Yurts, Yaks, and Fax Machines
Report from Tuva
Copyright 1992 by Ralph and Alan Leighton
July 31, 1991. Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Having crossed the Gobi, we board the train bound
for Irkutsk -- our ultimate destination is another two days off. An old man dressed in a
shiny silk coat and heavy black boots, alone amid the crowd of well-wishers on the
platform, spoons some milk from a bowl and flicks it towards our train as it pulls away.
An hour later, as we pass a village of tin-roofed shacks and dirty white yurts, an old
woman performs the same ritual. Our train has been twice blessed. A day later, we arrive
safely in Irkutsk.
We are on our way to the forgotten land which on August 14 will celebrate the
seventieth anniversary of its founding as an independent country. In 1921 its birth was
hardly noticed. But in 1936, in some sort of dubious quinceaos, the little country
scandalized the stamp-collecting world by engaging in a philatelic orgy of unprecedented
proportions: although she counted only a few thousand literates among her inhabitants, she
issued more new stamp designs that year than did Great Britain and the United States
combined. Moreover, the shapes of her stamps -- triangular and diamond -- were positively
risqué. Prestigious philatelic catalogs refused to recognize her issues as legitimate,
claiming they were never used for postal purposes. Nevertheless, youngsters from Europe
and America avidly collected the exotic stamps, which provided glimpses of nomads and the
animals they hunted or herded in the faraway land to which we are headed at last:
Our mission is to place a memorial plaque to Richard Feynman on the banks of the
Yenisei River, next to Kyzyl's monument to the "Centre of Asia."
In Irkutsk the agent for the Soviet travel company Intourist claims not to know about
our reservations on Aeroflot to Abakan, gateway to Tuva. He tells us seats might be
available in two or three days; in the meantime, we are welcome to stay at Hotel Intourist
(where the showers don't work due to a broken water main) for $88.00 per night. It isn't
until the next day that we think to go to the airport and see for ourselves. The Aeroflot
representative says we could have flown the day before, and books us two of the empty
seats on that afternoon's flight.
We are delayed several hours by a fierce thunderstorm. Aeroflot, a state-run monopoly,
is under no pressure to stick to a schedule -- which in a case like this is quite all
right with us. Finally, the twin propeller plane takes off in darkness. Three hours later
it lands so smoothly that the stewardess barely stirs from her sleep. After the other
passengers have staggered down the rickety aluminum ladder into the darkness below, we
unload the plane's cargo: our four bags plus a large cardboard box, measuring two feet by
three feet by ten inches, which contains the plaque.
We eventually find Rada, our Tuvan guide, who books us into a local hotel (where the
showers do work) -- price, 66 cents. Two days later we head south in a military-style
jeep, retracing the route of Otto Mänchen-Helfen, the German traveller who in 1931 wrote
the book Reise ins asiatische Tuwa. Alan, a musician now living in Germany, has
been translating this obscure work in his spare time -- for the past nine years. We have
been invited by Dr. Yurii Aranchyn, Director of the Tuvan Institute of Language,
Literature, and History (TNIIYaLI) to visit the country--thus providing us cover for our
mission to install the Feynman memorial plaque--and write an article on Tuva sixty years
The Sayan Mountains offer a dazzling array of scenery, from riotous wildflowers to
craggy granite peaks -- a naturalist's paradise. From time to time we glimpse a narrow
one-lane asphalt path roughly parallel to our road, but washed out or buried in many
places. That must be the original Usinsk route traveled by Mänchen-Helfen! Abandoned and
disintegrating wooden bridges, some obviously damaged by floods, attest further to the raw
forces of nature lurking in these mountains. (In fact, on his way to Abakan just the day
before, our driver was held up here for twelve hours by torrential rains.)
We arrive at the pass which marks the Tuvan border as twilight fades, and continue to
Kyzyl in darkness. In the morning we get our first clear view of Tuva: row upon row of
dreary monolithic apartment houses. As we approach the center of town, the architectural
style alternates between Soviet drab and turn-of-the-century log cabin.
We park at the central square. On one side is the drama theater, whose wooden
Scythian-style stags look ready to leap into the sky from upturned oriental eaves. Facing
it is the antiseptic white executive building of the Tuvan Autonomous Soviet Socialist
Republic. Our hosts are waiting in front. Dr. Aranchyn greets us and introduces the leader
of our expedition -- Dr. Mongush Mannai-ool, Tuva's foremost archaeologist! Furthermore,
Dr. Aranchyn tells us the President of Tuva himself is anxious to hear details about our
expedition and to see the Feynman memorial plaque. We enter the building and carry the box
up three floors -- the elevator doesn't work -- to the office of President C. D. B. Ondar,
a cheerful Tuvan of diminutive stature. As we approach the President, Ralph greets him in
Tuvan. He is surprised to hear a foreigner address him in his native tongue: in the
executive building, even Tuvans normally address each other in Russian.
