Horse Trip To Tuva , 1998
WILD TOURISTS IN TUVA
During a summer-long trip to Russia, I and Jonathan, a Canadian traveller I met in a Moscow youth hostel, have been visiting Tuva republic for forty days in mid-summer 98.
Although Jonathan knew a bit about Tuva from the Lonely Planet Russia, I told him a lot more mysterious and attracting facts I mostly learned from FoT. When preparing my Russian trip, I read with great interest "Tuva or Bust". Then, my desire to get there just kept on growing.
Before arriving in the republic, we already had been hiking in the polar Urals and Altay's Beluka areas. But, this time, every thing would be very different. First, we wanted to buy horses. Many people told us the average price for a horse and saddle would be around $500. Affordable. And, if lucky, we could even sell them back at the end of the trip. Second, to take the most of them, we could ride the horses for at least a month along the southern route from Samagaltay to Mungur Axyi as we saw it on our map bought in Moscow. Lonely cowboys in the steppes of Central Asia: our common dream would become reality.
This already seemed quite adventurous. We were both at a mere year of study of Russian language. Would there be anyone out there speaking anything else than Tuvan, ready to negotiate with those funny young americans - I'm French but who cares ? I was a rather OK rider but Jonathan only had his first try at horses in Altay, two weeks ago. And what about those frightening tiny Mongolian horses? Well, of course, reality was to be far more unpredictable.
Arriving from Abakan, Khakasia, by bus, we pass a weird taiga of thin dark-green spruces, then forest fire blackened hills and finally a large valley of bright yellow steppe. In the heart of it, along the Yeniseys, lies Kyzyl. Not that strange a name, by the way.
In the afternoon, we walk around the center and unexpectedly find a cheap hotel. A real cheap one. Mongulek Hotel isn't $19 a night any more as the guide book announced, but only $3. Maybe because there's only one tap functioning in the whole five-storey building. Cockroaches feel at home in the forgotten bathrooms. Luckily, we have a very nice babushka in charge of the corridor. She brings us a couple of buckets in the day to flush the toilets.
With fifteen days of food supplies, we leave the capital and head south to Samagaltay for 170 kms. From the bus windows, we happily notice that nomadic settlements of traditional yurts get more and more frequent in the vast meadows along the road. To us, it makes a big difference with the neighboring republic of Altay, where yurts have almost disappeared from the roadsides in favor of the common Siberian lodges. Our jealous eyes are also attracted by youngsters riding in small groups. Yes, Tuva is a country of riders.
At the entrance of Samagaltay, the bus stops for a GAI control, the road police. The two foreigners are asked to go for verification to the office. All is fine, so the bus starts again. But, on arrival in this nice village of wooden sidewalks, a bunch of cops are waiting for us. We have to follow them to the police station and, there, explain our reasons for visiting them. According to the boss, the first problem is that I am the only one to have Kyzyl listed on my visa. Jonathan wasn't expecting to get to Tuva originally. Second, our route happens to be part of the border zone with Mongolia. And, to go there, foreigners need an authorization from OVIR, the migration office in Kyzyl. However, the police officer assures us that it is a mere formality and that we'll be back here within 24 hours. For sure...
For now, it's 6 PM and the sun is declining. We are sent back to the GAI post out of town where those guys are told to wave down a car for us on its way to the capital. On this dusty road not a single car appears at the horizon by sunset. So we end up camping in the bushes and spending the evening with some of the most corrupted and dreaded state servants of the Great Russia, GAIs.
Wild tourists are we?
In the morning, we get a lift. Here, like anywhere else in the country, it's taken for granted that a hitch-hiker has to pay the equivalent of the bus fare to the driver. But this time we are lucky, we get a ten rouble discount.
