Turbaza Snezhny Bars

The next two days were spent driving back to Abakan via western Tuva, for a change of scenery.  The first 300 km or so were fairly similar, one Wyoming valley with birch forest after another.  We turned north at Al-Dovurak, after taking some faraway pictures of its massive open-air asbestos mine, the largest in the world.  Soon we were climbing out of the valley over high passes into beautiful river canyons, and crossed from Tuva into Khakassia with our second Soviet Moment.

The border between the provinces of Tuva and Khakassia is a bigger deal than most national borders, even the United States if you’re old and a citizen.  (I can’t answer for other travelers to the US.)  The Russian militsiya go through a phenomenal number of gestures that result in zero increase in security to the state.  Just for a start, everything is done on paper, in handwriting.  This is not how the modern police state keeps track, this is “just work”.  And, the level of literacy in the border police was not high.  I’m guessing our passport control guy had never seen a US passport, Roman writing, and may have been illiterate entirely.  He took my passport, and turned to a random page and started copying from it onto a loose sheet of typing paper.

It happened that the page held my Mali visa from 2006.  Mali makes its full page paste-in visas by  cutting and pasting from the front page of your passport, so it includes your photo, but they rearrange the text.  Without any knowledge of Romanji, Ivan began to write my name:


He could not be dissuaded from continuing.  The KGB will record that Multi Thomas Washington entered Khakassia on a snow-drizzled evening in the middle of August.

We pulled into Snow Leopard Camp a half hour or so after they lifted the gate  It appeared to be a sauna and hiking resort with several wooden cabins, wasted on us who were only staying overnight.

The people at Turbaza Snezhny Bars (Camp Snow Leopard) natter on and on in warp speed Russian without checking to see if you are listening or understanding.  I wonder if our native Tuva speaking guide even keeps up with them.  I want my dour Russians back.

Fortunately, they guided us to the gift shop.  We bought t-shirts and some birch bark containers to preserve stolen hotel soap; but hotel soap with the name of the hotel is also going the way of post cards.  You grow up thinking that things are a fixture of civilization, and then you discover they were just very long fads which are coming to an end, like the Enlightenment.

For some reason, our driver, the Tuvan Chester A. Arthur, drove back to Kyzyl by himself that night, leaving Choodaraa and us.  He did not say goodbye.  Not even hold his hand out for a tip.  I had been hoping at least to learn his name, after five days.  He told us once, but Tuvan names take some practice, like the Russian word for “train station” which is shortened usually to “Zal”.

The area of the Sayan Mountains is stunningly beautiful although there is an unexplained large steel pipe down by the creek, carrying some nonrenewable resource or other from the forest back to Moscow.

Snezhny Bars itself seems vaguely chick camp.  Women outnumber men by a wide margin.  It may be that in winter when it is a hunting camp, the ratio is reversed, and there aren’t gymnastics to disco music on a wooden deck in the morning.  In the gift shop is a bear skin for sale for 8000 rubles.  Men don’t buy animal skins, unless they are Liberace.

Considerable talk of well-being, with banyas and herb tea on the menu; but the food has not been visited by the Dr. Atkins militsiya yet.  Breakfast had a white cereal of a grain I’m not sure of, potato-filled beignets, bread, and sugar.

We did take a walk the next morning on spongy wet ground past hundreds of different kinds of mushrooms and mosses and lichens, and our local guide Matya pointed out several healing herbs.  (“This herb is healing in small doses, hallucinogenic in larger ones, and fatal in large ones.”)  (She didn’t know the word “hallucinogenic” but it’s clear that’s what she meant)  After the walk, we climbed into a different small low-riding non-4×4 Toyota with a new driver who looked like Oddjob and headed to Abakan.  It was clearly not called for to be introduced to him.

Lonely Planet told us to look for “standing stones” by the side of the road, and for a good 20 km or so, there were many mounds each with three or four grave-marker-sized rocks.  Presumably that’s what they were used for many centuries ago.  We stopped in a small museum of the vanished Khakassian culture (they were chased out to Kirghiz a couple of centuries ago and Stalin and the Orthodox Church finished the job) which also contained a menhir of a pregnant woman.  The statue had been there for 4000 years; the Khakassians arrived there about 1500 years ago and made up stories to suit themselves about who she was and what her powers were.  She stands 2.5 meters above the ground and 1.5 meters below the ground and had been removed to a museum once, but brought back to live in a small glass-walled yurt after protest by some remaining local pagans.  There is always something sad about the descendants of extinguished cultures dressing in old costumes and going through certain motions for tourists.

The performers at the Shushenskoe Lenin Exile museum and Colonial Williamsburg do the same thing, to say nothing of Renaissance Faires, but it’s different when it’s dress-up by the dominant culture.  They got to decide where flush toilets and iPhones and atheism fit into their class structure.  The Indians didn’t.

