Sunday, October 27, 2013

On the road in the Tuva Republic

After getting off to an unpromising start, Odin's journey in search of the Tuvan reindeer herders continues...
(If you missed Part 1, click here

Thanks to for this map.

Map of Tyva Republic showing our route. Kyzyl to Toora-Khem is shown in blue, while Toora-Khem to the herders' camp is in red. Regional boundaries are indicated by faint pink lines—Todzhu is the largest region and the one furthest to the northwest.

Finally our host-family in Toora-Khem asked their neighbor, Anton, to guide us, and he proposed an arrangement that would be slightly cheaper and less risky than our other options had been. This plan involved renting a huge Soviet truck called a ЗИЛ (ZIL), apparently capable of plowing across the swollen streams along our route to the herders. The ЗИЛ could get us to within walking distance of the herders' current camp. Anton would then hike up and fetch back the herder, along with reindeer on which we and our gear could ride up to their camp. (A former herder, Anton disingenuously claimed that I would be able to ride a reindeer, despite the fact that I weigh 220 lbs!)

After a morning marked by yet more gossip-driven uncertainty, and an afternoon spent buying lots of groceries and packing, we at last loaded up the ЗИЛ and prepared to leave. Our host family sent one of their relatives along with us (a "service" for which they requested a hefty chunk of our cash); a local cop and some other friend or relative also came along for the ride. This entourage was planning to use the trip as an opportunity for a few days of hunting in the mountains, and the cop also had some sort of work-related mission near our destination. We weren't supposed to know about it, but he himself told us while drunk later that evening.

Just before leaving, our host family warned Ayanka that we be extremely careful to guard our money from our traveling companions, that they would undoubtedly be drinking lots of vodka, and that under no circumstances should I drink with them...

We put as much gas in the ЗИЛ as we were told we'd likely need, and the cop also contributed about half again that much. If he hadn't, we would have run short and been forced to turn back. We boarded the cable-ferry across the Toora-Khem River. As you can see in the photos, the ЗИЛ has only a pickup-sized passenger cab with a single bench seat. Ayanka, as the only lady on our excursion, was for the most part the only passenger who rode in the cab--the other four of us lounged against the assortment of dry-bags, gunnysacks, rucksacks, bedding, furs, and guns in the bed of the truck. During the short ferry ride, about five or six hitchhikers climbed in the bed of the ЗИЛ and began merrily chattering away in Tuvan.

Meanwhile, a menacing man approached Ayanka in the cab, demanding that she pay 500 rubles for the privilege of seeing "our beautiful Todzhan land". Since this man was a widely-feared ex-con, our driver sat idly by rather than intervening on Ayanka's behalf. Ever tough-minded and resilient, Ayanka scornfully refused and at last the man stormed off, announcing he would seek his fee from Ayanka's "foreign friend". He never approached me, probably because I was surrounded by a posse of well-armed locals.

A half-hour down a rutted gravel road, the ЗИЛ pulled into an expansive, grassy field, with livestock enclosures and traditional Tuvan dwellings scattered here and there.

Our ferry-hitchhikers disembarked, and one of the hunters suggested that I ride up front in the cab with Ayanka for a little while: "there should be room." Speaking in English, so that our driver wouldn't understand, Ayanka and I began recounting the litany of problems we'd encountered during the first hour of the trip: the menacing man on the ferry, the automatic weapon kicking around in the bed of our truck, the vodka-drinking now commencing back there... surely they hadn't brought the automatic along for hunting deer, had they?—were they going to play with it while drunk? I wondered. I recalled our host family's warning not to trust or drink with any of these characters.

We sat and talked intermittently, watching the birch-covered hills roll by as the greens, yellows and whites of the forest were quickly overpowered by a deepening, charcoal gray. The ЗИЛ sputtered along, barely able to pull itself even up minor grades. Our driver stopped, threw up the hood and examined the innards, probably accompanied by one or two of the others. He might have made some adjustment or changed out some part before we continued on our way again. Once again, the ЗИЛ putted along lethargically, showing little sign of improvement. At last we pulled off onto a track leading a short ways into the woods. There sat a couple of men around a fire next to a tarp-roofed lean-to, which Ayanka told me is a traditional Tozhan woodsmans' shelter. Our driver and one or two others attended to the truck. The men staying at the camp had boiled water for tea and soup, and so the rest of us sat around the fire and ate.

