Tuvan cowboys and bachelor pads

I’m sitting at a low makeshift kitchen table, made of a slab faux-cherrywood countertop balanced on a cardboard speaker box. It’s the only clean surface in the apartment. Balanced against the wall beside me stands a mountain bike. The Kruschev-era, meal-colored wallpaper is peeling in places, revealing cheap plaster underneath. It’s hard to tell what is original and what is a half-finished “improvement” – the half-tiled windowsill, the plastic insultation bulging from gaps in the windowframes, the puckered linoleum tile. Everything is covered – not in a film of dust, but in a film of filth.

And then there’s the bathroom. <shudder>

On the other hand, the bare living room is half-filled with a giant flat-screen TV and stereo. There’s another flat-screen mounted to the wall in the shabby bedroom. And then there’s the fast fast computer sitting next to me on this table, its hard drive filled with video games.

But the per-night cost is right (free). And there’s a washing machine, currently on its second load.

Marina, my new Tuvan buddy, is letting me use her boyfriend’s apartment while he’s off in Tomsk taking is final exams for law school. At 36, it seems he is still living the lifestyle of a 26-year-young bachelor. So my inelegant surroundings are a combination of his lack of concern for things like, say, glasses (there are none), and the fact that the apartment is in what is known as a Kruschev special – cheaply-built 5-storey apartment blocks built mostly in Kruschev’s time.


Yesterday Ayan Shirizhik,¬†a member of the Alash throat-singing ensemble I met through Sean Quirk (see previous post), took me to his brothers’ horse farm about 100 km south. Unabashed and cheerful, he played proud tour guide for the day, despite his limited English. As we drove across the treeless, grassy steppe he expounded on such topics as the names of the various mountain ranges surrounding Tuva, the Indian music playing on his radio (Shaakti – check it out!), Russian politics in the formerly independent state of Tuva, how great Obama is (a Tuvan favorite), how bad Bush is, the animist/Buddhist mishmash that makes up most Tuvans’ religion, how many horses his brother has, how much pot American musicians smoke, and so on.

As the snow-capped Tangde Mountains (sp?) came into view, his face beamed with child-like delight. “This is my country!” he grinned. After Lake Cheder, a small salt lake where people come to roll aound in the smelly “healing” muds, we turned west off the main southbound road. With each passing kilometer the road degraded. We passed through the remote village where his parents and a few siblings live and were soon creeping along a heavily rutted dirt path. To our north sparkled Lake Chagytai, named for Ghengis Khan’s son. To the south rose another snow-capped mountain range whose name I now forget. To the east, the direction we were driving, were the Tangde Mountains. The horse farm – a few wooden shacks dating from his grandfather’s time – stood on the eastern shore of the lake, framed by the mountains.

The whole scene – the remote grassy steppe, the mountains, the lake named for the son of a feared warrior, the chanting, guttoral throat-singing on the radio (we had changed CDs), the warm sun and clear blue sky – was a fairlytale.

His brothers also live bachelor-style, in an unspeakably shabby wood shack. It was furnished with three ancient, sagging spring beds with dusty coverlets, a few half-broken wooden chairs, and a large clay stove. A half-dozen wool coats hung from wooden pegs along one wall, with a neatly paired series of shoes lined up underneath. Outside, two vicious dogs stood guard – I wasn’t allowed to go into the yard alone, or else they might have attacked me. There be horse rustlers in them thar hills.

One brother, Merguen, took Ayan and me for a horse ride. Now, I’ve ridden plenty of horses before. Tourist horses. These were definitely not tourist horses. My mare immediately sensed my lack of confidence. She first tried to brush me off her back by walking along a fence. Then she sneaked out of the yard while the brothers were still mounting their horses and started wandering away, completely ignoring my entreaties and my amateurish yanks on the reigns. Merguen quickly caught up, took her lead rope, and I spent the whole ride being led along like a child. Sigh. At least she didn’t take off at a canter and try to break my neck.

After the ride and having some tea, Ayan and I drove down to a BBQ spot on the lake to make shashlik – shishkebob – for lunch. While the meat was cooking he took out his flutes and played – for me, but also for the lake and his country. He loves coming back to the farm, to where his ancestors lived, but his work ( in addition to Alash, he plays for the Tuvan National Orchestra) and his family (wife and two kids) keep him in Kyzyl.

