Trip to Tuva is Dream Realized
Some 12 years I spotted a copy of Tuva or Bust: The Last Journey of Richard Feynman on the Internet and bought it for my husband. He always loves to read about interesting adventures and the book proved to be a good read. At the time, we were living in my native Arizona. The book made it to the shelf and my intentions were to read it at a later date. I didn't get around to doing that for over a decade later. Nevertheless, the seed of going to Tuva was planted. I had seen the stamps, as a child, but never found out more about this far away and fascinating place until past forty.
In 1988, I applied for a Fulbright Scholar position to the Soviet Union. I wasn't offered that, but rather Czechoslovakia, something I considered, at the time, a consolation prize. I headed out to Slovakia in 1989 and stayed through the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, even chipped myself a piece off while standing on the wall at a Fulbright conference later that year. Who would have known, I can easily say to myself today. The idea of getting to the Soviet Union was still embedded in me and I did make it there once I met a Russian from St. Petersburg whose husband was teaching Russian at the same university where I was hosted in Czechoslovakia, also soon to be no more.
Yatta yatta yatta. The stories go on and on, and thankfully so because these are the things we remember most in life, the stories, the moments, the people. So just how do I get to Tuva? I end up in Russia in 2003, still with the Tuvan "thing", seemingly now so close to an end goal. Things get more intriguing. I end up in Buryatia and go to my first datsan, Buddhist temple, in the steppe outside Ulan Ude (also home to the world's largest Lenin head, or so they say). I hear throat singing that is not exactly singing but praying. I am moved deeply. I talk to a colleague that I happen to find some affinity with, a Russian professor of English from Ulan Ude, and she tells me that, "Yes, I once had a student from Tuva. I will help you find a way to get there." This is connected to my current job in the foreign service where I am based in Moscow and from which I cover English teacher training programs across the Russian Federation.
Before leaving for Russia, on my two-year assignment, I happen on Genghis Blues at the public library, the VCR version. I watch it and think, "Yes, that's a place to visit when I get to Russia." Another two years go by. I rent the film again from the library and watch it, this time with my mother when at home in Arizona. I am more attentive to various things in the film, now that I am living in Russia and have been to Siberia twice.
One day I hear from a colleague of mine that there is a Tuvan concert in Moscow and the fire is rekindled. I call the number and find out there is a woman who is Tuvan and a journalist living in Moscow. The story goes on for months and months (I don't make it to that concert, but do keep in touch with the woman who later helps me by making a contact with the university in Kyzyl). Still, Tuva or Bust is on the shelf, now in storage for over 5 years, in some government warehouse in Maryland. Months later, I find I am actually, really, on my way to Kyzyl and am thankful for that contact in the university where we are to give an English language teaching conference for Tuvan teachers of English from across the Republic.
We get there, but first, I happen on Friends of Tuva and see a line at the bottom of the page to the effect "if you are going to Tuva, will you take some CDs". My relationship with Ralph Leighton begins, connections are made (he's the author of Tuva or Bust and involved in the famous video I saw, we exchange emails, I learn about his passion for and knowledge of all things Tuvan). I am on my way to Tuva, I know, only a month or so away. He sends me Otto Maenchen-Helfen's book. I read it with great fascination, starting with the appendix that tells about the great adventure to Tuva. He sends me the CDs for Kongar-ool Ondar and corrects my pronunciation of his name on the phone.
I got to Tuva at the end of April 2005. The journey, by that point, had become somewhat mythical in my mind. I spent 5 glorious days there, wallowing in the slow pace, serenity, staying in a hotel right on the Yenesei river, with great blocks of ice floating at a furious pace. Everything is perfect. I met so many people and visited with the lama at the temple, two shamans, who share various moments with us, a visit to the local museum, and I decide to have a photo of myself taken in front of the "the" government building Ralph tells about in his book. I meet Kongar-ool Ondar and his students and am enraptured by his love of life and kindness. I meet his neighbor, Sasha, whom Ralph had said would put me in contact with. He is a great artist who carves stones into beautiful traditional statues from stone that he digs up far, far away from Kyzyl in a part of the land, he explains to me, that you'll need a "green passport" from the shaman to visit, because it is a sacred place!
I only saw Kyzyl for a few days and took a short ride outside on a blustery day. I loved every moment of my visit there and hope to return with my husband -who didn't get to go but to whom I "brought Tuva" since I have since met with Tuvans and seen a Tuvan throat singing concert here in Moscow. Sasha and I still write and K.O., as Ralph told me Kongar-ool is called, is still a thread connecting us. He tells me interesting things about Tuvan culture and I have hung the oil painting of a yurt, horses, green pasture, and mountains in front of my bed so I can see it before going to sleep each night. And K.O.'s CDs, that Ralph kindly gave me, are something very meaningful to me.
I hope that everyone who reads this site will go to Tuva and meet the people and experience the beauty of the land. I hope I, too, will continue to travel there to learn more as well.