“Tuva or Bust” became a goal for the Nobel Prize Laureate Richard Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton. After we visited Mongolia in 2006 it became one of our goals too.


Feynman was a physicist and professor at Cal Tech who earlier had worked on the Manhattan Project. The goal originated when Feynman collected stamps as a youngster. He loved the unusual stamps from Tuva and wondered where it was. We bought the one on the right. Planes did not fly to Tuva at the time and few do today.



 “Tuva or Bust” as a goal started in the late 1970s during the cold war with Russia when it was impossible to go to such a remote place. They kept trying, even enlisting the Academy of Science to help. After ten years of trying, Feynman died of stomach cancer just weeks before permission to visit was granted. A group of his students and friends started “Friends of Tuva” a website that is has been kept up to date. It tells all about this, and other news about Tuva:



There were Scythians in Tuva by the 9thC BCE. Shortening the history, it was ruled by the Mongols until the 18th C when it came under Manchu dynasty. During the 1911 revolution in China, tsarist Russia encouraged a separatist movement among the Tuvans. This ultimately resulted in Tuva being the Tuvan People’s Republic (Tannu-Tuva) from 1926 to 1944 when it was absorbed into the Soviet Union. It was during that time that Tuva issued the popular stamps.


We loved the throat-singing in Mongolia and after our visit there looked into visiting Tuva, which has a similar tradition. Tuva was nearly impossible to visit and we gave up. It’s no easier today. The tour company Mir now offers Tuva as a side tour on its Trans-Siberian railway trips, so we had Mir design us a custom tour for this entire trip. From the Trans-Siberian train, which we didn’t take, it’s nearly a day’s drive to Tuva. No train goes to Tuva, and the Tuvans want it that way. We flew in from Irkutsk; few flights go there.


Throat-singing is known as Khoomei in Tuva. It is a method in which the singer simultaneously produces a low drone and a series of higher melodies over the drone note.


Mir arranged a professional group to sing for us in a yurt camp. There were a dozen Russian tourists there in the camp. This Chirgilchin group (above) tours every year to many places in the world – they’ve even sung in San Diego!


The Russians had a shaman scheduled for the night, but it would have been too late for us and also would have lasted many hours so we had to miss it.




From Irkutsk, we flew into Kyzyl and toured the river bank park with the wonderful sculptures.


We visited the amazing new museum to see the 9thC  and 7thC BCE Scythian gold from burial sites in Tuva.


We drove a hundred miles (each way) to visit a family in a yurt and to hear another professional throat-singer (now retired) who gave Juergen a singing lesson!


We visited the Arzhan II Scythian burial site where the gold in the museum was found while on our way to Abakan, Khakassia, where we caught our flight to Moscow and then to home.


In Shushenskoye we visited the Lenin Museum, a small village that has been restored to look the way it was when Lenin was banished there 1897 for three years. The Tsar gave him enough of an allowance that he took a room in a nice house (for a poor village). This was different from the banishments given by the Soviets!


We drove out to the Salbyk Mounds to see where many of the Scythian gravesites are.


This is the new “Center of Asia” monument by Dashi Namdakov (a Buryat from the region of Lake Baikal).


The previous monument was put there by someone (British?) in 1964 after his calculation determined that this was the spot. This previous monument has been moved elsewhere.


Since then, others have decided that the center of Asia is in Urumqi in western China.




A copy of the tip of the Scythian Queen’s (7thC BCE) hair pin that is in the museum, a gorgeous stag, is on the very tip of the Center of Asia monument (see it in the photo above). Here it is with the moon.






The star in the center of the map of Asia indicates Kyzyl, to the right is Lake Baikal.



“The Center of Asia” in Tuvan, Russian and English.





The following sculptures are by the same artist as the new “Center of Asia” sculpture and were installed at the same time in 2013.


Dashi Namdakov is just getting famous and has just started being collected worldwide.


This one is the Royal Hunt; also called “Khaan and Kadyn are hunting.”


We spent a lot of time here because every view of it was wonderful.


This is right on the Yenisei River, which is the largest river system flowing to the Arctic. It begins in Mongolia, south of Tuva.






The main square in Tuva feels like the center of a much larger “country.”


This is the Kyzyl theater. It has a large prayer wheel in front.


Part of our tour was to see how a traditional carver works; he comes from a long tradition of carving.


He drew this little lion (below) and then carved soapstone in a few minutes to match.






We had such fun sounding out signs because we often could guess what they meant.


The large letters spell “plan evakuatsi” (evacuation plan). It was on the wall of the carver’s building.


The last line reads: 3 Etasch (3rd floor)




This is a typical roadside Buddhist shrine (right) and the nearby shamanist shrine (left).


Locals will walk around these and place a rock or cloth or coin for luck before continuing on their journey.


These new shaman poles are in the design of old hitching posts because this is a nomad land and horses were very important.




We went to this spring, which has been a pilgrimage site for eons.


It was interesting watching the people visiting here.


This was a shaman getting blessings for a symbol he uses.




Putin was here in 2013 and marked the place where the railway will be constructed.


The Tuvans, for the most part, are quite content to being so remote.


They are afraid that they will lose their language and culture if the railroad comes here, especially as the young people are moving to the cities.


But Putin and the government wants the mining to have a better way to market, so stay tuned.


This is a commercial yurt camp used by visitors and tourists. The season was almost over and only a few Russians were still visiting here.




This is the Shaman teepee that is used in the camp.






Yvonne had ankle pain all day and jumped at the chance to soak it in the cold Yenisei River.


