Choreme, Khan and Araka in a Tuvinian Yurt
Starting from Aktash, the site where the frontier post was situated, we did not see any Caucasian faces; even Mongoloid ones became rare. Having passed the district center of Kosh-Agach and turning eastward from the route of Chuiskii Trakt, we found ourselves in savage solitudes. Having climbed a 3 thousand meter high pass by bizarre paths, we entered Tuva from the direction of Altai. We passed through the inaccessible, grand, and deserted Mongun-Taiga; then, across the valley of the Kargy River, we descended towards the Mongolian border. Another ascent, another pass (There had been so many on our way! And how many were ahead!). A dark gloomy canyon, on the bottom of which a tiny streamlet was babbling. Having absorbed some streams on its way, the rivulet gradually turned into the Barlyk River. Its waters, rushing over multicolored stones among the mountains of Tsagan-Shibetu, flow into Hemchik, then into the mighty Yenisei, pass through the gorges of Bolshoi Sayan and, falling from a 200 meter high dam of Sayan-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station, will flow towards Krasnoyarsk, then Dudinka, and on to the Arctic Ocean. Yesterday, we spent the night in the cold and damp canyon of Barlyk, where the sun rises two hours later than above the plain, and disappears behind the mountain two hours earlier. Our tents, pinned to the rocky ground, became covered with hoarfrost all over by the morning.
Near the Mongolian Border
It is about time to explain who we are and why we rushed about some god-forsaken corners of Sayan-Altai. What we were doing is called archaeological prospecting. We traveled and searched for archaeological artifacts, basically burial mounds erected by ancient nomads. We examined the artifacts, described them, and took pictures. Our team consisted of seven people, among them Konstantin Chugunov, senior research worker of the St. Petersburg State Hermitage Museum, who had headed an archaeological expeditions in Central Asia in 1999—2004. His team investigated the burial mound Arzhan-2 in the northern part of Tuva, which led to a number of sensational discoveries and brought an unprecedented amount of fine ancient Scythian gold. Other members of our team were Vladimir Trebenin, leading photographer of the Hermitage; Veronika Shilts, an expert on fine arts from Paris; Yurii, our driver; and the three of us, research fellows. We had been traveling a whole month, covered nearly five thousand kilometers of mountains and plains, asphalt and earth roads, virgin land, steppes, and uplands tundra.
…In the morning, we could barely make a campfire, for everything was white with hoar frost, and hardly had the sun peeped out from behind the larches growing on the rocks, as everything became soaking wet. Having scarcely got warmed, we set off. At the point where the Barlyk River turned left, the road turned right. The cold and gloom of the canyon had abruptly changed for the cheerful luminescence of the Arzaita River. Walking by the river we descended into the spacious Saglynskaya valley. Mongolia lay there, behind that hillock. All around us there were burial mounds. Now and then yurts showed on the grayish-green background of the steppe. In the end of the 60s, the Sayan-Tuvinian archaeological expedition of the USSR Academy of Sciences headed by Alexander Grach, a scholar from Leningrad, worked there. A. Grach dug a few burial mounds in the Sagly River valley that dated back to the Scythian period. He is well remembered: being agile and openhearted, he established friendly relations and reached understanding with the aboriginal population, which is not common for academic workers. Many pupils from the local boarding schools worked in his teams. Local Tuvinians are still proud of the fact that they knew A. Grach — very soon we had an opportunity to see it with our own eyes.
It was time to think about a respite and a bite. Leaving the earth road that passed through the Saglynskaya steppe, we stepped on the pits and bumps along a small rivulet. According to the map, it was called Kyuzlengi. Its narrow valley bordered by green beds grown with larch taiga lured us further and upwards. A small minivan, a twin brother of ours, was swaying towards us. This indispensable vehicle was widely used there, since any foreign-made car would have fallen to pieces on local roads no later than in a week. A Tuvinian was driving; we called after him.
“How do you do!”
“How d’you do!”