Back in Kyzyl, we wait for three days for the weekend to pass and for OVIR chief Elizarov to arrive at the office. He explains us that the needed permission is no problem on the condition that we are escorted by a local: a guide. For independence and financial reasons, we never planned to do so, but Elizarov makes it clear: no alternative. Next day we have a meeting at the Department for Tourism. As all communication is done in Russian, we have to make great efforts to explain our situation and wishes. No need for expensive Intourist-like package, just three horses, rent now, and a local rider for a month. Even if it sounds weird to them, they understand it. They even have a word for us: Diki tourist - wild tourist or independent hiker. Next day, Olec, our interlocutor, makes us a miraculous offer of $4 each one! Later in the afternoon, for clarity, we happen to write all this down. The actual offer was in fact $10 which makes some trouble till next morning when we realise it is the 'real' price. Affordable anyway. The following day, again a lack of understanding makes us miss a meeting with Olec. He really gets pissed off about that and seriously threatens to cancel everything. Finally, he cools down and we can go translating the contract in English. They take it seriously, I told you. During those hectic hours, we meet Aias, our guide. Born in Samagaltay 23 years ago, he works now in a horse ranch near Kyzyl. As we are of the same age, communication is good from the beginning.
The real start
Once again we leave Kyzyl for Samagaltay but this time with guide and authorization. By the evening, we have the horses, tall ones, not Mongolian ones, so we sign the damn contract and pay Olec. Days of negotiation are over. Jonathan, Aias and I are now alone. We'll spend the night in a ruined lodge in the surrounding steppe of Samagaltay. As we walk about, Aias spots a desert fox disappearing in the darkness. The warm atmosphere of the summer evening and the perspective of a pioneer-like life experience just starting now for us already makes it worth the trouble.
In the morning, we face a dreaded subject: how to pack a horse with a rucksack ? We find it out by splitting the load. On one horse, half of our stuff filling a saddlebag, on the other horse, the two lightened backpacks ties together and counterbalancing. The first days in the arid landscape are rather harsh. Our obsession is water. From the map, we learn that rivers are running down from the mountain every 10 or 20 kms. In fact, one out of two has already dried out by then. Still, we always find a camping place with water, grass and firewood around. Surprisingly, we rather quickly get used to our own saddle shape so we can just concentrate on 'motivating' our horses, unwilling to go faster than walking speed. On this point I am luckier than Jonathan. I can let him and Aias go ahead for a while and rest alone with my mare, enjoying the moment. Sometimes I even sing here. Then, I give the expected sign to my horse and we run back towards the group. Among my best travel memories are those gallops in Tuva, incarnation of the freedom I'm always seeking.
In the evening, we arrive at the village of OO.Shina. A cousin of Aias is living here and a visit to her and her family is arranged. We meet the couple, their son, 16, and their three young daughters. After a very friendly dinner, the family proposes that we stay at home with them the next day. They will offer us a nice moment of Tuvan traditional life: Sheep feast.
In the morning, everyone gets ready. Aias catches the designed sheep and brings it in the backyard of the house. Maxim, the son, meticulously sharpens the knife. As the youngest man in the house, he is in charge of most of the job. Aias will only hold the animal, while the father, 35, will supervise the operations. After the sheep is put on its back, Maxim cuts a gash under the breastbone and then plunges his right hand into the belly of the sheep. Searching inside deeper and deeper, he tells us than he has to pinch an artery running along the spine. So does he when, without any sudden move or scream, the sheep collapses. The hand slips out. Almost no blood to wipe off. Good. The animal is drawn inside a cabin for cutting up. Jonathan and I wonder why don't they just cut the throat of the sheep, as do Arabs for example. At first, we think it is to preserve the wool. Indeed the next operation is the removal of the skin, but an other reason will soon become obvious. Maxim attacks the guts in four distinct steps:
The carcass is clean so the father comes in to chop off the head from the body and cuts up the ribs and spine. Maxim's last job is the legs and the back. The three little girls are getting more excited because food is getting prepared. Aias rekindles the stove and places a huge bowl of water over it. We hear the mother shouting outside the lodge. She is chasing buzzards preying on our giblets. No way ! Into the cleaned intestines and paunch, she pours in the litres of blood and closes the containers with a knot. Those are placed in the boiling water together with pieces of meat and rice.
This is the point when I stop taking pictures, realizing which kind of food is going to finish in my plate... But first, the delights: grilled liver wrapped in a greasy membrane. It's a real candy for the whole family and as guests we are offered nice chunks of it. Greasy, but tasty at the end. Next are the Tuvan tripes. The father withdraws a piece of intestine filled with jelly-like blood. A long ordeal starts now. Social pressure and rules of hospitality as so that there is no ways to escape the repeated offers of blood cubes and intestines knots. Beware : this has nothing to do with a delicious black pudding were blood is mixed with sophisticated ingredients like wheat, salt, pepper, garlic, wine, and then all is grilled...The taste of the whole stock is ruined by guts. Even rice, overboiled, is hard to swallow. Hopefully, some meat is preserved from the bouillon, drying in the sun, as food for the rest of our trip. At the end, even if cultural culinary differences make it difficult to appreciate, we fully realize how generous and hospitable this family has been to us. A khoomei demonstration in the evening helps digestion.