I could say so much more about Ayan, throat-singing, the Tuvan countryside, and the whole day, but I would go on for hours. I’ve fallen in love with Tuva. I’m not even gone, and I already want to come back.

[By the way, Alash is touring the east coast of the US this summer. They’re playing in Boston, New York state and New Jersey. Sean tells me they might play Brooklyn, too. I encourage everyone to go see them if you can! Tour schedule here.]

Mojo: from bad to good

Greetings from the local radio station in Tuva.

Krasnoyarsk, my first stop in eastern Siberia, killed any mojo I had built up in Tomsk. After arriving on the train on Sunday at 11 am I spent the entire day looking for a room – all the inexpensive places were full. I even took a bus ride 20 minutes outside of town to a hotel near the nature reserve I wanted to hike the next day, but it was closed until summer. In the end, I overpaid $115 for a night in a boutique-style hotel that didn’t quite cut it. (The shower, for instance, was more warm-ish than hot.)

The next day I had arranged to meet the Aussie cousins I had met on the train for a hike in the Stolby Nature Reserve. Finally! Nature! But alas, it was raining – not quite pouring, but more than drizzling. I begged off to go the museum (I had decided to take the train out that night, and didn’t want to be wet and muddy) but they soldiered on to the reserve.

A mere 2 hours later the three of us sat consoling ourselves over cheap beer in a deserted but pleasant basement bar. Krasnoyarsk, it seems, is closed on Mondays: the museums, the parks, the zoo. So while I saw nothing of Krasnoyarsk, I did have a nice time chatting with native English speakers (yay) about life, travel and Russia.

Here in Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic, my mojo is back in full effect. I took the overnight train south from Krasnoyarsk to Abakan in the neighboring republic of Khakassia, arriving around 6:15 am. That’s where I found the marshrutka – a sort of minivan shared taxi – and took it 6 hours over the Ergaki Mountains to the steppes of Kyzyl.

While checking in at Hotel Kottedzh (Russian transliteration of “cottage”) I met Marina, a lawyer who works in some office here doing some sort of administrative paperwork (not clear what). She speaks excellent English, and offered to the next day (Wednesday) off to show me around. I also received a text message from Sean Quirk, an American who lives here (he’s married to a Tuvan). On the advice of Lonely Planet, I had sent him email inquiring about throat-singing performances.

So on Wednesday morning Marina and I went to the local music school to see Sean’s throat-singing ensemble play for a graduation ceremony. It was beautiful. The orchestra played a few traditional Tuvan guitar-like instruments, a harpsichord-looking thing, and xomye, these twangy instruments that look like an extra-long saxophone reed that they flicked with a finger and held to their mouth. There was some normal singing, and during one song some of the band whistled like songbirds. And then there was the throat-singing. How to describe it? It’s a deep, almost inhuman sound that vibrates in the singer’s throat. It’s like a very talented baritone frog, chanting. Amazing.

Afterwards I spoke with Sean briefly (he had to run). I’m supposed to meet with him again today. He also says he’ll arrange for a bandmate to take me to his brother’s horse farm out in the countryside. So more on Sean and throat-singing later.

After grabbing a Tuvan pelmenyi lunch Marina and I went to the local museum. The 200-ruble ticket seemed like an outrageous sum to pay for what amounted to snapshots of locals (including the builders of the new, just-opened museum building), some stuffed animals and crappy local art. That is, until we met Radju. I had just made a snarky comment to Marina, like “I’m glad we paid 200 rubles to see the curators’ diplomas” when suddenly Radju, a museum guide, came up to us and started explaining things for free. (He didn’t speak English, but maybe he overheard my tone and felt guilty?) It was clear that Radju loves his job. His eyes sparkled as he told us all about the nearby Arzhaan archeological digs, where scientists had unearthed Scythian burial sites (called kurgany). In colorful, energetic detail he told us about the burial rituals, the history of the area, the scientists who worked on the digs (including the archaeologist who had found the site and started the dig, who had been sent to a gulag during Stalin’s purges before he could finish), and so on.

Interspersed in the explication were questions about myself, Marina and about US politics – he’s Obama’s #1 fan in Tuva. He studied history here in Kyzyl, and says he knows the history of the whole world. He was quizzing me on US history, showing off his knowledge of Native American tribes. His name, he says, means “tsar” in Indian (India Indian, not Native-American “indian”.). He wants to learn Spanish and go to Central America. In fact, he says, he wants to travel the world. But, like Marina, he loves Tuva and wants to live here, despite the general lack of opportunity in this economically insignificant corner of Russia.

