Tuva: Russia’s Secret

October 28, 2011

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With a week off of classes, we Irkutiane decided to do a bit of traveling around Siberia. We spent time in three major locations, among them Krasnoyarsk, another take on a large eastern Russian city; and Abakan, which is not far from the country’s largest dam and Lenin’s long-term residence while in exile. These places were interesting in themselves, but our last destination stands out as an outlier within Russia, if not the world, and I feel it is best to fill you in on what we found there.

As with all destinations on our trip, getting to Kyzyl meant an overnight ride on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. We rode (as most do) third class, which is known more commonly as Platzkart. Within each car are stalls set up back-to-back, and open to each other; in second and first class, these stalls will have their own door, but here the common walkway allows access to every bed and, if you’re not careful with your stuff, everything. The beds themselves are benches in the daytime, converted at night by adding a thin mattress and a pillow over the top. Above each of the three ground-level benches in every stall is another bunk; in the space of a small single bedroom, the train sleeps six, and usually among the six is at least one new acquaintance.

Kyzyl is the capital of Tuva, a once-independent republic famed for its elegant postage stamps and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman’s resulting fascination with the place. Nestled in between the Soviet Union and Mongolia, in 1944 the little republic joined its big northern neighbor, allegedly willingly, with the hopes of fighting the Fascists in the west. Upon arrival, you are immediately reminded of the area’s separate history; even in Kyzyl, the only real city in the republic, ethnic Russians are, practically speaking, nonexistent. Everyone is Asiatic, and except for the rare Russkiy, they speak Tuvan, a Turkic language related to Kazakh (despite claims to the contrary), and learn Russian in school. But Kyzyl is not only interesting in this regard; it is also the geographical center of Asia. It makes logical sense, that Russia would contain Asia’s midpoint, but standing at the monument that marks the spot, it felt jarring to know that Moscow and Petersburg are also in this country.

Two great experiences in Tuva. First, throat singing. Through Jamalia, a friend of a friend, we met an Australian woman who is currently working on a dissertation involving Tuva’s rich musical traditions, the strangest of which is a unique type of singing that puts heavy stress on one’s throat muscles. I still haven’t figured out exactly how it is done, but by controlling your voice with your throat, you can isolate one or several overtones that naturally accompany the main sound wave, or note, that you choose to sing. If you can do this successfully, as Tuvan musicians can, the result is a loud, controlled bellow of sorts, in which many separate notes can be heard. Yes, all at one time these guys can sing three, four, five notes, harmonizing with themselves without trouble. Check this video out to see what I mean, the real stuff starts about twenty seconds in. Through the Australian woman, we ended up having a private engagement with the Tuvan National Orchestra, and had the unique experience of listening to them sing and play in an empty concert hall.

Second great experience: traditionally slaughtering a sheep. On our last day in Kyzyl we went with Jamalia in a taxi to the outskirts of the city, and there, for about ninety dollars, we bought a medium-sized sheep out of the back of a truck from a farmer that only spoke Tuvan. This was still morning, so Jamalia found us a friend’s house where we could store the sheep; having arrived, sheep and all, in the same taxi, a small woman came to greet us and quickly led the animal into her yard, where it would stay until night. Jamalia informed us that this woman is the wife of a shaman, and that tonight he would be performing the ceremony.

When we came back, we were immediately directed to the small kitchen table inside the home, where traditional Tuvan tea awaited us. Made from milk, the tea probably would have tasted like any other tea with half-and-half had we not added the obligatory sugar (normal), oatmeal (uh huh..), and, of course, a spoon-full of fresh fat. Although the last ingredient tended to coagulate and float on the top of our cups in yellow bubbles, the tea was very good; I had three cups. After this, the hostess placed a bottle on the table, filled with what appeared to be vodka. What it was, however, was a Tuvan alcohol, the name of which unfortunately was completely incomprehensible. Also made from milk (goat? horse? certainly not cow..), the drink is clear, 10% alcohol, and tastes initially like water that has been exposed to celery, with a subtle after-taste of grass and goat fur. I had about half a glass.

As we drank, the shaman invited us outside to witness the slaughter. I won’t go into too much detail here, but I do find it interesting how, exactly, the animal is traditionally killed. Instead of cutting its throat by kosher standards (by the way, no Jews in Kyzyl. I asked.), they slit the animal’s abdomen open, being careful not cut any organs. With the animal still alive, the butcher will then reach his hand in, all the way back near the spine, where the aorta is located. A small tug on the aorta kills the animal instantly. Once this is done, the butchering is relatively simple, first removing the hide, then removing the intestines and spooning the blood into a pan, which will then go into those intestines (which have been cleaned) to make blood sausage. The other organs are then removed, the meat butchered, and everything thing boiled in a large cauldron with nothing but a small lump of salt.

For boiled meat, the meal wasn’t too bad. Having already experienced blood sausage before, I could have skipped it, and I couldn’t even get myself (embarrassingly; I try to give everything a shot) to eat the small wrapped packets of intestine, with the inside turned out; for an image’s sake, this looked like a small octopus’ tentacle tied into a square knot and served on a plate. More Tuvan alcohol (I went for the vodka), then the shaman ritualized each of us individually. Left alone with he and Jamalia (our translator; the shaman only spoke Tuvan), the process began with him, in full leather regalia, burning a small pine branch and spreading the smoke around my body. Followed by Tuvan singing and drumming, with a small interval in which the shaman left to beat the drum outside to himself, the ritual ended with me asking questions, and he playing his main role as a shaman, that of a seer. I asked about my grandmother’s and my parents’ health, and all seems to be ok. I also was interested in my future family, and he told me I would see my wife and children in my dreams that night. In the better interest of my destiny, I will not disclose more.

With that, our time at the shaman’s house came to an end. The next morning we took a marshrutka back to Abakan, then a taxi back to Krasnoyarsk, with each leg lasting, as all non-train transport between Siberian cities seems to, five hours. Having thus sat all day, we got on the train in Krasnoyarsk around ten in the evening, taking the night and the next morning to arrive back home to Irkutsk. In all, we had been on the road for ten days, and after a night on the Trans-Siberian and an uncounted number of days without bathing, coming home lent us a feeling that is only granted, I believe, to the weary traveler: a flood of gratitude with the realization that the exhaustion has come to an end, and an overwhelming desire to sleep on something more comfortable than a train bench.

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One Response to “Tuva: Russia’s Secret”

  1. Dad said

    Nate, your experiences thus far make for great memories. You will talk about these experiences forever. Take it all in! Love, Dad

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