Tuva or Bust

We woke up in Abakan and after a short look around were approached by our guide and her driver.  The drive from Abakan to Kyzyl will not seem unfamiliar to anyone from the Rockies or the Sierras.  You drive through a lot of passes that look like Nederland and then the minute you get to the Tuva border it changes to looking like Minden, Nevada.

On the way, we went to a museum built on the site in Shushenskoe, at the southern edge of Krasnoyarsk province, where Lenin was exiled in Siberia from 1897 to 1900.  It includes several of the actual buildings where he lived, others of the era which were moved to the site, and others which are reconstructions.  Apparently it’s quite authentic.  It was built for the centenary of his birth.  It was interesting seeing all the old pots and pans and sickles and plows — we got a barrel-making demonstration by a guy using tools of the era.  The Lenin statue is not original.

Later, we stopped at the house of a couple who have made a business of serving lunch to tourists.  We’d had some fairly fancy food in Irkutsk, especially at Hotel Zvezda, but this simple meal was my favorite in Russia so far.  Several different salads (mushroom, cabbage, carrot, fern), homemade pickles, barbecued chicken (we haven’t seen much chicken for awhile), and jelly, sour cream, and cottage cheese on homemade bread.  You can’t believe Russian sour cream.  The stuff at Safeway is so pathetic.  The homemade schnapps was a little strong, though.

We got to the Yurt camp called “Biy-Khem” at 5:47.  The name means “Big Yenisey River” in Tuvan.  Kyzyl is the confluence of the Big and Little Yenisey Rivers.  “Kyzyl” means “Red”.  The city used to be named White something but the Reds changed the name.

That evening there was a big tour-bus party in our yurt camp (allegedly the president of Ericsson, and the guy from the BBC who invented the phrase “world music” were there but I didn’t find out until the next morning) which caused there to be mass quantities of food (and also a throat singing concert and two shaman healing rituals).  This food was quite Tuvan (ie unseasoned sheep parts) and between its plain meatiness and our being bloated from lunch and eating our train-food salami before it went bad, we ended up feeling bad about leaving so much of it on the table.  I think our guide, who is Tuvan, was disappointed that I didn’t seem as excited about it as I had about lunch.  I don’t know that the Turkic languages have a word for “full”.

The next day we toured the Tuvan capital Kyzyl, a city with 100000 residents, one third Russian and two thirds Tuvan.  The first thing we did was to butt ahead of hundreds of people who had lined up in threatening weather since before opening time to see various relics (cremation “stones”, teeth, etc.) of various Buddhist lamas which were on display for the last of three days at this museum.  They kept the line moving about as fast as the moving sidewalk in front of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.  Other highlights included a monument marking the center of Asia, the usual war dead monuments (one must carefully ask Which War and On Whose Side), a small Buddhist temple, and a small recent museum to the victims of Stalin’s religious persecution.

It’s not easy to tell where Tuvans stand on Communism.  Stalin killed their entire cultured class in 1937.  Yet the statues of Lenin are everywhere.  Our guide stated she didn’t think there was any support for the idea of an independent Tuva because there wasn’t the economic basis for it in a country that small.  (Visual counterpoint: a photo of Vladimir Putin fishing with Prince Albert of Monaco on vacation along the Yenisei, hanging in the main city museum.  Aside from the special exhibit of Buddhist relics, the museum is pretty small town.  But my point is about the size viability of Monaco.  Prince Albert was shown catching a rather small fish, for a head of state, not much larger than the fish that holds Justin’s Prince Albert.)

Don’t doubt that there was a great deal of hostility toward the priesthood in 1937.  People who have No On 8 and Free Tibet bumper stickers on their Subarus are invited to resolve according to minimally consistent philosophical strictures, what their attitude toward lamas and temples would be if the United States were run by, say, Mormons, for 4 or 5 centuries, with full rein to enforce lethally their attitudes toward women, homosexuals, democracy, the adjudication of truth, and other cosmetic asides to culture.  The Communists who took over Mongolia, Tuva, Russia, Tibet, and China, were not facing a united front of peasants defending the superstitious aristocracy who had forever been kidnapping their children to monasteries and stupefying their parents with larcenous religious mumbo jumbo.  There were a lot of angry slaves ready for a new century of mumbo jumbo, and some orgiastic destruction to boot.

Moving along to the new mumbo jumbo, time for some shopping.  Still looking for a map tube.  Finally settled on a one dollar broom handle.  You can wrap a map around a broom handle and it is almost as safe as in a tube.  It’s cool to go in little hardware stores and see where the local toilet handles come from.  You get tired of looking at ceramic deer and flower appliqued boxes in which to store them.  Some Russian teenagers with their game faces in abeyance asked us if we had a dollar bill they could put in a wallet they had just bought.  Placing a nice bill in a wallet brings good luck.  Right.  Allegedly the banks wouldn’t change 30 rubles for them.  Ray gave them one.  The cultures which most approve of begging traditionally require something of the beggar; a good story is such a boon.

Dinner was back at camp, a Tuvan/Russian ratatouille.