“Are there any yurts in the upper course of the river?”
“What? Yeah. Over there!” (Waving his hand). “An old man lives there.”
We were lucky that we managed to explain ourselves. In those places not many people could speak Russian. Another piece of luck was that the driver was sober. So, we resumed our way or, to be more precise, stumbled further on the ruts. Behind the larches and the dense thicket of willow that framed the rocky river bed, something white loomed. We stopped and looked closely — it was a yurt. Following an almost imperceptible track, we turned that way. In ten minutes our minivan pulled by a camp of nomads, aal, to the accompaniment of incessant barking of dogs. There were two yurts, a cattle-pen, a flock of sheep peacefully lying by, pasturing horses and, of course, numerous children of different ages. Hello, here we are.
Digression into History
Tuva is a genuine ethnographic reserve and an archaeologi-cal museum in the open air. The modern and the antique are closely connected there; and these yurts, their inhabitants, shepherds and arats, their way of life and mentality, traditions, customs, and songs are the connecting-links.
In Tuva, the overwhelming majority of the artifacts studied by archaeologists are burial mounds. They are located either in the steppe, or on open woodless sections of river valleys. There are a lot of burial mounds in Tuva. The most ancient of them date back to the second half of the 2nd millennium B. C. (the fore-Scythian period), whereas the youngest are attributed to late Middle Ages. Artifacts of the Scythian epoch are of greatest interest.
A militant and heroic people or, to be more exact, a group of peoples, that was given the conventional collective name of Scythians (what they called themselves we do not know) inhabited and owned vast spaces from Sayan to the Black Sea from the 9th to the 2nd century B. C. The Scythians were nomads, and, to all appearances, they were founders of the natural economy of nomads and of the specific culture of the steppes. For a long time, steppes located to the north of the Caspian and Black Seas and in Northern Caucasia were considered the native land of the Scythians and nomadism. The archaeological discoveries of the recent decades (in particular, the excavations in Tuva) suggest other historical roots of this people, namely, the center of Asia, the Sayan-Altai region.
The early Central-Asian Scythians were hook-nosed narrow-faced Caucasians of the Iranian type, but with time their appearance was acquiring more and more Mongoloid features. They spoke an unfamiliar language of Eastern-Iranian origin. They bred horses, sheep, camels, and lived in mobile dwellings. Herodotus reported that Scythian families lived in kibitkas, covered wagons with wheels, or erected temporary dwellings made of felt, something like yurts. The Scythians built neither any temple-type sanctuaries that could be decorated with sculptures and paintings, nor any permanent structures, except those for funerals. On the other hand, building the latter, they spared neither themselves, nor their time or expenses.
Starting with the 7th century B. C., the dead were buried underground, whereas before that they were buried at the level of the horizon. A wide pit, 3—5 meters deep, was dug. In the pit, a wooden framework was built of larch logs. In the framework and near it, some things considered necessary for traveling in the other world, such as arms, utensils, and objects designed for ritual purposes were placed; then the deceased was put on his side, legs bent, on the wooden floor. In some (though rare) burials, some body fragments, objects made of cloth, leather, and wood were preserved thanks to the ice lens that formed there and as a result of the conserving properties of bronze. The Scythians were in the habit of filling burials with gold and bronze; other metals are found rarely; and precious stones are not found at all. Artifacts made of gold and bronze amaze us both by their refined technique and the finesse of the artistic style. This style may be referred to as “animalistic,” because animals are depicted in various, at times extremely fanciful, combinations transforming into zoomorphic patterns.
The burial chamber was not closed immediately after the funeral: access to the deceased was retained open for a certain period of time, probably a year or more; rites for the repose of the dead were performed near the burial chamber. Around the pit, a ring wall of stone slabs was erected. This wall may have had some ritual significance. Probably it marked the borderline between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Sometimes some gifts like quivers with arrows or a harness were put in the wall. The last stage of construction of the burial mound was erecting the mound itself. A mound of stones, 1 to 4 m high, was typical of the Scythian burial mounds in Tuva.
