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6/12/13 – Bus Ride to Tuva

June 12, 2013

Mary, Jan and I went for a walk this morning in search of coffee that did not pay off, but it got us up and moving early in the light rain and early Siberian sun. After a breakfast at the cafe across the street, we loaded the bus and took off.

We passed through the village where Lenin was exiled and the bus driver told us that there is a museum of sorts there. He also told us that Lenin’s wife and many of his most devout and committed followers came with him to Siberia, essentially exiling themselves, in solidarity with him.

The country side is breathtaking. Stands of birch trees line the highway and there are fields as well, all with the mountains presiding over this environment. Gorgeous wildflowers in vivid colors line the road. It is a lush, verdant environment and I have found it difficult to imagine it in winter.

Along the way, I got a 1 hour intensive Russian lesson from Alexis. As I am trying to remember the words and pronunciations, I can imagine my brain cells straining to recall and produce the words. It is incredibly challenging, especially when focusing on the oral part of the language. My bent toward visual learning makes that part challenging. Alexis is a great teacher and pushed me pretty hard, so I am hopeful that I can commit some of this to use during the trip. Mary worked with me on reading and pronunciation yesterday, so the division of the learning and language acquisition has been good for me. I have found that I can read, but at about the same speed that I can speak, that i painfully slowly.

We stopped to eat with a family along the highway. We got off the bus and saw the house and outbuildings. Two very large piles of wood stood off to the side of the driveway. We walked to the side of the house where they had erected a frame of tree branches and stretched a tarp over those to create a shaded outdoor dining room of sorts. Underneath the tarp they had set up a long table and in one corner there was an L-shaped “table” essentially planks supported by tree trunks. These comprised the buffet table. Just behind all this was a brick barbeque and a samovar in which the gentleman of the house was placing smoking wood to creat the heat for the herbal tea.

This lunch rivals any meal I have ever had the luxury of enjoying. It was a traditional Russian table, with several kinds of vegetable salads. There were grated carrots and marinated mushrooms, cucumbers and tomatoes, fiddle head ferns and potatoes. Also on the buffet were these delicious breads filled with vegetable and eggs, which I believe were pan fried, and blini. Last, but certainly not least, there was “sala”, which is essentially bacon fat. We put it on bread and it was delicious. On the tables where we sat, there was fresh milk from Zorya, their cow, cream, a kind of cottage cheese that was not at all like cottage cheese, homemade liquor that tasted like cognac, and the best raspberry jam I will ever taste.

The gardens behind the house were incredibly fertile. They had created raised beds of manure, soil and chicken litter that were 2 feet tall. These were obviously quite fertile, given the robust appearance of the plants. They also had 2 greenhouses.

The family consisted of father, mother, daughter and son. All of them except the son really helped to prepare and present the food, answered questions and encouraged us to eat until the food was gone. It was such a serene setting and the food was so good and fresh that I found it impossible not to eat until I was so full that I could not possibly eat any more, especially with the specter of what we expect to have available to us in Tuva in my mind.

As we continued our journey, we ascended into the Sayan Mountains, the landscape began to change: the birch trees gave way to fir trees and the wild flowers appeared less frequently. Eventually, we began to see the snow and when we stopped at a scenic overlook, the temperature was at least 15 degrees cooler. We also began to see prayer flags on trees along the road.

At one point, we went over a ridge and suddenly the environment changed. There were far fewer trees and instead a grassy, level plain appeared. On the edges of the plains were triangular-shaped hills that seemed to have been placed there, in a kind of order. It is very hard to explain, but the smaller mounds were closer to the edge of the fields. The land that made up these triangular mounds that were not quite mountains, yet more than hills, looked as if it had been folded in some spots as well. We were not able to stop due to time constraints, so hopefully some of our photos from the bus will be able to show what I am expressing so badly.

After another hour or so of driving and trying to drink in the landscape, we reached the border with Tuva. We stopped at the monument to take photos, look at the vista and appreciate the moment. There were many brightly colored prayer flags around the site. A hawk circled over us, feeding on something that another traveller had placed near the monument. We watched it fly over us and our bus. Katherine told us that the Tuvans believe that a hawk circling over us was a good omen. A bit more time and we entered Kyzyl. The buildings we passed included houses in such an unfinished or dilapidated state that it was hard to imagine that anyone could survive the winter here in them. There were also shells of factories clearly no longer in use. As we continued into the town, it became progressively more modern and the buildings were in a much better state of repairs.

We are going to eat with a friend of some of the group leaders in their yurt tonight and then we will attend the Tuvan Throat Singing Symposium tomorrow. A former student of the University of Texas is a specialist in Tuvan throat singing and will be competing.


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  1. Tim permalink

    Ok, you know I want food pictures don’t you?


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