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The unknown Tuva: folklore, mysticism and tradition among the taigas

When you enter in Tuva by the unique road that you can access, you have the impression to have arrived to the American far west. A large road with a steppe landscape and the lights posts along it.

And in fact, they call it far east due to the fact that it keeps being a remote area in the centre of Asia with a mountainous orography. It is at the South of Siberia (bordering Mongolia although it is prohibited the access to it), and there is only one road connecting with the rest of Siberia and another one in worse conditions which goes through the east to the west of the country along the great Siberian river Yanisei (that by the way it rises in Tuva).

 

Tuva is a Republic belonging to the Russian Federation and is part of Russia since a century ago (in this 2014 is celebrated one century of this adhesion). But Tuva has its own character and is a mix of ethnic groups and cultures that is closed to the Siberian ones but also is influenced by the Turkish cultures as we can see with the Scytian remains distributed in the country (in the national museum of Tuva you can see one of the most exquisite goldsmithing) and its language, which comes from the Turkish although nowadays it is written in Cyrillic.

Another jewel of Tuva is its wild and pristine nature. There is a great variety of landscapes in an area similar to Uruguay, which goes from the Taiga with unspoilt woods of cedars and birch trees to the desert and the steppe, lakes or big rivers. There is also a big wild fauna (bears, eagles, cranes, wolfs, Siberian deers…) that makes this a hunting area for hunters of big Russian cities.

 

 

The Tuvan people still have ancestral customs, maybe due to the fact they are geographically isolated (but in the capital you can see many people with mobile phones). Traditionally they have been nomads and this gave them an hospitable character that they still keep. For their nomadic life they use yurts(circular tents) similar to the ones of Mongolian people, and have flocks of yaks, goats, horses and camels depending on the region. Nowadays there is still a percentage of the population dedicated to the shepherding life.

 

Also in spite of the soviet repression, they were able to keep their chamanism (nowadays there are shamanic centers and respectable shamans) and their Buddhist faith, coexisting both of them in the daily life in a beautiful syncretism.

 

But the most precious jewell of this culture are their singing. There are shaman songs, the songs to cure the flocks, only known by women, and the songs that enabled them to be famous in the occidental world: the khoomei. The khoomei (pronounced juumei) is a series of different styles of guttural and difonic songs (two musical notes sang at the same time by the same musician). This song is typical in the centre of Asia (mostly known in Mongolia), but also in other areas such as in Khakasia and Altai in Siberia, Kazijistan and even in some area in China. This song that forms part of the shepherding life and the folklore of the region, has been declared a few years ago Inmaterial World Heritage by Unesco.

The peculiarity of this singing in Tuva is that it has preserved several with greater variety of styles than the bordering areas (more than in Mongolia as well) and is rich in nuances. It expresses or connects with nature through several sounds of animals or natural elements, and it has lot of strength. These days there are some folk bands in Tuva that do international tours with great quality. They even have a National Orchestra with instruments of the region andkhoomei singing, and a Khoomei school as well.

 

Other aspects of the culture, which also are similar to the Buriato and Mongolian people, is the wrestling (jureish) or the falconry and archery competitions. Similarly to Mongolia with its Naadam Festival, Tuva also has its own called Naadim (due to having less attendance).

 

This millenary culture, which has probably been influenced by the Scytian, possesses archeological ruins spread along its territory like dolmens, cave paintings, statues and goldsmithing of great quality.

The oficial language is Russian as they belong to Russia. The Tuvan language is also talked in the street (specially outside the capital, Kyzyl), although it was forgotten for a few years, but nowadays it seems that it is taught at the schools. They also used Cyrillic letters. The currency is the rouble. You can check the exchange rate here).

 

Author: Moisés Pérez

Guide of EcoMind Travel for trips to Tuva

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