“This here is a churn in which our Siberian forebears used to make butter…”
Thus the guide in one of the traditional Russian houses preserved in Shushenskoe museum in central Siberia. The chattering Russian tourists pose for photos beside the tall wooden churn, holding the paddle, just as they’ve posed pretending to carry the yoked milk pails, pull the plough, work the lathe.
I’ve just come from western Tuva, about 400 kilometers south of Shushenskoye, on the edge of Siberia. It’s a place few Russian tourists visit. There every winter wooden hut and summer aal (yurt) contains a tall wooden churn in which each day the whey (from yak and cows’ milk) is separated from the curds, and the curds dried and then pressed into hard, sour kurut, while the whey is heated over the stove and fermented into araki, milk vodka.
There three silent women in an aal place before us fresh bread baked in a flat round wok on the stove, topped with a dollop of butter-thick sour cream and sprinkled with sugar. The children watch us with wide eyes. We drink endless bowls of salty milky tea poured from the kettle.
We have scarcely a word in common – if the women can speak Russian they mostly choose not to. They are the most courteously taciturn people in the world, the inhabitants of Mongun-Taiga. We tell them who we are, where we are from and where we’re going (S. offering the local names of mountain passes and rivers like talismans to win favour or recognition), but they don’t ask. I can’t imagine what they really think of us, two strangers from Europe (where is it, this Europe?) with our rucksacks and hiking boots, asking for shelter.
With the toddler I play peep-o and tag round the aal; he takes refuge in his fortress (an upturned wooden crate) and shoots me with his gun (a scrap of asbestos roofing) as I attack him with the cavalry (the front half of a tricycle – one wheel and the handlebars). Back in the aal he shows me his one book, of illustrated Russian fairytales, and I learn the Tuvinian words for wolf and fox, bear and goat and sheep and rabbit. When we get to the stories about tsars and yellow-haired bogatyrs, he points to the horses (“aat, aat”) but he has no word for the golden-domed churches and white-walled kremlins, they mean nothing to him.
We sleep lying on the floor all in a row, the children sandwiched between the women under fat quilts of cheap Chinese satin with the stuffing coming out. All night we bake gently in the heat from the stove.
In the morning the air is like ice, and snowy Mongun-Taiga mountain trails swathes of blue and pink mist. Mongun-Taiga is where the moon lives, in Tuvan folktales. These people wake up to this glorious view each morning; the vast shining golden plain, this loneliness, floating in crystalline air. Why would they comment on it when they are yaks to be milked, sheep to let loose from their pen, home and livelihood to inspect for the night-time depredations of wolves and cattle-thieves?
They say nothing, but when we leave, his mother brings the little boy to the door of the aal to wave goodbye.