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A Month on the Alash

Hello, again, everyone --- have I got a story for you. Actually, I really have two things to write about: how I came to live for a month in the upper Alash region of western Tuva, and how I came to learn Tuvan while doing so. Here's how it happened:

A day or two after I last wrote I set off with a group of Tuvan and Russian anthropologists, musicologists, and ethnologists to record the songs and stories of Bai-Taiga, the westernmost region of Tuva. The experience of being on a Russian research expedition was a story in itself --- long mornings around the samovar with coffee, candies, and canned fish; official receptions and welcomes in every town; language lessons in Tuvan, English, French, and Russian while driving over rocky, flooded dirt roads in areas beautiful enough to make you cry. The first day we drove from Kyzyl to Teeli, regional center of Bai-Taiga, stopping frequently to pay our respects to the numerous roadside ovaas. I don't know if I've written yet about the ovaas. Almost every peak and pass in Tuva has one: a pile of stones ranging in size from that of a small sheep to that of a small house, depending on how frequently the area is visited. Usually these stones hold up one or more old tree branches. The ovaa is a sort of altar to the spirit of the surrounding area and a passing Tuvan will pay her/his respects by leaving some small offering --- a cigarette or candy or a few small coins --- or by piling a few more stones onto the ovaa (and usually by making a toast or two from the vodka bottle). Wishes are whispered into strips of cloth, which are tied to the branches. When the wind blows, it is said that the wishes are sent out of the strips of cloth to do their work in the world. Looking at a chain of hills in the distance you can see what look to be a row of sentinels keeping watch over the land. It lends an almost eerie realism to the traditional belief in local spirits.

Once in Teeli, we were given the traditional welcome: a choreographed dance by three young, traditionally dressed ladies, and bowls of the milky, salty tea that the Tuvans drink in such huge quantities. As soon as we were settled into the hotel (our party of 18 took up almost every bed in the place), we drove to the town restaurant, where we were given a banquet featuring every part of a sheep you can imagine. Thankfully, it was getting dark and only about a third of the lights in the restaurant worked and everyone else was occupied talking and eating, so I was able to avoid eating too many unidentified (or unfortunately identified) pieces of sheep.

The next two days were speant "researching", which meant recording a few things and finding new and exciting places to have large meals. In Kyzyl-Dag, I saw Vladimir Salchak, an incredible musician and craftsman who demonstrated his experimental 5-string byzaanchy, as well as the crowning example of a Tuvan Buddhist temple. On one wall of the sanctuary, I counted over 120 images of the Buddha, mostly rows of identical statues set in brightly painted shelves. We also met a man from Saloniki (yes, in Greece) who has been living in Kyzyl-Dag for 20 years. Nothing really surprises me anymore. On our second day, after stopping at a yurt for lunch and to load a sheep into the van, we drove out to where roads are roads only because another vehicle has driven there before. Once we got to the point where the busses could go no further, we got out and climbed up to the algamatolite mines, leaving the drivers and the sheep behind. At the mines, the scientists did something apparently very official and important while I hung out with the miners. Two of them sang xoomei for me, which I recorded, after which everyone had to have a turn listening to the recordings. When we returned to the van, the drivers were waiting with a fresh sheepskin and a big pot of xan, good old Tuvan blood sausage. I learned that filling the small intestine with blood is actually very rare --- usually they use the stomach, which results in large red boiled blood steaks --- edible only with enough bread and garlic.

Back in Teeli, I met and recorded Opey Andrey, a xoomei artist as well known in the west as he is in Tuva. Zoya Kyrgys and I went to his house for a private concert and got dinner in the bargain. Andrey is an absolute showman --- while we sat at the table, he made a grand entrance in his traditional robe and theatrical makeup. After every song he made an equally dramatic exit to prepare for the next tune and take a hit off the bottle. When it came time to leave and I pulled out my wallet to pay him for the performance, he became almost violently obdurate, insisting that we not pay and trying to bow us out of the house, laying completely on the floor at one point. I felt a bit like Aloysha Fyodorovich.

The next day we drove to Kara-Xol, a small town named after the nearby lake. Andrey came with us, since he has family in the area, and I got another concert, as well as a lesson, on the road. That night we stayed in a family camp about 20 kilometers northwest of the village. Our "research" here mainly consisted of fried fish and various dairy products, as well as an evening campfire sing-along on the shores of the lake. At some point it was decided that I would stay on at the camp after the expedition left in order to learn a bit about Tuvan life and language. The expedition was seen off after another batch of xan and sheep meat --- this time Zoya and I were sitting in a yurt interviewing a Lama when Marina, the wife of the yurt, put a big pot of water on the stove. Soon, Anay-ool, her husband, came in carrying a set of sheep lungs. The rest of the guts were brought in one at a time and when I stepped out of the yurt I saw only another fresh sheepskin and a few hunks of meat.

