Tuva Travel 2003 - Devan Miller
Chapter 1 - Centre of Asia
[We received this account of a visit to Tuva in early July 2003 indirectly from Devan Miller. - The Editors]
Hello Everyone !
This is the beginning of the long awaited journal I've promised from my journey to the Center of Asia (literally, they have the monument here along the Yenisei river which is created where the Biy-Khem and Kaa-Khem join together.
I haven't had much time to pull this newsletter into any kind of cohesion having only a few minutes here and there on a computer, so what you get are excerpts from letters and my journal.
So the Gist is that yes I am doing fine, eating incredibly well, it's been a week of fancy parties with the President of Tuva, the ministry of culture and famous throat singer's birthday parties. I'm eating meat at just about every meal and have tried han (blood sausage) a couple of times - luckily with a bit of vodka to chase it down.
It's quite warm-ish hot here, but we get a big rain every 5-6 days it seems. Here are some of my noteworthy tales thus far...
Being taken in by the Saryglar family and visiting with their extended family in the countryside near Kyzyl. They have beautiful, productive vegetable and herb gardens and a building sensibility that reminds me of a combination of Swiss log cabin chalet and Mexico shanty.
Hima and Orlan Saryglar have two young 'uns, a little girl Anita (who is a barrel of laughs) and Amir who is 16 and who usually hangs out with me when I come in to Kyzyl from their place just outside of town.
The Khoomei festival was great ! it was more than I could have imagined. We had
meetings with the president, the Ministry of Ed. and Culture. Press conferences, scientific throat
singing symposium and more Tuvan
throat singing than I could even process through my big
head. I also performed in the contest which went on for more than 12 hours with
about a hundred contestants. I was thrilled to have not won
Arriving at the Theatre we received an incredible reception on the steps of the town center where a beautiful yurt had been constructed near the fountain. There were extravagantly elegant deity girls on the stage at the theatre doors who draped white silk scarves around the necks of the famous veteran throat singers as they were invited up for applause. Surprisingly they did this to all of us motley dressed foreign participants as well.
I have been practicing my Khoomei with a couple of wonderful teachers, Fydor Tao who is about 70- 74 years old and with a younger guy named Igor Koshkende from a well known band called Chirgil Chin. My singing is sometimes improved and sometimes just feels pointless among so many amazing master singers. Some of whom are only 17 years old. But it's ok, I do this because it feels good and connects me to the world and earth in a meaningful way. I've never felt so humble and so.....
I made it into the local papers 2 or 3 times with some not so flattering pictures and vaguely accurate quotes. But still, very fun to seem so 'important'. I've made some good friends with both Tuvans and with other foreign guests. Mainly I'm hanging out with a mid-twenties guy from England named Jonah. Hima invited him to stay at her place as well. The Saryglars have given us Amir's room and she's been making us breakfast every morning and some traditional Tuvan and Russian dinners ( when we are not at some fancy banquet). I think Liz (my very special companion's) guess about me either gaining or losing weight on this trip will probably tend toward the gaining if anything. But so far even with all the rich and fatty and wonderful foods I am looking and feeling quite healthy and fit.
So, the most amazing part of this trip so far was the grand finale of the Khoomei fest where they took all us foreigners ( a few Americans, a small bunch of Europeans and a larger entourage of Japanese) to an amazing lake that spans the Tuva / Mongolian border. We camped there in yurts for a night, had our first traditional Tuvan meal for which they killed several sheep.
We saw one of the most magical sunsets that any of us had ever seen. We had a concert which we unfortunately got to experience a-lot of Tuvan pop music which is as bad or worse than any other pop music. I also did a lousy bit of singing that night and have decided not to perform for a while until I get a bit better.
Later that night we watched a fire ceremony performed by the Shaman who accompanied us on the journey. On our way out to the lake we stopped at ovas (places to make offerings and prayers to the spirits). we were also greeted by the local government and police upon arrival at the last town before the 15 miles or so of semi off-roading to the lake. Our bus driver was really into racing and he did things with our bus and butts that you might imagine doing on a dirt bike. He was quite good. We beat everyone except one of the cop cars.