At one point we walked around a modern cemetery which had been built around one of these mounds.  Cemeteries in rural Russia are different from any I’ve seen:  each family’s area has a little railing around it, and often a picnic table inside.  More recent graves are decorated with many garish fake wreaths with many colors of ribbons:  it’s like Christmas all year round.  There weren’t any wreaths upon the neolithic dolmens; after 30 centuries they had been forgotten.

There was just time to eat before getting on the train at Abakan.  Two successive drivers (there was a change of driver at the train station, our second change of the day) had not heard of Lonely Planet’s recommendation, so forget that.  Chodaraa thought to take us to an Irish Pub but we rejected that.  Irish Pubs are common here.  This isn’t quite a long enough vacation to be indulging snarky curiosity on how the Russians do Irish Pubs, New York Pizza (another common theme) or Sushi.  I have a personal rule about sushi three thousand kilometers from the nearest ocean.  Don’t even eat sushi in Denver.  I know that it’s all frozen in the South Atlantic for distribution to Tokyo and San Francisco; I’ve seen the tuna icebergs at Tsukiji; but I pretend I haven’t.

We had a quick dinner at a Serbian restaurant which was playing Buena Vista Social Club on its stereo, and got on the overnight train hotel to Novosibirsk.  Even though we were in second class, we didn’t share a room:  instead of having a cabin with four beds, we had a half-cabin with two beds:  there is one of these in each car, sometimes used by the provodnitsa, the lady who sees after the train car, sometimes by travelers.

Our night in Novosibirsk to take a train break was kind of dumb.  The hotel’s location was perfect for Russian businessmen with their own cars, but was a little far from downtown, and we had to take taxis because our lack of language skills didn’t let us find out about buses or microbuses or trolleys.  Despite their advertising on the Internet, encouraging English-speaking customers to go there, no one on the staff really spoke English, except for someone on a cell phone who confirmed that the room with one double bed that we’d ordered on the Internet was actually what we wanted.  The Internet in the hotel was via either modem (maybe that’s why they sold it in units of five hours) or some completely impenetrable form of Wi-Fi, so we gave up on it.  We took a trip into town and had some good Georgian food (where else can you get pork kebabs?!) and found a decent Internet cafe.  But, without the computer with us we couldn’t really post.

Now we’re on a 48-hour train ride to Moscow going first class on a super-nice train, the Siberiac.  When we entered, the little table was covered with junk food which we’re still not sure if was included with our ticket or is more like a hotel minibar which we pay for stuff except for what we don’t eat or crush — we’ll find out at the end.  There are multiple outlets in the plush two-person cabin, instead of zero, so we can keep the computer and battery chargers and phone charged.  And when the train ride is over, we’ll be in a modern city which may be somewhat more cosmopolitan and tourist-friendly than the ones we’ve been in.  Hope we don’t have to bribe any policemen.

The Trans-Siberian railway is pretty glorious, just like I knew it would be when I read about it in the Weekly Reader and got a train ride from Stockton to Sacramento on the Vista-Dome for my birthday.

Our room is upholstered in blue crushed velvet, with large mirrors front and back creating and endless-Hall effect.  The food in the PECTOPAH car is actually good.  The waitresses are flirty, we sort of  talked with a geographer mapping Northern Siberia, and had Siberian Corona beer since we don’t have to be alert on the twenty meter walk back to the compartment which the provodnitsa has locked for us without even being asked…

And we are seeing Russia like the most major Andy Warhol film out our window, or the largest painting in the world which was cut up at the end of the 19th century but not before it inspired a young Thomas Alva Edison to invent a motion picture camera because looking at a 2500 foot long panorama was so lame.

(Footnote: Although the American painting was the one which sprang to mind, the Hermitage Museum is restoring a panorama made for the 1900 Paris exhibition advertising the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  It was a popular art form back in the day.)

Siberia out the window is at least minimally live.  The birch trees wave in the wind, the seed pods of summer flowers are stirred up by the passing train, the endless gondola cars filled with coal rolling to Europe to heat the continent for the winter.  And filthy tank cars, dripping with nameless black chemicals and an occasional skull and crossbones visible with the Yukos logo.  And other mysterious railroad cars, like the conveyor belt cars that appear to have the purpose of stirring up the gravel.  And some brand new bright red tank cars, and the old brick towers in most of the stations we fly past too fast to focus the camera, even if other trains ande concrete buildings would stay out of the way.

Villages with decorated shutters abound, but not so much as abandoned Soviet factories.  The ubiquity of decaying factories and collectives in every part of the country surpasses any part of the American rust belt.  We are told that the Communists built factories in complete disregard to economic viability or need for products wherever it was thought that workers needed jobs.  With the devolution in 1989, all these factories closed.  No telling what the workers are doing now.