After the museum Marina went home and I went for a walk along the river Yenisey. As luck – or my Kyzylian mojo – would have it, I happened upon preparations for a shaman ritual. I had noticed the shack with the yurt and the “shaman” sign out front on an earlier walk, and assumed it was a Disney version of real shamanism, which is still practiced and believed in the area. Naturally I stuck around to watch – evidently you can pay a shaman a few thousand rubles to see the spectacle, so I was getting a show for free. (I gleaned from a brief, broken conversation with a local that some Norwegians had indeed paid the shamen (women, actually) to perform some sort of rite.) Dozens of Tuvans had come out, whether to see the show or participate, I couldn’t tell. Once the performance (I hesitate to call it a ritual) got started, I found that my suspicions were valid. It really did look like a bunch of women in silly costumes banging drums and twirling amid incense. A tourist attraction.

But Marina’s aunt is friends with a “real” shaman (another woman). Last year Marina and her family went to see her, and now Marina is convinced of the shaman’s power. She says she’s going to try to help me meet the shaman in Abakan. We’ll see.

So you see, all of a sudden I’m having some ad-hoc, interesting experiences. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m away from the normal tourist track, or that I’m not meeting with officialdom (businesspeople, others I met via Esther), or what. But there’s something about Kyzyl – an architecturally awful, Soviet purpose-built city in the middle of beautiful rolling hills – that appeals to me. Marina has convinced me to stay until Monday, and has invited me stay with her and her mom over the weekend.

I’m not even perturbed by the fact that the hot water is out in all of Kyzyl until Friday. I just took a “shower” by heating 6 liters of water (in three batches) in the electric kettle provided by the hotel, pouring it into a plastic tub the maid gave me, and doing a combo of cold-water shower and hot-water splashing to get clean.

UPDATE: Looks like I am going to go to that horse farm/yurt camp about 100 km south of Kyzyl tomorrow. Exciting! Will post more when I can….

Kyzyl foh shizzle

It was 6:45 am, Eastern Siberian Time. I was in a minivan with nine laughing Mongolian-looking young men who I had just met at the train station. As we rattled along the road out of Abakan, our chain-smoking driver pulled out wrap-around shades to block the sun that had squeezed its way through the thick clouds.

It wasn’t until five hours later, as we descended out of the snow-capped Ergaki Mountains into the rolling steppes outside Kyzyl, that it occurred to me that I should be scared. I mean, I just jumped from a train into a van with ten strange men with whom I didn’t share a language, to drive hundreds of km from the nearest city, towards the Russian border with Mongolia. But it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do.

Naturally, it was fine. The driver dropped me at my hotel, I checked in to the cheapest single so far (800 rubles!) and went to find the only internet cafe in town – here at the local post office. Kyzyl is the center of Tuvan throat-singing (some of whom with perform at the Lowell, MA Folk Festival in July!), a place Richard Feynman was obsessed with, and a built-from-scratch Soviet city. Should be interesting.

Plenty has happened since I last posted, of course – I went bowling in Tomsk, discovered that all of Krasnoyarsk is closed on Monday (museums, parks, even the zoo), and spent that rainy Krasnoyarsk afternoon drinking cheap beer with two Australians I had met on the train. I’ll see if I can write a better post on my laptop and USB it onto this computer. But at the moment I can’t write too much – there’s a little girl who insists on opening and closing the creaky, squeaky wrought iron door and my nerves are wrecked.

The short-version plan: I hope to *finally* find someone to take me on a hike, or rafting, or ANY place out in some natural setting to get some fresh air and see the country without a train’s pane glass separating us. Even the van ride, on a real Russian road with real Russian air blowing through the windows – felt better than the train. Perhaps that’s been my disconnect so far – I’ve only been in cities and large towns, and I want to see some NATURE.

So if I can find that, I’ll say here for about a week. If not, I’ll stay 3 or 4 days, and then either backtrack through Abakan for a train to Irkutsk, or fly direct to Irkutsk from here.

OK really gotta run. My teeth are grinding.

Sleepy in Tomsk

It’s rather ironic, how exhausted I seem to be after these long overnight/multi-night train rides. Having spent three days doing basically nothing, all I could manage today was to go on a halfhearted wander through town and then to take a nap. The good news, for me, is that the energetic 22-year-olds I met on the train are also too tired to meet today. So don’t call me too old quite yet.

