Report From Tuva - April, 1992
Copyright 1992 by Francis Greene
I had planned to fly to Kyzyl from Moscow (there is a twice weekly scheduled service now), but travel in Russia has a disarmingly aleatory quality, and when I got there I was a day late and arrived from the wrong direction in the cockpit of a Yak 40. The pilot in charge was hugely impressed by the Defense Mapping Agency Operational Navigation Chart procured from the Friends of Tuva - his own was post war and, until very recently, classified. But my problems getting into Tuva were nothing to those I met trying to get out!
Kyzyl is indeed unimpressive, with the exception of the rather battered Centre of Asia monument on a splendid site overlooking the frozen Yenisei. It is actually quite recent, the replacement of a simple wooden obelisk, and its inscription merely painted on in gold paint. There is not a trace of the Feynman plaque. (I suspect that it was altogether too elegant and made an embarrassing contrast.) Incidentally some of the names (also gold-painted) on the Red Partisans memorial seem to have been erased: I meant to ask about it but forgot. Tuvans show a propensity to crowd presumed Russians off pavements, and countryside travel is said to need a gun. A few well-to-do and elegant Tuvan women made a striking spectacle, with high papakhas (tall, cylindrical fur hats - favored by White generals in years past) and long pigtails. In the bookshop only a couple of very minor paperbacks are in Tuvan, and many public buildings (which is a grandiose description, they are largely one story wooden log cabins) have only Russian name plates. In contrast, one of the most striking buildings, red and white stucco in a curious spiky style and crowned with radio antennae, is the KGB headquarters and faces the hotel where I set up my base. The red flag, complete with Hammer and Sickle, still flies; there are old style inspirational films showing and Lenin portraits everywhere.
With me was Irina, a researcher from Moscow Memorial (a democratic organisation devoted to researching the history of the Gulags) and two helpers who had driven up to meet us from Krasnoyarsk. Our hotel was classical Soviet-Provincial with a suspicious unreconstructed dezhurnaya (a watchful floor lady) - quite nostalgic really. Russian hotel rooms are not just used for sleeping: in them one cooks, eats, conducts business and sings songs. We did most of these things before turning in for our first night in Kyzyl.
Waking up in Tuva
My hotel room (yes, scruffy, smelly, dirty, with rusty nails all over the walls) looked out at ground level on nothing but the frozen Yenisei a stone's throw off and the empty rolling steppe beyond, fringed with improbable hills made of yellow napery folds. Left to myself my first instinct would have been to climb them. The surface appeared to be a thin layer of springy turf without rocks poking through as I would expect in the Devon moors or Wales. The Yenisei was here about a hundred yards across, its ice all humpy and hillocked. There was no wind: trees grow straight. But of occasional voices there would have been profound silence. The air was pure and Alpine.
On our first night something curious happened in room 310. Irina uncharacteristically opened her door to an unidentified knock and a 'Caucasian' (but she afterwards described him as a Chechen - all villains are Chechens to Russians) pushed past her, saying something about his brother being in the next room, and left via the balcony. (This 'Chechen' - he looked Russian to me - spent much of the following day patrolling in front of the hotel.) She tremblingly closed the plywood balcony door and secured its toy lock. -Next morning she looked under her mattress (I wonder why?) and found a gun and a used cartridge. The gun was of the home-workshop sort, a bit like a sawn-off shotgun (smooth bore, the breech block showing descent from flintlock, perhaps Afghan?), its stock bound in black plastic tape. The word for such a weapon is "obrez". The spent cartridge was army issue. Of all the Union, Tuva is in the first rank of places where 'provocations' might be organised against members of democratic Russian organisations or foreigners deemed to be playing to political a role, and in the morning we handed the gun into the MVD (the ordinary police), as also our suitcases, for safekeeping. (This is quite a normal role for a police station to play, despite the reputed venality of the MVD.) Thereafter we all slept in one large suite. Later the police raided and searched Irina's former room - a case I suppose of one hand not knowing what the other is up to.
My first action on arrival had been to telephone Rada Chakar, an introduction given me by Ralph Leighton. She is a graduate of Moscow's Institute of Foreign languages and is a very competent three-language translator. She has also spent some years researching Tuvan folk lore and now works for Tuva Vostok, a shadowy enterprise intended to find foreign markets for Tuvan products. Her first name is not Tuvan, it is in honour of the Indian musician and it makes for hilarious difficulties with Russian introductions. On shaking hands it is usual to give one's name, but rada means "glad". "Ivan". "Rada". "Glad to meet you, too, but what's your name?" Her patronymic, Sayanova, is splendidly Tuvan.
