Tuva Travel Report - August 2000
copyright 2000 Miriam H. Nadel
(This text is mirrored from its original location at http://www.cinenet.net/~mhnadel/travel/tuva/index.html )
It's extremely useful to arrive at the Irkutsk airport with somebody who used to work there. Thanks to Tatiana, we got to use the first class lounge and had a separate bus out to our plane. The Tuva Air Yak-40 was quite an experience. It was rather cramped but the really uncomfortable aspect was the drunk in the seat in front of me, who sprawled all over the aisle. Before takeoff, he had argued with the flight attendent because she wouldn't let him use the toilet - so he peed on the tarmac instead! His behavior didn't improve in flight, either, and I had to remove his arm from my person at least half a dozen times.
On arrival in Kyzyl, we were met by two vans (one for us, one for our luggage). Our interpreter, Eres, and the local travel agent, Lena, presented us with gifts - booklets about Tuva, maps, and postcards. Then we were whisked off to the luxury of the Hotel Kottege. The hotel is the best in town and past guests have included Boris Yeltsin and the Dalai Lama. For our first couple of nights, the only other guest was an Estonian businessman. This meant that, during our excursions away from Kyzyl, we were able to leave our bags in our rooms and take just small carryons with us. Anyway, we had lovely suites (mine overlooked the Yenisei) and, best of all, hot water! But an even bigger treat was in store - after dinner, we had a private throatsinging concert, which was simply outstanding. I believe Eres said that the singers were the original members of Huun-Huur-Tu, but I could be mistaken. They were, however, wonderful, whoever they were. A French couple came by and we invited them to join us for the music; they proved to be pretty much the only other foreign tourists in town and we'd run into them again.
We had originally planned to set off for Erzin in the morning, but had a change of plans as the Naadim Festival was going on. We drove to a field about twenty kilometers from Kyzyl and wandered around. At first glance, it looked like nothing much was happening, but it turned out to be very interesting to walk around. There were yurts from various districts (including one that was a tepee like design). We visited one yurt and I was impressed with the beautifully carved chests and thick rugs inside. We were given "white food" - fresh cheese (nice) and dry cheese (hard and bland). We wandered around more, admiring the VIP yurt for the President of Tuva and noting the yurt on a raised platform that had been erected by the civil engineering department at the local university. I gawked at some of the more elaborate hitching posts for horses, including one carved with all the animals of the Buddhist calendar. We also saw a sheep being slaughtered. This was far less gory than I expected. The slaughterer makes an incision in the belly, sticks his hand in, and pinches the aorta. There is really no blood outside at all. Since they carried the sheep into a yurt for the rest of the butchering, I can't speak to what that part of the process is like.
The President gave a long-winded speech to open the festival. One needn't understand a word of the language to get the gist of these political speeches - a lot of statistics about the past and promises for a better future. While the politicians talked, I shopped, buying one throatsinging tape. (Most of the tapes for sale were the generic Russian pop music, though.) Then we went off to look at the gathering shamans. I was especially intrigued by one man with Caucasian features who carried his drum in one hand and his briefcase in the other. I was also amused by a semi-clothed yogi sort, his barefoot female companion, and a blonde woman with them who seemed to be the type of spiritual groupie I had thought was confined to the Indian subcontinent and Marin County.
I should note that it was very obvious that the festival was an event for the Tuvan people and not at all a tourist thing. Aside from the blonde woman I mentioned above (who could very well have been a Russian) and the French couple, we were the only Westerners around. This shows how far Tuvan tourism has to go and was a sharp contrast with our later experiences in Mongolia.
Anyway, we stayed around (in a light rain) to watch the finish of the horse races. There was a large crowd and every now and then somebody would point or say something amounting to "I see them" and the crowd would erupt. However, there were never any actual horses to see. We waited and waited and finally gave up and went back to the van. We drove a short distance and then saw the horses, so we stopped on the side of the road to watch briefly before returning to Kyzyl for lunch.
After lunch, we strolled around the market and Martin, Jeff and I all purchased a 30 ruble History of Tuva (in Russian, but with good photos). In front of the theatre, souvenirs were for sale. Let me rephrase that - two souvenirs were for sale. Jeff bought the rug, but none of us was interested in the pair of dolls. There was a single shaman doll on display, too, but it was not for sale or I'd have been fighting Jeff for it. The shopping opportunities were better at the Artists' House. None of us cared much for the expensive paintings on the 2nd floor, but the 3rd floor featured soapstone carvings and I bought one of a dragon, while Jeff bought several.
