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News of Tuva Heard Round the World

One person inspired by Richard Feynman to visit Tuva was BBC Moscow Correspondent Tim Whewell (pronounced "Huewell"). During the week of September 20-26 he filed several reports that were heard on the BBC World Service by millions of listeners around the globe. (A cassette recording of them is available through the Tuva Trader.) Here are transcripts of three reports filed by Mr. Whewell, courtesy of the correspondent:

News Dispatch

[Sounds of a ceremony. Voice says] On-dört dugaarlyg Dalai Lama--the Fourteenth Dalai Lama]

[Whewell] The Dalai Lama's first visit to Tuva, a mountainous region on the Mongolian border, was celebrated with music, dancing, and religious rituals that many local people had never seen before. Buddhism has several hundred thousand followers in Russia, but one of the Dalai Lama's assistants, Andrei Terentev, says the religion suffered more than any other under the Communist regime.

[Voice of Terentev] The Buddhist religion was smashed completely: all the temples were destroyed and all the clergy sent to prison or repressed otherwise. When we speak about Christianity, we still have more than ten percent of the churches that were alive, even during Communist rule.

[Whewell] Now the Dalai Lama has consecrated a piece of land to the first temple in Tuva since the 1930s, and visited a former military barracks in Buryatia, also on the Mongolian border, which will in future house a Buddhist institute.

Local politicians welcomed the Dalai Lama enthusiastically--partly, perhaps, because his visit is a reminder to Moscow and the rest of the world of their regions' separate ethnic identity. In Tuva, which was an independent state between the two world wars, the Tibetan leader was called on to consecrate the autonomous republic's new flag in a ceremony clearly designed to appease the strong local nationalist movement.

[Sounds of ceremony. A Tuvan teacher, Rolanda Kongar, says, in English] The people of Tuva will memorize this moment, when there is the flag over their homeland--the free, sovereign, independent republic of Tyv! [Tuva]

[Whewell] For his part, the Dalai Lama reminded his audiences that while they'd already gained considerable freedom within Russia, his homeland, Tibet, remained under the complete domination of China. Local officials in Tuva and elsewhere have said they personally support his campaign for Tibetan independence. But the Russian government, which does not want to offend Peking, has been careful not to commit itself.

--Tim Whewell, BBC, Moscow.

Report Heard on "Newshour"

[Cue] Crowds of worshippers have turned out to greet the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, on his tour of the traditionally Buddhist regions of Russia. In Communist times, Buddhism probably suffered more than any other religion in the Soviet Union. Almost all monasteries were destroyed; thousands of monks were put to death. But now, it is enjoying a revival, as our correspondent, Tim Whewell, found when he accompanied the Dalai Lama on his first visit to Tuva, a once-independent state on the Mongolian border.

[Whewell] There are few countries in the world as isolated as Tuva: it's cut off from Russia by high mountains, and from Mongolia by empty steppe. And many of its people are nomadic shepherds who move their felt tents each season in search of fresh pasture. Apart, perhaps, from Genghis Khan in the early thirteenth century, no world world leader had ever visited Tuva--until the Dalai Lama arrived this week.

The main square of Tuva's tiny capital, Kyzyl, still contains a statue of Lenin. But that didn't stop the country's former Communist rulers from welcoming the Buddhist leader there with a spectacular ceremony in which the cheers were carefully orchestrated.

[Sounds of ceremony. A voice leads the crowd in shouting "Khurai! Khurai! (Hurrah! Hurrah!).] [Whewell] The Dalai Lama crossed the square between two lines of kneeling women in traditional silk gowns and fur-brimmed hats, their hands pressed together in prayer. Further back were red-robed novice monks, and hundreds of ordinary Tuvans sitting cross-legged on the pavement.

Clouds of smoke rose from incense burners as the living god from Tibet was enthroned opposite the former Party headquarters, and the official speeches began.

[Sounds of ceremony: A Tuvan teacher, Rolanda Kongar, says, in English] The noble saint Dalai Lama, Oh! Please give the strength to the old men who have lived much, and young men who are to live much. The noble, holy Dalai Lama, the local people worship you! Help us make the life better and safe. Let your name shine in the golden sunrays! [Then she says the Tuvan words for "God help me": [Burgan Örshé, Burgan Örshé, Burgan Örshé.]

[Whewell] There's no doubt that the visit of the Dalai Lama is useful for Tuvan politicians who are now trying to loosen links with Moscow. But not everyone is convinced by their sudden conversion from atheism to Buddhism. Local businesswoman Dina Oyun watched the ceremony with disbelief.

[Voice of Oyun] It seemed to me very ridiculous that--those people from the Party--they stood there and they were "true worshippers" of the Dalai Lama. It was ridiculous--for me it was--and it was false, I think. It seemed false because they are not sincere, they are not frank.

[Whewell] In practice many, perhaps most, people in Tuva had never heard of the Dalai Lama until a few years ago. And it may be a long time before Buddhist values are reestablished in a region which now has the highest crime rate in Russia.

[Sounds of ceremony]

[Whewell] As the Dalai Lama finished an open-air sermon in Kyzyl, the crowd broke through police lines.

[Voice of Whewell at ceremony, being jostled by crowd] The Dalai Lama has just spoken of peace, but the violence in the crowd, as they surge to get forward to pick up strips of prayers that he's left behind, is extraordinary. There are policemen punching in every direction, people are being thrown back, seats are being overturned, you can see real terror in people's eyes as they try to get away.