Mannai-ool outlines our planned route: westward to the Khemchik Valley -- following the
route of Mänchen-Helfen -- and then to the south. President Ondar nods his approval.
Dr. Aranchyn then describes Richard Feynman's interest in Tuva, and the instrumental
role he played in bringing the Nomads exhibition and its Tuvan artifacts to the United
States. He explains that Feynman tragically died in 1988, having seen neither the
exhibition nor the land that beckoned him.
It is time to open the hefty box. Aranchyn looks worried. Apparently he expected a
plaque the size of a postcard.
The President and our hosts read the Tuvan and Russian inscriptions on the triangular
black granite stone while Rada, our guide and translator, reads the English inscription as
well: "Richard Feynman 1918-1988. His attempts to reach this spot in the land of
his dreams inspired others to set foot here."
Everyone seems pleased with the plaque despite its unexpectedly large size (nearly
three feet by a foot and a half), but President Ondar expresses doubts on how it could be
mounted. Ralph reassures him that he has come equipped with tools, epoxy cement, silicone
sealant, and expert advice from a California stone mason, so mounting it will be no
problem. Visibly relived, the President asks us to leave the memorial stone in his office
so the city architect can decide where it should be placed. Ralph offers the President a
silk tie in thanks.
The next day we pile into a new jeep -- colored army green with Red Cross insignias on
the doors -- and head west. Although we see several stranded motorists along the way, we
rarely stop. When we do, it is usually to ask directions. Rada explains that the ambulance
company routinely rents out these jeeps, along with their drivers.
Soon we see our first yurt, a speck of white in the distance. Postage-stamp Tuva is
still alive! But every so often we pass a hillside defaced by white stones spelling out
Party slogans such as SLAVA KPSS ("Long live the Communist Party of the Soviet
In the late afternoon we arrive in Kyzyl-Mazhalyk (Tuvan "Red Hill") and go
straight to the local Party chief. It is prudent that he be the first to know of our
plans: he cannot afford to learn second-hand what is going on in his fiefdom; we cannot
afford to offend the Party. The chief of Baryyn-Khemchik Province, a Russian, spews out a
stream of statistics vaunting the huge open-pit asbestos mine in nearby Ak-Dovurak
("White Dust"). While our eyes glaze over, Mannai-ool dutifully writes the
propaganda in his notebook. The reward for his obsequiousness (or perhaps it's for the
two-dollar silk tie we give the Party chief; we are armed with dozens of them) is a free
dinner at the region's best restaurant -- technically, the banquet room of the local
mineworkers' lodge, but in reality the eating place of Party officials and their guests.
Hospitality is extended to include a free night (overpriced, nonetheless) at the
mineworkers' Prophylactic Sanatorium. From the layout, it appears that mud baths are the
most effective treatment available for asbestosis.
The Khemchik Valley is littered with Scythian, Hunnic, and Turkic burial mounds and
cliff drawings dating from the 8th century b.c. through the 12th century a.d. Some of the
burial mounds are dominated by impressive "stone men" from the Turkic period.
We leave the road and drive across the steppe towards Bizhiktig-Khaya ("Written-on
Rock"), an archaeological site described by Mänchen-Helfen. As our excitement grows
our progress slows -- until we grind to a complete stop, mired in mud. We make our way on
foot, hopping from soggy mound to soggy mound until we reach the imposing cliffs. We
encounter inscriptions in Tibetan among the modern-day graffiti, but find no ancient
petroglyphs. We are about to leave when Viktor, our driver, spots some scratches on the
rock face. We see the faint outline of a yak being led by a human -- perhaps a nomad
moving his yurt to new pastures. This very petroglyph appears in Reise ins asiatische
Tuwa. We are literally standing in Mänchen-Helfen's footsteps!
A few kilometers away we encounter a massive stone man, the largest in Tuva, which the
German traveller somehow failed to mention. We then push further west up the Khemchik
Valley to Teeli and another Party chief. This time it is a Tuvan who accepts the silk tie;
there's no lucrative mining operation here in Bai-Taiga Province. After Teeli the paved
road gives way to dirt as we bounce over to nearby Kyzyl-Dag ("Red Mountain").
