Tuva: Explore Siberia’s Remote and Undiscovered Treasure
By now most travelers who have heard of Tuva have heard of the book Tuva or Bust!, the story of Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s quest to visit the on-again-off-again country, which had disappeared from maps; and the adventures of Paul Pena, the blind San Francisco bluesman featured in the 1999 film Genghis Blues, who taught himself throat-singing from short wave radio broadcasts, then was invited to Tuva to participate in a throat-singing festival.
These Americans and their chroniclers were instrumental in bringing the obscure little Russian republic and its signature art form, throat-singing, to the attention of the rest of the world.
Why Travel to Tuva?
Once travelers began to trickle in to Tuva, they found that it has more to offer than simply its remoteness and its peoples’ mysterious musical traditions. Ancient Scythian burial mounds filled with golden treasure, the hospitality of nomads on the steppe, animistic shamans, and Buddhist lamas all contribute to Tuva’s peculiar appeal.
Add to those a salt lake teeming with such diverse wildlife that it’s been designated a natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you have a worthy destination indeed.
Where in the World is Tuva?
Tuva, it turns out, is tucked away in a remote corner of southwest Siberia, and is today a federal subject of the Russian Federation. When Richard Feynman discovered its unusual triangular stamps as a kid, it was an independent country called Tannu-Tuva, established in 1921 by the Bolsheviks.
The country disappeared from maps because in 1944 it was officially annexed by the USSR and declared an autonomous region. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tuva became a member of the Russian Federation.
Throat-singing and Tuvan Musical Traditions
Tuvans share a cultural heritage with their southern neighbors, the Mongolians, who also practice the uncanny art of throat-singing. In throat-singing, a single vocalist produces two, and sometimes three or four distinct tones, or overtones, at the same time.
In one type of throat-singing, sygyt, a remarkable droning and buzzing vocalization underlies a sort of whistling melody formed by changes in the lips, tongue, and palate. You’ve got to see and hear it to believe that one person can make those sounds simultaneously. And once you have heard it, you won’t forget it.
You can hear – and see – master throat-singer Kongar-ol Ondar performing on David Letterman in this You Tube clip. (Ondar – a.k.a. the “Groovin’ Tuvan”) was the Tuvan singer who invited bluesman Paul Pena to Tuva; he is featured in the film, Genghis Blues.)
Throat-singers can perform anywhere, anytime, but in more formal settings are backed by an ensemble that might include several traditional plucked or bowed stringed instruments, as well as a khomus, or jaw harp, a popular portable instrument that can be pulled out of a pocket for a solo or a jam.
Location, Location, Location
Tuva is situated in a hilly mountain basin surrounded by the majestic Sayan and Tannu-Ola mountain ranges, and its landscapes, plants, and animals are extremely diverse. Here, in the transition zone between the east Siberian taiga and the Central Asian steppe, scores of endemic and endangered species flourish. Grassy open steppe dotted with yurts, and bare rolling hills give way to forested mountains cut through with rushing streams, green meadows, and wide placid rivers.
The region’s ecosystems have been nearly untouched by development since the last ice age, save for small wandering herds tended by nomads, and a few small cities and towns.
Historically, the Tuvans have been semi-nomadic, and, although the Soviets attempted to move them to collective farms, the effort was not entirely successful. At the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many people took up herding again, tending yaks, goats, sheep, cattle and reindeer, and living in yurts during the summer months.
Hospitality in a Tuvan Home
On a drive to Samagaltai, the former capital of Tuva, through the remote Tuvan countryside, travelers are welcomed at the yurt of a semi-nomadic family. Here in the Tuvan outback, kids wrangle the animals, women make cheese and flatbread on the floor of their yurt, and the men practice their throat-singing licks as they visit their herds on horseback. Rural life here has not changed much in the last hundred years.
Tuva’s ancestral religions, like Mongolia’s, are shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism. Shamanism was here first, and is based on the animistic belief that everything – animals, rocks, trees, sky – has a spirit. Shamans intercede for people with the spirit world, the unseen world that pervades the Tuvan’s environment.
