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'The few descriptions of Irkutsk had spoken of it as the Paris of Siberia'

Siberia's best-kept tourism secret

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15 October 2015


Speaking about my motherland, how can I say that I like this place more and that one less? Picture: Vera Salnitskaya

Tuva - also known as Tyva - is more difficult to reach than many Siberian republics and regions, but if you make the extra effort, you will be amply rewarded. A home to ancient civilisations, it comprises mountains, lakes, gushing rivers, and steppe, offering some of the Russian Federation's most spectacular and unspoiled scenery. To the south, Tuva abuts Mongolia, and it shares borders in the Russian Federation with the Altai Republic, the Republic of Khakassia, Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk regions, and the Republic of Buryatia. It is perhaps less known to the outside world than all of its neighbours.

This is all the more reason to explore Tuva, which in size is larger than England and Wales combined, and slightly larger than the state of Flordia. Here, the head of the republic's government, tells of its attractions and people, and explains his efforts to connect Tuva with current - and future - investment. This is the first of a series of reports on the republic and its people.  

It is hard for me, as for any Tuva citizen, to say which places are most worth visiting. Speaking about my motherland, how can I say that I like this place more and that one less? It is impossible for me to name places in this way. I do like to travel with my good friend, a famous man in Russia and now our country's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (who was born and raised in Tuva) and to discover the new places in our small motherland. 

Sholban Kara-ool
Sholban Kara-ool, Chairman of the Government of the Republic of Tyva. Picture: Vera Salnitskaya

This year we went up the rivers in the Todzh taiga. There is a saying in Tuva - 'a person who has not visited Todzh, has not see Tuva'. It is true. If I am right, there are more than 680 lakes in Todzh Korzhuun (district). And we're not talking puddles: these are real lakes, 6 kilometres wide and 20 km long, for example. These  are unique places.

We love to visit western Tuva, too. This year we went to places native for Sergei Shoigu, where his family of Kuzhuget is from - such as Bai-taiga, and Kara-hol lake. For him, these places are full of childhood memories while for me, unfortunately, the connections are more about work. In 2013, I lost there 8 men there - paratroopers, who were extinguishing forest fires. It happened that they failed to escape from fire. Life can be beautiful and tragic, happy and sad at the same time.

Next year in our travels around Tuva, we plan to see Mongun-Taiga. In fact, we are already tasting it, looking through books, and reading historic papers about these places.


'We have all kinds of ecological purity, of that very virginity of nature which awaits those who want to see it, and to have a rest, to be face to face with nature'. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

I am very proud of the fact that people in Tuva are not keen to live in big cities.  This is despite the small population in our region: there are just 313,000 people living in 170,000 or so square kilometres. People live and work in the most remote places: for example, look at our Mongun-Taiga, it has an almost Moon-like landscape. 

I have been to the frontier with Mongolia, just some several hundred metres away from the border, and I met a young family there. The young wife is a teacher, the man is a traditional shepherd, and they live here in his family's native place. 

I would like my small motherland to be attractive for tourists in all seasons of the year. 

The autumn in Tuva is dry and warm, it is perfect for hunters. This is estrus time for red deer and the hunt is particularly beautiful. Hunting red deer has always been very attractive for men. The pipes are singing, a red deer runs towards you. There is a pleasure and a tragedy in it. Autumn is a great time for hunters.

Our winters are quite severe. But this period is interesting for those keen on under-the-ice fishing. An air temperature of minus 45C is not at all a disaster for us. But such low temperatures do not last long.

Sholban Kara-ool


'We do our best to take care of our roots and origins'. Picture: Vera Salnitskaya

From my point of view, the most attractive period in July and August. Tuva is in blossom at this time. We have all kinds of ecological purity, of that very virginity of nature which awaits those who want to see it, and to have a rest, to be face to face with nature. In this regard, summer and autumn are very attractive. I understand that there is no sense for Tuva to become a tourist Mecca. We'll never turn into Turkey. 

We understand, instead, that we are attractive for those tourists who are in love with nature, who value the silence, who understand the roots of the nation and respects them. Those who have a taste for purity, not only the purity of nature but the purity of thoughts. We would like such people to come. It is said sometimes that Tuva people are naive and open hearted. I am glad to hear people saying it.

