This is an article that I originally wrote for Pi Magazine about six years ago. For some reason or other the article never made it to print, and it sat in my computer unread while I decided what to do with it. I figured I may as well publish it myself. Here you go.
The email went around my department around this time last year. Spending a month living under a tent in the Siberian steppe with complete strangers, 2 hours away from the nearest town, in one of the “most remote places on earth”, filling your days with manual labour. Does this sound suspicious to you? It did to me too. So, naturally, I decided to try my luck.
This is how, after weeks of struggle with bureaucratic institutions to get a visa*, I found myself in the Republic of Tuva, Southern Siberia, on an archaeological expedition to find the 2,500-year-old tombs of Scythian nomads.
Tuva prides itself on being the geographical centre of Asia – as marked by a monument erected, technically, at incorrect coordinates determined by a 19th-century traveller. Located in the far south of Siberia, just above Mongolia on the map, it has through the years been part of the Mongol empire, the Chinese empire, and its own independent state before it was annexed by the Bolsheviks in 1921. It is today officially part of Russia, but remains very much rooted in its traditions. Shamanistic beliefs, throat-singing and horse-riding play a big part in the life of local populations, and, if Russian is commonly spoken in the region, Tuvan is still the preferred language.
A beautiful far-off land, rich in history and traditions. How, you ask, have you never heard of it before? Well, perhaps because it is one of the most remote places on the planet. Only two roads in the entirety of the Republic connect it with the rest of the world. If I expected the 14-hour coach journey from the nearby Abakan district, where we’d flown in, to be a tedious task, I was quickly proven wrong. Hills, valleys, streams, lakes, endless forests of dark green pines stretching to the horizon… The recovering Skyrim addict that I was simply could not believe her eyes. Small inns, decorated with stuffed bears (the previously alive kind), displayed various meaty snacks, itinerant sellers were offering dried fish and berries, while several stalls by the side of the road were stocked full of tea leaves, bear fat (“ain’t nothing a few drops of bear fat can’t cure”, I was told) and other natural remedies. Eventually, the grassy yellow hills of the Tuvan steppe came into view. By the time we got to the camp that would be our home – an assortment of 10-person military tents looking rather a lot like the roman camp from Asterix – it was pitch black and pouring rain. Just like back home, thought the four lonely UCL students lost amidst of 70-odd Russian students.
Over the next 3 weeks, we (re)discovered the joys of archaeology. Every morning, we would pile into the back of a military truck and be shipped off to site. The kurgan, or burial mound, that we were excavating was circular and, according to estimations, was the resting place of 17 Iron Age individuals. The aim was to retrieve the data and artefacts before the construction of a new railroad passing through Tuva destroyed it forever – rescue archaeology, if you will. From the very first day, it became clear that “the Russian way” of doing things on an archaeological site was quite different from anything I had ever been taught over the past 3 years. As a woman, nobody would let me carry my own buckets of dirt – not that I was complaining –, or, more frustratingly, let me dig with ‘heavy’ tools like shovels and pick-axes – something I complained about, in vain. I was relegated to trowel duty for 3 weeks straight. Not a bad philosophy school, I suppose. Forced breaks every 50 minutes were a novelty, too, for most experienced diggers, but we got to eat canned horse meat and explore our surroundings. From time to time, cattle or sheep herds would try to invade the site, and the men would make a game of chasing them off running and screaming.
It wasn’t long before we discovered the yurt in the clearing. One day, someone went off on their own, following the stream running behind our picnic spot – that very stream whose bed served as our changing room, bathroom and secret hiding spot when we were on site – and came back telling us there was a traditional hut on a plateau barely 10 minutes’ walk away. A group of us went to find it. Grey, circular, it had been set up right on the bank of the stream. The door was wide open and, as we approached, an old woman came out to greet us. She spoke very little Russian, but she offered us a bowl of traditional Tuvan salt brick tea (tea brewed with a mix of milk and salt which, interestingly, also comes in instant sachets). On a second trip we met the rest of her family, who let us take pictures inside the yurt and explained that we could buy homemade dairy products from them.
From then on, we regularly went to visit the old woman and her family, placing orders in cheese, cream, fermented milk or even milk-based clear alcohol called araka – a bottle of which I still have, because my guests never seem inclined to drink it**.
At the end of the month, our debatably hard work finally paid off. Amongst other things, we uncovered the remains, in wooden coffins, of 2 infant burials, in surprisingly good condition, complete with gold earrings, beads and ceramic vessels.
Back at camp for lunch, we had the afternoon to go about as we pleased. Usually we wandered off in small groups to explore the hills and valleys surrounding the camp – the truly breathtaking views from the highest hills were somehow reminiscent of the plains of Mars, and full of interesting finds like monuments to the mountain spirits and sacrificed horse skulls –, but other fun and games at the Valley of Kings camp included sports tournaments, dips in the lake, going to the sauna and then jumping into the freezing lake, trying to learn Russian slang, and avoiding the two warzone medics in jackets stating “Disaster Medicine”. Evenings were usually spent around the campfire, listening to our resident ex-military heartthrob tell stories of surviving in the wilderness. There did happen, one night, an incident involving old USSR songs around the fire and Latvian students getting very offended, but generally, as the temperature fell from 35°C to 5°C, we all peacefully filed back into our tents, the fluorescent lights of the solar-powered bank unit shining on us.
Sundays were our days off, and we got to experience the wonders and peculiarities of Tuvan culture, from Kyzyl, the capital, its museums and churches and Buddhist temples, to salt lake beaches, throat-singing concerts and traditional wrestling matches. On the downside, the absence of roads, phone signal or internet connection in most of the vast, empty spaces we had to cross meant that when our buses broke down – a regular occurrence – we were presented with two options: 1) fix the bus, no matter how long it took, or 2) walk, and then come back to fix the bus.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun – no, we all had our share of bad luck. Some would say it all started when local shamans cursed the project at the opening ceremony: upon learning we were excavating burials, they felt deeply offended, cursed the dig and vowed never to return. Then, there was the wolf alert. Wolves had been spotted in the area, and, while they don’t normally attack human settlements, we were told to play loud music to scare them into staying away – somewhat of a tricky plan when the electricity cuts off at midnight sharp. A lot of incidents happened over the following month. People ending up up to the hip in plaster casts, getting cut on sharp rocks from the lake. Waves of severe nausea from drinking the reservoir tank water. More waves of severe nausea after experimenting with the nearby vegetation. Rodents eating through bags. Spider invasions, giant mosquito clouds. Personally, I got stuck in a dam. Not my most glorious moment, I’ll admit.
Yet altogether, it was an incredible amount of fun. Tuva may remain invisible and unknown to most of the world, but those of us lucky enough to have had the opportunity to go will never forget it. The crazy adventures. The oddity of some experiences, like, say, dancing in the light of the Great Bear to a mix of Israeli and Brazilian house music, with the Minister of Culture, while a group of beautiful Tuvan girls are shaking it in the middle of the dancefloor. The breathtaking scenery. The sheer freedom of it all, a freedom impossible to achieve in a city where everyone is constantly enslaved by their electronic connections. And the tea.
*An entire book, Tuva or Bust!, was written about eminent physicist Richard Feynman’s struggle for that damned visa. It took him 11 years to get the visa. It arrived just after he died.
**This article was written in 2012. Hilariously, in 2019 I still have said the said bottle of moonshine, and it continues to hold little appeal to my guests.