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.]

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