I don't think that a Mayor of New York or Moscow or of any other major city can promise that 'We'll provide absolute security for you'. Human society, unfortunately, has its own defects, and here they are the same as anywhere else in the world. In any town a man can steal something or have some other dirty plans. We look forward to having less and less such people.

Believe me, we do our best to provide security of those who live here and people who visit the republic. We understand that the chance to develop Tuva without the feeling of security, without trust to this land, is almost a zero. Security is our main task which we must keep caring for. There are certain measures aimed at providing security.



'Believe me, we do our best to provide security of those who live here and people who visit the republic'. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

We do our best to take care of our roots and origins. Our ancestors were wise people, they occupied a huge territory and could make friends with each other. Such traditions of hospitality like meeting a guest, feeding him and making tea for him without asking where he is going - this is not just a matter of morality. Such traditions allowed people to survive at this huge territory. If a man has to cross a vast area on a horse, he must make stops on the way. And it can be minus 40C here in winter, we remember. You just won't survive if you have to make a long trip. 

This is why the owner of yurts must be hospitable when a traveller comes in, because tomorrow he will have to go somewhere himself. There are many such traditions, they are several centuries old and they are not based on morality, they were tested by life and are based on good sense. It is a good reason to keep and follow the traditions.

In Soviet times, our national holidays like Shagaa were seriously persecuted. For example, my mother was a local activist of the Communist Party. She was a teacher, and I will remember all my life how she cried. I tried to calm her down: she was called up to the local party office for organising a Shagaa holiday in our village.



'I love my nation, and I am proud to be a part of it'. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

Such historic periods took place, unfortunately. I think they are completely senseless, and from the governmental point of view, they improved nothing. But there were also positive aspects. In Soviet times, national differences were never a problem. It would have never occurred to me that I was different from my classmate Vanya Malyshev. And now somewhere in St Petersburg I can meet a man who will say that I am worse than him on some account. But traditions are needed for our future life here.

By tradition in Tuva, a man does not deserve to drink alcohol if he has achieved nothing in this life. According to our traditions, a man sampled araka - fermented milk vodka - when he turned 40. And now schoolchildren are trying alcohol. This is why we are seeking to organise it so that security is not something planted by the government but something needed by society, its internal culture, something that fits our traditions. And if you do see something inappropriate, excuse me please, but we are aiming to make security a key feature of Tuva.

It is not true when Tuva is sometimes presented as a hot criminal place where drunk men can be seen everywhere. There are problems but they are not that alarming. It is easy to say that alcoholism comes when there are no jobs, and there are no jobs because of alcoholism. I hate such simple straightforward answers. 



'I'd like the treasures under our feet to belong to people who are here today and will be here tomorrow'. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

If we link unemployment with alcoholism, then the Japanese nation is the one that drinks most. But it is one of the leading contemporary societies. And it means alcoholism is not directly linked to unemployment. In my speeches I say: it is not true that a man suffers from his unemployment and this is why he drinks alcohol. Only a weak man can do it like this. But as a government official I understand that it is one of the reasons. And we are doing all what we can to solve this problem.

I understand that Tuva will never get a chance to develop, if you, tourists, come here with the only highway from Abakan to Kyzyl. It would be great if our airport was more developed and there were more options for receiving more flights, including international. And preferably cheap. 

We have completed the long-awaited construction of the airport. Now we are fighting for runways and gates, which are federal property, to meet the requirements. Then more modern jets will be able to fly to us. I am in favour of  roads being as safe as possible. It would also be ideal if a railway was built. And not as a way to take things out of here. But to connect Russia to South East Asia, we'd become Russia's gate to the fast developing economies of the Asian Tiger, not only China, but South Korea and Singapore. We have a magnificent  location, geographically. It would be great to turn this potential into capital. 

At the moment, we have a 300-million rouble ($4.5 million) funding for reconstruction of the runway in our capital city of Kyzyl. I have set a very ambitious goal - to complete if in 2016. There is also an archeological excavation going on along the railway. The railway can't be built until the excavation is completed. But they are already finishing their work. The papers have gone through the government's expertise. It's a step towards building the railway link. 



