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The Russian regions of Khakassia and Tyva make up an absolutely massive amount of land north of Mongolia and they are some of the most landlocked places on Earth. So, if you have the fear of meeting your doom in the water, like I do - then this is the safest place you could possibly be. Not only is being on solid ground safe, but the views you will take in there will change your life forever. The state of Montana uses the moniker “Big Sky Country” to define itself, but it has absolutely nothing on Southern Siberia! Seriously, this place is epic!
Map of South Siberia comprising its three regions.
Khakassia kind of falls into the category of places like Rhode Island in the U.S. or the Isle of Man in the UK - they may be part of your country, but they are never mentioned and you will never actually go there. So, when we set off to this region, I really had sort of a blank slate in my mind as to what it would be like.
Note from Tim: Khakassia is pronounced like “Hakassia” with an ‘H’. So, where did the ‘K’ come from? Well, all I can say is transliteration between English and Russian must have been thought up by weird people long ago, who thought they heard something so brutal it had to be distinguished as ‘Kh’.
Some people find Russia fascinating for its modern era and many of the things that the modern state stands for. Some people love the nation for its imperial past. But, if you wanted to see what a big city that’s entirely Soviet would look like, then tovarisch, Abakan, the capital of Khakassia is for you!
The city which was really only built up under the Soviets still maintains that “Commie Block” layout. The streets are very wide with plenty of evenly spaced apartment buildings, with nothing poking too far into the sky. For those of you in the West that have only experienced a Soviet city vicariously through the ‘Stalker’ video game series, Abakan will be a real treat. Communist cities, although “boxy”, are both walkable and drivable, which warms my heart.
Note from Tim: One important thing to note is that, even though Abakan is way out in probably the most remote populated region of the planet, the hotels and food that we got at restaurants was on par with any major city you might go to in the rest of the country!
Abakan, however, is just a starting point. The real adventure and views are outside the city. Thankfully, my adept producers were able to organize an excursion to the Oglakhty National Park (try saying that name five times fast!). It has miles upon miles of untouched wilderness to enjoy, but also with traces of humans from the times before Christ.
At the park, you can go up, essentially 55 flights of stairs, to get to rocks at the top of a mountain just covered in petroglyphs from many eras. They also had some traditional homes from the region on display depicting how ancient people survived out in the wilderness. So, there is more to see than just epic landscapes. BUT, they told us you have to organize a tour in advance or there’ll be no national park for you!
Note from Tim: The Oglakhty National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you can read a ton about it here.
As Lenin put it: “Communism is Soviet Power + The electrification of the Nation” and, well, the first two parts of this math equation are gone forever, but the unpronounceable Sayano-Shushenskaya Hydro Electric Power Plant not only provides cheap electricity all over Siberia, but surprisingly is a real tourist hot spot. There is a very nice lookout point filled with monuments and parking for all the daily visitors who want to take photos of man’s triumph over nature.
Now what may perk your touristic interest is that there are plenty of boat tours along the Yenisei River where the big dam is. And not only can you cruise around on a boat having a nice time taking in the green scenery, but they have floating hotels that you can stop off at! Seriously, someone put together these surprisingly nice barges where you can stay the night, have shashlik, go swimming, drink tea and all that good Russian stuff! The locals at the hotels were very chatty so it could be a great chance to practice your Russian.
Note from Tim: The boat tour guides along the Yenisei will be happy to take you off the normal route… for a fee… to show you some cool stuff that you won’t see on any tourist sites. We took a stop off at a small hidden waterfall and it is something I will remember for the rest of my life.
Now I just mentioned staying at a unique hotel, but floating hotels are not the only awesome stay-over experience that you can have in Khakassia. We actually stayed at the Kyug (pronounced “Kyoog”) yurt complex, which is walking distance from the Kazanova Cultural Center. This, my friends, is one of those times I actually wish I was on vacation and not shooting.
The location is gorgeous, the air is perfect, I slept amazingly well in my yurt and the local style breakfast was perfect. I had a wonderful time, but it was all too short. The yurt hotel was certainly not empty, as many groups of tourists were around, thankfully for those far more social than I am, there was a common area for everyone to mingle and get to know each other.
So, I think our time in Khakassia was cut horribly short. We never even had time for shashliking (barbequing!) at the Yurt Complex!
The neat thing about visiting all of Southern Siberia in one go is that the border crossing between the Republics of Khakassia and Tyva is actually a tourist destination all of its own. And it is right at the heights of the Sayan Pass, i.e. it is way up in the mountains on the only highway there is. At the border, there are two classic Soviet-Style concrete slab stelas each showing the glory of their respective republic and a few bullet holes.
Around the area, there are many pieces of colorful cloth tied up to wires. I was told that on each a prayer mostly in the Tibetan language is written on them, from whence Buddhism made its way to Tyva. Speaking of which, from a Moscow perspective there are really only two things we all know about Tyva - that it is the Buddhist part of Russia and that current Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu was born there. So, just like Khakassia, this area was mostly a blank slate for myself before the trip.