Please, the way to Tuva?
The following days see us leave the lowlands for the mountains. At a bivouac, we have the opportunity to observe a yurt being pitched up. People offer us lots of Tuvan tea, a mix of local tea, milk, water and salt. In fact, we seldom see people drinking water. Today, we see on the map that we will be only one or two kilometers from Mongolia. Aias is now out of the area he knows and we experience it quickly. He keeps the lead, but now it is obvious on the map: we are in Mongolia. In this grassy hills, there is no paths, not even landmarks for Aias. After an hour of curves around, we notice, north, a milestone... OK, Aias, let's go back to Russia now !
Bread is missing. We cross two villages in a couple of days. But these are very small and self-sufficient ones. Impossible to buy bread, again. Let's hope that someone, somewhere will offer us some.
During the whole day, we follow a long and deep valley, leaving larch woods for sporadic "kedr". The latter is a precious tree for Siberians as it produces, in the autumn, one of the finest delicatessen of the regional markets. Nuts are collected from the cone of the tree and are sold at relatively expensive price. In fact I discovered it when reading a book of Vasili Peskov, "Ermites dans la taiga" in French, where those nuts appear as the main food of the strict diet of a Russian old-believers family living in a remote gulch of the neighboring Khakassian taiga. The Lykov had been living without any contacts with the society for forty years. In this version of the book, the Russian word kedr was translated as cedar tree. So, in Russia, I've been looking for cedar trees around until someone explained me that those kedrs aren't cedar trees but rather pines, Siberian stone pines. This squat tree only grows in altitude, above 1500 meters, and today the bite of cold winds is balanced by the sight of some specimens.
We stop in a high mountain pasture where a family lives along a brook. After small talks, Aias introduces us to them. Kanada, Frantsia, "Let's kill sheep!" Later in the evening, the husbands come back great from a long hunting day. So game is prepared for dessert. About dessert, our guide book states: Perhaps most Russians are exhausted or drunk by dessert time, since this is the least imaginative course . Well, have a look at this: here comes a full plate of marmot legs. All this food comes with araka, the equivalent of beer in rural Tuva. We have the opportunity to witness the making of this home-made beverage. Fermented milk is brought to boiling temperature in a large bowl, then covered with a sculpted hollow trunk topped by a bowl of cold water. The water helps the alcoholic vapors to condensate into araka. With 5 to 10% alcohol, this drink tastes first like water, then comes the goat cheese flavor even though it is made out of cow or yak milk.
The hangover is not too bad. Before leaving, we exchange addresses. Their one is the kind I like, exotic: Family x, Choza river, district of Duss Dag.
We are now directly heading towards Khandagaiti, the big village at the middle of our route. Approaching it, we pass many sacred springs, hidden here and there in the valleys, where wood structures enable people to take healing showers from a dribble of water.
Soon after arriving in the dusty streets of Khandagaiti, a police 4X4 spots us. After a quick passport control, we are asked, in a rather friendly way, to get into the car for sightseeing --- Aias has to stay with the horses. We leave the village and stop on the river banks. Our new friends seem very happy to receive the visit of foreigners. Still we don't feel comfortable, ignoring what they really want. In an authoritarian, they explain us that we will all celebrate universal peace and friendship . Here comes the vodka, Moldavian wine, home-made samagon. Trapped by these touchy police officers, we drink as we are told to: way too much. It's 3 pm, the sun is strong, and we haven't had lunch for now. Soon, and following the heavy drinkers around us, we fall down on the lawn and then asleep.
Several hours later, Aias wakes me up. It takes me some time to realize he is very anxious. A car is waiting to bring us back to the village. On our way, Aias explains me that the chiefs of the police station are not satisfied at all to have unidentified foreigners misbehaving on their ground. Unable to explain our case, we are put in a cell to recover. During this time, Aias and Olec, from Kyzyl and who was expected to meet us here, negotiate for us. Two hours later, we're out. But the militsia doesn't want to hear from us any more. We have flee immediately from this blasted village, galloping away in the dark.