We went on to the park to see wrestling, which is the most popular sport in Tuva and one of the major Naadim events. Traditional Tuvan wrestlers wear skimpy shorts and little jackets tied around the chest, while the officials wear the ornate robes and fur trimmed peaked hats that are also worn by throatsingers. The match is just to the first throwdown. We only saw the beginners event, but it was still interesting to watch. There was also a sumo demonstration. The paddy wagon used to haul off drunks was also pointed out to us, just outside the arena.
After we left the arena, we walked over to the Center of Asia monument - a perfect group photo site. The weather could have been better, but it was still a thrill. I should explain that an eccentric Englishman named Proctor erected the original obelisk locating the center of Asia in Kyzyl. Modern technology places the actual center a few hundred miles away, but nobody in Tuva cares. If you've seen "Genghis Blues" you would also expect to see a plaque honoring Richard Feynman at the monument, but it's been removed. There are contradictory stories regarding this - either it was vandalized or officials had it taken down for fear that it would be vandalized.
The evening featured a concert of national music at the theatre. We were smart enough to avoid the first part, which involved the official speeches and awards to various people. We walked around the theatre while waiting - and were conspicuously foreign enough to be interviewed by the local TV station. When the real event started, we found we had excellent seats. The opening had several throatsingers, leading to the grand entrance of Kangar-ol Ondar. But most of the performers were far less traditional - an opera singer, a ballerina, a storyteller who told a personal story about the first time she saw an automobile. There was a little more throatsinging in the second half, but also more pop stuff. After a couple doing a tango and a Ricky Martin type, I was waiting for an Elvis impersonater. There may well have been one, but we left partway through, since the hotel was keeping dinner for us and we didn't want to be back too late.
Our next morning's sightseeing started with a return to the Center of Asia monument to photograph it in better light. Then we walked over to the Buddhist temple. Buddhism came to Tuva around 1700 (brought by the Chinese) and there were over 20 monasteries when the Soviets took over, destroyed them and executed the lamas. Now there are a few again and more are being built. A young monk read a prayer/blessing for us to have a good journey. This went on for some time and involved a lot of chanting and sporadic bell ringing. Before leaving, we had to walk around the temple clockwise three times.
Our next stop was the museum which was, frankly, not very good. Ty had a long chat with the museum director (via an interpreter), while the rest of us had the official guided tour. There is a style of tour guiding that is unique to Russian museums, involving a pointer and long-winded lectures about every item in every display case, accompanied by marked indifference to the actual interests of the people being guided. Our guide insisted on naming every Tuvan killed in Ukraine in World War II and reading us newspaper clippings about politics, while skimming over material describing the evolution of the Tuvan language. She also displayed an unnatural interest in rodents while taking us through the natural history rooms. We managed to persuade her that her services would no longer be required before tackling the archaological exhibits and the material on Tuvan life. They are building a new museum and I can only hope they'll do a better job of highlighting the unique aspects of their culture. (Ty was not optimistic about this after talking with the director, but I can't speak firsthand.) Incidentally, I did buy a book of Tuvan folk tales at the museum shop - but it was published in the U.S.!
Ty stayed at the museum while the rest of us drove to a school to pick up a shaman who moonlights as the principal. Then we drove out of Kyzyl, stopped briefly at the statue of the Tuvan cowboy, and continued on to a sacred spring. The ritual at the spring is to wash your hands three times (purification from touching bad things), wash your face and ears three times (purification from seeing and hearing bad things) and rinse your mouth and spit three times (purification from saying bad things). You can then drink from the spring three times. We passed on doing the ritual, but the shaman blessed us anyway. This involved drumming, chanting and waving of incense.
After going back to town to drop off the shaman, pick up Ty, and have lunch, we were off for our first rural Tuva excursion. We followed the Small Yenisei River eastwards, towards the village of Erzhey, across the river from a larger village called Sizim. The trip started off on a decent enough paved road, passing several impoverished looking settlements and rusting farm machinery and what Martin referred to as "frozen construction" - buildings that were started but were never completed because money ran out. After an hour or so, the driver announced the road had ended and the adventure began. We jolted down a 4 wheel drive track, reminiscent of, say, Zambia.
