We’re off to nowhere: three days in Tuva

Alexandr Matyushenko
Our tourism editor came up to me and asked - ‘Would you like to go to Tuva?’, I thought ‘Oh lord, where is that? - Is it in Russia?’. After a moments deliberation I came to the conclusion, ‘What the hell! When will there be another opportunity to go somewhere I would not even plan to go myself?! ‘Okay, send me there’ I replied.

Jet lag from a three-hour flight is not fatal, but when added to the disorientated of arriving in a new location and time zone, the sensation can be somewhat challenging to say the least.

Abakan airport is a two-storey building, erected in the Soviet futurist style - a typical regional airport. This is just what Abakan, the capital of Khakazin is - it is not a ‘single-storey’ America - it is a single storey city, which resembles a dacha cooperative or a more or less well-maintained village. At the exit to the airport you can easily come across a herd of sheep or hens heading for the pastures.

Then the runway here is a little better than at Sheremetyevo (the airport was initially built as a military airfield, and is designed for heavy bombers) and it is easier to log on to the Wi-Fi than in a Moscow coffee house. To sum up, all the ingredients for inducing a cognitive dissonance were there. Such were my impressions in the first fifteen minutes after landing.

We all imagined that our forthcoming journey would be an obscure one. 11 people from different Moscow newspapers were invited on a three-day Russian Geographical Society press tour, which was to have traversed the route of the newly built Kyzyl-Kuragino railway line (around 400 km). A series of burial sites of Scythian kings were unearthed during its construction.

We thought would be to record the excavation of ancient remains or the process of constructing a new branch line. In fact, the subsequent events came as a complete surprise to us.

In the middle of nowhere

Thursday, 6:20 a.m, Abakan is asleep: the shops, restaurants and deserted. Confused by the time difference and the coffee we drunk we set off to find somewhere to eat. We travelled in our small minibus (the most widespread municipal transport after the Zhiguli-Kopeyka) so there would be no chance of taking a nap. Just outside Abakan we came across the only café that was open, called ‘Shashlyk’.

Incidentally it subsequently emerged that 90% of all the shops in this region are simply called ‘Shashlyk’. More often than not they are just roadside outlets and it is not easy to tell if they are open or not. For several reasons, which are best explained individually, alcohol in this region is only sold between 10:00 a.m and 7:00 p.m. However, after noticing that we were Russian the owner of ‘Sashlyk’ gave us a bottle of vodka for the morning as a present.

We did not want to sleep despite our tiredness. The fresh air meant that we could sleep for two to three hours and gather enough strength for a full day. After waking in the morning, we at last set off for the Valley of the Kings.

Tuva’s ‘Valley of the Dead’

The valley is not predisposed to habitation: due to the wind and a complex climate. Therefore, the Scythian burial grounds had, as a matter of fact, been well preserved. Nobody lived here. They were just buried here. The valley is full of burial sites of varying degrees of antiquity. There are more than a hundred of them: they are small, 8 metres in diameter, while the King’s burial sites were 80 metres. The valley was considered a holy place, from where it would be easier to start the journey to the spirit world. Once there you are aware that you are in an enormous ancient burial site for people of high standing. The proximity of the excavations though did not prevent us from enjoying a communal Banya.

Travelling around the steppe in a fire engine

The rain fell continuously for the whole three days we were in Tuva. The excavations were in remote locations and no thought had been given to access roads. Due to incessant hydration the ground meanwhile was turning to porridge. Our minibus became hopelessly bogged down in it. A truck from UAZ (Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant) from the camp came to our rescue. A further five people aside from the driver climbed into the truck, and we were a group of 11 with rucksacks, tripods and cameras.

If you have seen how people travel in cars and trains in India, then you would understand. Clinging onto the truck like Christmas tree decorations we set off to surf the sea of mud. The following day, when we needed to leave the camp, was the third day of rain in a row. The steppe was such a wash out that this time we were at a complete standstill, even in an all-terrain UAZ truck. The camp called the local MChS (Ministry of Emergency Situations) unit and a ZIL (Ligachev Automobile Plant) fire engine was sent to our aid. The bright red truck with flashing lights and hoses looked just bizarre set against the greenery of the empty steppe devoid of roads. Since there was not enough room in the UAZ truck the firemen suggested that some of us climb aboard the ZIL.

I appreciate that the child in a man never dies, because grown men pleaded with the firemen to be allowed to travel on the roof and climbed onto it with childish fervour. Since childhood I have always dreamt of riding on a fire engine, but never did I imagine that this would happen amid the Tuvan steppe, which doesn’t even have roads. Ever since then I have believed in miracles. The Russian MChS can rescue you from anywhere (maybe because this is Shoygu’s homeland, the former minister for the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Russian Federation?) and realise a childhood dream. But where else is this possible, except in Tuva?

A pair of trousers made from 7 kilogrammes of gold

A representative from the local branch of the Russian Geographical Society came to see us on Sunday morning. He is a representative of the parliament of the Republic of Tuva. His task was simply to take us to the museum where the remains of the Scythian King’s that had already been discovered were kept. He however decided that this was not important and decided to put together a cultural programme for us.

Wasting no time we moved to the Philharmonic Hall, where the Tuva National Orchestra performed a concert. It was then that we understood why electronic music was not invented in Tuva. It is because I would not have it as a gift. Any instrument could replace the local vocal performance of guttural singing. I have never heard such sharply distorted scratching at any house party, and they were doing it with their throats! We continued our journey to the museum without delay following the concert.

The museum collection is striking in its diversity and the abundance of its exhibits. Naturally the jewel in the crown is the collection of gold from the Arzhan burial ground. The total weight of the collection is 22 kg of gold. Of these the trousers of a Scythian king account for 7 kg, while a gold chain accounts for a further 1.5 kg. There we understood that the habit of the new Russians (the oligarchs during the initial acquisition of wild capital, which took place in Russia at the beginning of the ‘90s and who loved to wear garish jewellery and most importantly heavy gold chains) is simply a long forgotten ancient tradition.

From the museum it was full steam ahead as we were taken to the Altyn-Bulak (gold mine) ethnic and cultural centre. A few weeks before our visit the President of the Russian Federation came here with Defence Minister Shoygu. The Olympic torch will be brought here in November 2013 on its way to the Olympic games in Sochi. Here we were again surprised by the hospitality of the Tuvan people. First and foremost however we understood that here even ‘Ceasar’ salad is prepared with lamb. If any of you suddenly decide you would like to travel to Tuva then we understand. Just do not forget the RBTH advice and be prepared for anything.

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