Paddling Up the Bii-Khem
with Sami Jansson
I went up Bii-Khem last summer (2001). There's a regular ferry traffic - a return trip daily from Kyzyl to Toora-Khem during summertime. The ferry is usually very crowded, but you can get a ticket if you book well in advance. The ladies at the Tsentr Azii office can also help. Mrs. Biankina even speaks some English, and their office is at Hotel Ödygen, about 200 meters from the peer where the ferry departs from.
I would never try to paddle upstream of any branch of Yenisei. Once you've got there, you will immediately notice that the strong current will exhaust you before you have paddled longer that 100 feet. ;o) on the other hand, if you can transport the canoes to the upper reaches and then come down paddling, it should be easy - although there are some dangerous passages in Bii-Khem, rapids with a lot of nasty rocks, you must know where to go, otherwise you'll be running a risk of a canoewreck. Anyway, you should mind the rapids, because if you get stuck, you might not easily get back to Kyzyl except by walking along the river. Of course there are Tuvans there who might be able to help, but you must know Tuvan or at least Russian, although some Tuvan peasants speak bad Russian (of which I really don't know much since I only speak Tuvan in Tuva).
One can take a helicopter also. A helicopter flies 4 days a week to Toora-Khem and the price is some 3000-4000 rubles for foreigners. I don't remember exactly but Eero Turkka and I got stuck at the Lake Azas last summer because the ferry broke down, and after a weeks extra stay we started considering the possibility of taking a helicopter ride or a horse ride back to Kyzyl. After all, we waited for the ferry, which they finally got repaired and took us safely although a bit uncomfortably in a dense crowd back to Kyzyl. of course, our friends in Kyzyl and in Finland had got really worried about us, because we were lost for a week - no mobile phone connections, no email, no telephone, nothing. The manager of the camping area of the Lake Azas had called from Toora-Khem a friend of ours, Igor Koshkendei in Kyzyl. Igor had sent an email to Finland but since his English is not too fluent, our relatives had got even more worried about us.. Well, after all everything went alright, and we got back safe and sound, called our friends, and stayed a few days longer in Kyzyl before taking a flight from Abakan to Moscow and a train from Moscow to Helsinki. We'd stayed altogether about 2 months, and our group
Cedip tur even gave a concert in Kyzyl, Tuvan throat singing of course... earlier i had stayed 2 weeks in Bai-Tal, western Tuva, where I studied the Tuvan language.
Be cautious if you are considering dealing with local travel agencies. Travelling in Tuva is easy if you have contacts there. If you have friends, it's almost free of charge from the western point of view. The Tuvan character (to mention what is worst) is a curious mixture of reservedness, formal politeness, ambition, etc. But if you have Tuvan friends, they will do everything to help you. Tuvans are also very hospitable, kind, curious, and joyful. They like to talk about funny occasions, make a lot of jokes. They love to give speeches over a glass of vodka or araqa. You must be prepared for this, no matter how short and simple speech you give, it will be respected. Then you'll be expected to drink all the vodka in your glass and hand it over to the eldest person around, who will refill and give the glass to the next person who is expected to speak in his turn.
I advise you to contact Mrs. Biankina at Tsentr Azii. She knows a lot about travelling in Tuva, and she's always very kind to all foreigners, whereas some Russians or Tuvans might first appear to be impolite bureaucrats. Only after a while they might start treating you in a friendly manner. But there's always a minor risk of exploitation before you find out what kind of person you are dealing with. And besides, it is sometimes nice to hear English, and Mrs. Biankina with her relatively good English skills will give you the impression that you are not that far from Europe after all. ;o)