Photographer: Алексей Климов
Text: Диана Серебренникова
Alexei and Elena love travelling by their off-roader. Their first trips did not cover more than 2000 kilometers, but after five years their demands rose: short trips turned into long adventures off the beaten tracks, away from dusty urban motorways, around both touristic and wild areas. This is how the “Big Route” of 18 000 kilometers around the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, Altai and Tuva was planned. We interviewed our heroes to hear about their independent journey in the deserted lands of Tuva. This article presents the details of their adventure.
We have dreamed about seeing Tuva for a long time. For us it was a wild and a faraway land, steeped in thousands of horror stories we had read in the Internet. Many traveller friends recommended us against the Tuva trip due to the aggressiveness of the locals, who may attack tourists, rob and mistreat them in various ways. Moreover, we got an earful of opinions why under no circumstances should we travel by one car in such wild places. The vehicle may break or bog down in mud, get into scrapes with locals and so on. And if at first we would just turn it into a joke, here, in the lonesome roads of Tuva, I finally realized that it was real and might get quite unpleasant.
But first things first.
We reached the Tuva border in early summer. The snow from the surrounding hills was slipping into local rivers. The road was the only one, so riding off and losing our way was unlikely. The only challenge was to conquer the Buguzun Pass of 2500 meters. The roads were almost impassible, and the melting snow compounded the problem.
The fog was thick; the wild minimalistic landscapes were stunning. Within 200 kilometers we had not met any walking tourists, special-purpose off-roaders, or locals. Tuva is absolutely not a touristic place. But that is what makes it so beautiful.
It took us long time to get used to such solitariness. Travelling in Altai, you usually meet crowds of people from different regions. However, among the blue and green Sayan Mountains of Tuva we only came across a couple of small so-called “loaf” UAZes, a local vehicle used by Tuvinians for 200%. Such cars never carry less than 20 people.
That was the vehicle we encountered at the feet of the Buguzun Pass. As we stopped to take a break, a “loaf” with Tuvinian license plate suddenly appeared. It stopped, and the driver made a move to approach me. It was evident that he wanted to investigate something. Meanwhile, a big bunch of people, almost a half of a local village, poured out from the UAZ. They were surprised to see our car and wanted to take a closer look. I remembered the words of my friends: it is no good if a Tuvinian likes your car.
Fortunately for us, it was a peaceful encounter. The Tuvinians were going to Kosh-Agach (Altai) for a fair and wanted to ask us about the way: the river ahead of us had been up due to the melting snow.
Generally, all people we met were absolutely normal, with no trace of hostility. The only problem was the language barrier. Tuvinians are bad Russian speakers. It is still possible to understand the older generation, but with the youth you can only communicate with mimics and gestures.
Towards evening, we began to look for a place to camp. On the way we entered a camp of shepherds who had just pitched up their hushcloth yurts to stay for the whole summer. We fell into talks, but I fibbed a little and did not mention that we were looking for a place to sleep. I asked more about the road and the pass we had to cross on our way. Even though we were not planning to go there at night, I chose to give them some false information so that they did not feel like visiting us while we sleep amidst the lonesome hills.
Having driven off the road, we hid our car behind a hill not to attract attention and waited till dark to set up a camp. After it got dark and we ensured that no one could see us, with pitched up a tent and fell asleep.
The Buguzun Pass at the altitude of about two and a half thousand meters. Even conquering the pass did not take the load off our minds: there were still too many challenges to handle.
The first settlement we entered was Kyzyl-Khaya. An absolutely wild settlement it was. We had an impression that it exactly presented the way people lived there three hundred years ago: in half-dugouts and sun-dried clay huts. The only thing that connected the place to modernity was the “Russian Post” logo on one of the houses. As the car we drove looked quite special for the place and people stared at us as though we were aliens from space, we chose not to stay long and left the settlement as soon as possible.
However, even before we reached Kyzyl-Khaya, we had an adventure that got us steamed up. Seeing no other way to cross a flooded river, we decided to “storm it” without an appropriate surveillance. After an instant, our hood sank underwater. Gathering speed and spreading waves, we drove forward slowly, praying not to catch on the tree trunks on the river bottom. Our hearts sank as we felt seconds ticking away. After such situations you finally realize, that if you travel by one car in an unpopulated place, you may not make a single mistake.
Yaks. Very peaceful creatures, looking like big shaggy cows. They are phlegmatic and mind nothing but their own business. They brought a little agitation into the deserted landscapes of Tuva.
This row of wooden poles is the Mongolian border. The road lies right along the border.
In the distance you can see the blue roofs of the Mongolian border crossing checkpoint.
After tanking up at the crossroads of A163 and A162, we did not see a single petrol station until we reached Abaza. The fuel quality was not to pick and choose.
We were lucky that the trip was not too extreme or risky for our lives. The only dangerous episode happened as we were passing by the last small village of Tuva. An old “Zhiguli” drove towards us, and it took a while before we managed to get away. As we pulled to the right, it attempted to occupy our lane. Of course, it was not an aggressive act: drunk driving is quite common in the place. To crown it all, we had not seen a single traffic police post in Tuva. That is why one should always be alert and avoid travelling alone.
All in all, we drove for almost 1 000 kilometers across the territory of Tuva, and we really loved this land. Of course, even in such a solitary place one should observe some safety rules not to get into trouble. For example, do not camp near a village, especially on weekends or holidays. Drunken people may lose control and misbehave. But as for me, during my trips I always treat people with kindness, no matter what the situation is. Usually, it works.