The Tuva Republic: Russia’s Tibet

The Republic of  Tuva is at  the very center of the Asian continent. Situated at the southern edge of Siberia, just north of Mongolia it is one of three autonomous regions within the Russian Federation.

We decide at  the last moment to visit Tuva as the Naadym festival is taking place. It is here that we hope to see  throat singing, or khoomei .   This entails producing two notes at the same time, one a vibrating hum the other a quaver, all from the throat.

We also hope to  see  Tuvan wrestlers which are similar to the Japanese Sumo but without the ring, formalities and huge bellies .

The visit is a round detour of more than 2000 km for us.

Tuva has, as yet,  no railway ( due to its mountain ranges)   and only three roads leading to it, one tar , 2 dirt tracks and  virtually no industry. Moreover, the Soviet Union kept Tuva closed to the outside world for nearly half a century, and most of this country is still remote and difficult to access.

It is an area of great variety, the sight of many soaring eagles wheeling just overhead is not exceptional. It is a land of taiga forest, high mountains, crystal-clear streams and rolling steppe. The air is so clear that fair-skinned people protect themselves from direct sunlight. Grassy, undulating terrain gives way to sweeping valleys and hills. Here and there at the camps of herdsman and their families, wisps of white smoke rise from the wood stove in each yurt.

Rare animals such as sable, lynx, wolverine,  maral, siberian goal and musk deer are found.

We arrive at the capital, Kyzyl only to find that we are a day late. The officials of the festival decided to have it a day earlier!

Here are a few pictures of our trip and some of what we missed:


It is an area of great variety






The fishing can only be good








Some roads are bike friendly








While others are not


Rain is never fun on a bike ...


It is already becoming cold .The first rains herald the start of winter


Tuvan troops supported Russia in WWII


Before the war the national flag had its horseman heading east. During the war the direction changed to depict troops heading to the front . After the war it reverted to going East


We come across the first Kurgan , a burial mound of earth and stones raised over a grave. Kurgan's were characteristic of the Bronze Age. This one has not been excavated as Shamanists believe it disturbs the spirits.


Burial mounds are complex structures with internal chambers. Within the burial chamber at the heart of the kurgan, elite individuals were buried with grave goods and sacrificial offerings. Grave goods included gold,horses ,chariots and other valuables.


We see many standing stones like this that have been here for hundreds of years.


This Stonehenge- sized remnant of a royal Kurgan was excavated in 1956. That's me between the stones


Another old tradition, revived since the Soviet collapse, is shamanism. This is a blend of magic, medicine and spiritual guidance accompanied with many sacred sites.

People decorate these sites with ribbons, pieces of cloth, string, money, shoes … just about anything gets left as an offering, or as a gesture of respect.




Just about anything gets left as an offering, or as a gesture of respect.






We leave a prayer flag, cut from my T-shirt, for our friend, companion and resident clown, Duffy. He had to be put to rest in SA (while we were on the road) due to sudden kidney failure.


He had a way of creeping into your heart, even if you are a cat lover like Amelia. Loved by all he will be SORELY missed. We wish we could have been there for you Duffy.


A significant part of Tuvan respect for nature is expressed through shamanic traditions.

One tradition is to wear up-turned shoes so that they might walk lightly on the earth. Their respect for nature even extends to a reluctance to pick wild flowers.

Another tradition is “white death” . This is the bloodless slaughter of a sheep said to have been decreed by Genghis Khan. Using this method, two men hold a sheep down on its back. The master of the yurt makes a small incision in the animal’s chest just below the breastbone, reaches in, and grasps the aorta. The sheep dies within minutes. It is then butchered, everything being used. The intestines, cleaned and filled with blood and then boiled, become blood sausage. The meat is also boiled. No seasonings are used with the mutton. The choice part is the fattest piece near the tail and is reserved for guests.

Living close to nature the Tuva shamanists are self sufficient. If the world as we know it had to collapse they would continue with little change.

Linda and I feel we could learn a lot from them.






This Russian Orthodox church in Kyzyl cuts a stark contrast to its surroundings








Khuresh, the Tuvan form of wrestling which we misssed by one day






6 Responses to The Tuva Republic: Russia’s Tibet

  1. Philna

    Two thousand kilometers DETOUR!!!!

  2. nicki

    Thank you for sharing, I’m still enjoying the journey. 😎

  3. jan and gail

    So inspiring to see communities living in balance with their environment. We all could start to do a bit better by just thinking about everything we do and wondering is this really the best way.
    I found the faces of the priests – old and young – also inspiring; that from a people that have gone through so many trials and tribulations. A colleague of mine, after a visit to Poland also remarked that he could forget the eyes of the people there. Jan

  4. jan and gail

    lovely and most interesting photos and a very worthwhile detour in spite of missing the festival. What a landscape

  5. Naude

    Ps: Nice to see Amilia’s smile too! 🙂

  6. Naude

    Always exiting to see your photo’s. Sorry to hear about Duffy ..I realise now he was already old (in dog years). Take care in the cold winter approaching! Regards, Nod’s

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