Drinking Vodka With Nomads.
Text by and image courtesy of Keith Birthday (a.k.a. Brendan Mulvihill).
We woke up early, set out early.
A long bus ride out into the steppe, deep in the heart of the Republic of Tuva, in Russia. We were to meet nomads.
Grass and grass and maybe a small hill. The horizon was beset with very tall mountains with snow on the top. The bus was filled with people: four American visitors, one newly arrived Nigerian student and about twenty local students. We had already started to drink cheap local beer out of two-liter plastic bottles. The boys in the back had started to sing. The professors in the front shook their heads, probably thinking fondly of their youth or something.
Take a map of Asia and find the geographical center. According to the natives, this is where you’ll find Tuva. The southern part of Russia, technically Siberia, on the border with Mongolia. Most of the buildings looked Russian. All of the people looked central Asian.
I had been in Russia for about seven months at this point. This bus ride fell under the guise of working for Tomsk University and ‘spreading goodwill’ on behalf of the Fulbright program, of which I was a participant.
But it was mostly because I had recently emerged from a period of serious, purposeful solitude. Being around fellow Americans stationed in various Siberian cities felt good. I had felt pretty awful for months already.
Also Tuva is where throat singing is from.
We started in Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva, and headed toward the mountains. A few hours into our journey, we pulled over to the side of the road. Most of us were mildly drunk. Two horses approached with riders on them. Then two cars pulled up. The riders got off and the drivers got out. They all walked over to our hosts and had a conversation in Tuvan. One of the riders was a girl and she said we were to follow them. We all got back on the bus. The horses rode off and we followed them off-road.
Russian buses are different than any other bus I’ve been on. The new ones look the same as the 30-year old ones. They are compact and ugly with giant tires and noisy transmissions. They are shaped roughly like a breadbox. They grind and yawn and shudder. They are the color of dusty dried white glue. They always have curtains inside and I think the driver chooses his curtain fabric. I always found that funny considering the masculinity most Russian men tried to put forth. For some reason, I had decided that the men were ‘inefficient’ and ‘unreliable’ but then I learned that I was being ignorant and a little bit stupid.
We followed the horseback riders through giant mud puddles, brush and other obstacles. Sometimes the bus would get stuck on a muddy hill. Sometimes one of the cars would get stuck. The horses never got stuck and I thought that was ironic. When something got stuck, the drivers would all get out and discuss how to solve the problem. At this time, we passengers would be permitted to exit the bus and walk about. More than once, this was conveniently next to some post-Soviet ruin, whether a factory or processing plant or who knows what. On the ground you could see things like sun-bleached cow skulls and bones. I gathered some flowers and pressed them in my book.
“What do you think this was?” someone invariably asked.
“I don’t know, maybe a factory or something,” was the general response.
At every stop, it was the same:
“It’s weird how only the stone walls remain.”
‘”Is it not cool for me to pee on this?”
“Oh wow, look at this bug I found.”
At one point, the bus got stuck for good, in spite of all of our best pushing, and we had to walk the rest of the way to the camp. It wasn’t far. The nomads met us halfway.
All of the nomads were younger than twenty-two. They walked us back to the camp, eyeing us. They had never seen ‘real Americans’ before. They had also never seen a ‘real black person’ before.
We were given a tour when we got to the camp, and they placed us in a simple, semi-permanent house, made of found wood, with a wood-burning stove inside. They gave us milky, salty tea to drink. Outside, there were about one hundred sheep and goats in a pen. These boys were shepherds.
One thing I noticed during our visit is that Russia still contains millions of square miles of untouched land. So much, that the government allows the shepherds free use of the land they graze. Or at least that’s what I was told. This made sense to me.
The shepherds selected the goat that we were to kill and eat. Some of the men in the cars that had tagged along were already very drunk. They wanted to show off. They showed us how you kill a goat the Tuvan way: slit in the chest, stick your hand in, pull the aorta off the heart. The goat frothed at the mouth but that was basically it. They said the blood stays inside because it is sacred/you should eat it.
We ate boiled goat and sat around the campfire playing songs. At some point one of the drunk men came up and tried to put the Nigerian on a horse. Both of them ended up falling over into a pile of horse dung. Some of the students were professional throat singers. We had consumed vodka with dinner and were all drunk. So, we started to sing together – me in my poorly imitated Tuvan throat singing voice. They asked me to play a song and handed me a guitar. I sang ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon and they sang along. Everybody clapped.. The shepherds laughed and made fun of the high notes.
Maybe you could say two worlds collided and stuck together for a moment. I think it was more personal than that.