'It is a great achievement of my small nation that it managed to survive history's grinder'. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

We live in a state under which the Constitution protects private investment and private capital. That's why if someone considers it desirable to invest in Tuva, we will do everything to make it happen. 

When I started my career, it's a shame to admit, there was no private investment here. Last year, we were the fourth largest private investment destination in Russia. Apparently, capital can see the tendencies in Tuva, hopefully, it will all continue to develop. We have foreign investment. It's a special honour, because business confidence is a very special indicator. 

Regarding hotels, steps away from here, in Krasnykh Partizan Street, you'll see a building completed up to the second floor. It is being constructed by an Azerbaijan company which has hotels in different places - for example, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Baku. I am glad that they could see the potential and started building their hotel here with their own money. 

We have managed to keep old hotels, but, honestly, they were frozen in the 1980s because state capital funding is a different thing. The world's experience proves that private capital is much more effective in hotel construction. We have privatised the old hotels, Odugen and Buyan Badyrgy. We are ready to revamp existing hotels. But more importantly, we're hoping for new developments. 

Like anyone else, I love my nation, and I am proud to be a part of it. It is a natural and a very inspiring feeling, just as a child needs motherly care and a fatherly hand. Who are we without it? A plant with no roots, creatures without the past and the future, or, as our Tuva ancestors said, a newborn with its eyes shut, an unfledged bird. 



'It is said sometimes that Tuva people are naive and open hearted. I am glad to hear people saying it'. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

 There are no more than 250,000 people from Tuva all around the world, which is about 1/30,000th of humanity, a drop in the ocean of nations. It is a great achievement of my small nation that it managed to survive history's grinder which destroyed dozens of large civilizations, starting with the Scythians and ending up with the greatest empires of modern times. We survived. 

The secret of phenomenal vitality of our people is in being true to our roots and ancient traditions, in living ties between the generations and entire epochs. The secrets of life and self-sustainability of a family and an individual have been gathered little by little. Today, having been 'polished' by time, they seem easy and naive, but there is wisdom gathered in the course of centuries, very often, at a cost of great difficulties and hardship. 

I really want our people to be living here 1,000 years from now. I'd like the treasures under our feet to belong to people who are here today and will be living here tomorrow, not to be taken elsewhere. I'd like local people, those who live and work here, to become richer. This doesn't necessarily mean only the people of Tuva, but all those who live and work here, on our territory. 

As regards attracting tourists, or rather not tourists, but guests, I'm almost sure that every one who finds a way to get here will fall in love with our land. That's why I invite more people to come.

Comments (7)

Byłem nad Bajkałem. Tësknië, gdzie mnie nie było
Bogdan, Mińsk Mazowiecki
27/08/2020 01:04
Wonderful article written by a man who would know. I was in Tuva this past May and I loved every second I was there. I run a group on FaceBook called Tuvan Xoomei
Michael Ibeam Cline, Nanuet NY, USA
30/10/2016 03:36
Great article. I wanted to go to Tuva when I last visited Siberia in 2011, but it wasn't possible due to time constraints. I went to the Altai region and Baikal instead. Not a disaster, of course :-) but I'd still love to get to Tuva one day.
Joe Smith, Wolverhampton, UK
07/05/2016 21:31
I visited Tuva in the summer of 2003, taking part in a 2-week-long trek through western Tuva to Mongun-Taiga. What a wonderful experience--yaks, eagles, glaciers, throat-singing, and, best of all, wonderful people. Before I left, I made arrangements to return six months later in the middle of the winter--and had another incredible visit. I think of tuva every day. It changed my life. I hope to return one day. Thank you, Tuva!
Dianne, Washington State, USA
29/12/2015 02:17
Yes, a great article, thank you. I will visit here.
Louie, New Zealand
28/12/2015 09:35
It is a good place for spiritual rest.

Probably there is also good food.
Enrique, Spain
11/12/2015 05:04
Thank you for this article, the amazing photos and the kind, informative and inspiring words. Ten years ago I became aware of your beautiful country, amazingly through a tuvinian rock band. I found myself searching the webs for more information about the people, their history and culture and hopefully I will visit your breathtakingly wonderful country some day. May the blue sky be with you.
Sema, Berlin, Germany
11/12/2015 01:51

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