We stop in front of a building which began as a single-storey government-funded atelier
for local artisans. But then the local citizens added a second storey, including a
distinctly oriental roof with upturned eaves, and Tuva's first lamasery in half a century
was born. We climb the stairs -- the first evenly spaced steps we have encountered in the
Soviet Union -- and enter a room containing Tibetan Buddhist artifacts hidden away for
decades by lamas and their descendents, graced by a faded color picture of the Dalai Lama.
(We have heard he might visit Tuva, perhaps as early as next year.) We learn that
lamaseries will soon reappear all over Tuva; some architects have even made a formal
request for Tuvan government assistance in rebuilding the great monastery at Chadaana,
Tuva's largest ever.
Tibetan Buddhism was brought to Tuva by the Mongols, who dominated Tuvan life for seven
centuries. Outside the new monastery we see a little girl with a trait once seen in
Mongols and still present in a small minority of Tuvans: blond hair. The trait is not
limited to children. Several days later we see a blond man with Asiatic features, just as
Mänchen-Helfen described, but without the long braid. Moreover, we even see an Tuvan
redhead, an accomplished höömei singer in Kyzyl.
Later that day we follow a dirt track up into the nearby mountains to a sacred spring.
There we find a yard-high statue of the Buddha sitting serenely in a small clearing. Cloth
prayer strips to the local spirits adorn the branches of the nearby bushes and trees. This
spring, and hundreds of others like it around Tuva, is a gathering place for Tuvans to
camp out and visit friends. Within seconds Mannai-ool spots some cousins, whose children
we introduce to the pastime of flying a frisbee.
We overnight at the "Teeli Hilton" and set out early the next day along the
road that connects the asbestos mine at Ak-Dovurak to a spur of the Trans-Siberian
Railroad. (Contrary to the famous 1936 stamp depicting a camel chasing a train, there are
as yet no railroads in Tuva.) After several stops to examine burial mounds and stone men
along the way, we stop at the Alash River (the subject of the first song on Melodii
Tuvy* * Two excerpts from this album were included as a sound sheet in the hardcover
edition of Tuva or Bust!. The soundsheet is available for $1 from the Friends of
Tuva, Box 70021, Pasadena CA 91117--while supplies last) and admire the brilliant blue
water, the lush green grass, and the shrubs whose golden bark glistens in the intense
sunshine. Meanwhile, Rada--our guide, translator, and now cook--prepares a scrumptious
stew with canned meat obtained with the ration coupons specially provided for our
The road ascends to a mountain pass, where Viktor stops. We all get out of the jeep and
toss a few stones on the ovaa--a pile of rocks supporting some sticks with prayer
strips, which marks a sacred place. Viktor affixes a small strip of cloth to one of the
branches. We are convinced that this act--repeated often on our journey (Tuva has many
sacred places)--makes our travel safer, if only because it provides the driver a break
from the winding, bumpy roads.
The road descends sharply to the valley of the Ak-Sug ("White Water"). The
name takes on added significance as we see burst-open sacks of asbestos from the mine at
Ak-Dovurak--casualties of the overloaded trucks rushing to meet their quotas--lying along
the road every hundred yards or so, waiting for the next torrential rain to wash their
contents into the river. We are thankful we brought along a water filter.
Suddenly we encounter a scene right out of the postage stamps that Richard Feynman
collected as a boy: a herd of yaks is grazing along on the road, their hair seemingly
coiffured to conform to the dictates of high mountain fashion. (The yaks haven't always
looked so stylish: Rada--our guide, translator, cook, and now fashion reporter--says that
during a 1960s craze for beehive hairdos in Kyzyl, yak tails were used in the manufacture
of hairpieces. Many a tailless yak could then be seen here along the Ak-Sug.)
We turn off the main road and follow a dirt track up a side valley, passing a yurt or
two every mile or so. Our desire to let the local inhabitants live in peace, undisturbed
by nosey tourists, is overcome by our curiosity. We stop. Rada explains to a family of
herders that we would like to look inside their yurt. They oblige and let us take
pictures, some of which we promise to send them by mail. (They give the address of an
apartment in Ak-Dovurak.)
The hostess pours us each a bowl of süttüg shai (milky tea). Tuvan hospitality
requires that the host offer a guest food; etiquette prohibits the guest from refusing.
Thus we sample some Tuvan raw milk specialties, which we recognize from Mänchen-Helfen's
book. (Not until the next day do we realize that etiquette can have its penalty for the
visitor--and the lesson lasts the better part of a week.)
