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
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.