Journal of a Journey to Tuva
by Silvia and Gerhard Auer
Between July 18th and August 25th, 1995 my wife and me visited the Republic of Tuva.
Tuva is situated at the centre of Asia. It is twice the size of Austria but has only about
400.000 inhabitants. Its capital Kyzyl lies at the confluence of the Great and Small
How did we get an idea of that place? It began in November 1994 when we accidentally
came over a CD with throat-singing. It was from a group called "Huun Huur Tu"
who lives in a place called "Tuva". When we looked it up in an atlas and
realized that it was a part of Russia, we forgot about our initial plan to go to the USA
in the summer holidays of 1995.
Because we had already been to Russia three times before, we knew what we needed most:
an invitation. So I tried my newest "computer game" - my Internet account. I
quickly found a newsgroup ALT.CULTURE.TUVA. There people discuss different topics about
Tuva. I asked for help there and got an answer. A teacher from Tuva, Aldinay Bin-Olovna,
was spending a year on training in the USA and she wanted to help us to get an invitation.
She gave me a name and a telephone number in Kyzyl. That way I came into contact with
Rolanda Nikolayevna Kongar. She told me that she could send me an invitation. When she
heard, that I also teach English in Austria she asked me if I could talk to her pupils in
the summer camp. I gladly agreed.
With the invitation from the Lyceum of the Republic of Tuva it was no problem to get
the visa in Austria. The problem was to get the flights. I could not get flights to Kyzyl
in Austria. Nobody knew that place and even Aeroflot in Vienna could not tell us flight
plans of Russia. So we only could get tickets to Abakan. From there we had to get the 450
kilometres to Kyzyl somehow.
From Innsbruck we drove to Munich by airport taxi at 4 o'clock in the morning . From
there we flew to Moscow. I had arranged our transfer from Sheremetovo to Domodedovo in
advance. Friends, who we had made on our first trip around the Black Sea, had helped us.
Because we wanted to ride our bikes in Tuva, we had quite a lot of excess-luggage, about
50 kg. So there was some trouble with Aeroflot in Domodedovo. I had to pay a "special
tax" to the men handling the luggage to be sure that our bikes would be on our plane.
We arrived in Abakan together with our bikes. At the airport we took a taxi to town.
There we wanted to catch a bus to Kyzyl. But the driver did not want our big boxes and the
rest of our luggage in his bus. But we were lucky again. At the bus terminal a man who
wanted to drive to Kyzyl by his private car was waiting for somebody to go with him. We
agreed on his price, $ 80.-. After a seven hour's ride we arrived in Kyzyl. There we had
to find a room in a hotel because we wanted to sleep after a journey of more than 37
hours. We got to hotel "Odugen".
The next day we moved to the flat which belonged to the Lyceum and met Oleg. He told us
that he would go to the camp the other day and that we could go by that same boat if there
were some seats left. We were lucky again and got the tickets. The boat was overcrowded
but it went upstream. On the boat we met some pupils from the Lyceum. We were very
impressed by the beauty of the Yenisey River and its rapids. But we did not realize that
the journey would be that far, 270 km and 12 hours. In Tora Xem we were met by teachers of
the Lyceum.We had to take a bus again. We nearly toppled on our way to Lake Azas because
the way was bad and slippery. After an hour's ride we arrived at the camp. We were warmly
welcomed by the teachers, the pupils and Rolanda Nikolayevna, who had only been a voice on
the phone to me until then.
During the following days we got a very good impression of life in a summer camp. We
were very impressed by the creativity of the pupils in inventing games and activities. We
learned a lot about school in Tuva and in return we told the pupils many things about the
Tyrol and Austria. A highlight was the performance of "A Midsummernight's Dream"
by the pupils. Doing the play with playback gave me an idea how I could do English plays
with my own pupils.
During our five-days stay we went on excursions to the "Green Lake", on a
boat trip on Lake Azas and to a hill overlooking Lake Azas. Todja is a very beautiful
corner of Tuva. The only bad thing was the great number of mosquitoes.
When we came back to Kyzyl we began to prepare for the main purpose of our stay: the
bike tour. We had to unpack and assemble our bikes and we met with Mergen. He was our tour
guide. We had originally intended to do the tour on our own, but our hosts did not trust
the hospitality of their fellow countrymen. So we agreed to be accompanied. It was a new
experience for us because we had always gone on our own before. Mergen had been on many
bike tours in and around Tuva before. So he knew the roads and sights.
We agreed on a route which would take us out of Kyzyl to Lake Tuz Xol, Samagaltay,
Erzin and Lake Tere Xol. We were very impressed by the beauty and pureness of that lake. I
also enjoyed watching the birds. There were lots of them.
After two days we rode back to Samagaltay and along the Mongolian border to Torgalyg.
We were not allowed to go to Xandagaity along the street crossing Mongolia because we were
foreigners. So the border guards took us to a pass in a truck. We were told that there was
a way to Xandagaity which was bikable. That was not true. So we had to push our heavy
bikes (between 40 and 50 kg) most of the time uphill or across meadows and bushes. We only
made 15 km that day. The other days we made between 85 and 110 kms. We slept in a yurt.
