A Journey to the Center of Asia

Max Sher
5 min readNov 11, 2018

Everyday life in an isolated Russian province that broke away from China a little more than a century ago

Tuva is one of Russia's most obscure and isolated regions (also one of the poorest) — a landlocked Turkic-speaking republic located in southern Siberia right in the middle of the Asian continent and connected to the rest of Russia via just one road. It's the only Russian region today which had an experience of formal independence (1921-1944), and its turbulent political history is a stark example of what happens when a small nation gets caught in a centuries-long struggle between its mighty neighbors. The Turkic tribes that lived in what is today Tuva fell under the Mongolian rule in 13 century. When Mongolia was gradually subdued by the Qing Empire in 17-18 centuries, so was the territory of the present-day Tuva. Amidst the 1911 Chinese Revolution, Tuva broke away from China and became a Russian imperial protectorate in 1914, albeit for just three years, when its newfound protector — the Russian Empire — fell apart itself. In 1921, Tuva declared independence, delegating its defense and foreign policy to Soviet Russia. The move, however, was only recognized by the latter and Mongolia — itself a breakaway Chinese province and a newly formed satellite state recognized only by Soviet Russia. Mongolia, however, tacitly claimed Tuva to be part of its territory because it was through a Mongolian governor residing in Mongolia that the Qing Dynasty ran Tuva for a hundred and fifty years prior, not to mention 500 years of Mongolian rule before. In part to reign in these Mongolian claims, Tuva was finally incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1944, with minor territorial concessions to Mongolia. Some in Tuva believe this single-handed decision to join the USSR by the then ruling Tuvan clique was illegal because neither referendum, nor even a parliamentary vote were held to seek popular approval. Interestingly, the government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) still considers Tuva a part of Greater China. The People’s Republic of China has never officially renounced its sovereignty over Tuva either.

Tourists take a picture during a stop on the scenic federal highway R-257 — effectively the only road that connects Tuva with the rest of Russia. The R-257 runs through the Sayan Mountains — the natural boundary contributing to the region's isolation. © Max Sher
An ovaa — a sanctuary made of Buddhist prayer ribbons and blessing scarves tied to poles — in the Sayan Mountains on the way to Tuva. © Max Sher
The Chinese-styled Russian-language entrance sign (“Republic of Tuva”) with the region’s emblem — the yellow horseman and the sun — at the Nolyovka Pass in the Sayan Mountains which marks the Tuvan border. Up until 1912, the Russian-Chinese border ran in this area. The Chinese cultural influence, although largely forgotten, can sometimes spring up in new Tuvan landmarks such as this entrance sign. © Max Sher
The landlocked Tuva is believed to be located right in the middle of the Asian continent
The Turan-Uyuk Depression as seen from Nolyovka Pass in the Sayan Mountains — the first sight of Tuva the traveler sees after crossing the Tuvan border. The area was dubbed "The Valley of Kings" in 2002 after a burial of a 7-century-BC Scythian dignitary with thousands of golden objects in it had been found here by a Russian-German archaeological expedition. The straight R-257 highway is visible on the right. © Max Sher
A street scene in central Kyzyl (Tuvan for "Red"), the capital of Tuva, with a campaign poster depicting the Tuvan governor Sholban Kara-Ool. Mr Kara-Ool was first appointed governor of Tuva by Russian president Putin in 2007, then confirmed in 2016. Kyzyl was founded in 1914 as Belotsarsk — "City of the White Tsar" — as the capital of the newly formed Russian protectorate. © Max Sher
Kids playing with the Buddhist prayer wheel in the Tuvan capital Kyzyl's main square. Under the influence of Stalinist policies, most Buddhist monks were purged in the 1930s and old temples completely destroyed. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Buddhism has seen a controversial revival in Tuva, with the authorities trying to tightly control and instrumentalize religion. © Max Sher
On this 1931 map of China by John Diakoff, Tuva is shown as part of China (visible in the topmost part to the left, between Tannu Shan and Sayan Mountains), although it was already the People’s Republic of Tuva at that time — a Soviet satellite state. So was the Mongolian People’s Republic — another breakaway Chinese province.
