A Journey and an Invitation…
I spent a month in Tuva (Southern Siberia) last year (summer, 2014) on an extended throat singing tour. I had been introduced to Tuvan music and Scythian history by Martin Prechtel a few years back. Later we hosted the Tuvan group Chirgilchen on one of their West Coast trips, made friends and were invited to visit. Even though the trip to Tuva and back is really long, last summer’s journey was just an awesome experience that deeply affected me and so the plan is to go back this summer. My friends in Tuva , Zhenya and Anai-Khaak Saryglar and Eliot Stone from TuvaTravel have put a trip together for this July.
My interest in Tuva has been twofold, one is cultural, the other is throat singing.
This is the place that the Scythians come from, a people that roamed the sea of grass from the Gobi Desert to the Black Sea.
This is the place where Scythian art and it’s ‘Animal Style’ had it’s most beautiful expression, a cultural horizon that reached as far as Europe. Lots of origins here. To walk into the museum in Kyzyl, Tuva’s capital, and to see all the artifacts and the gold from the excavation of the Scythian kurgan of Arzhan II, (about 800BC) as well as even earlier standing stones of the Karasuk and Tagar culture, was a wonderful treat for me.
I don’t know why I am so struck by Tuvan music, but something deeply reverberated for me, maybe some old memories, who knows. But I was affected enough that I started learning some of it. Not being much of a musician it is a slow process but damn it feels good to have those deep sounds of Kargyraa vibrate in my body.
And to have been able to learn from some of the best practitioners of this craft, what a gift that has been.
Tuva is a small country (read more on Tuvatravel’s excellent website). It’s incredibly cold in the winter and moderate in the summer. People have been here a long time; fertile pastures made this a rich place once. A crossroads of cultures, a rich prize for conquerors.
People live here that are deeply connected to the land and it’s story. And many cultures left their marks.
It’s a bit of a shock to see such beautiful scenery and so many ruins of Russian industrialism. Yet I found Tuva so full of never ending contradictions, it was really fascinating and I tried very much not to judge. Life is hard in Tuva and people do not get very old. The ones I met work hard and are resourceful.
I was fascinated on my last trip by how they live in so many worlds at once. In general they are Buddhists/Shamanists. Pictures of the Dalai Lama abound, as do ovaa’s, sacred shrines and springs, sacred trees and mountains. Shamans do play an important role in this culture.
Tuva is part of the Russian federation and very dependent on Russia as far as I can see. Especially on material goods and food.
I feel their strong urge and need to stay connected to their cultural roots and history…and yet to survive and adapt to this very age.
When I found myself sitting by the Yenisei practicing Kargyraa with Bady Dorzhu Ondar and Ayan-ool Sam from Alash and then later sitting in a yurt in the Bai Taiga with Zhenya learning how to play the Khomus (mouth harp), I could not believe how lucky I was to experience this. How open everyone is in Tuva when it comes to sharing their culture! For the musicians, who either work in the National Orchestra or the Tuvan Ensemble, teaching helps to make ends meet.
The dates for this trip are July 4th to the 18th.
It will start in Abakan, Khakassia where everyone will arrive most likely on a flight from Moscow. Coming from the West Coast of the US I found it helpful to have a one night lay over each way. (I am too old for 2 days of straight travel).
There Zhenya and Anai-Khaak will pick us up. Zhenya is the driver, the mechanic, the teacher, the musician. He grew up in the Bai Taiga, at Sai-Xonash, our destination. Anai-Khaak is the translator and organizer, speaks fluent French and Spanish and traveled as a dancer and translator with the Tuvan Ensemble. She is also the main cook. I found them to be the most personal, enjoyable and hard working hosts ever. They do these tours during the summer months and the rest of the year live in Kyzyl.
Some time will be spent in Kyzyl and at Aldyn-Bulak. See the complete itinerary on the website for details. (http://traveltuva.com/
The destination is Sai-Xhonash in the Bai Taiga in the western part of Tuva. Once you leave the main road, the road to the nomad camp of Zhenja’s family is rough. Multiple rivers are being forded (rather exciting) but we have an excellent and enthusiastic driver! The camp consists of 3 family yurts, this is their summer camp. The winter camp is 20 miles further down the valley. The there are 4 or 5 yurts for us visitors including a kitchen yurt. There are enclosures for animals as they raise sheep, goats and cows. And the all important horses.
And not much else. An outhouse. Ah yes, there is a Russian style bath house and plenty of wood to fire it. There is hot water for washing. No running water, no electricity, no cell phone reception. A creek runs through this amazingly beautiful valley.
The beds are comfortable, the yurts each have a simple wood stove. The animals roam throughout the camp and come visiting frequently. Dogs stand guard.
It is all very basic and I just loved this simplicity. Wolves sometimes howl at night. The weather can be anything, even snow at any time as well. The sky, day or night, is unbelievable.
Other yurts can be seen in the distance, a Yak herder lives close by, everybody is related and will come for the horse race and the wrestling.
Anai-Khaak will have some kitchen help, the food is simple and good. On our tour she even cooked extra vegetarian meals, a stretch if necessary.
Milking happens mornings and evenings and I, being a bit into cheese, was fascinated. They separate the cream and make most of it into gee, which they can store without refrigeration. Then it gets fun. With the help of willow bark the rest of the milk gets fermented and many processes later you have a great variety of fermented (somewhat sour of course) cheese products. Even distilled araga, it’s like a sour sake. Leftovers are used for felting and tanning hides……….
Zhenya and Anai Khaak have put a program together at Sai-Xhonash, the exact details are probably depending on how many people will come, but there will group throat singing and language lessons, cheese making, horseback riding and much more.
Ah, the language. Tuvan is a tough one for me, it is a Turkic language. Most people speak Russian as well, but not everyone. I found that one just as tough but at least there are language programs to get the basics down. Not that many people speak English here.
But communication was rarely an issue.
This tour is as much for musicians as for non-musicians, it is for anyone interested in experiencing this country, these great people, their culture and their life.
It takes a lot of practice to learn to throat sing. Eliot Stone is an excellent teacher and lessons on Skype to get you started are easily arranged. It’s all about practice….And of course besides throat singing, there is the Igil, the Doshpulur and the Khomus and a few other instruments, all of which Zhenya plays really well.
So, here it is. Should this get you intrigued or even excited, get in touch with me (christian@burchardstudio.
As of right now, the flight from the West Coast is about $2000, the tour only $1300 (the rubel lost half it’s value in the last months) and some extra $ for private lessons (I took one nearly every day… at $40 an hour) or extra stay on the trip over, visa fees etc. There are not many shops for tourists, but really nice instruments can be had. I also just heard a rumor of a big music festival that happens right at the end of this trip and I will investigate that.
Please spread the word.