My First Journey to Tuva (31st of May to 29th of June, 2000)


If you are serious about höömei, I advise you to make at least one journey to Tuva or Mongolia. I myself travelled to Tuva last summer in June and I am already planning to make a new trip. I must now express my gratitude to Ralph Leighton, who wrote recommendations and arranged contacts for me. So I had contacts with Tuvinians all the way from Moscow to Abakan to Kyzyl. Tuva is rather far away from Finland where I live, so that although the prices there are moderate even in terms of a university student, one will have to be prepared to pay for some expenses. Mrs. Zoya Kyrgys, the directrice of the Khoomei Center, invited us and also arranged höömei instruction for us. We were precepted by Sergei Ondar, a höömeichi with already a 15-year career as a professional singer and teacher. He charged 10 dollars per lesson one lesson lasting three hours. As a matter of fact, this price is the official price of the Khoomei Center and it has been defined because of foreigners that occasionally come to Tuva to learn this art.


I travelled with Morten Abildsnes, a Norwegian höömeichi well-known  to us Finns. Besides, Morten knows Russian, which was a valuable skill in many situations we faced. Morten is a funny man, and I now want to tell you some anecdotes about him. First, our trip to Möngyn-Taiga, Western Tuva, was a flop, because I had caught a cold, so we returned to Kyzyl where I could take a rest. What about Morten? What are his plans while I'm lying in bed in an ill condition? He wouldn't go to nightclubs or much anywhere – instead he starts to nurse me by cooking different imaginary dishes in his "Norwegian Experimental Kitchen". His kitchen produced e.g. soup with these ingredients: radishes, sausage stuffed with grain barley, macaroni, potatoes, onion, and rice. Sometimes at night we also had some vodka. Well, since Morten wouldn't drink his vodka straight, he wanted to experiment whether Tuvan ingredients would suffice for a Bloody Mary. However, he got a little carried away, and finally his drink contained vodka, tomato juice, kefir, araqa, hoytpak, and God knows what. We decided to call this drink "Bloody Morten".


At the bank Morten was a bit reluctant to work as my interpreter. Instead, he wanted to see how I would manage on my own, so he sent me to the desk first. Well, at a bank you do not really need other skills than some understanding of calculation, knowledge of Russian/Tuvan numerals, and perhaps a few stronger words. So this arrangement turned out to cause some inconvenience to Morten himself, for I had exchanged 200 dollars the result of which was that the bank ran out of big ruble notes and Morten received his exchange in 10 ruble notes – and for 200 dollars you will be given enough of them to fill you luggage.


It is a long way to Tuva 

We crossed Siberia traditionally by the Trans-Siberian train. I myself first took a train ride from Lahti, Finland, to Moscow and met Morten in Moscow. In Moscow we were guided around by Lena Kardy, a Tuvinian law student. We even visited the Tuvan Embassy (Postoyannoye Predstavitel'stvo respubliki Tyva = The Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Tuva) and had supper with a Tuvinian lady Mrs. Roza Irgimovna Sashnikova, who occupies the office of the Expert in Charge (Glavnyi Spetsialist) there. She had arranged things for us in Moscow and she took us to a restaurant in the evening with another Tuvinian lady. I was a little unlucky when choosing the dish for myself: I ordered fish, carp, which was nearly spoiled. And later I made a similar mistake: I ordered herring salad – and the fish had been spoiled again.


Once we had got to Abakan it was time to take a bus across the Sayan mountains to Kyzyl. In Abakan we met Sailyk Borbak, who studies English and German at the Abakan University. At some point Morten complained that he didn't like employing guides and interpreters for he would himself find it much nicer to wander around and sort things out on our own. However, our guides and interpreters were mostly Tuvinian students, young ladies – so after all Morten didn't find this manner of arrangement too repulsive.


In Kyzyl we spent the two first nights at Hotel Ödygen. We took a room for 150 rubles a night with several beds and swarms of cockroaches. There was also a sauna at the hotel, but you were not allowed to throw water on the electrically heated stove, which I as a Finn experienced as a deficiency. On the other hand, it probably was safer not to throw any water there. Otherwise the sauna was hot enough and there was even a swimming pool in the adjacent washing room. We were the only customers using the sauna, and actually almost the only customers of the hotel. Early June is quiet in Tuva. At hotel Ödygen there is also the office of a travel bureau called "Centre of Asia" (Tsentr Azii). Mrs. Biankina, a lady who already knows about Finland, is employed there. She is a friend of Ms. Maija Blåfield, a Finnish art student who has made two trips to Tuva. Mrs. Biankina speaks English and is a very pleasant lady. We bought our return tickets at her office.