At one point there was a muddy patch, partly under water, and the driver had to guess the best way through. A Tuvan on horseback was watching but, unfortunately, decided we were okay just a little bit too soon. No sooner had the horseman gone, than we were stuck. At first our driver told us to stay put, but we only got in deeper, so we all had to climb out - into ankle deep mud. The driver tied a rope to the front of the van and we tried a tug of war but failed and had to simply wait for help. The next vehicle to come by tried to pull us out - but the rope broke. Men got busy chopping down trees to try to lever up the side that was stuck, but even that (and some stones under the tires) didn't help. Eventually, another vehicle came along, equipped with a cable, and the two combined were able to free us, to a thunderous round of applause.
We continued on without getting stuck and then had to cross the river via a ferry. There's a good reason there was never a hit song about the "ferry cross the Yenisei." This was merely a raft, just about big enough to hold the van, guided by a cable. The mechanism is actually fairly clever as it uses the power of the river current. On the other side, the road was even worse and our driver had to maneuver frighteningly close to the trees. Finally, we got to a point where, Sasha, the caretaker for the lodge we'd be staying at could fetch us by boat. It took about another 45 minutes for the driver to make it by road (and a second ferry), so this was obviously the better way to go.
Was it worth the effort? Fortunately, the answer was yes. The wooden cabins were cozy and the setting was gorgeous - taiga forest along the Yenisei. The inhabitants of this area are primarily Old Believers and prefer their isolation and self-sufficient lifestyle. I should explain that there was a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1666 and Old Believers refused to follow the revised rituals. Some of the issues seem fairly trivial to an outsider like me (e.g. how many fingers are used when making the sign of the cross), but I can't say I'm knowledgeable enough to judge. At any rate, the Old Believers endured many years of persecution and settled in remote regions in order to practice their religion freely.
Our activities included a boat ride (Sasha wanted to check his fish nets and, after he did, took us to see some rapids), walking around the village of Erzey (the general store sells the thickest wool socks I've ever seen and Ty bought a couple of pairs), swimming in the Yenisei (again, suitable only for polar bears, with the added excitement of a dangerously fast current), and walking another path through the forest. There was also time for general lazing, an activity that can't be rated too highly. I should also note that the food was particularly impressive, including things like homemade bread and raspberry jam, fresh elk meat and sturgeon in pastry.
We gave Sasha's wife, a teacher, a ride to Kyzyl on our way back. She needed to go to the city for school supplies and didn't know when or how she would get home. She also said that she hadn't been paid in over a year. But it's not like there are other jobs available. The lifestyle is nearly self-sufficient (between farming, fishing and hunting), but there is still the need to buy grain products and clothing. A helicopter had crashed in the area some time ago and we saw lots of evidence of how the local population had made use of its components, with my personal favorite being the seat belt used as a latch for a gate.
After a night in the relative luxury of Kyzyl, we were off on another rural Tuva expedition. This one was to a lake in the south, near Erzin. Lake Tore-khol is at the border with Mongolia and there have been some tensions in the region in the past year or so, having to do with accusations of cattle rustling and horse theft. At any rate, this was actually further from Kyzyl, but was a far easier drive, with a road that was paved most of the way. We stopped a few times along the way. Our first stop was at a shamanastic site - poles arranged similarly to a tepee with cloths tied to them for good luck. Then it was on to a village where we looked at the local Buddhist temple. Eres said was the village was the original capital of Tuva but I didn't write down the name of. We ate a picnic lunch on the banks of a river, then continued on to a rock formation called the Eagle Rock, which really did resemble an eagle from the right angle.
Once we reached the lake, we settled into our accomodations for the night - a pair of yurts. These were the real thing, as evidenced by the members of our host family coming in and out all the time to retrieve things they needed. There were other yurts nearby, as well as enclosures for cattle, sheep and horses. I should note that we had brought along a support crew (2 cooks, in a separate van with another driver; that van also carried our luggage) and they set up tents. Martin had also brought tents and sleeping bags as, apparently, people on a previous trip had complained about the yurts. He decided to set up a tent mostly so that he'd know how to - a task greatly complicated by inadequate instructions, but Jeff and I were able to help him figure it out. (It was more amusing to watch him try to take down the tent the next day. There was a strong wind and it was definitely not a one person operation.) At any rate, I have no idea why there had been complaints about the yurts, since I was perfectly comfortable despite the lack of privacy. I should also note that the accomodations did go a step beyond rustic. When Martin asked our host where the toilet was, the reply was a sweeping gesture over the steppe. Finding tall enough patches of brush to act as sufficient cover was a bit challenging and there are, uh, some particular inconveniences to being female that I also needed to deal with. But one copes when one must and it's worth some minor discomfort to experience the real nomadic life.