The next morning we had a bad experience with a drunk Tuvan who wanted to beat Mergen
because he thought Mergen had offended his sister. Mergen had to flee on foot and Silvia
and I worked for two hours to get his bike and luggage out of the camp together with our
things. I also used an emergency signal rocket to get the drunkard out of our way.
When we arrived at Xandagaity we went to relatives of Mergen. We stayed in town for two
days to get a rest and to give our bikes a service. Then we went on to Sagly and Mongun
We stayed at a quarantine station near Mugur Aksu. From there we climbed Mount Mongun
Taiga. It was a very hard day because we had to get up at half past three, drive to the
mountain by bike, climb it and go back to the station again. We arrived there at half past
twelve at night. So we needed another day to relax.
After that we drove off to a pass which led to the River Shuy Valley. Because that pass
was so high (more than 3000m) we had to rent horses. There we had our biggest problem.
Mergen had told us that at the other side we would quickly come to a road. He did not know
that rainfalls and floods had ruined the road and torn away the bridges. Most of the time
there was only a path for horses with lots of big stones where the bikes tilted with stuck
tires and the front cog wheel crashed against the stones several times. Therefore we had
to push and even carry our bikes a long way. We also had to cross the river several times.
So it took us two and a half days to reach Teeli completely exhausted. It's a great area
for trekking but don't take bikes with you!! Also some of our most valuable things were
stolen when we again rented two horses to get over two steep cliffs. The police in Teeli
was very helpful and they were able to find most of the things again. I paid for the
petrol because they needed it to find a car th at could take them back over a high pass to
the yurt where we had rented the horses.
The last part of our trip was the ride to Ak Dovurak. From there we took a bus to Kyzyl
because we were awaited by Rolanda Nikolaiyevna after 23 days.
Back in Kyzyl we had a lot to do. We packed our bikes, met teachers of different
schools, visited the Lyceum, went sightseeing, were invited by Alessa and Tatyana, looked
for souvenirs, had a date with a shaman and the Minister of Higher Education.
Our way back to Austria was the last adventure of that trip. First the taxi driver did
not show up in the morning because he wanted to have more money. So Rolanda Nikolaiyevna
and her husband had to look for another driver. We were late when we left Kyzyl. The ride
on that car was nerve-racking, too. The motor ran on gas or petrol and sounded like it
would not do all the way to Abakan. At a checkpoint of the GAI (traffic control police)
our driver had to fix his handbrake two times before we could go on. But at last we were
in Abakan on time.
In Moscow we were awaited by our friends who took us to a flat for sleeping and to
Sheremetovo airport the next morning. There we nearly missed our flight because we were
sitting happily in a restaurant celebrating our return home in advance. At last we arrived
in Munich, got our taxi to Innsbruck and realized that nothing had changed at home during
the six weeks we had stayed in another world.
What were our impressions of Tuva during our trip ?
Compared to Europe Tuva is a very lonely place. We met few people and cars during the
days on the bike. Nature is very beautiful and seems to be intact. We saw a lot of birds,
especially birds of prey. Only people dump their waste wherever they are. Therefore it
looks pretty messy around the yurts and in the villages. The problem will get worse with
all the heavily packed western goods.
Biking in Tuva was a very shaking experience. Paved roads only exist in the central
valley and lead to Erzin and to Abakan from Kyzyl and Ak Dovurak. The other roads are
gravel, sand or dirt roads. So wide tires are a must. We also met only few cars or trucks
on our way. Sometimes only three or four a day. Tuvans also seem to prefer driving after
nightfall. Spare parts for western bikes or even for the Russian bike of Mergen were not
available. Our bikes (MARIN Pine Mountain) worked very well. I only had two flat tires due
to an improperly mounted ribbon inside a rim and a tube too small in diameter. We only
nearly ruined them in the valley of the Shuy River where we had to push or carry our bikes
quite a lot.
Life in the yurts was also very interesting. It reminded me of life on our Alpine
pastures as it was a few decades ago. We watched the herders and their families preparing
lots of different dairy products. A big problem seems to be heavy drinking of men and
sometimes women. We watched lots of drunk people during all times of the day.
The Tuvans seemed to be very shy and reserved against strangers. We could not speak
much with them. Most of the time they asked Mergen about us even when they knew that we
spoke Russian. So in some respects we only got a "second hand" impression of
Tuva because of Mergen. On the other hand we were able to get into many yurts because of
him and so got some insights into rural life.
Life for common people is very hard. Prices for food and products are very high as
everywhere in Russia, especially in the countryside and unemployment is common. Running
water and canalization only exist in Kyzyl.
Tourism is evolving. Compared to European standards it is nearly non-existing. We only
met two small tourist groups and some journalists in Kyzyl. On our bike-tour we met none
and Mergen told us that we had been the first foreigners in many areas. Despite of that
authorities should think about an infrastructure to handle more tourists and about ways
how the local people could get a fair share of the money tourists are leaving in Tuva.
That way Tuvans can get into contact with the tourists and that could prevent them from
xenophobia or crime common in other countries where "rich" tourists meet poor
Back to The Friends of Tuva Page.