This is my blog about part of our trip to Kazakhstan after the International Permaculture Convergence in the UK. I am focusing here on my quest to see apple trees in their original environment – the foothills of the Central Asian Tian Shan Mountains (but I have inevitably strayed into other topics that might interest a permaculture practitioner!)
This account is particularly for the benefit of those who told us how much they would like to come but couldn’t, and those many people – especially permies – who wanted to hear back from us after the trip.
Different things interest different people when travelling (I’ll never forget my son berating me for observing the surrounding ecological communities at the great Teotihuacan pyramids rather than concentrating on the ancient ruins) – if you are not interested in lists of understorey plants, please skip these parts!
Almaty – the very name means Father of Apples! I love apples, and it has been a dream of mine for many years to come and see them at their centre of origin – central Asia. And yes, there are already a lot of apples to be seen – kids walking down the street eating apples, apples for sale in the markets, apple-themed souvenirs in the souvenir shops…
What we know as the domestic apple, Malus domestica, originated from multiple hybrids of various Malus species, and selection pressure from both humans and bears. The primary ancestor M. sieversii is a native to Central Asia and there are various other species in the region too. Because of its historical significance as part of the Silk Road trade route the apple, and many other species of fruit and nuts, were dispersed throughout Eurasia with travellers and their livestock.
Almaty is breathtakingly beautiful. The glacier-capped mountains immediately to the south of the city are visible throughout. I found it very hard to tear my eyes away them for at least the first 24 hours (maybe coming from Australia where we experience very few majestic peaks, let alone with year-round snow caps and so close to a major city, made this even more special for us).
On our first day our English-speaking botanist guide Svetlana and driver took us out of the city up into these mountains. We walked along a clear, clean stream with drinkable water and recognisable vegetation everywhere. Apples were the focus of my quest to visit Kazakhstan, but I was also aware of the number of other local species that have made it out into cultivation – and I wasn’t disappointed. Within the couple of hours’ walk we saw wild oregano, tarragon and other Artemisia, black raspberries, and various other small shrubs and herbs. A three metre high black currant bush was particularly impressive. Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is a common shrub, often growing right on the creek.
(If anyone has read Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, you will know the landscape and the plants. Despite these books being such a big part of my teenage years, this had not occurred to me until I was walking along the creek; suddenly I was Ayla walking along a mountain stream surrounded by edible and medicinal plants. Although set 3,000 km away in present day Ukraine, the geography is very similar: the foothills of large mountains meeting the steppes.)
We walked along the flowing stream, took in the magnificent Big Almaty Lake, walked some very dodgy Soviet infrastructure (you couldn’t quite call it a bridge) and experienced an environmentally-focused, interactive art installation within the nature reserve.
We also encountered a friendly herd of horses – free range but domesticated and obviously very healthy with such a diverse abundance of herbs to feed on. They would go back to their stables when they were ready, Svetlana assured us – when the winter cold set in if not before.
No wild apples as yet though. There were a couple of trees by the roadside as we drove down the mountain. They could have been from wild stock, but they could also have just as easily arisen from cores thrown out of car windows as occurs in the rest of the temperate world, our part of Australia included. Nevertheless we stopped for a taste test – edible but nothing particularly special.
We are lucky to be staying directly across the road from the Green Market – the big central market of Almaty. It is one of those markets where you can buy seemingly anything – clothes, shoes, home goods, stationery, toys – but of course for me the food hall and surrounding stalls were the highlight. Towers of dried fruits and nuts, fruit sellers, fruit juices extracted on the spot with manual machines, stalls of fresh and preserved meats, lots of Korean-style salads, and fermented milk products.
The meat stalls were in long rectangles with multiple stall-holders sitting around the edges facing out to the customers. In the centre space was the butcher, cutting up the meat to the cuts requested by the stallholders surrounding him. We were entertained by a very impressive display of butchery using a broad-axe. Although our language was such that we could not ask questions, we could at least express our appreciation of such mastery, and the butcher in turn made it clear he was pleased to show off his skills to the foreigners.
A line of stalls were selling a quite bewildering array of bee products – honey of all colours, beeswax and products made of
beeswax, various types of pollen, and propolis. Again the language barrier was frustrating – I understood the honey being sold in-comb, the way it sometimes is in Australia, with sections of honeycomb cut from frames with wax and jewel-like honey still encased, but why sell pieces of old comb, black with use, with no honey? Maybe for some medicinal purpose, but there was nobody I could ask.