The next two weeks I guess were pretty normal for a classically-trained westerner living in a Turkic-speaking nomad camp in the center of Asia. On my second day, Kara-ool, the camp uncle, asked me if I knew how to herd sheep. I said that I didn't, so he sent me out with the herd --- 370 sheep and goats --- to learn. Herding sheep is actually quite easy --- no sheep has ever been able to comprehend the idea of leaving the herd, so they practically look after themselves. For those of you from the Venus Flystrip last year, these goats sound exactly like Kristen Bell, though I never heard any of them get quite as excited as she does. Other than herding, daily routines required rounding up the 30 or so cows and 14 yaks every evening, gathering wood, and shoveling manure from the yard each morning. All aspects of Tuvan life --- from milking the cows to preparing meals --- follow a strict routine and any variation causes confusion within the camp. This made it difficult for me, since I didn't know how to do much except gather and chop wood and shovel manure --- but it meant that our yurt had a great wood pile and the yard was always clean. During my second week, we set to work rebuilding the winter sheep pen, which essentially meant disassembling a barn-sized log cabin, moving all of the pieces 50 meters across the hillside, and then reassembling the whole thing. Tuvans are small, but they're tough as nails and can lift a ton. Unfortunately, none of the people I was working with (including a fisherman from town, a really scrappy seadog who, until I learned his name, appears in my travel journal as "Quequag") were very accomplished spatial thinkers and my Tuvan was certainly not to the point that I could explain to them that their methods for rebuilding the structure were theoretically unsound. We managed to get the thing built, however, with only a small amout of modification necessary.

During my time living in the camp, I spoke very little Tuvan. Mostly, it was an exercise in listening --- learning to hear the language, which is amazingly difficult in its own right. I did manage to learn quite a few new words and some useful phrases, like: "Let's dig a hole", and "Damn, that's heavy", and "Now we will castrate sheep". The Tuvan spoken by these nomads is quite simple --- almost impressionistic --- which was a good way to get started, since it meant that I could construct sentences using infinitive and zero-grade word forms and be well enough understood.

My diet during these weeks was surprisingly light on meat. Instead, everything we ate focused on dairy products, of which the Tuvans have an incredible variety. Every day, the new milk is put through a machine that separates out the cream, which is put in a pot and called oreme. Of the remaining milk --- something like 3-4% milkfat --- some is set aside to put into tea and the rest goes into a vat of xoitpak: nothing more than soured milk. When the xoitpak vat is full, the xoitpak is boiled to produce araka, the national alcoholic drink --- something like cheese flavored wine. The remaining liquid is strained and the solid curds are kept in a suspended cheesecloth bag and called arzhi. The oreme sours over time, making what the Russians call smetana and what in America we might call the best damn sour cream you ever tasted. Once the oreme pot is full, it gets whipped (by hand) into butter. A quick pick-up meal after a long day of work might be a bowl of arzhi, oreme, milk, and sugar or xoitpack, oreme, and sugar. As for carbohydrates, a common breakfast (or snack) is dalgan --- ground roasted grain that is mixed with oreme and milky, salty tea to make a cereal that tastes something like mildly sweet caramel corn --- a winner in my book. Otherwise, potatoes, and rice and noodle soups with meat made up most of our meals. All this was fine with me, though in the last three days Anay-ool slaughtered three sheep, which meant three batches of xan (and lung, liver, heart, kidney, etc, etc, etc). When I finally got to witness the slaughter of a sheep, I had the best seat in the house, holding the legs of the animal while Anay-ool did the deed. For those of you don't know, the Tuvans were taught by Genghis Kahn that the blood of the sheep is sacred and should not touch the ground. Therefore, to sacrifice a sheep, a man (women are prohibited to watch) straddles the live animal, makes a slit just below its sternum, reaches in, and pinches off the aorta --- artificially induced cardiac arrest. Holding the animal, looking into its face while it grunts and wheezes its last is really something else. Individual nerves keep twitching long after the animal has been opened and all the organs removed.

After my time in the yurt, I moved into the village of Kara-Xol, where I lived for another 15 days with Andrian, the town school director, and his wife and four daughters. The drive into town was another demonstration of the wonders of YAZ driving. We were low on fuel, and since no fuel pump will drain a tank dry, Anay-ool siphoned the tanks into a plastic jug, which he put behind his seat and connected to the fuel line coming directly from the engine compartment. We still ran out of gas a couple of kilometers from town. Thankfully, two motorcycles came by and we got a liter of gas, which Alimbek, my sort-of host cousin, held in his lap in a beer bottle connected to the fuel line.

