Perceptive Travel - The Singing Shamen of Tuva

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The Singing Shamen of Tuva
Story and photos by Dominic Hamilton



In a forgotten corner of southern Russia, Dominic Hamilton finds a shamen who sees an ill relative and a coming child, accompanied by a local throat–singing star.


At the shaman centre in Kyzyl, a house of stained planks trimmed and framed in blue paint, the seven shamans have their photos and specialties listed on printed paper on the wall of the reception room. In the back garden a pyre smolders, and prayer ribbons ticker branches. The floors and white walls are scrubbed, the ceiling low. It has the clinical feel of my local doctor's surgery.

At reception, you find a price–list of services. Basic Fortune Telling, 50 rubles. Domestic Strife Purification, 300 rubles. Shaman Funeral, 500 rubles. We meet Yury, a skinny man in a green BOSS T–shirt who looks disconcertingly like a relative of Spok's. He would like to read my future, free of charge.

tuvu shamen

In Kyzyl, capital of the lost and forgotten Republic of Tuva in southern Russia, there are over three shaman clinics. Small, unassuming houses on tree–lined streets where you can go in and make an appointment with the spirits. It is the only country in the world to regard shamanism––a form of animism and thus Man's oldest faith––as its official religion, along with Buddhism. Since the fall of the USSR, the old beliefs have been revived, sacred sites have opened once more, and a new generation of shamans has emerged.

We sit on little stools at Yury's desk by the window. He's very gentle and calm. His eyebrows bow above his eyes, floating mid–way up his forehead in concentration. His tasseled and be–ribboned shaman's cloak hangs on the wall behind him. He would divine my future with 41 stones. They had been his great grandfather's, a shaman too. They're old, coated with a patina of grease, but look very commonplace. He begins precisely to place the stones along the marked seven points of the Big Bear constellation, drawn naively in biro on a white cloth.

"You have a son," he tells me looking calmly up. I look blank. But the pit of my stomach wrenches. It's a long story…

"I don't think I do," I reply haplessly.

"Then you will have one."

The stones' alignment bodes well, it turns out. He feels for them in the pile on the table and lines them up in rows, six down by three across, dripping them onto the cloth through his long, attenuated fingers. Sometimes a single stone, sometimes a pair.

While we wait for him to finish, a woman shaman in the next room is brushing a cloth stretched taut along a patient with her arm in a sling. The shaman's cloak sparkles and tinkles with colors and bells.

"Your mother is ill," Yury decides. He extracts a pendant from a box on the desk. "This is for her." It's oblong and gold, with the Virgin Mary on one side and Buddha on the other. A double whammy. He also tells me I must take care near the sea. And not to catch more than 80 or so fish. This would bring bad luck. I'm baffled, but mollified: the heart of Asia is a long way from the nearest ocean.

"Every shaman has his own spirit, usually an animal, and the spirit advises them," a different shaman Serenot told me at his own clinic. Perhaps my spirit is a fish then. "The shaman must talk for the spirits in order to help people. He must maintain the link with the spirits of Nature, of Earth, water and forest." He fixes me with his impassive owlish gaze. "The shaman's greatest duty is to accompany the souls of the dead."

Serenot didn't exactly scare me. But his power was visceral, and very much palpable. He took my friend Pranas' pulse, and told him he had recently broken up with his girlfriend. He had. The shaman also talked to my English friend Neil. He advised him not to go on any long journeys––a tough call since Neil was researching a guidebook. Neil went anyway, and had a terrible time: five punctures in as many days.

Volodya does it his way
My friend Volodya, who had taken us to meet Serenot, was worried about his age. Statistically, Volodya should be dead. He's 49. But he's an optimist ––without good reason. Like nails sealing a coffin, alcoholism, malnutrition and chronic depression have driven male life expectancy in Tuva to below 50. Genially, he pointed me around his photo albums. Smiling friends enjoying being tourists. Paris, Holland, Finland, the States. Celebratory meals at restaurants, farewells at airports. Happy young–ish men. They've all died. He's had to reform his entire group of touring Tuvan musicians.

tuvu singer family

Volodya asked the shaman Serenot to say a blessing for him, obviously concerned by his health, although with some 17 children behind him, I don't think he has too much cause for concern. Serenot sat at his desk, surrounded by his 'tom': his skin–stretched drum, his tasseled baton, the clacking crania of bears, wolves and boars, his potions, bottles and Buddhist paraphernalia. The shaman didn't fear anything, he said. "Some people fear the future. But what will happen will happen."

