Nature-based Tourism in a Tuvan Cultural World

Posted by on Jun 8, 2015 | No Comments
Nature-based Tourism in a Tuvan Cultural World

In May of 2013, the last remnants of Siberian snows still frosted several mountaintops just visible through a small, office window in the Center for Tuvan Traditional Culture. Boris Salchak–Tuvan musician and producer–wrote down his contact information on a scrap of notebook paper, passed it to me, and said, “You know, it’s great that you are trying to develop tourism in Tuva. There is a lot for tourists to do in our republic, but I’m curious, how do you think you are going to get Americans to come here? I mean if someone is interested in Tuvan culture, they can just go to a Tuvan concert in America. And as to Tuva’s natural environment: why would an American tourist come all the way to Siberia when they can just go to Colorado, British Colombia, or Alaska and see the same type of landscapes?”

“Good questions”, I replied.

Upon returning to the United States in the fall of 2013, I began a campaign to promote tourism in Tuva. The initial strategy: attend Tuvan throat singing concerts and meet with potential clients following each performance. Audience members are often inspired by Tuvan throat singing and want to learn more about Tuvan culture, opening the opportunity for a relevant discussion of TravelTuva’s services. However, when I suggest that intrigued audience members should travel to Tuva and experience the culture first hand, I often encounter thinly veiled skepticism at best, outright sarcasm at worst. This is particularly true as regards Tuva’s geographic location. Tuva is in Siberia.

The following exemplify typical questions frequently received in response to a TravelTuva sales pitch:

“Why would anyone want to go somewhere so cold?”

or, more to the point:

“There’s not too much to see there, I bet. Just flat tundra, right?”

and my personal favorite:

“Siberia…isn’t that where the Soviets sent all their dissidents?”

Anti-communist propaganda in a 1947 comic book published by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society warning of "the dangers of a Communist takeover" (from Wikipedia article on Propaganda)

Anti-communist propaganda in a 1947 comic book published by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society warning of “the dangers of a Communist takeover” (from Wikipedia article on Propaganda)

It hardly requires mention that Boris’s insights continue to prove deeply prescient. As the questions above demonstrate, American tourists who may potentially travel to Tuva face significant–though often imagined­–hurdles to their departure: 1) Russian history and geography are largely ignored in the American educational system, creating a virtual “Siberia” of knowledge in place of Russia’s vast cultural and geographic diversity and spread; 2) Cold war stereotypes of Russia generally–and Siberia specifically–still loom large in American popular consciousness, taking place of any factual knowledge about Russia and Russian cultural life.   This is particularly the case today as US-Russia relations strain beneath sanctions, militarization, rapidly shifting trade loyalties, and fear-evoking propaganda; 3) Russia seldom–if ever–appears as a travel destination for American tourists, requiring would be TravelTuva clients to “pioneer” unknown–and uncertain–tourism frontiers. Further, the former Soviet government prohibited foreign travelers access to Tuva throughout the majority of the 20th century, an historical fact still damaging to Tuva’s vast potential as a world-class culture and nature-based tourism destination.

While Tuva’s musical cultures gained international recognition in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Tuva’s tourism offerings extend beyond the purely cultural. Tuva’s natural environments fly in the face of typical stereotypes of “Siberia”, boasting lush boreal forests, three major mountain chains, over 900 rivers, abundant fresh and salt water lakes, rolling grasslands and prairies, ubiquitous hot and cold water mineral springs, and the northern climbs of the Gobi desert. These features provide nature-based tourists ample opportunity to engage in a variety of outdoor activities in some of the world’s most pristine and undisturbed landscapes. As such, Tuva proves itself to be anything but the gulag dotted, frozen wasteland of Dr. Zhivago.

Still, Boris’s question remains unanswered: “why would an American come all the way to Siberia when they can just go to Colorado, British Colombia, or Alaska and see the same type of landscapes?” Undoubtedly, one can find beautiful forests in British Colombia, salmon-filled rivers in Alaska, well-defined hiking paths in the mountains of Colorado, but Tuva boasts natural resources rarely–if ever–found in combination anywhere else on the planet. Where else can you spend a week riding a reindeer through boreal forests to a salt lake whose effect on buoyancy rivals the Dead Sea? Where else can you overnight in a yurt in a yak herding camp high in the mountains, surrounded by Scythian gravesites and statuary that pre-date Greek civilization?   Only in Tuva can you climb to an alpine lake in a nature preserve that provides shelter for some of the world’s last remaining snow leopards. Only in Tuva can you stay in a remote hunting cabin with expert horsemen and drink mare’s milk vodka while fishing for Asiatic trout. As such, we believe we’ve arrived at an answer for Boris.