Another interesting set of stalls consisted of what appeared to be foraged fruits and berries (this was confirmed by Svetlana later) – it is interesting that in a relatively rich and industrialised economy, it is still possible to make a living from foraging. On the stall were rosehips, barberries, sea buckthorn, various hawthorns, small plums and black and red currants – with multiple varieties of the rosehips, hawthorns and plums.
After a very early morning discharge from the overnight train, we breakfasted and walked around the small town of Jambagly. Like Almaty, it is backed by spectacular peaks, but unlike Almaty it is peaceful and rural. Apple trees are common in gardens and by roadsides.
Svetlana picked us up at 10 for our first excursion into the Nature Reserve. In the main street we stopped outside what we had earlier presumed – rightly we now found out – was the ranger station. ‘Our ranger escaped when I went in to collect your lunch, so I have to go and find him again’ Svetlana stated, and to our bemused looks she explained, ‘They are on a fixed wage, and don’t get anything extra for these trips so they are not interested. But we need to have a ranger with us so I have to find him’. She returned soon with a very young man in camouflage military fatigues who sat in the back with us and introduced himself politely but otherwise did not interact with us at all.
We drove across the steppes into the foothills to a smaller ranger station, with an apple orchard planted 30 years earlier. This had an impressive range of apple varieties irrigated by ditches of diverted spring water.
Just beyond this we found ourselves at the edge of a deep, steep canyon. ‘See that green patch over there,’ said Svetlana pointing across the canyon to an area about two thirds of the way up the other side, ‘that is the apple forest we are going to’. A rage of emotions flowed through me – exhilaration and apprehension soon crowded out by concern for Mark’s arthritic knees.
We descended the 300 metres on the
hotter, drier South facing slope – it was probably the worst possible surface for walking on with Mark’s knees (apart from pure mud maybe); steep downhill stretches on lots of rolling, round stones. It was hot and dry with sparse vegetation, the most common trees being junipers with the odd hawthorn. There were some interesting surprises however – for instance an edible allium that grows primarily on hot exposed rocky outcrops (Allium karatavense).
Svetlana was keen to explain the various plants to us. One small purple flowered plant (Ziziphorabungeana) found on the hot southern slope is burned in small stoves, and the soot collected from the smoke on the edges of the vent and used in the production of a fermented milk drink – looking for the black flecks in the drink is an important way to assess if it is homemade! Another plant that looked like an angelica (Atamanthamacrophylla) further down towards the creek is used for meat and fish preservation – leaves are wrapped around raw meat to prevent bacterial infection.
I surprised myself with knowing more Latin names than I thought. Often Svetlana did not know the English name for a plant but gave the scientific name which I often recognised to genus level. I think this attests not so much to my good memory, but the fact that so many of these plants are closely related to, or even ancestors of, plants that we have come to live with as humans and these are the sorts of genus names I must have absorbed by osmosis in my permaculture & related reading; I certainly never set out to learn any of them specifically. Three cheers for Linnaeus and his contribution to cross-cultural communication!
Svetlana was aided by a well-thumbed book of plants: ‘Flora and Vegetation of Aksu-Jabagly Nature Reserve’ 1973. Her copy is missing the cover and is protected with contact on the first and last paper pages, and each individual page has stickytape around the edges to protect it. There are plenty of notes in the margins – a well-loved and useful book. It was written by a woman called Nurania Karmysheva, who was the Park director during the Second World War – it contains 1306 species.
The highlight as we descended the steep dry slope was some dried bear’s poo on the path (yes, the odd things that amuse me…). Bears have been a major influence on apple evolution in the Tian Shan – they prefer the redder, sweeter apples and thus these apples’ seeds are moved around to other areas, and get to start life in a nice nutritious pile of poo. They thus tend to do better than apple seeds that have not been eaten by bears – thus driving apple trees towards redder, sweeter forms. And yes, this dry poo was full of apple seeds – very exciting!
At the bottom of the canyon flowed a swift, cold, turquoise river – a welcome relief from the hot dry slopes above. We drank the water, ate lunch and picked wild raspberries. I appreciated a single wild apple tree with small yellow fruits dropping onto the sandy edge of the river whilst Mark put a cool compress on his knee.
Not far above the river was our first experience of a thicket of wild apples. A red, a yellow and a green apple-bearing tree were all in full fruit. They could easily have been the ancestors of various modern varieties – the green looked like a small Granny Smith, the yellow like a Golden Delicious and the red like a dull Jonathan. They were all quite eatable too – the red one was especially delicious. It was quite a thrilling and emotional moment to be under these trees and feel that I was surrounded by ancient apple genetics.
