An eagle soars high in the thin air, far above the rippling grasslands. A lone cloud is fixed on the cobalt sky. Over a gravel wash, a stream bubbles, recently frozen. Carpets of spring flowers are turning pasture yellow and purple. A herd of stout Siberian horses grazes on an olive-green slope. In the distant, snow-capped mountains ring at every corner of the horizon. This is Tuva, a Russian republic south of Siberian and north of Mongolia. If there is ever a right time to properly use the word remote, this is it.
Tuva is 17 million hectares in size, which makes it only slightly smaller than France. It has a population of just 300,000, a third of whom live in Kyzyl, the capital. The territory was home to ethnically diverse groups like the Scythians, famed for their goldsmithing skills. These artisan warriors inhabited Tuva some 3,000 years ago. Then came the Hunnic, Turkic, Mongols and the Manchus during the Qing Dynasty from 1758 to 1911. Three decades later, Tuva was integrated into the Soviet Union, making it the youngest Russian republic. Genetic studies indicate that Tuvans are more closely related to indigenous Native Americans than any other groups outside North America.
Far from the sea, the climate here is continental extreme, with annual temperatures swinging from -40°C in winter to 40°C in summer. Livelihood is nomadic and centers on the herding of livestock, and four seasonal migrations to make the best use of patchy grazing and water resources. Wild animals and plants have always been a vital source of food here, making Tuva the archetypal hunger-gathering-herder culture.
Tuvans survive in this barren landscape by relying heavily on the temnejir system of sharing and cooperation and shamanism. There is a saying that Tuvans celebrate four treasures: the beauty of the landscape, the reassuring presence of animals both domestic and wild, respect for family life, and an enduring humility before the spirit masters or “the ones who know.”
We head south to the Mongolian border, to the town of Erzin. The tarmac military road from Kyzyl to Erzin winds through extensive taiga (snow forests) of spruce and latch. Along the way, vendors in long leather jackets and padded hats sell foodstuff – bowls of red berries and jars of pickles, temptingly laid out on the tables. From the smoke-filled kitchen, women serve us sweet tea and greasy pork on slivers of spruce.
My friend Altair in Erzin drove us to his kyshtag winter camp, a single-canvas yurt. Inside, a warm world opens up. A central metal stove sits on a wooden plinth and a cylindrical chimney leads to a hole in the roof that lets in light. The roof leads to a wooden lattice that makes up the walls, hanging with embroidered textiles. We sat on red-colored rags and talk about the lives of nomads. This yurt, like every other, is packed with ease. Outside, lambs bleat.
Altair takes a fat-tailed ewe and a shepherd reaches the inside wool to pinch the aorta, and that’s that. The sheep is now prepared for dinner, all fleece and mutton. The shepherd’s hands are splashed red to their wrists. A blue bucket and silver dish contains organs and offals. Wood smoke drifts from the yurt’s chimney. Outside, clouds gather over distant hills. There is nothing else but grass and sky. The far horizon is rimmed with mountains peaked with beaten egg white. Herders have come to winter camps like this for thousands of years. Tonight, the sheep will be boiled and tomorrow they will pack up the yurt and move to the spring camp, just as they have always done.
At night, the wind is bitingly cold, swept over from Siberia over hundreds of kilometers with little interruption. We walked gingerly down the slope, pick up a horse’s jawbone, and broke it open to reveal the catacombs of tissue between inner and outer walls. In the cot, a baby in paddled jacket sleeps on his back. We eat with sharp knives, tearing the meat. A shepherd saves the shoulder blades; they are for divination. We talk of the beauty of this land, of traditions and children, and of throat singing which is a Tuva’s specialty.
Known as khoomei, throat singing is unique to Tuva and emerges from the land itself. The music is a sonic mirror of the natural world. Yurts are perfect settings for throat singing. Their natural materials allow in sounds of wind and animals – the very soundscape that creates song and story.
The video below is a throat-singing recitation by Chirgilchin, one of the country’s famed quartets, performed at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York. The instruments featured are the two-stringed igil, and three-stringed dospulur.
Climate change already has a greater effect in Russia than any other parts of the world. Siberia has had an increase in average temperatures over 30 years of 1.33°C, greater than the global average. Over the same period, annual precipitation increased by 7.2 millimeters per decade, resulting in more river runoff, more spring melts and more flooding. Vegetation zones will drift northward, and the incidence of infectious and parasitic diseases of humans and animals will grow. Long periods of dry and hot weather will increase the incidence of forest fires. All will have adverse effects on Tuva. Nonetheless, there is cause for hope. Tuva is one of the few parts of the world that explicitly supports nomadic herding at policy level and Buddhism and shamanism continue to flourish. One the other hand, factories have closed, rural electricity supplies are in disrepair, and there is much unemployment in the city and rural towns.