[Whewell as narrator again] The holy water by the throne was overturned and spilt uselessly down the steps. But one of the Dalai Lama's assistants, Andrei Terentev, insisted that the crowd was simply overenthusiastic.

[Voice of Terentev] It wasn't dangerous for His Holiness, I think, but it just shows how much emotion was inside people--and the process of civilizing this emotion will take a long time, of course.

[Whewell] The Dalai Lama's staff say that in a country where religion was extirpated so ruthlessly, the most important thing is the desire to believe. Knowledge and understanding can come later. But some Tuvans fear that some Buddhist teachings may now fall on stony ground. Rolanda Kongar is the teacher who interpreted at the welcoming ceremony:

[Voice of Kongar] The Dalai Lama--just ten minutes ago, he taught [everyone] to be very attentive to each other. And after his words they rushed up to him, they pushed everybody--and it means that they didn't get anything from his words. They are just empty in their heads. They want just to touch him, and they think only of themselves.

[Sounds of a flute playing, as report ends.]

From Our Own Correspondent

It's hard to decide how to approach the Dalai Lama, particularly at six o'clock in the morning when you're both waiting for the same flight at a Siberian airport.

He's fairly unmistakable as he sits in his flimsy red robes and incongruously sensible black shoes. So anything like, "I'm Tim Whewell, you must be the Dalai Lama" would clearly sound absurd.

How forward can you be with a living god? But on the other hand, how long can you hover silently in front of someone who's already looking quizzically at you? In the end I went for the direct approach, and was greeted not only with a disarming grin, but also a firm squeeze on the arm.

His holiness remembers faces, and over the next few days as he sat enthroned at interminable ceremonies, we exchanged several more grins over the heads of the intervening monks and officials.

It was the Dalai Lama's first trip to Tuva, a wild tract of mountains and steppe on the northern fringes of Mongolia. For the Tuvans, it was the first visit by a foreign statesman since Genghis Khan passed by in 1207.

Stalin, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev all avoided Tuva. Yeltsin has never been there. And yet until the Second World War the country was an independent state. In the tiny capital Kyzyl you can see the white-columned house that served as the Soviet legation, and the former parliament where Tuva's communist deputies voted in 1944 to request admission into the USSR.

But apart from the commemorative plaques on those buildings, virtually the only other trace of the country's lost independence are the triangular Tuvan stamps preserved in schoolboys' albums all over the world.

The memory of those stamps with the exotic name and the pictures of camel- and yak-herders inspired the Nobel prize-winning American physicist Richard Feynman to embark on a ten-year struggle with Soviet bureaucracy in an attempt to reach Tuva, then a region closed to foreigners.

Feynman died of cancer just before an invitation finally arrived from the Soviet Academy of Sciences. But his friend Ralph Leighton did get to Kyzyl and wrote a moving and funny book, Tuva or Bust!, about their joint quest to rediscover the mysterious forgotten country.

It's a measure of Tuva's continuing isolation that even now few people there have heard of Feynman or Leighton. And some of those that have, have got the story a bit mixed-up.

One told me the American physicist had been unable to reach Tuva because he wasn't allowed out of his own country. Another said Feynman's chief aim had been to stick a pole through the geographic centre of every continent, and he was frustrated because he had already done them all except the centre of Asia--which is in Kyzyl.

Tuvans seem to regard their location at the centre of Asia as their chief claim to fame. One local businessman told me of his plans to set up an association uniting the centres of each continent, which he said could become an important international trade network.

When I suggested that the centres of some continents such as Africa and South America were mainly jungle, he pulled out Tuva's other joker--its peculiar tradition of throat-singing. The art, developed by shepherds on lonely hillsides, involves one singer producing two notes simultaneously: one can be a low prolonged rattle and another a piercing whistle.

Tuvan officials hope that throat-singing concerts in the West can become a major source of hard currency for their country. Already several groups have made successful foreign tours, and when people talked about Britain the place they seemed to know most about was Langoleen.

Langoleen? It took me a while to work out that they meant Llangollen [pronounced something like Flan-gofflan], the North Wales town which every year hosts an international musical eisteddfod. Not surprisingly it's famous in Tuva, and when I visited people's homes they proudly brought out battered copies of the local newspaper, the Shropshire Star, and its special Eisteddfod supplement--not to be sold separately--with pictures of throat-singers on the front.

With a degree of self-confidence that would have been unthinkable in most Soviet citizens a few years ago, the Tuvan group that visited Llangollen this year deliberately missed their return flight to Moscow and went busking on the streets of Manchester. They caused a minor sensation in the suburban shopping centre of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, and were soon being interviewed by Granada TV--a long way from the high pastures around Kyzyl where the singers' parents or grandparents moved their round felt tents or yurts from season to season.

In fact, a surprising number of Tuvans still lead nomadic lives. And one evening, just outside the capital, I was welcomed into a yurt by an old woman and her son who immediately began apologising that since they had no torch [flashlight] or electric light, as it was already too dark to kill a sheep for me.

They did, however, offer traditional Tuvan tea--brewed with salt--and a strong spirit distilled while I waited from a boiling cauldron of sour milk.

Down on the main square of Kyzyl, the Dalai Lama had been sitting through hours of prayers and speeches.

As a Buddhist monk he avoids alcohol, even milk vodka. But his smile at the end of a gruelling day was a boyish and mischievous as ever.

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