The main apple forest was further up however, and we kept moving. Although going uphill, it was now milder, greener and shadier than it had been on our descent due to the north-facing slope.
We finally reached a quite dense patch of mostly apple trees, rather crowded with multiple branches and casting good shade. There were also what Svetlana called Mahaleb cherries (Padus mahaleb) – these were common trees that occur singularly (albeit with multiple suckers) and as a regular companion to the apples.
There was less diversity in the apples than I expected. All the trees were fairly similar and not too different from what one would recognise as an apple tree. The mature trees were around 6 – 8 metres high, multi-branched and spreading. The apples were various shapes and sizes (with small yellow round ones being the must common) but none of the tastes were anything I hadn’t tasted before in an apple – many were quite sour, bitter, floury and/or astringent but nothing unexpected. The only exception to this was the single apple tree down by the river, which had a slight resinous taste I had never encountered.
It was interesting that the apple forests were in smaller pockets than I had envisioned – I had expected widespread forests but in the Aksu-Jambagly Nature Reserve apple groves tended to occur in only valleys or gullies sheltered from the hot drying sun. (Although historically there were far more widespread areas of apple forest in these mountains, particularly near Almaty).
It was an exhilarating day. And yes, we even made it up and back out of the canyon.
The apple grove at Taldybulak was both awe-inspiring and a disappointment – a very impressive grove of tall, old apple trees (as well as many other species) but no fruit.
Svetlana said that the problem was unseasonal snow in spring had killed all the blossom in the valley, thus no apples. She said that often in autumn the path through the grove is unusable by horses, because of all the apples on the ground – round and in multiple layers. It was such a disappointment to miss this sight! Still, we did get to enjoy both the picturesque ambiance of the grove, and the striking contrast it made with the bare, rocky outcrops and rockfalls at the sides of the valley. And I must admit to hugging the odd tree…
These trees are quite different to the ones in Aksu canyon yesterday. They are taller, and generally with a single or double large trunk. Svetlana says they tend to form single trunks as they age, partly through shading making the lower branches superfluous, but also through bears attempting to climb up the trees to reach the fruit and breaking off the lower branches!
Understorey plants included: lots of tarragon, red clover, black raspberry, violets, vetch, various umbelliferon, a local Mentha, and in the shrub layer roses – including one collected for tea in winter that stains your fingers brown with oil when you harvest – and barberries as yesterday. Again, apple trees often grew together with the Mahaleb cherries. In the apple grove itself there was also some green grass –
like yesterday, the only place we saw much grassy understorey was in the apple groves. Maybe the grass likes apples, or they both like the same conditions?
Not all the apples occurred in groves, with single or clustered trees of a range of ages along the stream.
Other highlights included meeting my first wild carrot, and some marten poo on the path – bright orange and full of hawthorn and barberry seeds.
We also walked through an old, neglected almond orchard planted in the 50s, and saw from afar a similar apricot orchard starting to show a spectacular red autumn foliage.
Walking in town after lunch I was taking a photo of a particularly picturesque apple tree in a front garden (Mark: ‘When are you going to get sick of taking photos of apple trees?’ Me: ‘Give me at least another 48 hours’), only to hear ‘hello’ coming from the tree. We hadn’t realised he was there, but there was a man up the tree picking apples. He seemed very chuffed at tourists taking photos of him, and urged us to take more.
Apple trees are very common street and garden trees. Ramshackle shacks sport apple trees in their yards, and outside big swanky houses you can see apple trees poke over the high fences – and everything in between. It is nice to see fruit trees appreciated in such a way for the fruit, the amenity and the shade. Plantings of useful trees are far more common here than in Australia – shade is more appreciated (fewer air conditioners?)
In the afternoon we took a trip to a commercial apple orchard – a big splash of green on the bald rolling hills. The line of Lombardy poplars was testament to their windbreak ability, with the wind dropping substantially in the areas they protected. Here again though there were very few apples – maybe the same late snow as had occurred in the hills above? However the understorey was particularly rich and impressive including lucerne, rue, vetch, clover, tarragon, dandelion, oregano, dock and a rushy-looking grass species.
An irrigation pipe had recently been put in – Svetlana said that last time she had been there, there was only the channel system. Now there was 12mm polypipe and drippers.
There had also been a windbreak of some sort of leguminous tree that had recently been cut down but was coppicing vigorously. Svetlana suggested they may have been removed, as people do not like this plant as it spreads and seeds everywhere.