A train ticket from Moscow to Abakan costs about 1700 rubles, about 60 dollars. And from Finland to Moscow the price is about 70 dollars. In Abakan the prices sink considerably. A bus ticket to Kyzyl costs 169 rubles (6 dollars) and the bus ride takes about 12 hours. A taxi charges 30 rubles (1+ dollar) to take you to the airport, which is a half an hour's ride away from the railway station.


The train ride from Moscow to Abakan took slightly over three days, which you will not find boring inspite of your expectations. If you travel all the way across Siberia, you can expect to share your cabin with many different people who come and go. If you are lucky, you will share your cabin with some nice people, but if you're not, you will have to share your cabin with some drunken labourers. From Moscow to Tyumen we were accompanied by a young merchant couple who had been in Moscow to see their relatives. From Tyumen to Novosibirsk we shared our cabin with two ladies who were employed at the Novosibirsk shoe factory. These ladies are section managers of the factory and they carried some study material with them. I read some excerpts from their books with practically no knowledge in Russian which they found most amusing. And of course, these charming ladies were replaced by two men in Novosibirsk. These men were some untidy labourers, who either were drinking beer all the time or just snoring loudly. And besides, the weather was freezing cold in Novosibirsk, and since one of the corridore windows was broken of our wagon, the temperature inside followed the external temperature. We had some food with us, but along the railroad it is quite easy to buy bread, pies, noodles, dumplings, beer etc. because there are swarms of babushkas selling these things at every station. It was extremely hot most of the time on the train except 24 hours onwards from Novosibirsk when it was freezing cold. Someone had broken one window pane on the corridor of our wagon by throwing a stone or brick through it soon after we had left Moscow.


In Tuva 

Staying in Tuva was a fulfillment of a dream with the exception of our first weekend. We then set out for a journey towards western Tuva with our interpreter Aldynai Seden-Khurak, actor Nikolai (Kolya) Oorzhak, and his brother-in-law, who was our chauffeur. We were supposed to meet throat singers and stay overnight in yurts, but I had caught a cold and was not able to behave in a very socializing manner. We visited one old lady in her yurt on our way westwards. She said that the younger generation had migrated towards the Sayan mountains but that she had decided to stay on the steppe because of her high age. She served us various dairy products like milk, kefir, araqa, hoytpak etc. Then we carried on towards the Tannu-Ola mountain range. Our plan was to drive all the way to Möngyn-Taiga where Kolya had a cousin. We stopped at Chadan and Khandagaity and drove on further. However, after a few hours drive from Khandagaity, when it was already getting dark, we got some problems. A soldier patrol arrested us late at night on the way towards the Tannu-Ola mountains. They said that we had come far too close to the Mongolian border and that we would have to follow them to their camp. There we had to sit for hours waiting for the instructions of their headquarters. The soldiers treated us extremely well. They fed us with their military food and apologised for the inconvenience. They asked about our plans and one captain even wanted to recite poems about his mother. He turned out to be a most romantic poet, although he had no poems about a girlfriend. Finally we were acknowledged that we would have to return to Khandagaity to wait for further order which we would receive at 9 sharp the next morning. We were taken to the police station where we were expected to sleep on the floor of a meeting room. Well, I couldn't sleep at all and what had been left of my health by then totally evaded during the night and in the morning I decided that we should return to Kyzyl in spite of the fact that the police officer in charge said that arresting us had been a big mistake and that he would try to compensate our troubles. But I felt too ill and feverish to think about anything apart from a bedrest. It took 12 hours to drive to Kyzyl from Khandagaity.


With the exception of this incident our stay in Tuva was simply great. We met the Hyn-Hyrty, Kongar-ool Ondar, Otkun Dostai and many other Tuvinians. We attended to concerts, plays, even to a Khuresh festival at Kaldak Khamar etc. I myself also paid a visit to a local fur farm where I interviewed the employées and took some photos of the animals, and to the Tuvan Ministry of Social and Environmental Matters where I had a chance to interview the vice secretary,  Mr. Alexandr Oorzhak. Our höömei teacher was, as I said before, Sergei Ondar, who once brought with him another höömeichi, Vladimir Soyan (on left in this photo) to teach us. The secretary of Social and Environmental Matters is also Sergei Ondar, not to be confused. We hired a flat in an ideal area. First, our landlady, Mrs. Aldyn-Kys Mongush, happened to be a related to the famous and legendary höömeichi Khunashtaar-ool Oorzhak. Secondly, in the same block (Moskovskaya 101) happens to live a singer well-known in the west (his name is Kaigal-ool Khovalyg). Across the front yard there was a block of flats where lives Möngyn-ool Ondar, and a few hundred yards away on Angarskii Bulvar our interpreter Aldynai Seden-Khurak lives in the same block with another höömeichi, Anatolii Kuular.We went over to Möngyn-ool's place but he wasn't home because he was right then touring the US with Chirgilchin. However, his fiancée Cheinesh opened the door and she was sporting the 1999 Kieku T-shirt! She served some tea and dumplings and said that she studies English at the University of Kyzyl. The Hyn-Hyrty were in Mongolia with Ted Levin, but they returned just a few days before we left.



