Friday, 29 August 2014

Aug. 23-27: Abakan-Kyzyl-Sai Khonash-Askiz

At 5.30am, when we were rudely awoken by the conductor, it was still dark outside the train windows, but as the sun rose it revealed an eerie landscape of wild meadows and gentle hills, all covered in a thick layer of mist. Soon we passed a sign welcoming us to the Republic of Khakassia and not long after that we pulled into Abakan, that republic's capital. As soon as we stepped off the train a group of middle-aged Russian men in baseball caps spotted our backpacks and asked if we wanted a taxi to Kyzyl. After we'd agreed on a price one of the men ushered us onto a minivan and once its nine seats were full we set off.

Within a matter of minutes we'd left Khakassia again and were in the southernmost part of Krasnoyarsk Krai, travelling southeast along the Usinskii Trakt, one of only three proper roads connecting the enigmatic 308,000-person Republic of Tuva with the rest of the world. The misty meadows quickly turned to wooded hills, and as we progressed southwards the forest became thicker, the ramshackle wooden villages became less frequent and the modest hills gradually grew into the mighty peaks of the Yergaki National Park. Some four or five hours after leaving Abakan, a sign appeared welcoming us to the Republic of Tuva. Almost immediately after entering Tuva the forest and the mountains came to an end and we descended into sparse golden plains: a somewhat arid, decidedly Asiatic landscape dotted with multicoloured prayer ribbons and stone cairns.

About an hour after entering Tuva we arrived at our destination, the Tuvan capital, Kyzyl. It wasn't just the landscape that was more Asian than anything we'd seen in Russia before: Tuva's population is 82% ethnic Tuvan and only 16% ethnic Russian, and while the Tuvans speak a Turkic language (like the Tatars, Bashkirs and Chuvash, whose republics we'd already visited) they're racially and culturally very close to Mongols and practise a syncretic mix of Tibetan Buddhism and their own indigenous shamanism. Walking through Kyzyl, it really didn't feel like we were in Russia any more. Two weeks after leaving Europe, it finally felt like we were really in Asia.

Our first few hours in Kyzyl were taken up by a search for accommodation, tramping back and forth across town in the merciless afternoon sun. In the end, as we'd slept the previous five nights on trains and hadn't seen a shower since Yekaterinburg, we decided to treat ourselves by splurging on a relatively expensive, chic-seeming hotel. Once we'd checked into our luxuriously comfortable twin room (there was even a TV!) we were more than a little disappointed to discover a total lack of hot water.

Refreshed by cold showers, we spent the rest of the day exploring the fascinating city. We scarcely heard Russian spoken in the streets, which were filled with people idling, strolling and chatting. One thing that we quickly noticed was he number or children to be seen, reflecting Tuva's birthrate, the highest in the Russian Federation. The city itself was in the latter stages of a massive renovation project initiated in celebration of a hundred years of Tuva's unity with Russia, so although a lot of areas were still building sites, the general impression was that Kyzyl is attractive and well-kept. This was surprising as Tuva is Russia's poorest region. However, the shiny new centre may have been a superficial façade of wealth: a lack of disposable income was hinted at by the meagre range of shops lining Kyzyl's newly-paved high street and the fact that the city of 110,000 hasn't attracted a single international or even Russian chain - not even McDonalds!

The next day we spent all afternoon walking in the hills to the north of the city, enormous red-winged crickets bursting out of the grass and into flight as our footsteps disturbed them and buzzards circling overhead. The hilltops, considered holy by shamanist Tuvans, were marked with stone cairns, colourful pieces of fabric and various kinds of offerings. Unfortunately by the time we'd returned to the city the Tuvan National Museum was already shut. We did try a couple of Tuvan dishes at a yurt-restaurant though.

The following morning we were picked up by a Tuvan woman who we'd contacted about a yurt stay out in the wilderness. Her husband's relatives are nomadic herders based in western Tuva, and she organizes for tourists to stay with them at their summer encampment, called Sai Khonash. We drove for three or four hours through beautiful scenery until we passed Tuva's "second city" Ak-Dovurak (in reality barely a town, with a population of 13,500), based next to a huge asbestos mine, and then arrived at a neighbouring village called Kyzyl Mazhalyk, where we waited in the home of one of her husband's relatives (watching an American documentary about ancient aliens, dubbed into Russian) until a new driver arrived to take us the rest of the way to the camp in a UAZ, i.e. the Soviet equivalent of a jeep. The first hour or so of the journey was along a normal road with breathtaking mountain views, and then we descended into a valley and continued at snail's pace for another hour along a dirt track, passing occasional yurts and herds of sheep, cattle and yaks. The Sai Khonash yurt camp is located at a wonderful spot in the valley. We spent two nights there, learning firsthand about nomadic life and Tuvan culture, drinking araka (fermented and distilled cow milk) and water straight from the mountain stream, eating lots of dairy products and hiking.

When it was time for us to leave, the driver returned in the UAZ and took us back to Ak-Dovurak, where we found a shared taxi heading to Khakassia.  Our new taxi driver - a jolly, fat Tuvan with broken Russian - took us back and forth between Ak-Dovurak and Kyzyl Mazhalyk for over an hour, picking up passengers, tying baggage to the roof of the car, refuelling and pumping up the tyres, before finally setting off on the northbound road that connects western Tuva with the Republic of Khakassia. The route took us through he beautiful, dramatically mountainous, arid landscapes that we'd grown used to until shortly after the Khakasssian border, when we descended into the heavily forested valley of the wide, shallow river Ona. We followed this road between the towering peaks for a couple of hours before reaching the first settlement, a village called Abaza, where we had lunch of plov at a café. Thereafter the topography became gentler and the forests were replaced by the tall, rolling hills of the Khakassian moorland, scattered with countless ancient circles of jagged standing stones. Some five or six hours after leaving Ak-Dovurak, we arrived in Askiz.

Askiz is a town of 7,000 with nothing to attract tourists aside from a handful of standing stones dotted around its outskirts. It had a bleak, end-of-the-world kind of feel to it that we never got from Tuva's tiny villages, despite the latter being both poorer and more isolated. One interesting thing about Askiz is its relatively high proportion of ethnic Khakass residents; although Khakassia is named after the Khakass nation (who are ethnically and linguistically close to Tuvans, but syncretize their shamanism with Orthodox Christianity rather than Buddhism), they number only 73,000 and account for just 12% of the republic's population. In Askiz, however, well over half of the people appeared to be either Khakass or of mixed Khakass-European descent. A very friendly if slightly drunk local Khakass man who struck up a conversation with us (having sought us out after hearing reports of a pair of foreigners in town) told us that the villages around Askiz are the real Khakass strongholds, but that even here the younger generation are losing the Khakass language: although he and his wife only speak Khakass at home, his children just speak Russian. It's true that despite the many Asian faces in the streets of Askiz, we only heard Khakass spoken a couple of times. After an afternoon and evening in Askiz, sampling many of the town's invariably awful eateries more out of desire to shelter from the brutal wind than from hunger, we got on a night train westwards to Novokuznetsk.

No comments:

Post a Comment