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In Which I Attempt Throat Singing

June 21, 2013

6/19/13 – More Throat Singing, Yurt Excursion, Milk Vodka Making

Today was a lazy day in the camp. We started our morning with a conversation on the “pagoda yurt”, drinking tea and the last of the MacCoffee, the instant and very sweet coffee packets that we first encountered at the hotel in Kyzyl. We enjoyed our Kasha and boiled egg breakfast and then a quick Russian lesson.

I don’t know why, but I kind of fell apart during the Russian lesson. I just burst into tears for no reason. We are at day 10 of the trip and we have been here with very few distractions and no internet, so maybe everyone is just missing “normal”, 21st century lives. Anyway, I laid down for a few minutes and felt much better in time to go to the session with Zhenya.

Zhenya played a bit and tried to teach us throat singing, but I was completely hopeless. Other members of our group were much more talented and able to produce some kind of interesting sound. Then Zhenya taught us a traditional Tuvan song and we tried singing that. A few of us tried to play the instruments he had.

Then he went to make the milk vodka. I should point out that all of the cooking that has been done for our group has been in what I called the “kitchen yurt”. There is a wood furnace about 2 1/2 feet tall that has a big hole cut in the top of it. Big metal bowls fit into the circular hole and the food is cooked there. They also use a little 2 burner propane stove as a supplemental heat source. Zhenya had placed the still on the stove with the bowl of milk in the bottom pan and the still placed directly on top of that. On top of that, he placed another bowl, into which he placed cold water. When the milk boiled, the steam rose and came out of a pipe in the side and drained into a kettle. The smell was intense and it got very hot inside the yurt from the fire in the stove.

Our lunch was very late, around 4:00 and before we could eat, we conducted a ritual with the milk vodka. The oldest member of the group was offered a cup and used their ring finger on their right hand to flick droplets of vodka to the four directions. Then you are supposed to drink the entire cup of vodka and return the cup to the host. Every person in the group follows this same ritual, though only a few of us drank the whole cup (not me either, because I made the mistake of smelling it and it almost made me gag). This vodka is considered one of the “white foods” which are greatly revered and are offered to honored guests. After all of us had performed the ritual and drunk, we ate lunch. The best part of lunch was a beet, pomegranate, raisin, walnut, mayonnaise and garlic salad.

Later in the afternoon, some of us went down to the yurt in which Zhenya’s sister lives. She is the only woman out here and manages all the “domestic” chores, including milking 28 cows twice a day (160 liters of milk per day), cooking for the men in the camp who are working here, and looking after the children. She never sits down and is always working. She was frying some bread on her wood stove when we arrived. We learned that you enter a yurt on the left side and the side furthest from the door is the place for guests. In her yurt there were 2 single beds and several cabinets that lined the walls of the yurt. Hers is a six-sided yurt and is a traditional Tuvan yurt with no floor. There is a kind of carpet made of wool that has been felted and hand-sewn that was placed under the rugs in the yurt. This is different from our fancy yurts that ave floors made of 1″x6″ boards that make a floor.

She continued to cook the bread, both large round disks with holes poked in them and little balls of dough. Those were then offered to us, along with some slightly sweetened cream and crumbled cheese. The cream that we got was from the cows that were milked just this morning. As we talked about the roles of women and how and where they lived throughout the year, a young boy and girl were helping and generally being quite curious about what the women were doing.

All of these people are Zhenya’s relatives. The extended family ties here are incredibly important. The animals in this valley belong to various people in Zhenya’s family and they have been in this valley for many years. Now the land is administered through the district government and the land leases for 49 years to the families and they can be released or renewed at that point, but grazing rights are generally hereditary. The Russian government always maintains mineral rights to all property in Russia.

Tuvans seem to have preserved their traditions and culture throughout their history. Of course, this is a peripheral country. Tuva is not rich enough in resources to have outweighed its remoteness, and that has made it hard for any outside force to control the people, even under Stalin. Today, Tuvans in the cities seem very comfortable identifying as Tuvan and Russian. I noticed this in the concert and ceremonies, one emcee would speak in Russian, followed by another in Tuvan and then, sometimes in English (a nod, I assume to the large number of Americans and Europeans who are interested in Tuvan culture). We have been told that most Tuvans preferred the Russians to the Japanese in WWII and were willing to join with Russia.


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