Seeing no one in the area, and very few apples, we drove on to another part of the orchard where we were met by a man on a tractor with a crate of apples on the back. He introduced himself affably and told us about the apples – a local variety called ‘Perfect’; they were about to be driven to a coldstore 30 km away. He whistled up the owner of the orchard who came down the rows and promptly told the tractor driver to get back to work, before he had even introduced himself.
After greetings, the exchange started with a joke, Svetlana asking him how the harvest was and what the best bearing tree was, Alshin pointed to a very small tree laden with red fruit saying with a laugh that this had been the best tree this year. It had indeed been a bad year! He is a retired train driver, having only come to orcharding in his retirement – he stated he didn’t know everything about orchards, but he did know everything about trains.
He answered our questions via Svetlana’s translations and told us a bit about the orchard – they have few pest problems, just a few apple ‘worms’ (codlin? – I’ve seen a couple and this is what it looks like) but he tries to be as organic as possible using few treatments and horse manure as fertiliser. When I complimented him on his understorey he looked a little uncomfortable and said he had not had time to slash. I told him that organic growers in Australia valued a diverse understorey, but I’m not sure he was convinced. The irrigation had been a recent (and expensive I gather) investment. He quoted a Kazakh proverb ‘Better a channel than 6 days of rain’ as his reasoning.
They grow five types of apple – with the top ones being… red delicious and yellow delicious (!!!). Yes, we’ve come halfway across the world to see the home and centre of diversity of the apple and we are standing in an orchard of deliciouses. Even in a country where I have yet to see any golden arches, or anyone drinking Coke*, globalisation is here…
As a parting gift we were given armfuls of red and golden apples. Ho hum. Svetlana was happy to take them home however.
There was time before dinner for a walk to the shop (for some vodka). Our timing was excellent as it coincided with the livestock returning for the evening – horses and cattle coming home along the main road, then an even bigger mixed flock of sheep and goats. As their houses approached, the cattle were happy to peel off from the herd and wait patiently at their gates to be let in. The sheep and goats however were being separated into various flocks in different house yards as we approached. The stock all seemed to know where they were meant to be going and with whom, but didn’t necessarily want to do it, or do it at the speed that their shepherds suggested.
We watched as a car drove slowly off the road and onto the side path to go around the flock, thinking how nice it was that the livestock were given priority on the road. This impression was shattered by a shiny black four wheel drive barrelling down the road and straight through the flock, tooting vigorously the whole way.
Apart from two small goats that frequent a particular nature strip in town (untethered), mixed flocks are the only way we have seen goats in Kazakhstan.
I’m now sitting at the table after dinner and eating halva and drinking tea. Tea is generally a nice light but fragrant version, generally brewed with fruit – we have had both a barberries version and a rosehip version – or with lemon added later, and no milk.
*Not that Coca-Cola is not for sale here, it is – I just haven’t seen anyone drinking it yet. The main use for Coca-Cola seems to be reusing the bottles for the fermented milk products available in all good general stores and marketplaces.
Today more apples. Mark is starting to complain about the amount of apples on this trip.
We were in quite a different environment today – hotter, drier, and more exposed than the sites we have been to so far (apart from the initial south facing slope at Aksu canyon). We walked along a creek with abundant willows (S. albus) and raspberries near the waterline, but dry grass immediately up the bank. The predominant trees were wild pistachios and hawthorns, with some accompanying apples and Mahaleb cherries. Svetlana explained that the pistachios are happy to grow anywhere, but the apples only grow where there is a bit of a depression, even if it is only very slight.
However there were no apple fruits, nor pistachio nuts, again due to the late snow in spring. Fruit-wise the abundant hawthorns (Crataegus pontica) were the star of the show – these bore big, yellow fruit that look like little apples and were not only edible but pleasant enough to enjoy nibbling on the whole way. We also ate black raspberries along the creek.
Some channels had been dug to distribute water from the track onto the hills. This had been done in Soviet times to help the pistachios and hawthorns but now, as Svetlana explained, this was ‘old thinking’ and it is expected that nature is left to itself, rather than helped along.
We could also see that a neighbouring hill had been planted out with trees in rows – these were more pistachios and edible hawthorns, also planted in the Soviet era to increase food security as well as reforest the hills – a very impressive initiative!
Besides encountering the odd apple tree near the path or creek, we went up a gully with a large stand of apple trees, and once again found ourselves in a wild apple wood, this one a bit more open and spaced out than the previous ones. Again there were no apple fruit – but it was still a wonderful feeling to be surrounded by these trees.