“How is Your Cattle? How are Your Children?”
Our car stopped, we waited for the boy to calm down the dogs and got out. Then there was a ceremony of greetings and getting acquainted. Children were the first to come up to us. Age standards of behavior are of great importance for the Tuvinians, even urban, and the more so for those who live in yurts. Children came rushing at once, burning with curiosity to see what was going on. Girls, dark-eyed and vigorous, were of course in the vanguard. Teenagers moved in a more sedate manner and positioned themselves a little way away. A ty-pical posture was with legs set far apart, hands behind the back, looking frowningly. Young girls remained aloof and pretended that they were not in the least interested in the newcomers. Only after that, the door of the yurt opened, and the housewife, an elderly woman, appeared.
“How do you do, missus, eki!”
“Eki” is a Tuvinian greeting. In the olden days the greeting ritual was more ceremonious. G. N. Kurbatskii, an expert on Tuvinian folklore and customs, described it in the following way, “The younger person grasped the hands of the older one from below, palms up, greeted the latter with “Amyr-la!”, which means in Tuvinian “Be in peace!”, and bowed. The older one responded, “Mendi”, “Hello!” and kissed the younger in the forehead.” A dialogue, a tribute to courtesy, followed this ceremony:
“Are all of you in good health?”
“Everybody is well, everything is just fine. And you?”
“All is well. Are your sheep in good health? Have the cattle wintered well? Have you hunted well? Does the grass grow well? Are all of your folks well?”
And so forth. (G. N. Kurbatskii. The Tuvinians in Their Folklore. Kyzyl, 2001, pp. 277—278). Nowadays, the ceremony is simplified; what remained from numerous and flowery formulas is the brief “Eki!”
The elderly hostess did not speak any Russian at all, a situation typical of those remote regions of Tuva difficult of access. The young people did not seem to understand Russian either, though the law on universal secondary education was not repealed and those young people attended school. At first, our conversation was confined to broad smiles and friendly gestures. But we needed to somehow explain who we were and what we wanted. We wanted to get acquainted, look round the yurt, take some pictures… plunge, so to speak, into the family life of nomads. Besides, it would be fine to slaughter a ram, naturally for money, in order to take part of the meat with us, and to prepare traditional Tuvinian dishes from the rest. It would be both interesting and delicious, no doubt. The only problem was to explain it somehow.
Kara-Sal, in Russian Chernousov
Meanwhile the door of the yurt opened again, and the host, an old man, appeared. It should be mentioned that nomadic Tuvinians know no age, there are only age ranges; the same as with the Mongolians. They are: a boy, a young man, a young arat, a dignified man, an old man. The same concerns women: first a little girl, then a young girl, a young mother, a mature mother of the house, and an old woman. How old was our host? He could be any age from fifty to one hundred years old. It was difficult to judge about the age by the face, bearing, or manners. It may not be established from his passport either. A lean, thin, stooping figure, bow legs of a horseman, knotty palms, and brown weather-beaten sun-parched face. Broad cheek-bones, deep wrinkles, slanted eyes. The nose was a little hooked. The only features not common for the Tuvinians were his moustache and beard. No representatives of this local Mongoloid race typically have these hairy adornments for, as a rule, they wouldn’t grow, or if they do, they are usually sparse. It was, probably, that man’s ancestral inherited peculiarity. His name was Kara-Sal, after all, which in Russian means Black Moustache.
Is it the first name or the family name? It depends. Each Tuvinian has the first name and a nickname that means kinship with a certain clan. The point is that they can change places. For instance, there are ramified clans of the Mongushes, Oyuns, Ondars, Salchaks, and others. But a boy can be named Mongush or Salchak, while the nickname or first name of his parent, say, Kyzyl-ool (a red-haired boy), will become his family name. Any family name may become the first name, but not vice versa. Names borrowed from Russian, like Vladimir, Valerii, Sergei, as well as the Tuvinian names Temir (iron), Buyan (blessing, boon) and the like never become family names. As to female names, most common are nicknames, often pleasant and diverse, like Kara-kys (a dark girl), Chechena (talkative), Anai (nanny-goat), and so on and so forth, along with the Russian names Elena, Marina, and Olga.
