Posts Tagged 'Tuva'

Where the moon lives

“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.

Photo by Stanislav Krupar

And the rest of the world carries on (unfortunately)

Travel is all about widening horizons and yet it’s a curiously solipsistic world, that of the traveller. I’ve been so engaged in just being in China, taking in new sights and sounds and tastes, trying to at least begin to understand the language, the culture (the languages, the cultures) that the rest of the world has receded into the distance.

I wave to my family on the Skype video and try hard to imagine snow and Christmas carols in England; I wish friends round the world Happy New Year, and learn that Sayana has fled Moscow because of racist violence and I ask stupidly – what’s happened? Something in particular apart from the usual background of racist violence…?

This is what happened. Sayana, who was studying in Moscow, is from Tuva, which became a Russian protectorate in 1914 and has been influenced by or a part of the Soviet Union/Russia ever since. Her passport is Russian; her face is Asian. She’s already been attacked once by skinheads in St Petersburg. Who can blame her for finally having had enough?

Another Tuvan friend, Saizana, is studying in Shanghai. In China everyone assumes she is Chinese, and it’s an effort for her to explain that no, she’s Russian despite her looks, that there’s this small place called Tuva that no one’s ever heard of… In China, no one glances twice at her (well, maybe they glance twice but that’s because she’s so pretty). It’s a safe country anyway, but for Saizana it provides the added protection of anonymity.

Not so in Russia, where Russian is her native language, where she’s lived most of her life. Saizana has just flown to Moscow to stay with her family for New Year. I hope she’ll be safe there. Sayana is wandering around Europe, looking for a safe haven; I hope she finds one.

In Tuva, one of the most famous shamans has just died. She was in her early forties – that’s the average life-span of a Tuvan. There they don’t die of racist attacks, but of alcoholism and related violence, poor medical services and a kind of terrible carelessness. I heard some details of how the shaman died; it’s too horrible to repeat here.

A sad post for the festive season… Sometimes it’s easier to let the rest of world recede far away.

Winter comes early in Siberia…

Photos again by the fabulous Mr K..

Tuvan ennui

Sayana tells us about Tuvan rustlers, chronically stealing livestock from neighbouring Mongolia, regularly getting caught and beaten to within an inch of their lives. They crawl home to their relatives, who patch them up. They lie around in the yard, all scabbing knife wounds and broken bones, drinking, getting more bored, til one of them groans to the others “If there’d at least be a war…”

Living in a fairytale part II

is what (we joke) we’ve been doing for twelve days, wandering the wilds of western Tuva. It’s so beautiful, so untouched, so free. Tuva is really like a fairytale, the original kind, violent and magical and strange, full of unexpected encounters and generosities.

It seems like a land time has almost forgotten; tucked away between Russia and Mongolia and Kazakhstan and China, not on the way to anywhere, as far as it is possible to go from the sea.

Antonina, a philologist who has studied Mongolian language and culture, tells us that the main difference between Tuvans and Mongolians is that Tuvans are insular, rarely travelling far from their home villages or herding grounds, let alone outside Tuva, while Mongolians are inveterate roamers.

Mongush Borakhovich Kenin-Lopsan, historian, living treasure of Shamanism and man of the century, says Tuva is one of the few places in the world to have preserved its original culture almost untouched, thanks to this remoteness, this stay-at-home mentality.

I’ve been reading a collection of Tuvan folktales and legends. The first one I read is about the son of a bear and a human woman. The details are Tuvan: yurts and larch trees, horses and grazing grounds – everything we’ve seen on our fairytale travel. But the shape, the essence of the story, is identical to a Scandinavian folk tale called the Three Princesses of Blue Mountain.

How has it come about that these people, whose language is Turkic, culture Mongolian and Siberian, geography Central Asian, mentality insular, have the same folk tale as the seafarers of the far north?

Uncultivated gardens

growing indefatigably on Tuvan plains and mountain passes, in tiny green velvet gardens at the foot of glaciers. The only flowers I can name are poppies and pansies and gentians (?) – anyone know any of the others?

(first and last photo by Mr Krupar – as you can probably tell by the improved quality…)

Space and light

“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.

photo by Stanislav Krupar

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.


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