Otkun Dostai is the manager of Tuva Kyzy (Girls of Tuva) ensemble, a musician himself, and a reporter of the Tuva TV. After I had recovered from my cold, we were looking for a pub one night without success. So we were wandering around in the streets of Kyzyl when suddenly someone stopped a Lada next to the pavement. Out popped a short, cowboy-legged Tuvan man who claimed to know Morten. Otkun had recognised Morten's face from 1998 Khoomei Symposium which Morten had participated and where he had been filmed as a performer. Otkun is a wonderful person, whose manners are almost European. He knows some English and with his relaxed attitude he can deal with many kinds of people even without being that well-versed in foreign languages. That night he took us to the night club of Hotel Ödygen, later to the salt lake south of Kyzyl, to the workshop of a khomus master, and to the house of a  hatmaker, an old lady called Opal Shuluu who lives in Kaa-Khem. Otkun also wanted to make a TV-report of us and include it in the program of the Tuva TV. One of his colleagues, a lady from the Tuva Radio laso wanted to interview us on the radio, and another colleague working for the Russian national TV-channel RTR wanted to interview us and film us singing at the monument of the Centre of Asia. So we sat in the studios and sang at the monument surprising the local passers-by. Otkun also took us to the grave of Gennadi Tumat, and later at the night club of Hotel Kyzyl he tried to arrange us to make closer acquaintance with a couple Tuvan girls. However, we felt a little uneasy by the idea of starting to fool around in Kyzyl, and we told him that we already have wives and fiancées in Europe which he understood perfectly. A Mongolian labourer joined us, and Morten used all the frases that he knows in Mongolian like " Jorlongiin chaas haan baina ve?" ("Excuse me, where's the toilet paper?") etc. This Mongolian man got attracted to the above-mentioned girls that Otkun had introduced to our company but he was rejected by the young ladies. I hope the reason was not the relative thinness of his wallet as compared to our European wallets.


Places of Which I Have Learned by Listening to Tuvan Folk Music

Near Kyzyl on the way to Chadan there is a small village called Eerbek. I wanted to visit that place because one of my favourite Tuvan folk tunes is "Eerbek Aksy" which Hyn-Hyrty have recorded on their second record titled "Orphan's Lament". I learned that Eerbek is a village situated on a river bifurcation but that the song has got its name after a place actually in the middle of nowhere. It is an area where the kozhuuns of Eerbek and Saiyr unite. There has been some settlement and a coal mine but the village has been moved after the activity has ceased at the coal mine. So "Eerbek Aksy Saiyyr Aksy where I left my sweetheart looking after my dwellings" is nowadays just plain steppe and a small hill. The Eerbek village is on the shore of Yenisei and a beautiful view (Aldynai on the right, Kolya sitting, Kolya's brother-in-law on the left, and Morten) opens across the steppe on the bank above Eerbek and Kyzyl can be seen in the horizon. We also went to Tes-Khem to a Khuresh festival of which I'll write more below. In order to go to Tes-Khem you must pass the "art" (mountain pass) of Kaldak Hamar. "Kaldak Hamar" is also one of my favorite tunes recorded by the Hyn-Hyrty. I was surprised to find a cafe called Kaldak Hamar in Kyzyl.


Meeting the Hyn-Hyrty 

On our way back from Kaa-Khem, where I had purchased a fur decorated hat from Mrs. Opal Shuluu, Otkun noticed a white Lada coming towards us on the opposite side of the road. He recognized Kaigal-ool and made an immediate u-turn. Kaigal-ool was happy to meet me again (Morten was not with us that time) and he told us that it had rained unusually heavily in Mongolia and the rivers had flooded. As a result, the Hyn-Hyrty had ended up in a river with their touring van. Since Kaigal-ool is a singer rather than a swimmer, they had to pull him out of the river by applying the same method as with the van. Later Kaigal-ool invited us to his place. First his wife took us to his garage, where he was fixing his white Lada with his brother-in-law. There we had some chips and beer with Kaigal-ool who entertained us by comparing the Mongolian höömei with the Tuvinian. In a polite way he kept interrupting Morten, who was speaking Russian with him and got most of the time so carried away that he forgot to translate things to me. Then we went to Kaigal-ool's place to have some dinner. I wanted to try Kaigal-ool's concert igil so we ended up playing. Morten sang the song "Don't Frighten The Crane" that Kaigal-ool has recorded on Hyn-Hyrty's cd "If I Were Born An Eagle" and I accompanied him on igil. This amused Kaigal-ool very much and also his wife said that Morten is a good singer. I wanted Kaigal-ool to see the igil and the doshpuluur that I've built by myself and laboriously carried with me all the way to Tuva. So next we went to our place where he tested my instruments. He liked them so much that he decided we must show them to Sayan (Bapa). So we went to Sayan's place where these men played for a while with my instruments. I think Sayan even might have been just a little bit jealous of my doshpuluur…