The next day we visit the large yurt of a well-to-do herdsman. His wife orders Rada to
sit on the "female" side of the yurt in accordance with nomad tradition. We are
again served süttüg shai, and sample more milk products. Most taste pleasant; the
öreme (thick cream) is so good that Ralph takes a second generous helping. As a
young man passes us the khoitpak (white curds floating in fermented milky water)
with a glint of mischief in his eyes, someone bursts into the yurt with the news that a
sheep is about to be slaughtered outside. We escape.
We emerge from the yurt to find the doomed sheep pinned down by two men kneeling on a
felt pad spread out on the grass. One man pulls out his knife, quickly makes a short
incision in the sheep's chest, and plunges his hand inside. Sixty years ago,
Mänchen-Helfen described exactly the scene we are witnessing now. The sheep twitches, but
does not seem to suffer long. A minute later the man carefully pulls his hand out,
seemingly mindful of the injunction purportedly issued by Chingghis Khan: "Not one
drop of the animal's blood may touch the ground."
Two small children appear as the sheep's feet are matter-of-factly snapped off just
above the ankle. (It's a familiar sound: eating carrot sticks will never be the same
again.) The feet are given to the children, who will spend the afternoon happily playing
with a favorite toy.
Soon the sheep looks ready for the shelves of a butcher shop. Our hosts hand Mannai-ool
a leg of fresh mutton. He reciprocates with some desiccated bread and several jars of
questionable juice. Both sides are delighted with the exchange.
We make our way back to Ak-Dovurak and discover that a preliminary round of the Tuvan
Invitational Wrestling Championships is being held today. When we arrive at the field, the
contest is already underway--three matches are going on simultaneously, each with two
contestants and two referees. We gradually figure out the routine: after a match is over,
the two referees (who look like medieval sorcerers in their bright silk coats and festive
hats) trot over to the official table and--after a quick shot of vodka--receive slips of
paper with the names of the next contestants. The first referee runs across the field to
find his man among the waiting contestants. "Ladies and gentlemen! Let's give a warm
welcome to that great fighter from the village of Aldyn-Bulak, Mongush Sayan-ool!"
The crowd takes little notice as Sayan-ool comes out--they are watching the two other
The second referee announces his man with equal effectiveness.
The wrestlers are dressed in leather vests, brightly colored briefs, and heavy black
boots. As they slowly make their way to the center of the field, they gracefully perform
the Dance of the Eagle, their outstretched arms undulating slowly to imitate the powerful
bird's flight. The referees are much less restrained. They add hops and twirls to the
dance, which ends with a loud slap of the wrestler's hands on his bare thighs.
The rules of the match are simple: the first man to touch the ground with anything but
his feet loses. We witness several ways to do this, from grabbing at the opponent's vest
and whipping him around (if he is smaller), to kicking him in the foot to make him stumble
(if he is bigger). The referees circle the wrestlers and occasionally shout encouragement
to their men. But sometimes both fighters are so conservative that the referees become
impatient: one holds up his shiny silver watch to the crowd; then both take interest in
another match on the field, ignoring their own fighters. In extreme cases they leave the
fighters circling one another and go over to the official table to consult with the
judges--and to have another shot of vodka.
Suddenly the match is over. The winner's referee shouts and jumps for joy; his victory
dance rivals any touchdown shuffle in the NFL. The winner himself again performs the Dance
of the Eagle, the loser leaves the field dejected, and both referees make their way over
to the official table for another slip of paper. . . .
We reluctantly leave the wrestling competition and head back east to Chadaana, where we
stay at the "Motel 0.06"--just off the main drag. We spot a list of room rates:
twenty-one rubles--about sixty cents. For a private room. For ten days.
The next day we drive a dozen dusty kilometers east of town, searching for the site of
the great monastery of Chadaana. Mannai-ool leads us into an idyllic valley where pine
trees line a glistening stream. Suddenly we encounter an enclosure of ten-foot-high mud
walls. We hold up the picture of the original monastery in Mänchen-Helfen's book, but see
no resemblance between the marvellous monastery in the photograph and the bleak ruins
before us. Viktor points at the horizon: it matches perfectly the rolling hills in the
picture. We visualize the great monastery restored to its previous grandeur. It will be
We return to Chadaana and then rattle our way northwest to see some spectacular
Scythian animal drawings near the mouth of the Chadaana River. We are lucky to arrive when
the light is just right, shining tangentially down the red cliff. A spider web, densely
but delicately spun against the rock face, diffracts the sunlight into shiny bands of
color. The spirit of Richard Feynman exclaims, "Isn't nature wonderful!"