An ovaa on the outskirts of Kyzyl marking the site of Beaver Spring

An ovaa on the outskirts of Kyzyl marking the site of Beaver Spring

While this article primarily attempts to emphasize the nature-based tourism opportunities in Tuva, the dichotomy between nature and culture I’m attempting to uphold is a false one. Tuvan culture is itself imprinted on the Tuvan landscape, and thereby renders the experience of Tuvan natural phenomena enchanted by way of a uniquely Tuvan cultural aesthetic. For example, mountains in Tuva that are suitable for outdoor recreation (hiking, climbing, camping, etc.) are often said to be presided over by a powerful spirit, which many Tuvans refer to as an “owner” or “lord” of that mountain. Many travelers hiking through mountain passes in Tuva stop to make offerings to the mountain’s “owner” at ritual cairns–termed ovaa in Tuvan–using colorful, silk prayer flags to beautify the site and seek the mountain “owner’s” blessing. While many Tuvans do not take literally this spiritualization of general uncertainty found in mountain travel, ovaa sites continue to flourish in Tuva today as cultural symbols of Tuva’s shamanic and pastoral heritage, gracing paths through mountain passes, and promoting a functional enchantment of the weather systems, predatory animals, rock slides, and other threats travelers may encounter.

A storm billows above an alpine lake along the Russian/Mongol border

A storm billows above an alpine lake along the Russian/Mongol border

Even the thoroughly skeptical TravelTuva development team had an unsettling experience with a mountain “owner” in Tuva’s Mongun Taiga region. While fishing an alpine lake in the shadows of a nearby mountain, one of TravelTuva’s fishing guides and I sought the shelter of several rocky outcroppings along the lake shore we hoped would serve as a campsite for the night. As dusk fell and we began to set up our tents, a fierce wind blew across the theretofore placid lake surface, conjuring white caps and drawing an overhead rain cloud from its position above the crests of nearby mountains, down into the valley in which we stood. The rain cloud took up residence just above the lake’s surface at the opposite end of the lake from our camp and did not move again, imposing a foreboding threat across the lake. The wind gusts increased in intensity until the periodic drop in wind speed between gusts vanished and the wind blew at a constant gale force. TravelTuva’s partnered fishing guide began packing away all his gear, looked at me and said, “We can’t stay here. The mountain owner wants us out. We really have to go!” Needless to say, I didn’t argue. We packed the jeep and made our way down slope to more welcoming shores.

One may very well experience odd meteorological occurrences in other parts of the world. Certainly, every mountain climber has a story of the clear sky that suddenly turned dark, but nowhere else in the world is the natural environment so richly and poetically interpreted. Nowhere else can you learn to interact with landscape via a culture that still seeks to honor even natural threat with a certain dignity and grace. Nowhere else do the lines separating nature and culture so seamlessly dissolve.

Exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Xhemchik Nature Preserve in western Tuva

Exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Xhemchik Nature Preserve in western Tuva

TravelTuva believes that encouraging tourist visitation to heritage sites and sites of particular natural beauty in Tuva will help protect Tuvan natural and cultural richness. While we do not believe that Tuvan culture is static and homogenous, we do believe much of rural Tuvan culture is identifiably unique and–because of mass urbanization in Siberia and other forces accompanying globalization–Tuvan cultures are substantively under threat of dramatic change. Along with our Tuvan partners, we claim that a loss of Tuvan cultural practices diminishes the world’s cultural richness, a process–well documented and undeniably accompanying our rapidly changing, globalized economy–that we hope we can help offset, if even in a small way.

In addition, we believe assisting Tuvans in the protection of their natural and cultural richness helps TravelTuva clients perceive Russia as a far more complicated, culturally diverse country vis-à-vis the typical stereotype of Russian blizzard-white frigidity. TravelTuva believes that disarming and undermining the 20th century’s legacy of fear, misinformation, and suspicion between Russians and Americans begins with education and cultural exchange between Russians and Americans of the everyday. While such a lofty goal may ring idealistic, TravelTuva’s successful tours prove that many of the typical stereotypes of Russia and Siberia melt away as Americans and Russians meet face-to-face and share stories of grounded, daily life. Further, when American clients explore nature with Tuvan tour guides or work with Tuvan musicians during TravelTuva sponsored cultural exchange events, entirely new perceptions of what it means to be Russian or American emerge–for both Tuvan hosts and American visitors–proving that tourism and cultural exchange can lead to greater international understanding and innovative cross-cultural collaboration.

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