Note below Yvonne’s feet Juergen’s “cooler” for bottles of good Russian beer!







If you don’t know what throat-singing sounds like (more than one note produced at once) please listen to a sample of their singing.


We made it short so it shouldn’t take long to download.


Note that the lady makes sounds with an object that sounds like a horse trotting along.




This was the shaman that the Russian group was going to watch. He ate dinner in the yurt with the rest of us.


He was intense.


We drove a hundred miles toward the old capital, Samagaltai, to experience a Tuvan family that lives in the old way.


One 8-year old boy is still at home, the older children are married and live in a village nearby. They come to help.


The family has about 250 sheep (we watched them herding them) and about 16 cows. Eight of those need to be milked twice a day by the wife.


Most of the animals will be in a different area all winter; this couple and their son will live in the yurt all winter; but not here.




Inside the yurt. The host is by the stove; he wore local clothing when he went outside (it was very chilly). The man next to him is a daughter’s father-in-law. Our guide, Aldynai, is sitting on the floor with our driver Artur.


These are the home-made preparations they provided for us to try.





Vladimir Soyan, a relative of our yurt host, is the founder of the throat singing Group Al-Kherel that toured North America and Europe.


He sang a lot for us (here is an example) and gave singing lessons to Juergen.


The singing lessons for Juergen clip is too short – Yvonne was laughing so hard she forgot to keep filmingL.


He had more “sparkle” than anyone we’d met in a long time. He kept the others laughing.







Juergen and our host gave a throat singing demonstration.


The movie clip is only 4 seconds long, more would have been unbearable.


It was really funny because our host wasn’t any better than Juergen.




Vladimir Soran waited for us as we were driving back to Kyzyl to bless our trip at a roadside shrine.


This is the Arzhan II site where the Scythian gold in the Tuvan museum was discovered.


We had requested to visit here.


In 2001, 44 pounds of Scythian gold was found in a 7th C BCE kurgan called Arzhan II. There were 5700 beautifully designed ornaments for clothing, shields, quivers, and equestrian armor. We saw all that in the museum.


After being found the artifacts were taken to the Hermitage for study. After Tuva proved it could take care of this treasure by building a new museum in Kyzyl that contained a room-size safe, the gold came back – just two years ago!










This is a museum model of what they found when the rocks and sand were removed to uncover the burial site. An actual photo of the gravesite is below.



Each of the above branches were like the photo right; big trees!


Those trees had to be brought from many miles away.




We stopped in the village of Turan in the Valley of the Czars. It is called that because of the large number of Scythian burial mounds (kurgans).


This is the Turan village museum; its caretaker is a Russian woman who has lived her life here.


Our lunch was provided by this museum-curator.


She had an amazing garden, full of flowers, potatoes and everything for the winter.


She said in the next few days, she would dig up all the potatoes and finish up the garden for the winter.




Behind her house she had a guest room that (it being warmish today) was mostly open to the outside.


She served us traditional food.


Absolutely unbelievable was the torte she made with different kinds of fresh berries from her garden.


We ate the entire thing even though we were all full from her generous lunch!  YUM!




The only real road into Tuva is this one from Abakan. It was a beautiful drive.


This is a view from the car towards a national park famous in Russia for its unusually-shaped peaks.


It would have been lovely to have been able to drive around there!




Too soon after lunch we stopped for dinner.


There isn’t any other option before we’d be in Abakan.


This is an interesting Russian lady who lives alone in the B&B she runs in the summer. Her grown children live in Abakan and come to help as needed.


We were the last guests for a meal this season.


THIS is what she presented for the four of us to eat!


Each dish was decorated with flowers made out of vegetables.




The garden had everything -including huge marijuana plants. We were told they grew here accidently, introduced by new top soil…


She also said she was about to put her garden to bed for the winter.




We ran into this tourist. He told Juergen that one should always display decisiveness and strength.


He declined the pot.







We spent the night in Shushenskoye, the banishment location of Vladimir Lenin.


For tourists, they had just constructed log cabins with areas indicating how they were used in the past (tools, etc.) that matched the o  nes in the museum city.





This is supposedly what the village looked like about 1900.


That’s Lenin in Cyrillic script. He lived in this house from 1897-98.










This is the main street in old Shushenskoye.








Lenin later moved to this house.




There is a famous photograph or painting (?) of this room showing a policeman on a step ladder going through the books while Lenin and his wife watch.


Although under constant supervision, Lenin managed to write, keep in touch with other revolutionaries, and even visit with some of them.


This is what the museum has built where guests can stay. It is right at the fence to the museum.


We stayed in the room behind the lamp post.




The museum visitor’s area has a wonderful playground for kids, and people who remember being a kid.












Yvonne talked our guide Aldenai into a teeter-totter tryout. Note the horse-heads.


The Great Salbyk Mound was originally 60’ high and is the burial place of a powerful Dinglin king and his family.


The vertical plates that encircled the mound came from 35 miles away and vary in weight between 20 and 60 tons and are 24’ high.


The dig took place here between 1954-1956. Unfortunately, the burial mound was plundered before the archaeologists worked.







The rock on the right is in the shape of the hilt of a sword that has been thrust into the ground.












This long flat valley has many unexcavated tombs. The next one can be seen from this one.






This Shaman costume is in the Abakan Museum.




We had our last dinner together with Aldynai and Artur in this room.


Local Khakassians performed for us after dinner.


The next morning we flew to Moscow and from there non-stop to Los Angeles.


We could have spent more time in Tuva as we enjoyed it very much.