So much to tell on this bizarre and wonderful and challenging adventure. So I
woke up late in the Yurt, but earlier than most, looked over to
see half a goat hanging by the door, dripping a bit of blood near my shoes. I
headed out for some breakfast, then to the beautifully pure
water of the lake for a swim (imagine giant lake of your choice, shallow, clear
and invigoratingly cool, surrounded by scrubbish arid dunes
I went for a walk along the beach to ditch all the activity for a while of
foreigners and translators and locals and important people from the
Khoomei center. Suddenly I was pulled up a sand dune , you know like when your
head just turns kind of automatically in the forest just in
time to see an owl or a pile of cool bones! Well I crested the hill and to my
astonishment there was a heard of 15 camels! I just watched
So my time is running short now, I'm about to meet with Hima.......
Later.... I'm back now we went to a beautiful arzhan (one of the many salubrious springs in Tuva). Drank water as it sprung up into a small metal sculpture fountain before draining into the pastoral landscape of goats, herders and grassy steppe. We were then invited up to the yurt of a nearby family. Where we had Tuvan tea, soft, milky, a bit sweet and salty, followed by a cup of the local wine spirit made from fermented milk called araka. All this as a thunder storm brewed in the distance.
And to finish for now.... Tomorrow I head out to Chadan in western Tuva to the Ustu Hure Festival which benefits the rebuilding of the oldest and biggest Buddhist Temple in the Republic. It was destroyed like the others by the communists. So I'll probably be out there for about a week then back to Kyzyl to study language and singing in the open spaces before going on vacation with the Saryglars to the north of Tuva, the place they say "until you have seen Todja you haven't seen Tuva."
Best wishes to you and send me your thoughts when you can,
Your friend and/or family Devan
Chapter 2 - A Ripple Of Milky Tea
Here's an entry into the world of Tuva I've experienced for the last week or so. It always seems best to start in the moment when there is so much to say.
First of all, thank you everyone who sent a reply to my last entry it's great to hear your encouragement, interest and other expressions. And also to hear of your lives back home or where ever you are!
It's a bit of a stifling muggy day here in Kyzyl. The whole world looks like a bowl of salty Tuvan tea from my window on the 7th floor of the anonymous communist-built apartment building where I stay with the Saryglar family (thanks to Stefan). We are preparing for a week long trip to the Todzha region of Tuva. This area is distinct from the rest of Tuva for it's reindeer herding culture, vast roadless lake-dappled forests and many rivers. The only way to get there is by hydrofoil boat or by air, plane/helicopter. The river is too low now to go by boat so we have decided to fly and if possible I will stay in the Todzha region for a few days longer than the Saryglars.
Well, my mind feels quite like scrambled eggs at the moment. Warm, mixed up and full of protein. I'm beginning to get my strength back after getting some kind of stomach/intestinal thing while camping and hiking in the high mountain country of western Tuva. This was an extended leg of the 3 day International Ustu-Hure Interfaith Festival of Alive Music in Chadan (appropriately called the Chicago of Tuva, because of its hooligans, we were aware of several thefts and a couple of attempted pocket pickings. In all fairness though excluding the hooligans, most people in Tuva, including Chadan are extremely friendly, kind and generous. Tuvan hospitality is like none I have ever seen.
Highlights from the trip:
Amir and I are in a bus full of musicians at the steps of the Khoomei center began the long beautiful and increasingly hot journey toward Chadan. Tuvan songs and improvising were the sounds that carried us through the grassy steppes as much as the rumbling gears and road. Every time you go over a significant pass on a road there is an Ovaa, a place to take a rest, have some nourishment and make offerings to the spirit host of the area. These are also sometimes accompanied by other monuments such as a place where the Dalai Lama has visited and blessed or a statue honoring Tuvan musicians and hospitality.