Institute of Foreign Languages 

I also wanted to find out, whether anyone speaks Latin or French in Kyzyl. So I was advised to go to the Institute of Foreign Languages, where I would find Mr. Yuri Oiun. Yuri's main subject is French and he speaks it fluently, so French was our common language as he doesn't know much English. He also showed me some material that he uses when teaching Latin. Here's Yuri standing in front of a monument of Red Partisans with two students, who are still studying at high school: Olga Sundui (a Tuvan girl) et Nasima Husnutdinova (a girl from Bashkiria).


At The Khuresh Festival

Alyosha (Saryglar) was going to the Kaldak Khamar Khuresh festival and he took us with him and his family in his car (Lada). That festival is like any ordinary festival mighty be in Finland. First there were some musical performances, folk music, and höömei. Every group played "Kaldak Khamar", of course, as a part of their program. The sound system was working with some difficulty, occasionally the musicians had to play acoustically, but this didn't seem to bother them or the audience at all. And in the festival area we bumped into Tolya Kuular, who was eating some dumplings in a quiet corner. And of course, also Kongar-ool Ondar was among the audience with his family. The wrestling with all it's ceremonies was similar to Mänchen-Helfen's description, but since I am not very much into that kind of Martial arts, I mostly ignored the wrestling itself. Instead, I kept observing a certain referee, an old throat singer Feodor Tau. we wanted to photograph and interview him and record his singing, which he promised. He would only have to finish his duties as a referee. In the end it turned out that one their duties was to gather up in a nearby forest to empty several bottles of araqa and vodka. So we had to forget about the recording. At the festival we also met Todoriki (Riki) Masahiko, the best höömeichi existing in Japan. By the way, we were introduced to both Feodor Tau and Riki in Alyosha's Lada (it is a small nation!). Riki stayed in Kaa-Khem at Opal Shuluu's house, which explained the well-updated computer that I had observed and felt puzzled about in the corner of the house of that old craftslady.


Returning Home

Leaving Kyzyl was sentimental. We spent our last evening together with Kaigal-ool, Sayan, our sweet landlady Aldyn-Kys, and our lovely interpreter Aldynai, who are all in this photo taken on the Kyzyl bus station (Aldyn-Kys with her grand daughter, Sayan on the left, Kaigal-ool and Tolya on the right and Aldynai talking to Morten). Aldyn-Kys had prepared a genuine Tuvinian supper for us, who had most of the time been eating instant bortsh and bread. Hyn-Hyrty took us to the bus station with their touring van and Tolya and Alyosha with his little daughter Sayana also came to say good-by. The bus trip to Abakan was peaceful if you don't count a fight that happened to take place at the rear part of the bus between some drunken soldiers and a civilian man. In Abakan we took a taxi to the airport, which was almost too quiet in the morning for the first 2-3 hours. We had already bought ticket's from Abakan to Moscow from Mrs. Biankina at the Centre of Asia. They cost about 110-115 dollars a piece. The flight took some four hours and the service of the Khakassian Airlines is surprisingly even better that what Finnair is able to offer! The ticket price included food, drinks, and other refreshment: beer, wine, and vodka etc. (Finnair would charge you some extra if you decide to have e.g. beer with your lunch). in Moscow Morten decided to go to Finland together with me instead of going directly to Norway. In Finland there was just then the Haapavesi Folk Music Festival going on. Morten and I had met at the Haapavesi Folk Festival the previous year, when Kongar-ool was there teaching and performing.

I found the trip to Tuva so great that I feel I must go back again the next year – and the next and… This is what has happened to Riki as well. He has been to Tuva every year, I think, since 1992. He has learnt to speak Tuvan and Russian "like a baby" as he says himself – not to mention his quite competent höömei voice that he demonstrated in Alyosha's car at Kaldak Khamar. In 2001 Cedip tur (Eero, Sauli, and Eye) are planning to go to Tuva together.