A father and his kids visit a foundation stone outside Kyzyl where its future railway station is supposed to sit. Tuva has never had any railways. It did not even have a direct flight to Moscow up until late 2018. A rail link that would connect Tuva with the Trans-Siberian Railway has been designed and approved by the Russian government in 2007 but the project has never taken off ever since due to doubts about its cost-effectiveness. © Max Sher
Choiganmaa (right), a journalist, and Shoraan Kuular, a stock farmer, celebrate their wedding with friends at a symbolic Chinese-styled gateway to Tuva outside Kyzyl. The gate marks the place where the city’s future railway station is supposed to sit but for now mostly serves as a backdrop to wedding parties. © Max Sher
A Buddhist stupa in Kaa-Khem, a suburb of Kyzyl. ©Max Sher
Kaa-Khem, a suburb of the Tuvan capital Kyzyl with a towering Soviet-era unfinished power station. Lack of generation capacity causes frequent power outages. The city grew significantly after the collapse of the Soviet economy when thousands of rural residents came to Kyzyl in search of jobs, settling, often illegally, on empty lands on the city's outskirts, such as this one. © Max Sher
Farmers build a yurt for the annual festival Naadym (pronounced Nah-Dim) in Tos Bulak. The festival is an important element of today's Tuvan identity and includes various competitions such as the Best Yurt, horse racing, arching, wrestling and cooking contests. It also coincides with the main regional holiday — the Tuva Day (August 15), which in turn almost coincides with the old Independence Day (August 14). An average yurt costs around $2,200 and takes 1.5 — 2 hours to assemble. © Max Sher
A 1915 merchant house in central Kyzyl which housed the Soviet embassy between 1921 and 1944 when Tuva was formally independent. Tuvan territory changed hands many times. From 18 century and up until 1912 it was a province of the Chinese Qing Empire. China did not rule Tuva directly though, outsourcing it to a Mongolian governor. Mongolia itself was part of the Qing Empire until 1911. When the latter fell apart, Tuvan tribal leaders appealed to the Russian tsar Nicholas II for protection, and in 1914 a Russian protectorate known as Uriankhai Territory (a Mongol term for Tuvans) was established and its capital Belotsarsk (City of the White Tsar) founded. When the Russian Empire collapsed in turn just 3 years later, Tuva was left on its own, and for the next four years, the Tuvan nobility were deliberating on whether to reunite with Mongolia, to join Soviet Russia, or to become an independent nation. In 1921, it finally declared independence but delegated defense and foreign policy to Soviet Russia. Tuva’s independence however was only recognized by the neighboring Russia and Mongolia, itself an unrecognized satellite Soviet state at that time. Unlike Mongolia, whose independence was recognized by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 and the Republic of China (ROC) in 2002, neither PRC nor ROC have ever officially renounced claims to Tuva. © Max Sher
A 1941 Soviet map of the Soviet Union, with both Tuva (visible between the 50th and the 60th parallels and between the 90th and the 100th meridians) and Mongolia shown as independent states.
Young residents hang out outside of the National Theater in Kyzyl. Most Tuvans are easily bilingual Tuvan and Russian, with the latter gradually taking over, especially among youths. When in the street, you mostly hear Tuvan rather than Russian but all the signage around the region is in Russian, all government websites are only in Russian. Of Tuva's 322,000-strong population, 82 per cent identified themselves as ethnic Tuvans in 2010, 16 per cent — as ethnic Russians. Tuvan is a Turkic language, distantly related to such languages as Turkish, Uighur, or Kazakh. © Max Sher
Reindeer herders from the remote Tozhu district (northeastern Tuva) have built these traditional raw-hide tents for the annual Naadym farmers' festival coinciding with the Republic Day (August 15). Once nomadic, Tozhu — a distinct subethnic group within Tuvans — no longer live in this kind of tents, preferring village homes, but some still know how to build a tent for special occasions such as Naadym. Deer were not brought over because they pasture deep in the forest during this time of year and their respiratory systems are not used to dusty steppes. Reindeer herding has seen a serious decline over the last decades — Tuva's deer population fell from 9,000 in 1990 to 2,200 in 2010. © Max Sher
Saidash Kol, 28, a reindeer herder, hunter, and entrepreneur from Tozhu area (northeastern Tuva), poses for picture in his raw-hide tent. © Max Sher
A jockey has just been disqualified from racing for the annual 15-km race on the occasion of the farmers’ festival Naadym. Only horses 4 y.o. and younger were allowed to race. The age is defined by inspecting the horse's teeth: those older than 4 years old have molars grown up. © Max Sher
Brothers Salgyn (left), 14, and Kheimer Dongak, 13, prepare for an annual 15-km horse race as part of the annual farmers' festival Naadym. Both Salgyn and Kheimer have been jockeys since the age of 8. Race rules allow neither saddles nor helmets. "If we wore them, we would be laughed at", the brothers said. © Max Sher