We spend the night once again in Chadaana. The next morning Mannai-ool revisits the
Party leader for Chöön-Khemchik Province. (Come to think of it, Mannai-ool hasn't asked
us to meet any Party chiefs since Bai-Taiga--were we such an embarrassment?) He returns an
hour later with the only valuable currency in Tuva (besides dollars and vodka): ration
coupons. Now we can buy enough gas to reach Kyzyl.
On the road we pass a familiar hillside, defaced with a white-stone slogan. Only a few
days ago the stones proclaimed SLAVA OKTYABRYU (shorthand for "Long live the October
Revolution"). Today they spell SLAVA TUVE ("Long live Tuva!"). "Now that's
perestroika," quips Mannai-ool, making a pun on the familiar Russian word
which literally means "restructuring."
Back in Kyzyl we learn that tomorrow, August 14, a public ceremony will be held to
dedicate the memorial plaque to Richard Feynman. We find out where the city architect has
specified the plaque should go: behind the "Centre of Asia" monument, on a white
retaining wall containing a bed of flowers. In the evening we carry the black granite
plaque to the site so we can mount it in advance of tomorrow's dedication. (We are glad
that Mannai-ool is with us to mollify an old Russian passerby who shakes his finger at us
and exclaims "Ne mozhno!"--"You shouldn't be doing that!")
Ralph gets out his rechargeable cordless drill and makes three holes. Then he opens
three tubes of epoxy and begins to make a mess of things: he can't apply the silicone
sealant fast enough to keep the epoxy cement from streaking down the wall, but eventually
he locates some whitewash and covers things up enough by nightfall so that the memorial
stone looks acceptable--at least in the dark.
Wednesday, August 14, 1991. We travel to Kochetovo, Tuva's Philadelphia, and find life
going on normally in the town where Tuvan independence was proclaimed exactly seventy
years ago today. (The Tuvan government has decided that Independence Day--rather, the
seventieth anniversary of the "People's Revolution"--will be officially observed
tomorrow, to make a four-day weekend.) We head straight for the post office. The obliging
workers allow us to postmark hundreds of cards, many addressed to Friends of Tuva whose
contributions paid for the Feynman memorial plaque. None of the stamps used in Tuva today
show scenes of nomadic life; most of them bear the stern face of Lenin. In a mischievous
mood, Ralph affixes a triangular Tuvan stamp from 1936 to a postcard and drops it in the
postbox. Alan, conscious of philatelic protocol, is horrified: "It's like putting a
stamp from the Pony Express on a postcard you're sending in California!" (Ralph
repeats this shameless gesture several times m ore during the expedition. All such cards,
sent to addresses inside and outside of Tuva, eventually arrive safe and
unchallenged--some of them sooner than the cards with Soviet stamps depicting Lenin! What
will the philatelic world make of this?)
In the early afternoon we return to Kyzyl for the plaque dedication ceremony, led by
President C. D. B. Ondar and attended by several Tuvan government officials, Dr. Aranchyn,
the members of our expedition, and a few stray passersby. The event is covered by local
media (a crew from Tuva TV and a reporter from Tuvinskaya Pravda), and a
representative of the world press (Simon Winchester of The Guardian). President
Ondar, wearing the silk tie Ralph presented him the week before, stumbles through a speech
about Richard Feynman and our expedition that Dr. Aranchyn wrote for him. (He makes
several valiant attempts to pronounce "Otto Mänchen-Helfen," but finally gives
up on the hyphenated family name--reminding us of the visa the German traveller received
in 1929, issued to "Citizen Otto.") Two days later a photograph of the plaque,
bearing Richard Feynman's smiling face, appears on the front page of Tuvinskaya Pravda.
After the ceremony President Ondar invites us to dine at the executive building. We are
not surprised to find the best food we've had in all of Tuva served there.
After lunch we walk across the central square, past the drama theater, to the Kyzyl
Hotel and meet Kaadyr-ool Bicheldei, a reformer and People's Deputy in the Russian
Federation Parliament. Along with several Tuvan and Russian colleagues, he is launching an
independent newspaper to provide a counterweight to the propagandistic Tuvinskaya
Pravda. His obstacles are many: printing presses and newsprint are controlled by the
Communist Party, of which he is still technically a member, but the bosses are slow to act
on his requests. His hope to bring out the premier issue on this historic day, August 14,
has been thwarted. The editorial offices of the newspaper consist of a suite in Kyzyl's
main hotel. Above the typewriters are portraits of Boris Yeltsin and Sting. On behalf of
the Friends of Tuva, we contribute some dollars for scarce office supplies.