Misha, get out of my yurt
We wake up in the morning in a vast and green valley. Two yurts here. We are, in fact, five kilometers from Khandagaiti and will stay here three days to wait for a new horse for Jonathan. Misha, 40, came with Olec and will accompany us until Mungur Axi together with Aias. He is supposed to know the area. The first contact with him is OK but soon it deteriorates stupidly. On the second day, a rainy one, Jonathan and I go sleeping in the tents earlier than Aias and Misha who stay at the yurts, enjoying too much araka. At midnight, Misha comes in sleeping in my tent when Aias is in Jonathan's. Two hours later, I wake up, disturbed by moves, noise and finally a small streaming sound. Suddenly, I understand : in the beam of my flashlight, Misha is urinating on me ! It is the first time he is sleeping in a tent and, drunk and in a hurry, he couldn't find how to open the zippers. Very quickly, he lands outside on the grass, and I try my best to wipe off the disaster with Misha's goat skins and furs. He is so drunk that there is nothing to expect from him tonight. He comes back in, but for the last time.
Today is a long riding day. For lunch, we stop in a cafeteria, the kind you find in the Tuvan outback. Among brushwood, an old military van with a missing windscreen stands surrounded by chairs and a stove. A gypsy-like family holds the place. For $1, we take a lunch. Bad feeling at first, but it turns out to be delicious. We eat a full plate of so-called Buriatian raviolis, our favourite meal, with ketchup (no choice), tea and a nice chunk of bread. Very friendly people at the end. To avoid any new encounter with the police - the fear of the police is the beginning of wisdom - we skip a village and so the possibility to find bread. For the first time, in the evening, we are refused hospitality at a yurt. So, Misha and Aias awkwardly try our recipe and bake bread with us.
The blacksmith show
Fantastic day, riding over green domes, galloping along pristine rivers, tacking between dramatic mountains. We are getting higher, over 1800 m, with peaks at 4000-5000 m. We meet yak shepherds and stay eating with them. Lots of tasty dairy food. Kefir or curds, smetan or crème fraiche on fried bread, and a kind of butter. We notice that particularly in high altitude, the stove fuel is dried cattle dung. Socializing, we learn that, yes, there are western travellers who visit this valley. Last year, they received the visit of a young German woman who spoke Tuvan fluently.
In the afternoon, we stop when Aias and Misha show us wild onions growing on a rocky side of the mountain. Those do good in the succulent dinner stew. Spearmint is growing all around us too. Jonathan picks up some and makes a tea with it around the fire. Our two Tuvans discover it for the first time in its natural form and appreciate it. Next day, on the path, Misha really gets excited at guessing what is mint and what isn't.
We arrive at Mungur Axi but stay five kilometers away from the village itself, at Misha's relatives'. They live in a black yurt, the first one we see. Before heading towards the highest peak in Tuva and the lakes on the south-western fringes of the republic, we have to shoe the horses. During an afternoon, Misha comes back from Mungur Axi with the local blacksmith. I didn't understand if the technique used by him is traditionally used or very personal. Still, to fix the horseshoes, he decides to knock over the horse. With complex pattern of tightening ropes, three legs of the animal are brought together so and the end it loses balance and falls on the grass. Legs are then attached in pairs and shoeing really starts. A hammer is missing but a box wrench will do the job. The four horses are shod in the afternoon.
One evening, I find myself alone with the family. My three companions are at the village until the next day. This becomes a good opportunity to integrate myself a bit more to the every day life of those rather shy people. The mother doesn't speak much Russian but the father and the sons do. Before dusk, yak calves are attached near the yurt. We cut some wood. Then the youngest son proposes me to come with him to gather the sheep and goat flock on a neighbouring hill. We ride two nervous Mongolian-type horses, which make it even more exciting. Goats and sheeps aren't at all difficult to direct towards the camp. However, it is a great feeling to guide the horse with quick changes of direction and gait, to manage to impress, frighten a stubborn ram out of the group. Back to the yurt, bread is missing, so the sons prepare lipiochka; the fried bread I like best. Tonight, everyone fries their own ones. We are all asleep then. At the faint light of an oil lamp, we get prepared to go to bed. A mattress is laid down for me. The husband blows the flame. For a long time, I watch the sky through the top opening of the yurt, thinking of home.