First of all, we established contact. The old man spoke a little Russian, and our driver Yurii understood Tuvinian a little. Konstantin Chugunov, our boss, could also say a couple of words in Tuvinian; actually, he had worked in Tuva for over twenty five years. Besides, the ritual is that keeping up a conversation is men’s business. It is unbecoming to talk to teenagers and to women. So, we stood at ease in a circle between the car and the yurt trying to explain ourselves, weaving an intricate thread of Russian and Tuvinian words.
“How do you do, eki!”
“We are archaeologists, we are traveling, examining burial mounds. A burial mound. Horum, yes?”
“Archaeologists, I knows.”
We called each other by names, treated everybody to cigarettes, and smoked them. In olden times, when Tuvinians met, they exchanged their pipes, and if they were in no hurry (and where should they hurry in the steppe?), they smoked their pipes then and there. A pipe-danza is small, for five-ten minute smoking.
“This is Volodya, our photographer. (Meantime Volodya was holding the camera ready, like a dzhigit his dagger.) We are from St. Petersburg, you know, from Leningrad.”
“Leningrad know, yes.”
“Are there any burial mounds here? Horum?”
“Horum, yes, a lot of horum.”
“Grach dug not far from here. Grach, you know?”
“Ah! Grach, yes!” the old man brightened, a smile smoothed down his dark wrinkles, “Grach dug there (waving his hand to point behind the mountain). I dug with Grach. Grach, yes! Grach died.”
“Yes, he died long ago.”
“Died, yes, long ago. I knows Grach.”
There was a pause, a moment of silence. Mentioning Alexander Grach at once brought us together, as if we had been acquainted since the time when he headed the diggings behind that mountain ridge.
“And this is Veronika, she is from France, from Paris. A real Frenchwoman.”
“From Paris! No!”
The old man was imperturbable, as a real nomad should be, but it could be felt that Kara-Sal and all his folks were pleased with the presence of a real Frenchwoman from Paris there, on the rocky Tuvinian land overgrown with grazed wormwood and littered with sheeps’ and goats’ pellets. One had to give Ms Shilts her due: with all her intellectual refinement she found it amazingly easy to get used to any reality, and looked there, between the yurts, perfectly at home.
Our civil talk continued for some more time, in which we learnt that old man Kara-Sal had nine sons and a great many grandchildren. (As a rule, they don’t count daughters and granddaughters, at least don’t boast of their number.) The older sons lived far, some of them in the nearest settlement of Sagly, some in the district center Mugur-Aksy, and the others in the city. Here is the youngest one. And who are these? These are the grandchildren. It should be noted that the older of the grandchildren was about five years senior to the youngest son. Have you got a lot of sheep? A lot, yes. And what about horses? A lot, too. And cows? There are cows, too. I looked around: a young boy was driving a flock of two or three hundred head of sheep; another flock were lying next to the campsite of nomads, enjoying cool weather. A few dozen horses were roaming around. A herd of cows, not small either, were grazing by the river. It is true; there were plenty of cattle.
During our talk the old woman and the teenagers were standing about. The children were scurrying, they were especially interested in two things, that is, our car, and Ms Veronika. At first they were shy, but on noticing that both objects behaved in a friendly manner, grew bolder. The car could be climbed into, and Veronoka could be touched. Finally we managed to make ourselves clear about a ram and taking pictures. Kara-Sal promptly gave orders, and two teenagers went running towards the flock, while the girls ran to the neighboring yurt. Our hostess busily left to take care of the preparations.