Our hosts, Vladimir and Sakhda (I am probably hopelessly mangling her name, but that's as close as I can come) insisted we drink warm milk tea and served us "white food" (yoghurt) to welcome us. Vladimir is a throatsinging master and has traveled all over the world, performing and teaching. He talked a bit about Tuvan culture and told us that we have to have swum in Lake Tore-Khol to have really visited Tuva. All of us did take him up on that, though I didn't last very long. It may not have been as cold as Baikal, but my notion of reasonable water temperature is more in line with, say, the Indian Ocean.
The temperature dropped rapidly once the sun set so even those people who apparently have antifreeze for blood got out of the lake. Vladimir offered to slaughter a sheep for us, but didn't insist when we politely declined. The supplies we'd brought were more than adequate, anyway. After dinner, some of the boys wrestled for us. It was particularly interesting to watch the younger ones, who take it incredibly seriously and are so determined to win. Everyone got prizes of sweets. Later, there was a fire and some throatsinging, but in the meantime our crew put on a tape (Russian pop music, of course) and were dancing. I don't have to like music to dance to it and joined in, to their great approval (and offers of vodka, which I declined). I preferred the throatsinging, though. Vladimir explained Tuvans have seven styles of throatsinging, while Mongolians have only three and Buryats two. The main thing he emphasized was that throatsinging comes from the heart and that he considers his skill at it a gift. He also said that many of the songs are very long and, if he sang all of one, we'd be there for days. (The particular song in question, by the way, was one about a caravan to Beijing and was one we heard everywhere we went - definitely number one on the throatsinging hit parade! As I understand it, the lyrics run something like "I've been traveling for 60 days on the caravan to Beijing. It will take me another 60 to get home. I have a lot of camels." There is apparently one verse per day or one verse per camel or something like that. This reminds me of an old Flanders and Swann routine that - fortunately for my readers - I'm too lazy to look up. I will, however, provide a gratuitous link to my minor collection of bad off-color jokes involving camels.)
After a night snuggled under a warm sheepskin, I awoke early to the sound of bleating sheep. The morning activity was horse racing. Four of the boys rode off and, of course, all of the Tuvans insisted they could see them returning long before any of us saw any sign of a horse. The phrase "I see the horses" became a running joke among us. Personally, I was never able to decide whether the Tuvans have incredibly good vision or incredibly good imaginations.
After a lunch of fresh fish (from the lake, caught that morning), we drove back to Kyzyl. Along the way, we saw a herd of camels. This was unexpected as they are just allowed to wander this time of year, so they can fatten up for the winter. Our drive back was simple enough, but there was a minor complication in Kyzyl itself. Putin's Deputy Minister for Eastern Siberia was visiting (and staying at the Hotel Kottege) so we had to have our farewell to Tuva dinner earlyish. We were given more gifts, including a great picture book of Tuva, a liqueur bottled specifically for Naadim 2000, and a bowl to drink it in. The liqueur was challenging to bring home, but made it successfully, by the way. Our farewell toasts, however, were drunk with vodka and with some very nice Moldovan wine.
One of the side effects of an official visit (aside from our early dinner and a late breakfast the next morning) is that nothing in town was open. Our usual nightspot was a beer kiosk next to the hotel, but they' been ordered to close. We had planned to check out the local disco, but it was also closed. We eventually found a sort of youth party at the arena, an event for students before a service day for them the next day when they would be cleaning up the banks of the Yenisei. Almost nobody was actually inside the arena, but hanging around outside gave us the chance to chat with various students who wanted to practice their English. As well as to hear a sort of fusion of rock music with throatsinging. (The caravan to Beijing song again!)
Before leaving, I gave Eres a picture book of Los Angeles, which he seemed completely thrilled by. Our flight back was free of drunks in front of us, partly because we were in the first row. And so we left Tuva, on our way back to Irkutsk and further exploration of Siberia. I'll summarize more at the end of the travelogue, but for those who read only the Tuva part, I want to say quickly that this was the real highlight of the trip for me. What made it that was the friendliness and hospitality of the people and the feeling that we were being given an opportunity to see how they really live, not relegated to some cleaned up, comfortable tourist experience. I'll also note that this segment justified the organized tour aspect for me, as well, since much of what we did would have been impossible without the assistance and connections of Mir's local partner.