Volodya looked relieved, Serenot intoned a baritone invocation and we left, leaving some rubles in a dish to one side of the room.

Volodya lives in the Pentagon, Kyzyl. The tenement blocks are washed a dirty salmon pink, its balconies laddering up nine floors. Grubby, urchin kids play by puddles or chase the chalice of a deflated football. Concrete wrinkles and chips. Puddles fester. Dust and rubbish migrate from one block to the next, ambulant peddlers of poverty. The lift stinks of the last drunkard's cock–legged greeting card.

Sitting in his floral wallpapered apartment, he gets out his doshpuluur guitar. Volodya is one of Tuva's greatest exports. He's a throat singer. Throat singing, or "khöömei" in Tuvan (or even "voix guimbarde" (voice of an old guitar) in French), is the country's most important folkloric tradition. Tuvans rightly regard themselves as the masters of the form. Some of it sounds quite ordinary to the Western ear, like Louis Armstrong singing in Turkish perhaps. But some styles – and there are over five – are like nothing you've ever heard before. The sygit style sounds more like an echoing, hollow whistle which emerges from deep within the singer's chest. The pitch of it travels right through you in a haunting and bewitching threnody. More remarkable still, while whistling the singer maintains a low baritone note, effectively becoming double–voiced.

Prayer flags and yurts
prayer flags kyzylThe roots of khöömei are lost in time. But its inspiration isn't. Beyond the tenements of Kyzyl, Tuva is a blessed country of aching steppes, rugged mountains, icy rivers and vast forests. The people there are still largely nomadic, or else cling to tiny communities in the wilderness. Bordered by Mongolia to the south and hemmed by the Altay mountains to the north, Tuva remains the most ethnically–intact of all the federal Russian republics, where 80% of the population is still indigenous. Tuva, depending how you calculate Asia's landmass, lies at the very heart of the continent. Here, throat singers are regarded as pop stars.

Volodya's not a pop star, yet. Though he does have his own CD. Lamb–chop cheeks mould his face. When he laughs, which is often, they smother his nose and heavy–lidded eyes and mouth. He has the physique of a wrestler gone to pot. His trim graying hair has been bottle–dyed an unfortunate shade of dark brown. His belly flops over his belt, longing to rejoin his stout legs. His love for his art is infectious, and he's traveled the world giving concerts. He says it's not like learning a guitar.

"You have to experience Tuvan nature. To live among the nomads. To listen to the sounds of the steppe, of the animals and of the wind. Then it becomes intuitive."

tuvu throat singer

Throat singing requires years of training, and huge physical strength. As Volodya sang for me, his diaphragm strained and tears welled in his eyes. He's getting too old to sing the sygit style, he admitted.

The next day, we ventured out of the city to a sacred place on a high bluff overlooking the Yenisey River. On the hillside, a stone pyramid of promises and requests and a wigwam of branches stood, muffled in prayer flags of blue and white. Volodya sang.

"You smoke too much. But you will live a long life," the shaman Yury had told me, smiling and radiating warmth. "You are a lucky man."

Standing there, the wind washing Volodya's voice from the hilltop up to the steely–blue sky, to the silvery afternoon sun, to the air–brushed clouds, and down to the Yenisey beginning its 3,600–mile journey across Siberia to the mouth of the Arctic Ocean, I had to agree. I was a lucky man. Tuva, I've discovered, does that to you. The shamans have got it right.

But I still wonder about the fish.



Dominic Hamilton is an award-winning guidebook writer, journalist, photographer, and TV producer. He has authored guidebooks for Venezuela, Ecuador, and Russia on his own and has contributed sections to titles covering Peru and South America. He is a contributing editor for the South American Explorer's Club magazine, a regular contributor to Geographical and has published articles in a variety of other newspapers and magazines. After falling in love with the cloudforests, his home base is now Quito, Ecuador. In 2004, his wife Amira gave birth to their son, Julian.





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