Over the border … continued, and then we’re gone
Yes, last time I parted with the revelation that currently: Tuva has no rail system. A revelation to myself, too I must admit. So, it may not be the obvious choice of detour for those taking the Trans-Siberian rail journey… In fact, when it comes to actually entering the country, there seems barely a road system to assist you either! The trick apparently is to rail-it into Abakan (the capital of Khakassia) and then take a road route from there. To be fair: a new rail route is set to be complete in 2012… fingers-crossed, but until then…
Technically, there are three “road” routes. Two connect with Khakassia: a mountainous dirt track and an asphalt road that heads into the capital (Kyzyl) via the connecting pass… and a route north from Mongolia that morphs from a dirt track to a road, proper, as you head into Tuva itself.
The first two, particularly, are prone to winter closure due to snow and avalanche. This is no doubt “normal” for the hardened locals but out-of-shape western office-dwellers may want to take a serious reality check before undertaking a merry dirt-track jaunt over the mountain-tops. … Hey, I wouldn’t fancy it either. We’re not in Kansas now, Toto.
Heading to Kyzyl (pop: 110,000 approx.) would seem to make sense on (virtual) paper … as the city is furnished with an encouraging range of transport options: bus, minibus, “Marshrutka” taxi-vans and “regular” taxis too, a ferry across the Yenesei (if the conditions hold out) and a small airport with a bi-weekly service from Moscow… and (can I assume: more frequent?) flights to/from Kraznoyarsk.
Whilst in Kyzyl, why not visit the “Centre of Asia” monument (because allegedly you are now in the centre…) or the nearby Shaman Centre (not geographically speaking in this instance). There’s also the National Museum and National Theatre; the latter holding large Buddhist ceremonies and performances of “Khoomei”, the world-famous throat-singing, during seasons of summer festivals. And… incidentally: itself a beautiful piece of modern Asian architectural design.
If the refined, meditative culture overwhelms you, find an antidote in the stadium’s open air disco and the local night club. Or perhaps not.
But, the main attraction is surely the country itself: 80% of which is hilly or mountainous and contains numerous lakes (in glacial, mud, saline and “regular” flavours), mineral springs, approximately 8000 rivers (mostly tributaries of the Yenesei), and regions of expansive steppe and forest. A quick scan on Panoramio or Google Earth will convince you (…no, it will) that the scenery on display is frankly astonishing. Conversely, on a cautionary note: the kind of scenery you want to avoid is that which includes asbestos mining and processing plants such as Ak-Dovurak (Ak-Dovurakskoye) 187 miles West of Kyzyl. Be aware of their locations and frankly: just stay the hell away.
In terms of “attractions” though, let’s not forget the people themselves and their culture, both past and present. As with Khakassia, the region is rich in the archaeology of those who came before. 40,000 of sites worth, yielding beautiful works of metallurgic art, rock paintings, burial mounds and a multitude of relics.
Currently, the spiritual culture is a three-way equilibrium of Shamanism, Buddhism and Russian Orthodoxy, each with their own rich heritage. Similarly, the contrasting elements of modern urban and traditional rural life co-exist. Away from the concrete, Yurt-dwelling nomadic reindeer herders still live in authentic tradition … not “for the tourists”… and a rich oral folklore of riddles, epics and fantastic tales still survives, though under medium-term threat of extinction as the modernist young leave the old ways behind. The living past is still alive and well for now, and can be enjoyed in vigorous festivals of wrestling, horse racing and archery… or at a more sedate pace: the archaeology, the traditional music (and instruments), the oral lore and the ever-present shamanic culture.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 59) Out of Krasnoyasrk Krai: onwards to Irkutsk
[Photo by Northwest Rafting Company]