Note from Tim: These Buddhist “drums” that people walk around three times as sort of a form of micro-meditation are all around Tyva. People who are obviously believers in other faiths are welcome to use them and to visit temples and other religious sites.
Now there are some borders on Earth that are a drastic change between regions and there are some that look like the border between the USA and Canada, where the only real difference is that on one side everyone gets a hockey stick with their birth certificate. I mention this, because I didn’t want you to feel like you were seeing double, because we went to stay at a yurt hotel again! But, this one is called the ‘Aldyn-Bulak Ethno-Cultural Complex’ and it was very different to the one in Khakassia in some significant ways.
Firstly, as I’ve learned, yurts in Russia just need to be kind of round and not necessarily collapsible\transportable. So, the hexagonal\octagonal buildings in Khakassia are just the same linguistically as the truly portable and truly round yurts at Aldyn Bulak. Furthermore, in Tyva, the complex seemed more oriented towards weddings. Yeah, I’m serious, if there is anything I regret about getting married, it is not having a yurt-based afterparty! They even had VIP yurts for newlyweds and for yours truly, of course.
The land is stunning around the Aldyn-Bulak Complex with green rolling hills and blue skies. The hotel itself is at the bottom of a valley, which just begs you to climb to the top of the hills to take a good look around. The hotel also has little monuments and places to hang out up there, as well. The mighty Yenisei River that we got to know in Khakassia is right next to the joint so, if you get overheated, just jump on in!
Considering the lone A162 highway is completely traffic free, it was a short drive to the regional capital of Kyzyl. Now, one thing my fanatically loyal producer Misha made clear before we left was that Tyva, sadly, comes in at rock bottom on almost all charts for the “Poorest Regions of Russia”. This is definitely not the Top 10 list that any region wants to be on. As, essentially, a glorified homeless person from Cleveland, I know the realities of living in a “bad neighborhood”. Thankfully, Kyzyl was not like the ghetto I grew up in. Yes, people seemed way more down on their luck than in the other regions of Russia we went to, but have that favela feel of the locals being out to get you.
Note from Tim: If you’ve never had the chance to drive in an isolated place, then you must rent a car and explore Tyva. It will be the best driving experience of your life.
But, perhaps, the key to living well in Tyva is living traditionally far away from Soviet-era apartment buildings in Kyzyl, like they do at the ‘Kara-Chyraa Tour Base’. It is run by one family, the matron of which was born in a yurt and lived her entire childhood nomadically in the USSR. So, this is a very authentic experience, where you can talk to people who really do live “off-grid” and eat the exact same food their ancestors did… only they like to play games on their cellphones from time to time. And, if you want, they offer places to stay so you can spend a couple days out on the great steppes of Tyva. This is one way to truly experience the “great outdoors” and, like all nomads, they have tons and tons of livestock. So, if you enjoy animals, well, they’ve got plenty, although some are… for dinner!
Not only can you learn about the old nomadic lifestyle, but there are plenty of Shamans in Tyva just waiting to treat your spiritual wounds (for a price) and the local Huresh-style wrestling clubs are always looking for new members… even foreigners!
Now, if you want to take a quick sneak peek at what Southern Siberia looks like, we have compiled a short drone footage trailer that will let you really see just how big the new “big sky country” really is! To be honest, it is so gorgeous, I can’t believe I actually went there!
So, I hope some of you might want to actually tour Russia and may be reading travel books about this crazy post-Soviet wasteland that the first Westerners en masse encountered in the 1990s but… You should burn all those books, because they are completely obsolete.
Even in tiny regional capitals like Abakan and Kyzyl, all the hotels we stayed at were great and all the cafes we ate at were pretty darn good. You can see that a lot of the chefs went to Moscow in their 20s to train and have come back home with money in their 30s to open local restaurants.
Yeah, traveling in South Siberia closer to the fall of communism was a lot more exciting, romantic and potentially dangerous, but those days are gone my friends. Now, I can order a Dodo Pizza anywhere I go via the app on my phone. Speaking of food…
Because these regions are very much so associated with the whole Golden Horde, their cuisine is very nomadic with their meat and milk coming from the livestock that travels with them. Everything sort of looked recognizable - soups, sausages, hot cereals, but everything also tastes very different. It will be way easier to just watch our video about all these foods than to explain it! So, get your appetites stimulated and click on our video ‘The Must Eats of Southern Siberia’.
Oh, how I wish that I could go back to Southern Siberia with more time and no cameras. Filming things always rushes us from location to location. Next time, I hope to be able to take more time to take in the views and just chill in a yurt eating some cheese from a goat’s stomach without a care in the world. Remember friends, if you enjoyed any of these videos, please share them over your social networks to help us grow our audience. We really appreciate it!
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