Misha leaves us and is mysteriously replaced by Kherel. This old man immediately reminds us of Dersu Uzala, Vladimir Arseniev's character. Altogether, we leave Mungur Axi to approach the Mungur Taiga, the silvery forest, highest peak of Tuva at 3970 meters. Tree-line is below us now. We are crossing peat bogs at 2500 meters elevation. As we round a promontory on a barren hill, a herd of elks run away. Rough weather here. Cold gales bring us rain, hail and finally snow. Ignoring where we are and where we go, exhausted, we set the camp up in a muddy hollow. No supper tonight.
The morning offers us a big blue sky and a dazzling Mungur Taiga, closer than ever. Still, from now on, we decide to avoid the kind of snowy adventures we experienced yesterday and aim at the lower Khindiktig Khol, a large lake on the border with Altay, West.
As we wake up the following day on the lake shore, a still invisible four-wheel-drive hums in the distance. An hour later, it arrives at our camp. Five amateur fishermen introduce themselves. Jonathan and I don't really get acquainted with them, but they manage to persuade Aias and Kherel to accompany them to Jupukul lake in Altay, 15 kms away. Fishing is good there --- it is a national park ! They don't feel guilty about that because it is a stolen Tuvan territory. Indeed, some years ago, this lake was part of Tuva. But it is also part of the hydrographic system of the Chulyshman river, heart of the Altaisky National Park. When the park was created, Russia gave the lake to Altay to include it to the preserved zone. The lost notch is obvious on a map.
On a stampede trail
A harsh ride brings us on the shores of this most remote lake. Soon the jeep arrives. We spend two rainy days there. Net fishing isn't good at all. We stay in the tents. Suddenly, in the afternoon of the second day, clouds disappear and the sun shines over the lake. But what really gets us out of the tent is the characteristic buzzing of a helicopter. It is a huge, yellow Aeroflot one. The MI-8, originally designed for the army, is now widely used throughout ex-USSR, from Pamir to Kamchatka. It carries over fifteen people with their gear. The unwieldy bird turns above us once, twice, observing. Deafening sounds and destabilizing winds terrorize the four horses who stampede, run away and disappear in the distance. Nothing to do about it. Finally, it decides to land 50 meters away from my weak igloo-type tent. Jonathan and I bend over it, holding it as best as possible. Flaps slow down, the tent is still standing. We breathe again. With a discreet smile to fate, we see rangers coming down from the machine. As they directly go questioning the innocent fishermen, a westerner sneaks out of the MI-8 followed by a crew of Muscovite experts. Naturally, we introduce ourselves. The westerner is an Australian working indirectly for the UNESCO in Geneva, surveying the area, with Russian Green Peace representatives, as it applies for a mention on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Our Tuvan companions all get a fine and their inflatable boat confiscated, while we, westerners, don't even get the traditional passport control! This kindness towards those tourists will, for sure, make a good impression on the international inspector.
2 AM. The 4x4 is stuck in the mud. We work on it during two hours. It's chilling. Aias guesses the horses are back at the previous lake, the one in Tuva. Twenty-four hours after the helicopter episode, the horses are in sight. They behave nervously when we go riding them around the lake for the last time. Our authorization expires September, 6th, so tomorrow we are leaving the place with Vladimir, the owner of the Jeep, who offers, for $15, to bring us back to Kyzyl.
a country we'll get to after we visit DisneyWorld one more time...
This is a compressed version of the journey. Reality is much duller. Like in the rest of Russia, it is tough to travel to Tuva. The new generation tourist isn't yet expected, as we can imagine. Compared to Latino America, there is no Hippy Trail here, with friendly stopping places where to meet fellow travellers and have a drink. Tuva is not that funny and agreeable.
But it is constructive. You don't forget it. Tuva is a great terrain for reasonable adventures. Socially and politically stable place, cheap, with a rather accessible communication language (Russian), no impassable wilderness covering the whole territory, and over all, preserved traditions with an aftertaste of socialism.
That's probably why we like it; Still today, Tuva is mysterious.
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