Tuva or Bust - The Belic Expedition
Words by Roko Belic and Adrian Belic
Roko and his brother Adrian Belic are currently working on a documentary on Paul Pena. Paul is a true blues man who has played with the likes of T-Bone Walker, B,B. King, and Bonnie Raitt. After learning about Tuvan throat singing from a radio broadcast, he taught himself the art of throat singing. After meeting some touring Tuvan throat singers, he impressed them with his self-taught technique. He was then encouraged to enter the Siberian contest of multi-harmonic "throat singing", and he won the competition in one of the six main styles of singing. He also took the "audience favorite award." The five minute trailer of the film is an epic show documenting more than just a trip. According to a press release it's about "exploration and friendship." It is the story of a man whose struggle in life is not defined by conformity and rules, but by curiosity and risk. This documentary will be awesome.
The cost of the flight was a little under $1,000. This included the local flight from Moscow's "local" airport to the city of Abakan in Southern Siberia. My film crew and I flew on Aeroflot Airlines, had a short stop in Seattle and then flew over the North Pole to Moscow, Russia. I can't quite remember what the times were flying over, but I remember that when we flew home, (the same flight pattern), we left Moscow at 11:30 AM on a Friday and landed in America at 5 AM on the same Friday even though it took ten and a half hours. You may want to call Aeroflot to confirm the interesting time anomalies. Also, the flight over gave us something like two continuous days of sunlight!
We were rudely welcomed to the Post Soviet version of Western Capitalism after leaving the terminal. On the curb we were accosted by large, burly men. They told us that they would take us where we wanted to go for $100, and ended "now get in". After fending off these offers, a nice fellow came over, pulled us aside and told us to not go with those people since they were mafia types. He offered to take us for $80. Some of the other guys saw him talking to us, immediately called him over and made him leave. We ended up getting a ride from someone else for free.
The local flight was filled beyond capacity, and there was one flight attendant who looked like a heavyweight wrestler with make-up. There was always one on each flight. We got off the ground and because of the amount of people it was hot! No sooner did we get off the ground when a cabin boy turned on the air conditioning and froze the sweat on our noses! The comfort factor plumrnetted with the cabin pressure, and on a high note, the freezing of body moisture gave a reprieve from the stench that came along with the crowd.
Kyzyl has about 80,000 people and a third of them are Russian. The town has a center square with the National Theater, the government building, post office, telecommunication building, and a 30 foot statue of Lenin.
It's like a shitty small American city with no decorations at all. The buildings are like blocks with square holes for windows. The tallest building is nine stories The meaning of the word "skyscraper" is a nine-story building! Some people don't know that there are taller buildings in America. There are two paved roads in the whole country. One runs North/South and the other East/West. In Kyzyl, there are a few more roads, but all are within a five block radius. The rest are all gravel, dirt roads, or a trail in the grass. There are eleven street lights in the whole country --- all in Kyzyl. Kongar-Ool drove in San Francisco and in seconds, drove through more traffic lights than his entire country.
We asked everyone about nightlife. We found out about a Chinese restaurant run by Tuvan Mafia guys in the National Theater building. It was difficult to get a reservation there, but for some reason when we showed up, we got in. Some people were dressed in suits which was weird. It appeared to be a normal restaurant, and then all of a sudden, German techno music blared from the speakers, and some people started dancing. After a couple of songs, the music stopped. People sat down at their tables, and it got quiet. Then the music start ed again for a few songs, and then stopped again!
The Russian Mafia's power exploded after the slackening of Communism in 1991. The influence from Moscow spread and hit Tuva when we were there. I saw foreign TVs in some stores on my first trip just a few months earlier, and when I came back, all of the stores had foreign goods. The Mafia had taken advantage of people who bring stuff into town. They get "taxed". They take money from everyone, then give it back by sponsoring Tuvan athletes travelling abroad. The Mafia also helps organize horse races which are popular. I heard that they actually bought someone a car after that person made them proud to be a Tuvan.
There's a big division in the population. After an uprising in 1991, the Tuvans told the Russians to get out. Moscow said that Tuva could not secede, but the Tuvans, in revolutionary spirit, knew they could. So, tanks were sent to the border, and although there was civil unrest, no military action occured. While we were there, we wanted to go to the far west towns, but people told us it was dangerous since there were thugs everywhere. When we went and looked for a place to stay we couldn't find any Russians around. We did, however, see some crazed kids wearing leather and yelling in the streets. Eventually we found a hotel, and after knocking for a while, a terrified Russian woman answered the door, shoo'd us in, and then slammed the door quick. She's had many bad experiences. Russians are practically "shut in" by society in that area. People gave us some looks, but when we tried to speak Tuvan they were cool, since most Russians wouldn't try it.