On Thursday, the official holiday for the "Tuvan People's Revolution," we
join the throng of specially-invited guests at the drama theater for a special program at
3 p.m. The place is packed, but Dr. Aranchyn has managed to secure box seats for us with a
fine view of the stage--which is completely filled three rows deep with desks, at which
about thirty dignitaries take their places under the glare of the stage lights.
President Ondar rises from his desk and strides over to a lectern stage right. As he
stumbles through a ten-minute speech, the audience laughs at his peculiar pronunciation of
certain names. The President good-naturedly acknowledges his difficulty.
Next it's the turn of the Party Chief for all of Tuva, Grigorii Shirshin, who gives a
lengthy speech full of statistics. A Russian lady in our box who has been casting us
sidelong glances whispers something to Rada. Rada leans over to us and says, "The
woman thinks I should be translating these important' speeches for you. . ."
We spare Rada the trouble by escaping into the corridor outside.
To our surprise and delight, refreshments are being served in the lobby. Has Shirshin
just finished? We poke our heads back into the auditorium. Yes, he has finished--but now
it's the turn of another dignitary. Over the next hour an increasing portion of the
audience gets up, in full view of everyone, to escape to the lobby and partake of the
refreshments. After an hour we check again: the speakers are still going strong, although
there are now conversations going on even among the VIPs on stage! In the main section of
the auditorium, half the seats are empty by now--but we spot Dr. Aranchyn, his facial
expression one of sheer ecstasy, hanging on every word. At least somebody is
After nearly three hours a flood of people surges towards the refreshment stands and
strips them bare. The speeches are over, at last!
Now comes the good part, the long-awaited cultural extravaganza to celebrate seventy
years of Tuvan national identity. The show begins with a stirring rendition of höömei,
the marvelous Tuvan throat singing in which the vocalist simultaneously produces a
fundamental tone and a series of harmonics. We are spellbound. We must bring some of these
amazing singers to the United States, and team them up with the likes of Bobby McFerrin!
It appears the show has already reached its zenith, for the next act features a
contrived version of Tuva's birth as a nation: some Tuvans in a yurt are singing and
dancing, when suddenly one of them breaks off, puts a hand to ear, and exclaims,
"Silence! What is that noise in the distance?" Soon a brave, selfless Russian
Red Partisan runs in and announces the exciting news of the glorious October Revolution,
and explains that the Tuvans, too, are now free and sovereign. Then a movie screen
descends and documentary footage of life in the Tuvan People's Republic, and the great
progress achieved under socialism, flashes before the audience. Camel caravans yield to
lines of trucks; writing and money are introduced, bringing banks and post offices;
telephones are installed. The screen is pulled up to reveal six Tuvan actors, each with
one hand covering an ear and one in front of the mouth, talking simultaneously with
puzzled looks on their faces (are the lines crossed?), while an operator wrestles with a
switchboard (yes!)--equipment which is still common in Tuva today. It is a perfect, albeit
unintended, example of what life has become under Soviet socialism: after a valiant first
step out of the feudal past, the momentum required to go further has somehow been lost.
The movie screen returns to show tanks crashing through forests. It is World War II.
Tuva joins the fight against Nazism, and--drum roll, please--is "rewarded" in
1944 by her incorporation into the USSR. Several minutes of dutiful cheers and applause
follow this stirring culmination of Tuvan history. We gag.
The show now turns into a variety hour. Russian children stomp out folk tunes, a Tuvan
stand-up comic gets the crowd rolling, a quartet of local hip-hop dancers look like they
came straight out of MTV--which, by the way, can be seen in Kyzyl. What could possibly be
more cosmopolitan than African-American culture at the headwaters of the Yenisei? The next
act, that's what--a Yakut diva singing Carmen in Russian!
The program miraculously recovers near the end with a playful duet sung by
impersonators satirizing Tuva's cultural icons, Maxim Munzuk (the hunter in Kurosawa's
Academy Award-winning film, Dersu Uzala) and his wife Karakys. Suddenly Maxim and
Karakys appear on stage themselves and sing the same tune to the delight and thunderous
applause of the audience. The political speeches and hackneyed portrayals of Tuvan history
have by now faded into a haze like a bad dream.
On Friday the celebrations continue with horse racing and wrestling. (For some reason
no competitions are held in archery, the third national sport.) Out at the track, horsemen
of all ages come to race and socialize. Some are decked out in resplendent silk coats,
embossed leather boots with upturned toes, and shiny hats with fins like a '57 Chevy.