Spiritual beliefs were deliberately suppressed by the Soviets, and Tuvans who believed they had shamanic abilities were forced to hide them from anyone except close relatives. Since 1991, shamanism in Tuva has come out of the closet, and travelers can experience a shaman ceremony when they visit Tuva.
Tibetan Buddhism first came to Tuva when it was under Chinese rule, from 1757 to 1911. In 1929, Tuva had 25 monasteries, called khurees, and some 4,000 lamas and shamans; by 1931, after Stalin’s repressions, there was reportedly only one monastery left, along with some 15 lamas.
Today Kyzyl can claim at least two modern monasteries, and a beautiful red and gold prayer wheel on Arat Square; newly-built stupas dot the countryside.
Long ago, before the throat-singers, nomads, and shaman ceremonies, Tuva was a Scythian stronghold, with a golden history.
In 2001, archaeologists excavating a kurgan, or burial mound, near Turan, some 10 miles northeast of Kyzyl, found their shovels unexpectedly hitting wood. They had reached the roof of a royal burial chamber. On opening it, they found the preserved skeletons of a male and a female, surrounded by what turned out to be 44 pounds of golden adornments. The 5,700 golden pieces, many of them tiny panthers originally sewn in patterns onto royal robes, had been lying quietly in the tomb for 2,600 years, ever since the Scythian noble and his wife (or concubine, who had most likely been put to death to rest alongside her consort) had been interred in a grand ceremony. 35 other people were buried in concentric circles around the main chamber, probably members of the royal couple’s retinue.
While today’s Tuvans are not related to the early Scythians, their land harbors numerous reminders of the ancient horse culture. The region around Turan where the golden treasure trove was found – called the Valley of the Czars – is studded with the burial mounds of the mounted warriors. The mysterious Scythians ranged from Central Asia to southern Russia and Germany, disappearing in the early years of Christianity. Their culture was one of the earliest and most successful equestrian cultures.
Down in southern Tuva, the ancient Uvs Nuur lake basin, shared between Mongolia and Tuva, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to its extraordinary diversity of species and ecosystems. In this region you can see desert, steppe, conifer forests, floodplain, wetlands, alpine tundra, sand dunes, and marshes, as well as the plants and animals adapted to each.
A highly saline lake, Uvs Nuur is watered by the freshwater Tes-Khem River, which meanders though some 60 miles of marshland. The freshwater and saltwater wetlands together support huge flocks of migratory birds, contributing to the 359 bird species found within the protected areas.
The Eurasian steppe land in the lake basin would have reverted to forest over millenia, except for the intervention, first, of wild herbivores, such as the Przewalski horse and wild Bactrian camels, and later, the domesticated herds belonging to humans. These animals, turning the earth with their hoofs, selectively grazing the grassland plants, and depositing fertilizer in their wake, tended the wild pastures and kept them open and flourishing.
The interconnected ecosystems of the Uvs Nuur basin offered a benign environment for early humans, as well. Neolithic sites, kurgans, and stone tablets, or steles, demonstrate the continuing presence of human beings across this abundant region.
Today, it is the absence of large groups of people that has preserved remote, curious, and wonderful Tuva. The difficulties of getting here through the surrounding mountains, the disappearing act it performed on the world’s maps and globes, and its alliance with Russia, rather than its cultural cousin, Mongolia, have all contributed to preserving this sparsely-populated, isolated pocket of peculiar appeal.
Travel to Tuva with MIR
You can experience the eerie sound of Tuvan throat-singing, attend a shaman ceremony, scout the kurgans in the Valley of the Czars, and visit the home of a nomadic Tuvan family, on MIR’s Siberian Odyssey: Legends of Tuva and Lake Baikal.
MIR is your Siberia travel expert – with 30 years of travel experience to Russia and with affiliate offices in Ulan Ude and Irkutsk (both in Siberia), as well as in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
Top photo: Tuvan musicians Siberia Tuva Russia. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
PUBLISHED: May 2, 2017