The 15-km horse race has just started as part of the annual festival Naadym. Boys 6 years of age and older are allowed to compete. © Max Sher
Khuresh — a traditional wrestling competition — held as part of the annual farmers' festival Naadym. An assistant referee holds the wrestlers' caps as a sign of respect. The Russian and Tuvan flags are visible on the flagpole on the right. Naadym coincides with the main regional holiday — the Republic Day (August 15), which in turn almost coincides with the old Tuvan Independence Day (August 14). © Max Sher
Tuva’s deputy governor Anatoly Damba-Khuurak (center, in white) posing for picture with Russian and Mongolian officials (in folk costumes) and winners (above) of the annual wrestling championship Khuresh. © Max Sher
Visitors' cars parked in the steppe near Tos Bulak where the annual farmers' festival Naadym takes place. © Max Sher
Inside the Best Yurt — winner of the contest held as part of Naadym; portraits are those of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, Tuvan governor Sholban Kara-Ool, Russian defense minister and Tuva native Sergei Shoigu, and the Dalai-Lama. Also visible are Buddhist paraphernalia, district flags, and books by Tuva’s Soviet-era dictator Salchak Toka. © Max Sher
Dugar-Syuryun "Nikolay" Oorzhak, a shaman, in his Kyzyl office. Trained as a stage designer, he served as art director of the Tuvan National Theater from 1975 on. In 1990, he founded Tuva's first legal community of shamans (Shamanism was effectively banned during Soviet era). "You can understand shamanism only if you become a shaman yourself. Shamanism is not a religion", he says, "it is a foundation of all religions. God is the energy of the universe, all else — Buddha, Christ — are just images". Mr Oorzhak says he receives many Western visitors, mostly psychologists, and has traveled extensively around the world. © Max Sher
A 2014 monument by artist Dashi Namdakov, presenting both Scythian and Chinese motives, marks what is believed to be the geographical center of the Asian continent. Why exactly was this place chosen as such is obscure. Some early 20-century Russian and German sources quote an unnamed English traveler mentioning the “center of Asia” to be in the then Uriankhai province of China in the 1890s. A competing “center of Asia” is located in Xinjiang, China. The confluence of Kaa-Khem and Piy-Khem rivers forming Yenisei — Russia's longest river — is visible in the background. The river walk is named after Kuzhuget Shoigu (1921–2010) — a Tuvan party official and father of Russia's current defense minister Sergey Shoigu. A bizarre, in fact purely colonial anecdote is known about how Mr Shoigu's father received his new Soviet identity documents when Tuva became part of the Soviet Union in 1944. The custom among Tuvans is to first say your family name, and then your first name. When Sergey Shoigu's father was receiving his new Soviet documents he so said: Kuzhuget Shoigu, Kuzhuget being a family name and Shoigu — his first name, but the Soviet official mixed them up. So Russia's defense minister should have been named Sergey Shoiguevich Kuzhuget, and not Sergey Kuzhugetovich Shoigu as he is known. © Max Sher
A present-day map of China in use in Taiwan. Tuva is marked as formally part of Greater China (green area next to the title of the map — “Full Map of the Republic of China”).
A market in Kyzyl. © Max Sher
Filipp (41) and Shonchalay (37) Kozenyuk with their daughter Daria pose for picture in front of their house in central Kyzyl. More than a 100 years since Tuva first became a Russian protectorate, mixed marriages are still rather rare. Filipp trained as a psychologist in Moscow, then worked as a chef at a Japanese restaurant in the Russian capital where he met Shonchalay, a native of a Tuvan village who worked as a waitress (in the early 2000s, these establishments hired mostly 'Asian-looking' Russian minorities including Tuvans). Tuvans and ethnic Russians living in Tuva form two distinct communities that rarely cross paths and rather interact out of necessity. © Max Sher
Buddhist sanctuary Sunrap Gyatsoling in Erzin near the Mongolian border. © Max Sher
Iraida Baldyr, a retied nursery teacher, now serving as housekeeper at Buddhist sanctuary Sunrap Gyatsoling in Erzin. © Max Sher
A rather typical Tuvan landscape — an immense expanse of mountains and valleys with a lonely shepherd's station nestled every now and then under an ever changing sky. © Max Sher
Shimitsi Khumbun, 79 (center, in red, with granddaughter Sanchira) was born and has been living in the Kachyk river valley for her entire life. She has 16 children (of which two live next to her to help her and are present in the picture — Robert to her left and Maya to her right), 90 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren. Standing from left to right are Mrs Khumbun's grandchildren Angarmaa, Buyana, Gazhidmaa, Sanchay, and Nachyn. Seeing someone wearing traditional costumes is a rarity in Tuva except for special occasions, festivals, etc. Another exception is when one is posing for a visiting photographer's picture. © Max Sher