Rada took me off to see the editor of the bilingual newspaper "Sodeistvie", Vyacheslav Salchuk. He is a thin, sad faced Tuvan gnome (despite his Russian name) and is a Deputy. He says that some 30% of the chamber are democratically inclined, but the inclination seems slight. The most important measure for Tuva would be agricultural reform and land distribution, a small degree of which is supported by 20 of the 130 [deputies]. (At the previous debate it was only 4.) The herdsmen have very little support, the agriculture ministry spends its time renaming itself. (It has changed names five times.) I got an admission that it is almost impossible for a citizen to buy grain. But the biggest obstacle to private agriculture is crime (and travellers are more at risk from straight crime than from nationalism). A sad shy man joined us who heads a machine-repair shop that is on the rocks and was clutching at any straw. As usual I preached 'small is beautiful', individualism, self-help, the role in the West of voluntary unpaid charity work and as usual met almost total incomprehension, with talk of officially sponsored 'exchange of cadres'. Salchuk denied that there was any serious problem from asbestos pollution: the spoil from the old cobalt mines is another matter. The mines belonged to and were administered by Norilsk, a city up beyond the Arctic Circle!
Rada then rejoined us with Tuva's champion throat singer, and he put on the performance that Ralph had predicted would "knock the socks" off me. You could say that it did. Ondar Kongar-ool [the last is patronymic] produced these almost unbelievable combinations of sounds with an expression of great ecstasy on his round brown face. His accompaniment was on a three stringed guitar-like Doshpuluur decorated with a horse's head (actually a Buryat one: Tuvan examples have gut strings). He learned the art from his uncle - singing runs in families (and cannot yet be written down, there are very fine intervals between the notes). Bashkirs also practice this curious art.
An urchin of the street clung to the window to listen to him. The subject of the song was a horse galloping under the singer; the song is a sort of dialogue between them or a paean in its praise. The new Tuvan flag will almost certainly feature a horse. Salchuk's wife, a musicologist and folklorist whom we got to know well later showed us and demonstrated a khomus, a sort of Jew's harp of a type which I think is also found in the Altai.
I have memories of eating well in Tuva, in comparison, that is to say, with meals in the public canteens [stolovye] in other republics of the former Union. Even the restaurant opposite the KGB gave us respectable stew and "'Tuvan tea" [shuttug shai, tea with milk]; elsewhere in town we had a good egg soup and blinis stuffed with shrimps and is there anywhere on the surface of the globe where shrimps have had to travel so far? Only the bread was not up to standard, having a solid charcoal top. It is the bakery which spews an inky plume into Kyzyl's pure air every morning.
At the museum one's heart sank as an elderly schoolmistress started with a pointer on a wall map showing bauxite deposits etc., yawning with boredom at her own exposition. But she dropped the set piece and grew enthusiastic, as we did. There are extremely Easter Island-like stone figures; for some reason the moustachios and the ears are carved in particular detail. Also runic writing which seems to me identical to the Western. Shamanism has all the elements of the Lao form, even the Shaman's costume, but here Shamankas were as common as Shamans. Of course certain lakes, fish, trees etc. are sacred and inviolate.
A lamasery is to be constructed a bit beyond the city on the other bank and a visiting Lama lives some of the time on site in a yurt. We went off to find him in a leisurely way, all of us, including Rada and Valya, the musicologist who I think is training to become a Shamanka (it is patently untrue that shamanism is dead). We lost our way looking for the lama, and in any case the search was more fun than the discovery. It turned out it was the lama's day off. The return trip was on foot, I forget why, past the gaol (just a modern one, used for petty criminals from all over Russia). Near the lamasery was a larch (that is the holy tree) covered, as holy trees are the world over, with strips of linen. Valya collected minute pebbles-the ground consists of tiny water rounded stones in vivid colours. With forty-one of them, taken from many different directions, a seer can divine the whereabouts of a lost object or animal.
Tumble weed - perekati-polya - is much in evidence when the slight breeze blows, as it only does at the time the Yenisei is melting. One doesn't so much see the little bushes hurtling about as notice a blurred, shifting look to the steppe surface in the distance.
On my second evening I picnicked at a bonfire in the woods organised by one of the biggest men I have ever seen, a Ukrainian cossack dressed and mustachioed as such should be. He was a Soviet Master of Sport or something. We discussed ghosts, animism, and such over the fire. Valya, our sorceress in training, made an offering of vodka to the four quarters of the compass. She described nights on the steppe, with stars the size of apples which one could reach up and pluck (the best time is August to September). The last Shaman (he was repressed with the other religions' priests) died on his way home from the Gulag, but appeared to his settlement as a grey wolf and is now buried in an open grave in a place known to all. I was to see graveyards on the steppe and to sense its other-worldly aura on a trip to a yurt encampment in the South.