At the moment, it’s 6 pm Tomsk time, 3 pm Moscow time, and 7 am New York time. I have no idea what to do with myself. To keep everyone sane across all seven time zones, Russian trains all run on Moscow time. This means traveling across Russia becomes a sort of time warp. Going east, chronological time accelerates as you hurtle towards dawn. Yet this acceleration happens much more slowly than it would in an airplane, so as to be unnoticeable. Like watching a person grow older.

Then suddenly, inside the Moscow-pegged time capsule of the train, “lights out” is well after dark and dawn breaks around 2:30 am. Your watch becomes a mechanism to measure only the passing of time; it’s no longer an accurate indicator of a particular moment or time of day. Unlike in an airplane, the passage of time isn’t mimicked by the closing of the shades, the showing of a film, the serving of breakfast. Nor do your fellow passengers share your exact experience. They get on and off the train at all hours, engaged in their own individual time warp. There’s always at least a few people sleeping, while others are eating lunch or dinner or whatever.

Then you debark, stepping out of the time capsule and into reality. You find you’ve warped two or three or even seven hours ahead, depending on how far you’ve come. Suddenly it’s past lunch time, whereas a half-hour before you had your morning coffee.

It’s no wonder your body wants to sleep – to hit the reset button and start again from morning.


A few of you have asked about my state of mind. I’m trying to keep the ratio of navel-gazing-to-description fairly low, so forgive me if my blog is sounding aloof.

Also, to be honest, I’m trying to remain cheerful in the face of bewilderment.

Every other time I have traveled, within a day or at most two I snap into my happy travel place. I devour historical and current newspaper accounts about the country. I seek out strange and new places and foods. I return to my room late, exhausted and happy.

But here, on this trip, it ain’t happenin’. I feel like I’ve been close – there has been metal-on-metal, but the snap refuses to lock into place. I don’t know if it’s Russia, or if it’s what I feared – that going on an open-ended trip would be different, that I would fret more about where and when and why and how much. In any case, I feel like in some places – Kazan, for instance – I’m going through the motions rather than fully engaging in my travel. I am – dare I say – bored at times. On more than a few occasions, all I wanted to do was return to my room and read or write.

Which also makes me wonder – perhaps this is just built-up desire to do these other things I love – reading and writing – that I had to forego, for the most part, in the months leading up to my departure. During that time I was either engaged in logistical planning – visa, apartment, the disbursement of my belongings – or I was deliberately distracting myself from thinking too hard about what I was doing – giving up my life! leaving New York! – for fear of succumbing to self-doubt and despair. So I read guide books, investigated PO boxes and storage options, and, in lieu of drugs or bottles of booze, I watched the most ridiculous reality TV I could find (in a close race, MTV’s “From G’s to Gents” won over Bravo’s “Millionaire Matchmaker“).

So you see – my state of mind is a jumble. I’m neither sad nor happy. I’ve had moments of delight and frustration, both of which have been fleeting. So far, Russia and I aren’t communicating. But is it that Russia has nothing to say to me, or that I’m not listening? Stay tuned.

Welcome to Siberia

I just arrived in Tomsk, a university town just off the Trans-Siberian railway line. After a one wet, cold night in Yekaterinburg (aka Sverdlovsk) between trains, Tomsk is sunny but markedly colder than the other side of the Urals.

The train has been interesting so far. I’ve spent days in silent reading, with all my compartment-mates ignoring each other. I’ve had raucous, communal compartments where my phrasebook gets hard use and where it’s impossible to refuse offers of food and drink. And then, on yesterday’s train, I’ve had a remarkably unfriendly babushka, who deliberately placed her luggage on the bench where she had slept (bottom bunk) but which we were supposed to share as seats during the day (I had top bunk). When I offered to move her luggage to the storage bins so I could sit down, she growled at me and pointed to my cramped bunk. Feh.

Anyway, afterward on the train I met about 10 students on linguistics heading to Tomsk for a conference on “inter-cultural communication.” They’re all women, about 22 years old I’d say. They *all* want to practice their English with me, so I’ve agreed to meet them for coffee today.

Also here in Tomsk, I will be well taken care of by a Olga, a director of some sort at the Polytechnic University, who I was introduced to by a man I met through Esther in Moscow. (Confused yet?) Anyway, she sent her employee, Natalia, to pick me up at the train and has instructed her to show me all the sights.