Bayir-Kys Banchyk gets her cows and bulls into her courtyard after they returned from summer pastures. Mrs Banchyk, 40, a mother of three and native of this remote Kachyk area in southeastern Tuva, holds a government job and has about 180 of own cows, several horses, and yaks. After the breakup of the Soviet Union citizens were allowed to raise stock of their own (during Soviet era all stock farming was “collectivized”), and many Tuvans who had earlier been forced to abandon their thousand-year-old stock farming practices by the Soviet regime are gradually returning to the lifestyles of their stock farming ancestors. © Max Sher
Villagers unload a truck at a community warehouse in Kachyk — an isolated village in southeastern Tuva. © Max Sher
Alimaa (28, left) and Ertine Bandan, 29, with their sons Bimdorch, 9 (right), and Sayin-Belek, 3, posing for picture in their family yurt. In summer, they live in this yurt in the Kachyk valley. In fall, they relocate to the nearest big village Naryn — some 100 km away — where they also have a house. Together with Ertine's parents and other relatives, the Bandan family owns more than 2,000 stock — mostly sheep, cows and horses. They have about 80 hectares of private land and rent more land for a winter station. Alimaa also makes traditional Tuvan skin and wool clothes mostly for family use. Says Ertine: "I like it more when we are here in the valley, living in our yurt, I am my own boss here, there is no authority above. We all know each other here and live together peacefully". © Max Sher
Sutluk — a remote and isolated valley in southeastern Tuva — is home to this small and unofficial khuree, or sanctuary, built by a hermit monk Boris Sodunam or simply Sodunam-Bashki (Sodunam the Teacher). © Max Sher
Boris Sodunam or simply Sodunam-Bashki (Sodunam the Teacher), 70, founder of the first official Buddhist community in Tuva when religious freedoms were granted by the Soviet government in 1990, has been living in seclusion for the last 20 years in a remote river valley called Sutluk — his homeland in southeastern Tuva. Over this period, he has built a small sanctuary which includes a temple, a house and a small hostel for disciples and visitors whom he receives in considerable numbers, including high-ranking Russian officials, such as a police general from Moscow whose portrait he is posing for picture with. Because he knows the Tuvan governor personally, Sodunam-Bashki sometimes acts as an informal representative for the local community. © Max Sher
Valentina Kenden milking a yak at her parents’ nomadic station in the Kachyk valley — a remote area in southeastern Tuva, considered isolated even by the isolated Tuva’s own terms. Mrs Kenden normally resides in Erzin — a district village some 120 km away — where she works as a nurse but on vacation she comes back to her family yurt and helps her parents and brother with their cattle — sheep, cows and yaks. © Max Sher
Kachyk, a remote and hard-to-get village in southeastern Tuva, 6 km from the Mongolian border. The building with the antenna on the right is the village's elementary school. The isolated Kachyk sumon (community) has 255 residents, partly living in the village itself, partly at nomadic stations in the surrounding valleys. There's no police, no doctors, no shops in the village, electricity is produced by a portable generator and is available only when it's dark. In winter, dirt roads may become impenetrable and Kachyk becomes even more isolated. In late 1960s, all residents of Kachyk have been airlifted by the Soviet authorities to the nearest bigger village Naryn, about 100 km away, because of poor access, but after the breakup of the Soviet Union many of them returned and revived Kachyk. © Max Sher
Bayir-Kys Banchyk and Valentina Sambyr demonstrate the traditional way to tan cowhide which is then used to make shoes, as youngsters look on. Such crafts survive only in such isolated communities as this one in Kachyk river valley in southeastern Tuva. © Max Sher
A portrait of Dalai Lama with prayer ribbons and blessing scarves amid ruins of a 1908 Buddhist sanctuary Ustuu-Khuree outside Chadan in western Tuva, which at the time of its completion was an important center of the Tuvan nation-building: the first Tuvan alphabet was developed here and the first coin minted. The monastery was built at the order of the local noyon (tribal ruler) Khaidyp — the adoptive father of the future founder and first prime minister of independent Tuva Mongush Buyan-Badirgi. After Buyan-Badirgi was arrested and killed in a coup staged by his Stalinist-leaning subordinates, this monastery was destroyed and all monks purged. The monastery was revived in 2008 with the support of Sergei Shoigu, Russia's current defense minister and a native of Chadan. © Max Sher
Aimir, a native of Chadan in western Tuva, is a fifth year student at the Moscow Mining University but comes home every summer. After graduation, he wants to join Lunsin — a Chinese mining company operating in Tuva. Asked whether the residents of Chadan are really proud of their famous fellow townsman, current Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu, he answers after pondering for a second: "Yes, we are proud. When police in Moscow check my papers [an intimidating routine 'Asian-looking' Russians face regularly] they immediately let me go when they see my home address: Chadan, Sergei Shoigu Street". © Max Sher