My business in Tuva was with the local Memorial representative, a man who was actually himself a Minister at the time of the 'repressions' and meeting with him generated heat as well as light; in Tuva there has been little progress on the systematic rehabilitation of victims of the Stalin years. I had had quite an argument with Irina while walking the streets on the justice of nationalism in a case like Tuva's: when I pointed out the Russian linguistic and other chauvinism on display, she had adopted a Russian-defensive view. So I was surprised to find that in a vigorous argument with our Memorialist she was taking my my line, broadly. His own grandchildren, gilded nomenklatura though of purely Tuvan descent, can speak only Russian, and one wonders what would happen to them if Tuva adopted the Baltic line on language (not that that is likely under the present Tuvan leadership).
I was now due to leave Tuva and drive North over the mountains, but I could not bear to do so. In a sudden swerving change of plan I instead pushed 250 km South to the Mongolian border where Rada's family live in a yurt. The last part of the journey was over trackless steppe, impossible without a guide (or, one would have thought, without 4-wheel drive). The steppe itself is of ravishing beauty, yellow with fine herbage (or in certain places an all-over scattering of little twiggy bushes) and has hills, or miniature mountains placed on top of it in picturesque ways. These are often in vivid shimmering colours suggesting rich mineral content, and the rocks are interestingly contoured and fissured. All in all, the nearest scenery I know to this one is in the colour landscapes generated by computer fractal programmes. The most powerful impression is that of limitless extent in all directions with never a human (the only human artefact is an occasional electricity or telephone line). There are groups of horses, and cattle of an old fashioned, horned and friendly sort. I was not destined to see yaks, though I did eat them. The sun beat down and every now and then one was met by another surprising view, of a shimmering sacred lake, or folded rock. At long intervals yurt settlements would appear, to be widely skirted and left behind.
Eventually we came to the right one and were greeted ceremoniously (of course our coming was a surprise). Men sat on the left, women on the right, between them, red and gold Chinese chests with local padlocks of a most original design. The metal stove occupied the centre of the circle. The inner skin of the yurt is a diagonal trellis which supports the roof poles and is covered with canvas/felt/canvas, the whole tightly strapped. Yurts are said to be impractical and cold in winter. Irina cooked up our leftovers of yesterday while our hosts stoked the stove and made us tea - with milk and salt, very refreshing. Rather sadly the furniture, carpets and TV (!) might have come from a bed-sit in Edgeware, but harnesses and lariats and hobbles hanging up were exquisite and home made. The water comes from a deep well, the responsibility of a neighbour. Rada's family look after a quarter of the kolkhoz flocks, 300 horses and as many sheep. Here is their winter pasture.
After thank-yous [chtrdym in Tuvan] I was firmly and unequivocally invited to ride a horse. No real Tuvan can't ride, with the exception, to her great embarrassment, of Rada. Irina of course shared my dilemma. My large stallion smelled me - from a distance as an alien danger and plainly showed it. He took a lot of pacifying and I didn't expect to do more than briefly touch the saddle, but once I was up he set about his normal work of rounding up cattle without reference to me. Apparently Irina's was more perverse, responding to all instructions precisely contrariwise so that she had to be rescued.
Time to return, ducks and cranes were winging overhead and approaching dusk gave new colours and contours to the astonishing beauty of the steppe as we drove across it (directed by an erratic compass in the back seat) whose landmarks were particular folds in the endless yellow plain, or sudden rearings of the purple-green or vermillion or pale moss-green pinnacles-they must be full of metalliferous ores, perhaps chromium. The nearby frontier with Outer Mongolia is apparently demarcated with stones and a single wire, there is no particular problem raised by stock drifting over it. There is talk of setting up a customs post for trade.
My attempts to leave Tuva were many and various - the first try by car was thwarted by snowbound passes, and aeroplanes eluded us. In the end we made it over the pass, enduring four breakdowns. The steppe gave way to taiga, small pink-twigged birches blending prettily with the larches as snow took the place of sun-bleached grasses and the pastel shaded uplands turned into whiskery greys like the hide of a mammoth. It was appropriate that it was well to the south of the snow blizzard, of the dark primeval conifer forests, of my first sight of a wolf, that we crossed the frontier (not of Russia proper but of another republic, Khakassia) and left behind us Tuva, its yellow steppe and its iridescent hills. Looking back on the frontier board one saw above it on the skyline a solitary larch - festooned with ribbons.
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