Ayanka prepared to sleep in the hunters' lean-to, as it appeared we might be waiting for hours before the ЗИЛ would run again. Somebody asked me if I had a satellite phone (which I didn't) and said something about sending for a part from Toora-Khem. Anton, apparently immobilized by the previous one-hour's vodka-drinking, was crawling around the campsite on his hands and knees, muttering wildly in Tuvan. I tried asking him what the hell he was going on about, but he had evidently drunk away his knowledge of Russian for the time being.

Broken truck, hammered guide, extortion attempts from strangers, price-gouging, warnings not to trust our traveling companions. I pulled Ayanka aside and said, in English, "This is getting too crazy! Do you actually think this is going to work out at all!?" I suggested that maybe we should call it off and postpone our journey till later in the month, as Ayanka had previously been suggesting she might do. Ayanka, who had been so discouraged only a day or two earlier, said some vaguely calming words and quickly disappeared to scold one of the hunters (the one whom our host family had sent with us). When she returned, she ordered me to ride in the bed of the truck with the hunters, and exhorted me, "drink vodka with them!"

Apparently the ЗИЛ had been passibly repaired, as we set off again through the dark forest canopy.

It was actually a lot darker than this!
Per Tuvan custom, one man would pour a single glass of vodka, and would pass it to one of the drinkers. The drinker would drain the glass, often after a brief toast, and pass it back to the server. The server would then refill the glass and pass it to the next drinker, around the circle.

Our vodka-server at one point motioned the driver to stop, begging him to have a drink with us. I think he got one good drink in before Ayanka loudly intervened, “no more!” The police officer struck up a friendly conversation with me, the ubiquitous "curious foreigner” Q&A about where I was from and how I had ended up here. Anton frantically burst out at the cop in Tuvan, shouting something my companions translated as, “Lay off! Leave him alone!” Apparently he thought I was being subjected to a criminal interrogation.

Despite the earlier warnings, I quickly realized that my traveling companions-cum-drinking companions were well-meaning, down-to-earth people.

The rutted road wound up hills, around switchbacks, and the trees gradually changed from birch and larch to larch and кедр (“cedar,” which in Siberia actually refers to a kind of pine).

The air became frosty as we climbed over a mountain pass, and I snuggled into the wool blankets piled on the bed of the truck.

Despite the chill and the constant agitation of truck against road, I gradually felt the life ooze from me. Yet every large rut and every mountain stream jarred me halfway back awake, pitching me onto my belly or slamming me against the side of the truck-bed. Anton, apparently thinking I was his wife, spent the entire night embracing me around the legs, around the thighs, despite my continuous efforts to squirm away from him.

After hours of semi-conscious bobbing and jarring, warm sunrays streamed across our faces and soon the ЗИЛ pulled to a stop. A small, sod-roofed cabin with a hobbit-sized door (albeit not a round one) stood at the edge of an expansive alpine meadow backed by broad mountains.

The hunters boiled some meat, finished the last of the vodka, and disappeared off into the tundra. Anton staggered off up the trail ahead. Ayanka lay around in the sun, perhaps sleeping or writing notes in her journal. I disappeared into the cool darkness of the cabin, where the herders live during winter months, and slept soundly for untold hours.

The hunters returned empty-handed, and themselves began napping, some of them in very strange places.

As the light became softer we generally agreed that Anton and the herder would not be back till morning. But at last above the uneven stubble of dwarf-birches, bounced several sets of broad, dark antlers, fur, and the two men.

We greeted Sergei Shagdyr-oolovich, a slightly-built, chain-smoking elder, and his five large pack-reindeer with their enormous панты (panty: velveteen antlers). We helped our traveling companions pile their scattered equipment into the bed of the ЗИЛ, exchanged farewells, and the giant green vehicle lumbered back from whence it had come. The alpenglow faded from high ridges to the southeast, and five reindeer curled up on the tundra grasses among the thickets of dwarf-birch.

Sergei Shagdyr-oolovich

Wow- hitchhikers, hunters, and herders, broken-down trucks, campfires, and a guide who drunkenly mistakes your legs for his wife... yep, just your average Tuvan roadtrip!

Odin's adventure concludes in Part 3: Life Among the Reindeer Herders


  1. Truly excellent narrative, thank you

  2. Wow! Even if we didn't know that you eventually succeeded, the story would have been pretty epic already!