Small Places and Bloody Sausages
We went to small towns to see how the representation of "traditional" culture was compared to the bigger cities. People look at you in a way that reveals they have no clue about where you are from. We met Kongar-ool's mom, and our differences were so great, she didn't cross it.
When an honored guest arrives at someone's village, they are offered a sheep to eat. Paul Pena, the throat singer we were documenting, qualifies as an honored guest, so we were bummed. First, Paul has no teeth, and second, we are vegetarians. So this was something different. Everytime we would see sheep we would drop our heads since we knew that we would be eating their bloody guts lightly boiled. This was called "han." So basically, it was blood and guts. Women take the shit out of the intestine and braid the guts to make it look neat. Men cut up the sheep and drain its blood to let it coagulate. The 'han' feels like you are chewing an innertube full of gelatinous body fluid. Everything is burgundy, dark brown like an old wound, but it's boiled so it's smooth. I tried to eat the least amount I could. One piece of it was the size of a sausage on an Egg McMuffin. I would chew the thing for a long time, and it just wouldn't go down. Then, I would either swallow it or spit it out. Kongar-Ool would tell people that we liked to eat "han", so we had to eat it. Tuvans enjoy it a lot. It's sacred and you have to eat it fresh.
Center Of Asia
I saw pictures of the monument in a documentary. When I got there, I was pumped. It was the greatest. We got naked in front of the monument and took a picture. It was 40-45 below zero.
A string of bad luck came into our group. Bad things were happening. One guy had a small cut on his finger and in a week it was filled with pus and got huge. It was infected badly. The hospital had a shaman who told him to pop it. Then this other guy got really ill, and we thought he might die. We also had camera problems.
We purchased a shamanistic drum. Kongar-ool thought that maybe the bad luck happened since we weren't shamans. We had to have the drum inspected to see if it had a "tail.". If it did, the shaman had to cut it off. We wanted to see this bad. So this plain clothed man came, declared that it didn't have a 'tail", and after that everything got better.
The greatest is hitching. Everyone is a potential taxi in Kyzyl. You can walk up to any car and ask for a ride for cash. (This happens sometimes.) Otherwise, Tuva has a decent third world style bus system.
The phones are weird. You dial a number correctly and then you get the wrong person. I imagine there's a person at a switchboard making mistakes. There was one fax machine in Tuva and they would shut it off when they go to sleep. The president uses this machine!
Perhaps the triangular stamps of Tuva are the country's most popular export, aside from throat singing. Many years ago, they released more stamps than just about every other country for no reason! Check out stamp stores or conventions. These stamps are cool.
The economy is fucked up. Ever since the fall of Communism, the country has been fucked. Tuvans are dependant on Russian money. Some people haven't been paid for five months! I really don't understand how people survive out there. American money goes a long way. A bus trip that was a fifteen-hour ride was only a few bucks. You can also buy things like a Sony TV and chocolate, but it's more expensive there than in America. Yet people who make about $50 a month and haven't seen a dime of it for months still manage to buy these items.
Mountain passes in Tuva are sacred. People pray there, and in some passes, people are trying to develop businesses. One guy had a gypsy wagon cart. It's like a hut that he and some friends live in. They have been chopping down trees to build a log cabin McDonalds! He even asked Kongar-Ool for pictures to see what they looked like in America. They were chopping off bark to make a drive-thru Golden Arches!
People in the country side get drunk and often stab each other. The hardcore nationalist cultural center of Tuva is a place called Chadaana. It's a village of log cabins. Even there, people are stabbing each other. In Tuva, kids get drunk, talk shit, and then they stab each other and run away. I thought this was a Russian thing, but it's not --- these are Tuvan kids. Ever since Russians introduced vodka, kids have been getting drunk. Tuvans used to drink araka, fermented mares' milk. In the past, this drink was only taken in by people who were at least 40 years old. Now everyone drinks.
Almost every family takes a summer trip. People go camping in the summer, sleepmg in tents, or wherever they can. They also enjoy visiting hot springs. That's really big and traditional. Everyone does it. Tuvans sit around, talk, sing songs, etc. Russians do the same except with an acoustic guitar. This goes on in the streets and it's a cool thing.
There's a gold broach that's made by the Scythians who were in Tuva. It's ten inches in diameter of a lion biting its tail. That's a big symbol of Tuva. There are some stone carvings you can buy, too, since that's big there. The worst thing you can do is buy the leather bags and things that go in yurts (tents). It's bad. It's almost sacred and a part of the country. The hats and boots with the curved tip are cool gifts.
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