Our caravan of buses and mini-buses is full of 'Kyzillians' and folks from around the world. We're met at such an Ovaa on our way to a remote place called Sut khol (Milk Lake). Here we were greeted by the local Minister (Mayor) of the area, the local authorities, and presented with Tuvan Tea on silk scarves and cookies by two groups of royally traditional dressed women in the scorchingly pleasant heat of mid-day.
Before getting on that leg... first a bit about the festival. It was wonderful to again be hearing Tuvan music in the place of its origin, in the landscape; small groups practicing in circles in meadow and forest.
Our three day festival was spent doing a variety of wonderful things including loosely organized concerts and contest on the main stage, swimming in the river, all night jam sessions around the various fires, sleeping in yurts, visiting the virtual (in ruins) Ustu-Hure temple for a Buddhist ceremony......... and gee I'm sorry to be just listing these things but maybe it helps to weave some cohesion to the greater picture.
Reading my few notes from the festival I gather that mostly I was worn out from the whole festival and musician scene. I had decided not to perform this time around and to just take some much needed time to connect with the beauty of "this place is bizarre and wonderful but extraordinarily lonely sometimes not being able to really understand the jokes, the stories, the laughter and the songs."
Somehow I'm even missing Port Townsend, though really I'm longing for those beautiful Olympic mountains --- trucks, buses, cars and horses rumble across the cobbly creeks. Willows, pines, birch, wild flowers, sage-like brush surround. Meadows, forest, sand bar and big blue sky.
To list a bit more then on to the lake:
Watched an all day traditional Tuvan wrestling match (Kuresh) where in the heat of the day two men at a time try to struggle, trip, tug and by any means (except hitting, a kick is ok as long as you really meant to trip him) get the other guy to touch the ground with something other than his feet.
Ok, so, the rest of the festival. The real highlight came on the last night at the big fire circle jam. I have never seen such a stunning display of brilliant and hysterical improvisational singing, slapstick, story-tongue-twisters than that of the (slightly lit on vodka) younger brother of a world famous Tuvan musician, complimented by an equally genius accompaniment of accordion. The vortex of music and fire were enough to keep some up until actual morning but I usually pried myself away at the first sight blue-green dawn.
Finally we were on our way to Sut Khol (Milk Lake) From the Ovaa, where we had cookies and tea and left our coins and wishes, a third of us split off to ride in Russian jeeps so to take only two buses up the "road" toward the lake. This road was truly the worst one I have ever seen and local Minister (Mayor) who I rode with said that this was actually a good road and that when we get up further we will be on the bad road but asked us to please not cry when we see it.
Driving up these valleys were some of the prettiest scenery, dry scrubbish desert but with many trees near beautiful flowing green-pure water. Coming up into the foot hills of a grand range of mountains, stopping occasionally by a creek to sip water and cool off and admire the details of a hundred grasshopper variations.
As we climbed higher we approached more meadows and pine forest and began to leave the vastly arid topography behind. Resting from the dust inhalation and jostling roller coaster ride. Found an abundance of dandelion greens and ate them. Here we put all our packs in a big truck and took all the vehicles with passengers a last length to a nomad yurt camp. Where sheep and cows grazed in the steep meadows. Here they let us sprawl on the grass and gave us Hoit Pak to drink (a very sour, watery and coagulated kefir, actually pretty good in small amounts). Then we hiked up the steep trail about 3 miles to the pass where a powerful crag of rocks stood like a guardian. Our First glimpse of the lake.
Before my scrambled egg brain turns hard boiled from typing I think I will abbreviate the rest of this particular journey for now into one liners.
I hope you are enjoying the stories, I'll do my best to answer your questions as I write these and when I have time send a personal response.
Best wishes and Love from Devan
P.S. What a world of extremes, this milky tea day has brewed into a lightning storm, wet at a computer terminal at a hotel business center with Russian techno playing, power and phone line keeps cutting out. Hope you all get this and my blessings and prayers are with you.