FOBOS: Weather in Kyzyl/Tuva
Kyzyl Weather

Friends of Tuva 25 Years Later
August 14, 2006
by Ralph Leighton

In August, 1981, twenty-five years ago this week, I sent out an announcement by postal mail (e-mail had not yet become widespread) to various friends, calling their attention to August 14, 1921, when the “shepherd’s republic of Tuva” was declared to be independent of its traditional rulers China and Mongolia.

I’m not sure why I did it. Perhaps I wanted to share my delight of discovery, sparked by a dinner conversation several years earlier with the physicist, adventurer and raconteur Richard P. Feynman — who remembered the wonderful triangular and diamond-shaped postage stamps issued in Tuva’s name in 1936.

We wanted to know: could the romantic, nostalgic scenes depicted on those stamps — yurt-dwelling hunters and herders with their yaks, camels, and reindeer in winter; wrestlers, archers, and horsemen competing in a summer festival — still be found in Tuva, fifty years later?

In our attempts to find out, we learned about something that was not shown on the stamps: the mysterious art of throat-singing (khöömei), in which a soloist can produce two, three, or even four tones simultaneously. In addition, we had the pleasure of corresponding with many interesting people, including the courageous guardian of Tuvan culture Ondar Darymaa, and the noted Russian ethnographer Sevyan Vainshtein. And in our attempts to reach Tuva, we accidentally arranged for the largest exhibition of archaeological and ethnographic artifacts ever to come to the USA from the Soviet Union. It was called Nomads: Masters of the Eurasian Steppe.

But despite these unexpected successes, we still had not found out whether the lost world of postage-stamp Tuva still existed, when Feynman died of cancer in 1988.

Since then, the “disorganization” I inadvertently founded in 1981 evolved during the 1990s into a mailing list of several hundred “friends of Tuva” who received an occasional newsletter; that mailing list later dissolved into a website thanks to a generous Canadian from Manitoba, Mr. Kerry Yackoboski, who still maintains it today at

Today, twenty-five years later, I am struck by how easy it is to obtain information about Tuva, now that the Internet can bring articles, images, and sounds almost instantly to any computer. What took Feynman and me over ten years to find out — from libraries in the USA, as well as from individual correspondence with experts in the field — can now be found out in less than ten minutes.

But that makes me wonder: is such an instant overload of information perhaps not as satisfying as the gradual revelation of one’s object of interest? And are curiosity and “the pleasure of finding things out,” as Feynman described it, perhaps diminished by such instant information? If so, then here’s to savoring small discoveries about the wonders of the world, especially those of Tuva.