“Kyzyl is a hole,” said our (Russian) taxi driver from Abakan. “Kyzyl is a criminal town. What do you want to go there for?”
It’s a common enough reaction when I say I’m going to Tuva. (The other is “Oh, samovars!” so I have to patiently emphasize no, not TULA, TUVA…”
On the other hand, Oxana, who grew up in Mongu Taiga, the high Tuvan steppe bordering Mongolia, has brought her children back to Kyzyl, the Tuvan capital, from Moscow. In Tuva they can roam the streets freely, they can breathe clean air, drink clean water, she says; not like Moscow, where children never go anywhere alone.
Kyzyl is a criminal hole – so are most towns in Tuva. Nearly all the Tuvans I’ve met have lost someone to drunken violence, to livestock thieves or poachers’ guns, to medical incompetence or liver cirrhosis.
But out at Mongu Taiga we meet four girls riding bareback, plaits flying, cheeks red from wind and sun and high altitude. They can ride and ride and never get anywhere, there is so much space. They can see anyone coming for twenty miles. The Western Steppe Tuvans we meet don’t say hello or goodbye. It’s as if they don’t have any need for greetings, when they’ve watched you approach for the last hour, an ant creeping over a vast golden cloud-shadowed plain.
Not even crossing the whole of Siberia have I experienced space the way it is in Tuva. You can see so impossibly far. Everything looks so unbelievably close. There is so little to give a sense of scale – trees, animals, people – just things that could be any size: mountains, lakes, clouds.
That slope there, that looks like olive-green-rose-pink velvet, I could reach out from here and stroke it. It will take me half a day to walk to it. I can walk in blue-skied Tuva watching bad weather brewing behind snowy peaks in China.
It’s something to do with the light, perhaps. Like looking through perfectly clear water, that magnifies the stones at the bottom of a pool so you think you can just reach in and pick them up, but really you have to dive deep, deep, deep.