Ralph's vision of höömei-singing Tuvan horsemen riding in the Rose Parade
returns--but what's this? One rider, dressed in traditional garb up to his neck, sports a
baseball cap emblazoned with the words "MICROSOFT C VERSION 5.0 EGA/VGA."
We meet Vladimir Orus-ool, an entrepreneur dedicated to revitalizing Tuva's culture.
Dressed in the long robes and the spiked cap of a Mongol prince, he tells us of his plans
to organize expeditions on horseback into the hinterlands of Tuva. (Perhaps a horse would
offer a smoother ride than what we have already endured in our jeep.) Moreover, his
expeditions would reenact hunting and military practices (presumably without the
pillaging) of earlier times, complete with authentic costumes.
Suddenly we see Khovalyg Kaigal-ool, an ace höömei singer who performed in the
Revolution Day program. Ralph asks whether he can ride a horse. Rada doesn't even
translate the question--it's like asking a Californian if he can drive a car. Would he
like to ride a horse, singing two notes at once, in the Tournament of Roses parade, on
January 1, 1993, in Ralph's home town of Pasadena?
"Azhyrbas," he replies. "No problem." A new episode of the Tuva
In the afternoon we attend the finals of the Tuvan Invitational Wrestling
Championships. One hundred twenty-eight contestants--and a little boy of about four--enter
the stadium and perform the Dance of the Eagle. We recognize some of the competitors from
the preliminaries in Ak-Dovurak.
As the competitors sit down cross-legged in the sun on the sidelines, President Ondar
gives a mercifully short speech. He welcomes the audience, particularly the foreign guests
from Turkey, Uganda, Germany, and the United States--hey, that's us!--and declares the
games open. Then some model workers from various agricultural cooperatives around Tuva are
introduced, and one of them is awarded a new car for the particularly fine and hard work
performed during the last year. Next a local hero is introduced: he is the European
wrestling champion, a Tuvan from Kyzyl, the "Centre of Asia."
And now the wrestling begins. After three hours of straight eliminations the semifinals
are held, one match at a time. A Mongolian who won the local preliminaries in Ak-Dovurak
is still in the competition and looks unstoppable. But wait! His Tuvan competitor kicks
him in the foot, causing him to stumble. The crowd roars its approval and cheers the
Mongolian more for losing than it does the Tuvan for winning.
Before the final round, bits of crumbled byshtak cheese are thrown to the
crowd--exactly as described by Mänchen-Helfen. The crowd is still celebrating with relief
the demise of the Mongolian when the hero who conquered him loses to a much more
conservative fighter. The crowd is disappointed as the winner rides his new horse around
the stadium. Outside, as the crowd adjourns, a lama touches the foreheads of those who
have lined up to receive his blessing one by one. A jar full of rubles silently attests to
the rebuilding of lamaseries in Tuva.
Sunday, August 18. We head south to the border with Mongolia in search of camels. We
encounter them much earlier than expected--high up in the mountains, grazing in a lush
pasture studded with gentian and edelweiss. Woodlands in close proximity prompt ironic
remarks on "ships of the forest." When we finally do reach the desert, camels
are nowhere to be seen. Instead, we encounter rainfall, the only prolonged precipitation
we have experienced during our stay in Tuva. But the rain passes as we head towards the
Mongolian border to the shores of Töre-Khöl, a freshwater lake whose waters are as
smooth as glass on this unusually calm evening.
The next day, after visiting another group of nomads in their yurt (they turn out to be
some of Rada's distant relatives she has never met before), a drizzle sets in again, so we
decide to leave the fog and soggy sand and return to our lodgings in Kyzyl. Rada goes to
her sister's apartment to make some phone calls.
We switch on the television and relax. A young man is conducting an orchestra from a
piano while playing a concerto--the piece sounds vaguely familiar. Alan is interested to
know which orchestra is playing, so we continue to watch.
When the music is over the audience applauds, but no announcer tells us what we have
just heard. The program ends and another one begins with no graphics, no station
identification, nothing. Is this peculiar programming one last Feynman prank?
Rada returns from making her telephone calls. "I talked to Mr. Piche-ool about
flying to Tozhu to meet some reindeer herders. But he said something strange: In view of
recent events, I'm not sure we can make any plans now.' I wonder what he meant."
Until now we've had no indication whatever from looking at life going on around us--from
the Mongolian border to Kyzyl--that anything out of the ordinary has happened.
