tree is important to the Kyrgyz, not just for the succulent fruit it nears, but the wood of the tree is the basic material used for several of the traditional musical instruments such as the komuz, (a three stringed instrument similar to the lute).

During the days of the Great Silk Road, Rhubarb (technically a vegetable, not a fruit), was one of the products traded along with the fabric which gave the ancient trade route its name.  (Some people even refer to the Rhubarb Road).  Used and highly prized in China from ancient times as a medicinal herb, Marco Polo writes extensively in his account of his travels about the plant and its uses.  Rhubarb, (Reven in Russian), still grows wild in the high mountain meadows of Kyrgyzstan and children can often be seen standing by the roadside offering small bunches for sale.  

Another favourite which is often seen being sold at the roadside during the summer months are berries from the Seabuckthorn bush – known locally as oblepicha.  These bright yellow berries are gathered by the bucketful and used as fruit, as jam, an oil – and has a number of medicinal claims made for it.  

Central Asia, as a whole, is the home to many of the world’s species of fruits and nuts.  The dominant species of trees in the forests of Kyrgyzstan are apple and walnut trees.  The region is seen as an important reservior of specimen material for the “Seed Banks” of the world, providing valuable supplementary material to the gene pool for the protectin of existing food stocks and the development of new varieties and stocks.

Although Kyrgyzstan exports much fruit to neighbouring markets, fresh, bottled, dried, canned, as jams and juices … yet greater potential exists to be exploited.  For the visitor to Kyrgyzstan, however, the sheer range of fresh fruit and and the different varieties available in this Central Asian mountain orchard can make a refreshing change to the cellophane wrapped, packaged produce available at home … as well as providing for some interesting photo-opportunities.

Discovery Kyrgyzstan #9

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