Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Siberian Adventures

Dear readers,
I have an extra special treat for you today! Odin, the larger-than-life guy who is always hopping from one crazy situation to the next, is here to share his summer reindeer-herding adventures! Enjoy!!

When I visited Katherine in Kharkov this August, she asked me to write a blog entry about my travel to the Tuvan reindeer herders this past summer. After months of procrastination, I've finally obliged. This first part is more about the journey—why and how I got there—than about the herders themselves. The next part will be about our few weeks of life with them among the reindeer.

My enthusiasm for reindeer is something that was gradually born from my enthusiasm for Russian language and culture. As it happens, I first met Katherine in Russian 101 at University of Alaska Fairbanks, where we learned to say phrases like "привет!" "хорошо," and «ёбанный мороз!» After a few years of studying Russian, we decided to do a student exchange together, to Yakutsk, Sakha Republic--in the "ёбанный мороз" (&*&E@%! cold) Northeastern corner of Siberia. Here we are in 2006, shortly after arriving, together with Gunhild (Norway) and Ruslan (Yaktusk local).
L to R: Odin, Katherine, Gunhild, Ruslan.
Katherine and I both dropped out of the exchange program after our first semester there. Katherine returned to Alaska, while I got short-term work teaching grade-school English in Verkhoyansk--a small town in northern Sakha Republic. While there, I traveled to the village of Sakkyryr for the annual Reindeer Festival--my first glimpse at the world of domestic reindeer and reindeer herders. I didn't really see or learn that much, partly because I made the mistake of drinking too much vodka with the herders. But it was enough to kindle a persistent, nagging curiosity about reindeer and the folks who herd them.
For several years, I'd been dreaming of returning to Siberia and gaining some first-hand exposure to reindeer and reindeer herders. I began studying reindeer herding as part of a graduate program in Cultural Anthropology, but found that my patience with academia had evaporated as quickly as all the hours I'd spent slaving away behind a computer. I decided I should try to understand the topic through first-hand experience rather than through abstract book-learning and endless, circular discussions. During my one and only semester of grad school, I became friends with a fellow anthropology student, Ayanka, a native of the Tuva Republic, which is located in Southern Siberia on the Mongolian border.

Tuva (Тува)--or Tyva (Тыва) as it's called in the Tyvan language and in official contexts--finds itself at the very center of the Asian continent, on the boundary between steppe & broadleaf/boreal forest.

Thanks to for this map.
Although it is part of Russia, the republic is dominated by the ethnic Tuvans, the majority of whom still speak their ancestral tongue. Like all central Asian cultures that I know of, Tuvans historically subsisted heavily off herding various kinds of animals: cattle, yaks, sheep, goats, horses, camels...and--in the Todzhu Region--reindeer! The Sayan Mountains, which straddle Todzhu and neighboring parts of Siberia and Mongolia, are somewhat of an anomaly because they contain small groups of herders isolated far to the South of all other reindeer cultures. Yet many scholars believe the Sayan Mountains to have been the birthplace of reindeer domestication.

Around the time I dropped out of grad school, Ayanka decided to focus her Ph.D. research on reindeer herding in Todzhu-Tuva. Last summer she agreed let me tag along with her as an informal research assistant for her fieldwork.

After a series of vodka-fueled diversions around Russia, I joined Ayanka in her hometown of Kyzyl (Кызыл), capital of the Tuva Republic.

Lenin Square, Kyzyl.

Ayanka & I at Дус-холь, a therapeutic lake near Kyzyl.
And, after a series of vodka-fueled diversions in and around Kyzyl, we set out by маршрутное такси (taxi-van) for the village of Тоора-Хем (Toora-Khem), regional capital of the reindeer-bearing Тоджинский кожуун (Todzhu region). This village was our jumping-off point for visiting the herders.
Toora-Khem is only maybe 250 kilometers from Kyzyl, but because it's accessed by a rough, dirt track that threads its way across two mountain passes, the journey takes more than six hours.

Peaks of the Хребет академикого Обручева (Mountain Range of the Academic Obruchev) along our route. This range is the western fringe of the Sayan Mountains.
During each of the four days that we spent in Toora-Khem and surrounding villages, it became progressively more doubtful that our plans to visit the herders would actually materialize.
Our first day in Todzhu, we visisted a local official, who almost immediately introduced us to a "reindeer herder" (whom I'll call "O.") and his sidekick, who quickly agreed to guide us. Only problem, of course, was that the amount of money they wanted exceeded our budgets. Ayanka had done similar fieldwork the previous summer and had only paid about a third what these two guides wanted from each of us. Clearly, they were jacking up their prices because I was a foreigner (and therefore, *must* be rich). Todzhu-Tuvans get their fair share of wealthy tourists (such as Vladimir Putin, whose recent fishing trip in the region coincided with our visit), and so some of them evidently think of foreigners as walking cash machines. Of course, Todzhu is a poor region with little work and very low wages, so I think it's fair to charge foreigners a little bit extra. O.'s foreigner-inflated prices seemed excessive, however. More disturbing, the gossip grapevine told us that O.'s sidekick had recently been released from prison for murdering his wife. When we expressed doubt toward O's offer, he promptly vanished into the taiga on a hunting trip.

Rush hour traffic in Toora-Khem.
Our other options were similarly overpriced and dubious. We approached a herder who happened to be in the village buying supplies, but he cast one fleeting glance at me and immediately shook his head, "чок-чок!" ("no-no!"). After we had at last negotiated a workable arrangement with one guide, who agreed to take us to his friends' herding camp, a village gossiper falsely informed us that the said guide had "rethought" this arrangement and was unwilling to guide us after all.

Our housing situation was equally frustrating. The first family who hosted us, in the nearby village of Adyr-Kezhig, launched a multi-day drinking party during our visit. The next host-family we came to was unemployed, saw us as cash-cows for the milking, and didn't really want us there to begin with. And as if all these problems weren't enough, word on the street was that water levels on local rivers were still unusually high for late June, making travel much more difficult. Ayanka talked of returning to Kyzyl and postponing her fieldwork by several weeks; I began weighing a messy mishmash of options and resulting scenarios...

Ayanka & her friend Alyaka biding their time in Toora-Khem.

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.

Note from Katherine: So, what do you guys think? Do you dream of taking a trip like this one? Or do you prefer reading about such adventures from a comfy chair? : )

Odin's story continues in Part 2: On the road in the Tuva Republic


  1. I bet you felt the chill through your lightweight shoes and skirt! ;-)

    1. Actually, at that point (late Sept-early Oct) it felt pretty much like Alaska : ) Nothing to wear pants/boots for.
      But then came December (cue ominous danger music!)...

  2. Fascinating experience (even before you actually, you know, made it to what you were supposed to do). I don't know if I could survive such an experience myself...

    1. You guys could always consider it for your honeymoon trip??

  3. Amazing. I have my doubts I ever would've been up for such an adventure, but definitely not now.