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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 December 2005, 12:11 GMT
Almaty apples get new lease of life
By Robert Greenall
BBC News, Kazakhstan

Orchard near Almaty
The high altitude adds to the flavour of the fruit
High above the city of Almaty, terraces of apple trees stretch around snowy hillsides bathed in the mild winter sunlight.

These are young trees - just five years old - planted as part of efforts to revive a culture for which Kazakhstan's largest city is famous.

The name Almaty comes from the Kazakh word for apple, and tasting the fruit here it is easy to see why.

Forget Golden Delicious - although Almaty has its own variety of that too - apples here are sweet and juicy.

The best is aport, a grapefruit-sized monster-apple weighing anything up to a kilogram.

The breed was brought from southern Russia, arriving just 10 years after the city was founded in 1855.

The first fruits amazed the local Kazakh population, themselves nomads and livestock-breeders.

Isolated

The relatively high attitude of the new orchards - up to 2,000m (6,560 feet) - seems to have had an almost magical effect on the fruit.

People started selling their land, especially in places like these, the best soil for aport. Many old orchards were destroyed
Yuri Alexeyev

"The height gave aport a new lease of life," local horticulturist and apple-lover Yuri Alexeyev told the BBC News website.

But aport's success is not by chance - apples have grown wild in the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains for 6,000 years, and it is likely that the fruit originated here.

For much of that time, they have been isolated from the rest of the world, staying free from the diseases which have blighted other apples.

Yuri Alexeyev
Mr Alexeyev remembers fallen apples filling roadside ditches

US scientists have started coming to Kazakhstan, seeking ways to replenish what they describe as the very shallow gene pool of world apples and boost their apples' immunity from disease.

The balmy climate here, where even in the winter snow the sun feels pleasantly warm, makes it easy to grow apricots, pears and other fruit.

And in spring Almaty displays its other great asset, tulips - introduced from this area into Holland via Turkey in the 16th Century.

Revival plan

The place of apples in the city's history seems at times almost mythical.

Mr Alexeyev described how as a boy in the 1960s he used to fish apples, which had apparently floated down from the orchards, out of the ditches which run at the side of the city's sloping streets.

Apples in Almaty

"They used to float through like leaves," he said. "We never even had to buy them at the market." This unusual source of nourishment dried up when Almaty was modernised in the early 1970s.

But in recent years, both the wild apples and the cultivated aport have suffered as a result of the chaos that followed Kazakhstan's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Land development has taken its toll, while state-run orchards have been sold off leaving private owners to do as they please with the land.

"People started selling their land, especially in places like these, the best soil for aport," said Mr Alexeyev. "Many old orchards were destroyed."

Now the only source of apples is those small farmers who held onto their orchards.

Even in the city's main market, the Green Bazaar, they have to compete with imports from Kyrgyzstan.

Now a government plan is under way, run by President Nazarbayev's daughter, to save the fruit, known as "Let the aport live".

No-one knows how effective the programme will be, but the aport trees are resilient and specialists believe that with a little care and attention the orchards can be restored and preserved.




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