FOBOS: Weather in Kyzyl/Tuva
Kyzyl Weather

September, 2001

Hello, all.

I told some of you a couple of weeks ago that I was going to live with a family of nomads for a few weeks. That trip has been postponed, partly because the family has moved and we have to find them, but also because I have been invited to join an expedition of Russian and Tuvan researchers heading out to West Tuva to record xoomei and folk lore. We leave on Wednesday for 10 days, though the director of the xoomei institute, Zoya Kyrgys, says that, if she finds a suitable family of nomads, she might just leave me out there for a month or so. I also told some of you that my next writing would be about language. I prefer to keep that until after my time on the steppe. Better now to talk about the weather.

Today, after my morning xoomei lesson, I got on the bus to go home for lunch. The driver was a Russian man -- absolutely passionate about everything he did. His van is one of these ageless YAZ machines -- imagine a Volkswagon gone Soviet -- and he drove it like his life depended on it. The city bus system here is great -- a miracle of perestroika. Private individuals get their vans licensed as busses and then spend the day driving set routes -- usually working two to a bus: one person to drive and one to collect fares and ask people where they want to be let off. The best part is that there are tons of these things whirling through the streets. I never have to stand more than two minutes before a bus comes heading my direction. Every ride is an adventure and sometimes I hop on a bus just to see where it's going and who is aboard. This morning, one of these thick-ankled Siberian women climbed aboard -- ruddy face, gold teeth -- and promptly asked to be let back off when she found out we weren't going to where she needed to be. The driver spent a few red-faced words on the idea of a passenger not paying for her 2-block ride and then immediately settled back into his full-body Zen driving: swerving around potholes and shifting with gusto. In front of my house there is a long, straight stretch of road. Getting up to speed, the driver leaned back in his seat and took a deep breath -- seeming to draw life the humming of the engine that sat between the two front seats. I couldn't bring myself to interrupt him. I rode to the end of the line just to watch him work and then enjoyed the spectacular Siberian weather on the short walk home.

Autumn in this part of the world must be seen to be believed. Far more than just another season, it is a battleground where the looming Siberian winter tries to wrestle the daily weather away from stubborn Summer. Mornings are brilliantly clear and cold, but afternoons still get up to almost 20 (centigrade, that's 68 Farenheit). Last Monday morning at 9:45 I was walking through the central square and thinking about how warm it was for the time of day. I had no coat on, only two thin cotton shirts, and felt fine. I looked up at the new digital clock and thermometer on the post office to see what the temperature was: 3 degrees.

The lack of entertainment as I am used to it -- concerts, pick-up frisbee, coffee shops -- in Kyzyl is more than made up for by the phenomenon of the public market. Outdoor markets exist in every sector of the city, sometimes overflowing the areas set aside for them. Between markets, the streets are lined with kiosks, fortune-teller shamans, and people selling everything from a bucket of berries to three throws at a dart board. I spend hours wandering around the central market, where you can buy a winter coat, turn around and pick up a bag of fish or a bunch of grapes, and then stop at the next stall for the razor blades and shoelaces. My favorite person in the city is the short (even by Tuvan standards) round-faced man who wanders up and down the central strip of the market all day, everyday selling newspapers, repeatedly and endlessly calling out "Program, program, programmma." One day last week I wandered into the market and began repeating the cadence to myself. As if on cue, the little man walked up, picked up his line exactly in time with my thoughts, and made his way past me to where the shoe sellers have their table.

The change in season can be tracked by the different snack foods that can be bought from peddlers at bus stops, street corners, and everywhere else they can fit a chair and table. When I came, pine cones were in season. They are great fun to pick apart for the seeds while you walk down the street. The seeds are still available loose, but no [sic] so often found in the cone. Sunflower seeds are omnipresent at this time of year and crab apples in every variety have gone in and out of season since I've come. The pin cherry trees that line the main street are a favorite target for school children, who must grow more daring and climb higher as the season progresses. Also, now that the mornings are cold, vendors of hot tea and piroshky make rounds through the market, selling to customers and stall-tenders alike.

Two foods that never go out of season here are bread and ice cream. The Russians love their ice cream and eat it in huge quantities. Most of the ice cream bars available at the street-side freezers are pretty low quality imitations of Western ice cream, though I've recently discovered the wonders of the little cones full of traditional Russian morozhenoe: less sweet than American ice cream, but much creamier. At four rubles a pop, they are a tempting infringement against my xoomei teacher's rule against cold, sweet food. And the bread . . . if there were anywhere where man could live by bread alone, it would be Siberia.

All told, life is grand in my little corner of the world. My new apartment is large, warm, and comfortably Spartan. On Wednesday I leave with the expedition for Bai-Taiga. More stories as they come.