There were a couple of new plant surprises for me today too – more and more plants that I am very familiar with turn out to originate here. The first was as we stepped out of the car into a (deliberately planted – nice to see edibles used in this way!) walnut forest: a ground cover of lemon balm. Obviously juglone has little effect on it – there were few other plants present.
Later, amongst the grass as a companion to the pistachios, was a good stand of liquorice – I must try this pistachio/liquorice combination at home. On the way back to the village we stopped at a beautiful spring-fed lake and at the side of the water was not just watercress (fairly ubiquitous wherever you are), but what is commonly known in Australia as Lebanese cress*. This was a fill-in salad green used regularly in the Gravel Hill Gardens CSA I used to run, and its carroty taste has made it a favourite for me as an excellent pond, or moist area, plant. I might start calling it ‘Kazakhstan cress’ now…
Lunch was by the creek back at a ranger station (there was no sign of any rangers today being a Muslim holy day with families getting together for meals) in a forest of ash and walnut dropping their yellow leaves into the clear water. Being Australian we don’t get deciduous forests and to be in one in autumn when the leaves were blanketing the ground and falling poetically from the trees was a real treat. Svetlana took a photo of us eating saying that it looked like something from a tourist brochure (and added later: ‘not a tourist brochure from Kazakhstan’).
The trip there and back made for interesting viewing from the car window. In particular, we went through a town with a large Uzbek population where the houses shared an end wall with each other, making one long line of buildings along the street. Svetlana explained that Uzbeks have a much stronger culture of vegetable growing and thus need less space than the Kazakhs who need space for their livestock as they have a more pastoral culture. The sheltered courtyard formed by the Uzbek buildings would also provide a useful microclimate for vegetable production.
The space needed for livestock in the Kazakh home is not large however; they are taken out to range by day and are put in the barn at night and in the winter months when they are fed with stored hay – they don’t need room to graze in Kazakh yards.
The homestay we are at has 5 cows, some for milk and reproduction, and a couple growing for meat. For the seven warm months of the year they pay a monthly fee per head for someone to take the cattle out to pasture for the day and return them at night. This herder takes full responsibility for the animal during the day – if it is lost or killed, he must pay to replace it.
*Not the same thing that is often called ‘Lebanese cress’ in other parts of the world – and I have yet to track down the scientific name for it.
A horse ride across the steppes up another canyon today, with an impressive waterfall at the top. There were also plenty of apple trees on this jaunt, and unlike the previous two days, many of these were bearing fruit.
It wouldn’t have seemed right to come to Kazakhstan and not ride a horse – they are so much a part of the culture. They are still used
for transport, as well as eating. It is interesting to contrast this with the attitude to horses in Australia where most people would be quite disgusted by the thought of eating horse meat, but do not see a problem with locking single horses in small paddocks for teenagers to ride on the weekends. The free-ranging herds of Kazakh horses able to socialise and forage their own feed, even if they are destined to become horsemeat, seem to have the better life!
Our ranger, the young man who was so disengaged on our first trip into the Nature Reserve, came into his own on a horse, showing off his riding skills on the way to the canyon and became for more engaged with us too, picking apples from horseback from the trees growing along the track for me to sample.
These trees were in a different habitat again – occurring singly or in clusters along the side of the track rather than in dense groves. The different ways that we had seen the apple growing wild has given me some insight into why it has been such a successful plant in so many areas of the world – it is so tough and adaptable. Although in the hottest, driest areas the trees are restricted to valleys and ditches, albeit often quite shallow ones, they still grow and bear fruit quite happily in the 400 mm rainfall.
We also rode past some newly established apple orchards. All the new orchards we have seen have been apples, and all irrigated by ditches carrying water from springs.
This is our last day in the foothills and apple groves – tomorrow we head north onto the dry steppes.
So what has this experience given me overall? Primarily, an even greater appreciation of the apple than I had before. Growing in such a range of conditions – on hot rocky slopes and relatively moist riparian zones, coping with temperatures ranging from the high 30s to minus 20s (Celsius) – it is no wonder that the apple has proved to be such an adaptable plant all around the world. I also appreciate the apple as a tree: we call it a ‘tree’, but the ones we normally see and design for are more akin to a bush – a real apple tree is huge! I also have a deeper understanding of an apple tree’s place in an ecosystem, and a range of new ideas for companion planting.
The best part of the trip was the experience itself though: the excitement of seeing so many familiar plants in a natural setting and the feeling of deep awe to be in a grove of ancient apples…