Without Shedding Blood
I have frequently seen the Tuvinians slaughter, cut and prepare rams. But never did I watch such ethnographical professionalism as in the household of Kara-Sal. Two teenagers dragged the animal meant to be slaughtered. The animal was neatly positioned on the back. The old man brought a knife and stood beside. Two boys of thirteen or fourteen years old performed all the further operations with surgical precision and maximum speed, whilst the old man was standing by controlling and instructing.
The ram was calmed down, it lay quietly on the back as if smiling. In an instant, a very sharp knife made a long longitudinal slash, seemingly painless, on the ram’s neck. The aim is not to spill a single drop of blood on the ground as blood contains the soul of a living creature. If it is spilt, the soul will perish; but if it remains in the body or another creature drinks or eats it, the soul will be resurrected in its new incarnation. Out of love for the living, it had to be killed without shedding blood. For this reason ancient Mongolians considered cutting off the head a horrible execution; whereas breaking the spine and leaving a man to die in the steppe was considered more humane. By way of example, Dzhuchi, the elder son of Genghis Khan, was executed in that way, in all probability, on the order of his loving father.
One of the boys held the ram by the legs, the other thrust his hand into the cut, felt for the aorta and with a decisive movement snapped it there, inside. The ram jerked a couple of times, opened its mouth, rolled its eyes, and left this world without as much as bleating. Making sure that the ram was dead (by lifting an eyelid, like a doctor of an ambulance does), they chopped off the lower joints and threw them to the dogs. Hoofs and hide alone are considered inedible; the rest is consumed. The hide was removed without a knife, with dexterous and strong movements of the palms forward, under the skin, from the belly towards the extremities. The belly was cut, the blood poured into a basin carefully and quickly, so that it did not coagulate. At that stage women joined in. The hostess and her daughter-in-law who, as it were, lived in the next yurt, stirred the blood with finely chopped onion and added a little salt to it: it was a half-finished product for the khan. While the boys were cutting the carcass, the old woman and the girls set to the intestines. The intestines and stomach were carefully washed. A part of the intestines was prepared for the khan: they were tied at one end in such a way as to produce a kind of a stocking; then the blood mixed with onion was carefully poured into it, and the stocking was pinned with wooden pins. Meanwhile a cauldron was boiling over the hearth in the yurt; the head, ribs, fatty tail, kidneys, liver, lungs, and after that, the intestines filled with blood, khan, were put in there. The stomach and part of the intestines were cut into ribbons, interlaced with the suet to produce braids called choreme, which was also dropped into the cauldron.
Cooking a ram takes time. While the water in the cauldron was boiling and seething, they invited us into the yurt to have some tea. The yurt is a special place. When one enters a yurt, he should know that the right side is meant for females; guests have no business there. We were seated on the rugs on the left side. Just across from the entrance the host was seated with his legs crossed under. In olden times everything including the place where one should sit and the pose one should assume was strictly regulated. The further from the entrance, the more honorable. For respectable people it was deemed proper to sit crossing their legs bent in the knees; young or poor people should set one of their legs bent in the knee upright, and sit on the other. This is of no great consequence now, but one should be careful not to offend the hosts.
We sat down. There was a jar of sour cream and some flat cakes. Tuvinian sour cream is something special, it is so dense that you can cut it with a knife. The daughter-in-law poured out the tea in special teacups. The tea is taken, without fail, with milk and salt. It both satiates and quenches the thirst. But before we had time to take the teacups, our host produced from somewhere a large plastic bottle filled with some transparent liquid and poured it into a cup. It was araka, a beverage distilled from fermented milk, hoitpak. It is an alcoholic drink, from 7—8 to 40—50 degrees strong, depending on the repetition factor of distillation. Kara-Sal dipped the third finger in the cup and splashed the araka in the four directions — for the spirits. Then he offered it to the guests. Everybody is supposed to drink araka from the same vessel, in circle. The araka was excellent. It was of medium strength and very clean, without that unpleasant smell and flavor of gone off whey, which makes an unaccustomed person catch his breath and evokes a vomiting reflex. Drinking the araka made our talk substantial and unhurried, the more so that the daughter-in-law, an urban dweller, spoke enough Russian to act as an interpreter. Meanwhile the khan, ribs, kidneys, and choreme were ready. The hostess fished them out and put them on two dishes. She handed one of the dishes, the metal one, to the host, and put the other one, wooden, on the female side for women and children. Incidentally, no teenagers shared the meal. Naturally, we ate everything helping ourselves with our hands and a knife. The hostess ladled out the dense and rich soup from the cauldron and, adding some millet, poured it out in the cups. Eating and drinking should be unhurried. Actually, one could not do it otherwise, for the meal was too nourishing and dense. After that it was time for pipes. We smoked, talked, and little by little grew languid.