A poster depicting current Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu that reads "We are proud of you!", installed at the entrance to Chadan, a town in western Tuva. Born in Chadan in 1955 into a family of an animal technician Alexandra Kudryavtseva, a native of eastern Ukraine, who was sent to Tuva by the Soviet government to help upgrade local stock breeding, and a local party official Kuzhuget Shoigu, Mr Shoigu rose to prominence in early 1990s and has held various top ranking posts in the Russian government ever since — the first ever and only Tuvan to build a successful political career outside of Tuva. Since he became a defense minister in 2012, a local cult of Mr Shoigu's personality has developed in Tuva, and especially in his hometown Chadan. © Max Sher
A shepherd on a horse with his sheep on a road in western Tuva under a heavy rain. After the construction of Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric dam on the river Yenisei a few hundred kilometers north in the 1980s, locals have been observing a drastic change in climate which became warmer and more humid, with heavy and abrupt rains. Another infrastructural consequence is that the dam has cut the only natural waterway connecting Tuva with the rest of Russia — the Yenisei river. © Max Sher
Chechekmaa Ishina, 53, poses for picture in front of an altar in the house in Chadan she has built on her own savings for her teacher — Tibetan monk Shivalkha Rinpoche. Reverend Rinpoche has lived in Tuva for 7 years and has become very popular among Tuvan Buddhists until he was deported at the order of the Federal Security Service in 2015. © Max Sher
An unfinished new wing of the National Museum of Tuva in Kyzyl; its construction faltered due to lack of funds. © Max Sher
Geshe Dakpa Gyaltsen, 48, a Tibetan monk visiting Ustuu-Khuree, an important Buddhist sanctuary outside Chadan in western Tuva. Rev Gyaltsen has been living and preaching in Russia for 15 years and has taken up Russian citizenship — a requirement to be able to lead religious communities. © Max Sher
Buddhist sanctuary Dupten Sheduplin near Sug-Aksi in western Tuva, with Alash Plateau visible in the background. © Max Sher
Konstantin Chugunov, an archaeologist with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, posing for picture in front of a burial mound being excavated by an expedition he leads near Arzhaan in the so-called Valley of Kings in northern Tuva. Mr Chugunov has dedicated almost his entire career to exploring the ancient monuments of Tuva. In 2003, he and Hermann Parzinger of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin have discovered here a rich burial of a noble Scythian with thousands of golden and other paraphernalia. The largest part of the discovery is displayed at the National Museum of Tuva in Kyzyl, a smaller part — at The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. © Max Sher
Founded in 1885 when Tuva was still formally part of the Chinese Qing Empire, the town of Turan became the first Russian permanent settlement in Tuva. Russian farmers and merchants began penetrating into the isolated and remote Tuva even earlier, quickly realizing how immensely profitable the trade in cattle was with the indigenous Tuvans who bought firearms, tobacco, alcohol, and other industrially made items from them. The blue Russian Orthodox church visible in the foreground dates from the early 20 century, the new one is being built now by a local businessman. © Max Sher
Current Google map of Tuva, with places mentioned in the story marked in red.
Personal dress uniform of Salchak Toka, Tuva's long time Communist ruler who formally brought Tuva into the Soviet Union in 1944, preserved at the National Museum of Tuva in the capital Kyzyl. Born in 1901 into a family of poor farmers, Mr Toka first worked as a daily laborer for a Russian settler in Tuva. When Tuva declared independence in 1921, he was hired by the new government to work as an office boy but was soon sent to Moscow to study at the Joseph Stalin Communist University of the Toilers of the East, Stalin's preferred school for training Communist-leaning leaders for Asian countries. After returning to Tuva in 1929, Toka and a group of other graduates staged a coup arresting and later executing the leaders of the very government who had sent them to study. In 1932, Salchak Toka became first secretary of the Tuvan People's Revolutionary Party and then ruled Tuva unchallenged up until his death in 1973. In 1944, a group of 7 top Tuvan officials including Mr Toka and his wife — prime minister Khertek Anchimaa — have single-handedly decided to formally join the Soviet Union without any referendum or even a parliament vote on that move. As many dictators of his time, Mr Toka payed special attention to culture, penning several novels and prioritizing the development of the Soviet Tuvan culture to eradicate its Buddhist and Shamanist roots. © Max Sher
An ovaa — a sacred place — at Balik Kharaar on the left bank of the Yenisei river in central Tuva. © Max Sher