Suddenly Viktor bursts through the doorway with news of the coup. Alan tunes his
portable shortwave radio to the BBC--we are surprised that the broadcast is not jammed. We
hear the news of Gorbachev's "illness" and Yeltsin's pleas for the foreign media
to broadcast his words to Russia and the world, as the junta has control of radio,
television, and newspapers all over the Soviet Union.
The next day Rada's brother Soyan goes to his job at Tuva's commodities market only to
find it idle: the Moscow headquarters, in direct defiance of the junta, has stopped
trading--a move which affects ten percent of the Soviet economy. But the network of fax
and Xerox machines is still humming. Instead of forwarding the daily list of items up for
trade--from three thousand heads of cabbage in the Caucasus to a used Toyota minivan in
Vladivostok--Moscow is transmitting urgent messages from Russian President Boris Yeltsin
to all its branch offices, including Kyzyl. The junta, for whatever reason, does not
control the telephone system. Soyan brings home a Xerox copy of Yeltsin's decree: the
junta has acted in violation of the constitution; do not follow its orders.
Later we see this fax and others from the Russian government posted outside City Hall.
The Kyzyl city government is aligning itself with Yeltsin, while the government of Tuva,
under President Ondar, is quietly following the orders of the junta. Tuvinskaya Pravda
dutifully prints the directives of the junta, but refuses to publish Yeltsin's decrees.
Thus modern fax technology--sent over an antiquated telephone system--is Yeltsin's only
link to this remote and underdeveloped part of his huge country.
The power struggle is going on at such a low key in Kyzyl that we decide to meet with
members of the TNIIYaLI as previously planned to ask them questions arising from
Mänchen-Helfen's book. In the late afternoon we pass by City Hall again and note that
Yeltsin has sent further decrees by fax. We copy down Yeltsin's number so we can fax him
from California when the crisis is over--assuming everything works out all right. In a
clear challenge to the junta's orders, the Kyzyl city government has called a
demonstration for tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. We wonder why such an announcement has not been
torn down by the KGB, and why no one bats an eye when Ralph takes pictures. Is the KGB
neutral? Are the people unafraid? If so, the coup may be doomed.
Indeed it is. We switch on the television to find Boris Yeltsin addressing the
parliament of the Russian Federation. The BBC reports that there are indications--the
television program we are watching is one of them--that the coup is beginning to fail.
The next day, Rada's brother Soyan returns to work--the market will reopen at 1:30 p.m.
(9:30 a.m. Moscow time). When trading begins, two telephone lines are kept open with
Ulan-Ude, the market's regional center. Interested buyers in the room shout out their
bids, which are relayed by the man holding the phones. In the data room, programmers are
hard at work on two IBM clone computers from Taiwan--playing video games. One game,
"Perestroika," features a little Russian entrepreneur (perhaps a trader on the
commodities market) trying to work his way through Gorbachev's maze of ever-changing laws.
Each time the entrepreneur croaks, a Russian Orthodox cross sprouts from the ground.
At 5 p.m. we head towards the center of Kyzyl to attend the demonstration--which will
be more like a victory rally, now that the coup has failed. But we soon run into a traffic
jam: hundreds of people are milling about. Will we have to walk the last mile into the
center of town?
Eventually we see the cause of the disturbance: vodka has been put on sale by President
Ondar's government for the first time this month, half an hour before the demonstration by
his rivals is about to begin. Needless to say, only a few hundred people show up at the
central square to listen to the Kyzyl city government officials condemn President Ondar,
Party Chief Shirshin, and the editor-in-chief of Tuvinskaya Pravda.
About a half an hour into the speeches, we look behind us at the executive building.
Can the President, up there in his office, hear the angry words calling for his
resignation? The windows on the third floor are closed.
But suddenly we see President Ondar himself and several members of his government
descend the steps from the executive building and walk towards the square. President Ondar
makes no attempt to address the crowd; he simply stands affably in their midst, and
listens to the calls for his removal. (His presence is so completely ignored that we're
not sure anyone has even noticed his arrival.) He gets the message: less than two weeks
later he resigns--and is replaced by the reformer Bicheldei. As the rally ends, a
forboding thundercloud looms over the executive building.
After the rain we check on the memorial plaque one last time, which we feel especially
fortunate to have installed the week before. Tomorrow we will begin our journey home.
The Yenisei flows by quickly but quietly. Fishermen wait patiently for nothing to
happen. A man plays peekaboo with his little daughter, chasing her around the monument to
the "Centre of Asia." Couples stroll in the evening light along their familiar
route; some pause to gaze at the black triangular stone with its mysterious inscriptions.
Draped across the top, above Richard Feynman's smiling face, is a wilted flower.
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