Located in the deep south of Siberia, the Tuva Republic is one of Russia’s most isolated and culturally unique regions. The Republic of Tuva is the only region in Russia to have experienced independence and its people continue to celebrate it to this day every year on August 15.
It borders with northern Mongolia and occupies the basin of the upper Yenisey River, enclosed between the high mountain ranges of the Eastern and Western Sayan.
Controlled by a succession of Turkic and Mongolian empires from the 6thcentury, Tuva became part of the Chinese empire in 1757 up until the 20thcentury. In 1914 it became a Russian protectorate and was recognized as the independent “Tuvan People’s Republic” from 1921 until 1944, the year it was integrated into the Soviet Union. There are only three towns and five cities, the biggest of which is the capital Kyzyl, home to just over 100,000 people.
The region remains one of the most disconnected inside Russia: flights to Kyzyl are few and far between, so the quickest way in is a five-hour taxi ride through the Sayan mountains and across the vast Siberian steppe, along the only road that connects Tuva with the rest of Russia, the M-54.
Perhaps because of its isolation, Tuva remains culturally vibrant. Ethnic Tuvans make up around 80 percent of the population and Tuvan cultural practices, such as folk music, khuresh wrestling, horse races, yurts, shamanism and nomadism, are the reason the region is still perceived as exotic in the collective imagination. Apparently, many Russians forget that this predominantly Buddhist region is even a part of the country, while some others even call it “the Russian Tibet” for those searching for enlightenment.
Tuva’s uniqueness can be appreciated starting from the very entrance sign, which reads “Republic of Tuva” in Russian and depicts a Chinese dragon and a yellow horseman, the region’s coat of arms. On the side, incomers can admire an ovaa, a sacred place recognizable by its Buddhist prayer ribbons.
The traditional way of living together with the absence of heavy industry have also protected and preserve the region’s pristine wilderness, making it a trip worth taking.
If you do decide to explore this fascinating land, this time of the year is ideal: the annual Farmers Festival “Naadym” is held in Tos Bulak in the middle of August. The festival is an important element of today’s Tuvan identity and includes various competitions such as horse racing, arching, wrestling, as well as yurt building and cooking contests.