By the way, while the ram was being cut out and prepared, we had time to walk around. Volodya and Veronika seemed to have satisfied to the full their passion for ethnic photography, and Kara-Sal’s grandsons and granddaughters satisfied their curiosity. Now they surrounded kind-hearted Veronika and have nearly mounted Volodya. One of the girls dragged a small black goatling in order to acquaint it with the Frenchwoman. Another one beckoned us round the fence where a calf was wallowing in the dense warm manure. Mention should be made that children in Tuvinian yurts are not prohibited anything. It appears that they are in no way fostered and, to all appearances, not noticed. We, strangers, were more interesting to them because, unlike their own adults, we were paying attention and communicating with them.
I sat in the car making notes in the diary and time and again addressing to a military kilometer-map. A curious black-haired and dark-eyed head peeped in the half-open door. A girl about six years old, a typical Kara-kys, was shyly and warily peeping in the door, interested to know what that bearded man was doing. In about ten minutes, with the girl still standing without changing her position, a boy a little older appeared. He did not take long to familiarize himself with the situation, and soon got inside the car in a businesslike manner, as if challenging me to see how bold he was. He felt my soldier’s blouse of the fashion of 1946 with an interested air. After that he took my maps and thoughtfully examined them, though it was unlikely that he could read. And he did all that without saying a word.
Someone called me. I got out. Not far, directly on the ground, there was something, covered with sheepskins. We lifted them and saw a heap of implements, which deserved to be kept in a good ethnographical museum.
There was a wooden mortar, sogaash, and a pestle to it, bala, also made of wood. No doubt, nomads used utensils exactly like those both a hundred and a thousand years ago. There was a trough, despi, hollowed out of an unbroken piece of wood, for the ram’s intestines to be put into; subsequently the khan and choreme are eaten from it. And there was a genuine antiquity, a hand grinder made of two flat millstones. Archeologists found their exact counterparts in the excavations of the Scythian and Pre-Scythian periods. Among all those, there was an awe-inspiring object that would make archaeologists tremble, a leather saddle bag looking exactly like those of ancient nomads, only a little bit newer. Even leather straps with knots were braided in the same manner as ancient Scythians had done two and a half thousand years ago. Things of the past epoch… to handle them was as surprising as to see a living mammoth.
It was time to continue our way. The cup with araka went the last round, the host poured into it what remained in the bottle, finished it up, and with all his might splashed the last drops over his shoulder. We said goodbye to our hosts and took leave.
Again the young came running and surrounded us. Handshaking and smiles followed. We got into the car and drove off. Some three hundred meters from the yurt we distinctly saw the stonework of a burial mound, and another one in a little distance. For over twenty hundred years nomads had lived there; and their life was almost the same as that of our Kara-Sal and his nice family.
I have nearly forgotten to say: The Kara-Sal’s yurt is situated directly on a burial mound. If we drew a vertical line through the hearth of his dwelling, it would pass through the burial of a warrior and stock-breeder who had died two and a half thousand years ago, and would connect the world of the living, the beyond, and the world of divine spirits. Indeed, times and epochs merged together in Tuva.
Photos by A. Terebenin and K. Chugunov