In the village I again spent little time speaking and a lot of time listening. Still, I was able to notice daily improvement in my Tuvan comprehension and speech, and the conversations that I was able to have with town residents gradually became longer and more involved. By the last couple of days I was speaking terrible Tuvan with confidence, instead of the terrible timid Tuvan that I arrived with. On one of the first days, Andrian brought home a couple of copies of a 2nd-4th grade Russian-Tuvan dictionary for his daughters to use while learning Russian. One copy I commandeered and I spent the next few days with it and my Russian-English dictionary building up a fairly good basic Tuvan-English word list. It was a tedious process, but probably the best thing that has happened to my Tuvan, especially since the Russian-Tuvan dictionary had good, simple examples, which I could use (in reverse) to learn Tuvan constructions and forms. At one point, Salbak, Andrian's wife, pulled out a book of Bible stories in Tuvan for me to practice from. I found it just a little strange to be sitting in a village in Western Tuva reading Bible stories while the Telepuziki blared on the TV (yes, Dinky-Winky, Dipsy, Ya-Ya and Po have made it even out here). At Andrian's place, I also had my first experience with a Russian banya --- essentially a sauna where you spend an hour or more scrubbing off the last few weeks' worth of dirt and dead skin. If any of you need a reason to visit Russia, let this be it. 24 hours after bathing, I still felt cleaner than I've ever been before.

The Tuvan spoken in the village is more complex than that spoken in the camp. Trying to learn the language by full immersion is a bit like standing on your head on a large stone until your skull caves in around it. To understand Tuvan requires learning an entirely new way of thinking. The language is mad about supplementary verbs and participles --- even more so than English --- and literally dozens of different verb forms can be created by tacking a handful of suffixes on to the end of a verb in various orders. One benefit of this is that it allows the language incredible flexibility with the aspect of a verb construction, as each supplementary verb adds a new nuance to the aspect of the sentence. For any of you who have studied Greek, especially ala James Helm, Tuvan is a great way to really come to understand why aspect is so important. Tuvan has a one-up on Greek, Latin, Russian, and most languages in that there is a formal difference between the present simple and present continuous constructions (as well as several constructions that fall in between their closest English equivalents --- at last count there were something like 20 forms of the past tense). On the flipside, there are several concepts in English that don't exist in Tuvan, like articles or the idea of ownership. Instead of asking "do you have a cigarette", a Tuvan asks something more along the lines of "Is there a cigarette which, by virtue of the horse it rode in on, can most closely be associated with you, of all people?" It's a lot of fun trying to apply Greco-Latin language theory to a Turkic language and being slapped in the face with all sorts of rules and concepts that you've never even considered. While I was living with Andrian, I taught him some English, though if you've ever tried to explain the concept of the word "the" in a Turkic language that you don't know, you might understand that 15 days didn't get us very far. Still, after a week, he was able to say, "There is no moon, there is no sun, there is only cow manure'" Quite the philosopher, I would say.

When Zoya left me at the camp, I was supposed to stay for 10-20 days. After 15 days in the camp and a week in the village, I began to think about returning to Kyzyl and hoping that Zoya wasn't worrying about me. Getting to Kara-Xol was easy. Getting out proved to be more difficult --- there is no bus and only the occasional car makes the 8-hour drive to the city. One day I was told that a car would leave in 3 days. Two days later I was told that the car had left the day before. Then a car was going to Teeli, from where I could take a bus to Kyzyl. When the car came to the house, however, there was no more room. Finally, I managed to get a seat in a YAZ heading into the city with a father and son who were bringing merchandise in to sell, including a set of antlers each of which was 4 feet long and had 6 points (does that make a 6-point rack or a 12-point rack?). At one time, we had 13 people in the van, along with one baby and a sheep.

Well over a month after leaving Kyzyl, tired and shaggy with a few new wounds and a few pairs of very dirty socks, I finally made it back to my apartment. I was strangely excited to be back in this dirty city. I'm beginning to get resettled and notice a drastic improvement in my Tuvan and a fairly major change in my daily habits. The Russian-style tea that I drank before leaving has been replaced by Tuvan tea, milky and salty, and the first three items in my refrigerator were milk, butter, and smetana. Now it's time to pick up a few more articles of winter clothing and prepare to learn why these people measure their lifespan in winters. This morning at 10:15 it was -10 C outside (16 F) and the days have stopped really warming up. Thankfully, my apartment is south-facing and there is always hot tea being sold in the market.

A couple of you have asked about the local reaction to the events and fallout of September 11. That evening, I returned home after a couple of rounds of vodka and one of Jack Daniel's with my friend, Arthur. Slightly inebriated, I turned on the TV to see the North Tower of the WTC on fire. I assumed that a bomb had gone off and tried to figure out how they could film the North Tower so that it completely hid the other tower, which wasn't in view. Slowly the news unfolded: airplanes, the Pentagon, the South Tower falling down. Thankfully, the news programs were showing the CNN footage and I was able to hear the English under the Russian dubbing. I watched the North Tower go down. It was really weird. The next day, around noon, I turned on the TV to see if there was any more news. Instead, I caught the last 30 minutes of "Koyanisqattsi" --- it was altogether too much. Over the next few days everyone was very apologetic to me and asked if I had friends in NY or if I would return to the States. I was interviewed by one of the local papers --- I said something to the effect that my greatest fear was that the US would hastily go to war against a group of people that you can't really fight a conventional war against. Hmmm. Anyway, now I'm hearing about anthrax in the US Mail and so forth. It's a strange feeling to go to the other side of the world and be more worried about the people I left behind than they need to be about me.

That's the news from Tuva. Sorry for the length of this one. More stories as they come.