In short, I’m glad to be here. I hope it lives up to my expectations.

Now I’m going to run and get my first real, non-cup-o-soup meal for three days.

Kazan, Kazan.

Kazan, Kazan. I’m not sure about this place. I came here because it’s the capital of Tartarstan, one of many semi-autonomous republics of the new Russia. Its history is complicated – I’ve read about it a few times, and I’m still confused. The originals, I think, are Bulgars (kin in name, at least, to modern Bulgarians, who were absorbed into the native Slavic people after migrating to the western shores of the Black Sea). The area was converted to Sunni Islam by an ambassador from Baghdad in the 10th century. Then there are the descendants of the Mongol Golden Horde, which sacked the city in the 13th century. In the middle they mixed it up with some Finno-Ugric people – the same people who settled Finland and Hungary. Ivan the Terrible burned everything down and started Kazan over as a Russian settlement in the 16h century. And finally, both Leo Tolstoy and Vlad Lenin famously got kicked out of the local university due to their political activities.

The modern architecture is as big a mish-mosh as its history. Half-burned wooden houses, severe Soviet concrete megaliths, 19th-century brick buildings crumbling into karst sinkholes – a result of the limestone earth and the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka Rivers, I’m told. And now, it seems, each new building boasts whatever architectural style suits the project architect.

In my short walk around the original Tatar settlement and current “muslim area”, separated from the town center by a small canal, I saw remarkable extremes. On the one hand, the area is dilapidated, strewn with buildings with collapsed roofs and piled high with trash. At rush hour, the rutted roads are clogged with Ladas, Volgas, trams and new buses, all kicking up dirt from the streets and spewing greasy exhaust. But among all this ruin sparkle crisp new structures – mosques, hotels, office buildings. This part of town feels like a Third World city that has recently come into some serious cash.

The people also consist of an inscrutable jumble of ethnic groups and opinions. Along with the inevitable Russian Orthodox (and atheists), there is a large Muslim population who practice an easygoing brand of the religion. I haven’t heard a single call to prayer, and few women cover their heads. Every third building, it seems, is a ministry or government office of the “Tartarstan Republic” or of “Kazan.” Souvenir shops sell green, white and red flags of the Tartarstan republic. Adding to my own confusion, street signs are in both Tartar language and Russian.

All this ethnic pride, however, doesn’t seem to translate into a desire for independence from Russia. Shakirova Dilyara, the president of a private business school I met with yesterday, talked about Russia’s future. Tatiana Kamaletdinova, the director of the Junior Achievement program here, spoke proudly about Tartarstan’s great wealth of natural resources and industry…in the context of its place within Russia.

Beyond these cultural insights, I haven’t found much of interest here in Kazan. Sure, the Kremlin is lovely and the town is good for a wander. But honestly, it’s kinda boring.

I have yet to be delighted by any particular place in Russia. I don’t know if it’s my expectations, or what. I have high hopes for Tomsk, which by all accounts boasts a vibrant cultural scene fed by the dozens of local universities and institutes of learning. Off the main Trans-Siberian route, it maintained its culture through Soviet times, while escaping the fate of most other non-Trans-Siberian towns, which have faded into ghost towns.

We’ll see if Asian Russia appeals more than European Russia has so far. Tonight I leave Kazan by overnight train, passing the arbitrary border between Europe and Asia on my way to Yekaterinburg. Yekaterinburg, on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, is famous for many things. Most noteworthy, I think is that it the city where Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks and tossed into an old mine. I’ll only stay there for about 12 hours – a layover between the Kazan train, which arrives at 14:00, and the train to Tomsk, which leaves at 3 am and arrives in Tomsk 36 hours later.

It’s going to be quite a three days:
May 16 at 20:00, leave Kazan. Arrive Yekaterinburg May 17 at 14:14.
Hang around Y-burg.
May 18 at 02:57, leave Yekaterinburg. Arrive Tomsk May 19 at 05:56.

In other words, don’t expect to hear much from me before Tuesday, unless I find an internet cafe in Y-burg (which I will try to do).

Read the NY Times….


They cut a bunch (notably my LSD reference) but still….cool to see the story out there! I guess it’ll be in the Sunday Travel section, too.

In other brief news, I’m taking the train from Kazan to Tomsk tonight, via –£ekaterinburg. I arrive in Tomsk Tues am. I’ll try to post details from an internet cafe that doesn’t suck, as this one does.