Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

We mark ten years of contributions to hidden europe by Laurence Mitchell with an article which comes from well beyond the borders of Europe. Join Laurence as he explores the walnut forests of Arslanbob in Kyrgyzstan.

article summary —

Kyrgyzstan has occasionally been described by excitable journalists as “the most beautiful country in the world” — a grand claim but one that doesn’t seem so exaggerated given the country’s panoply of dazzling mountain scenery. For anyone visiting, or even just webbrowsing,
Kyrgyzstan can soon become reduced to a handful of photogenic tropes: snowy peaks, jailoos (alpine meadows) dotted with yurts, herds of
chestnut horses and gimlet-eyed men brandishing hunting eagles. There is much to admire here but for me one of the most appealing places in the country is far from that which is typical.

With a population that is almost entirely Uzbek, the village of Arslanbob in Jalal-Abad Province might seem to have more right to belong to neighbouring Uzbekistan but its ethnicity owes more to twentieth-century politics rather than to the constraints of geography. Arslanbob is undoubtedly special, a place apart; perhaps the closest that Central Asia gets to having its own Shangri-La.

Radiating haphazardly from a central square, Arslanbob is a picturesque sprawl of stone-built houses and rough rock-strewn streets that extends for miles in every direction. Located in the sloping foothills of 4427-metre-high Babash-Ata, a towering heft of rock that rises to the north, the village spreads far uphill, but the central square that serves as a social and commercial centre of gravity with its barbers, provisions stores and single bank, lies somewhere around the halfway point in terms of altitude in what must be one of the largest villages in the world.

This is just an excerpt. If you are a subscriber to hidden europe magazine, you can log in to read the full text online. Of course you can also read the full article in the print edition of hidden europe 47.


Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 47.