Geographic and Natural Regions
Tozhu region (north-east)
Tozhu – a distant, mysterious, and picturesque region of high mountains, taiga, and tundra. It beckons both locals and tourists, visitors, scholars, natural scientists, archaeologists and others from the whole world with its intriguing beauty. The Tuvan people have a saying: “One who has never been to Tozhu, has never been to Tuva.”
Tozhu is one of the largest kozhuuns (districts) of Tuva, but is one of the least populated. The inhabitants of Tozhu are an indigenous people who maintain their traditional way of nature-use in their fishing, hunting, forestry, woodworking, and of course, reindeer-herding. The reindeer of Tozhu are the largest of their kind in the world, and also the southernmost example of their species. Many different species of animals live alongside the reindeer, including very common animals as well as endangered species, which have been written into the Red Book of Russia. It’s not an accident that one of Tuva’s two state nature preserves is located here, the Azas preserve, which occupies a great territory filled with unique natural landscapes, lakes, and rivers. One of these lakes, Azas, is called the pearl of Tuva. It is a gorgeous lake, which blooms every July with rare white water-lilies. The lake is 20 km long and 5 km wide, with inflow and outflow that ensure the purity of the lake. It has nine islands, on the smallest of which grow endangered plant species. The ladies’-slipper orchid blooms there only once every 16 years. The lakes and rivers are rich with fish: pike, perch, whitefish, and the luckiest can catch taimen – the largest predatory fish of Siberia’s rivers, which hunts not only for fish but small rodents that fall into the river. Many of the largest rivers of Tuva are located in Tozhu.
Not everyone knows that there are 16 dormant volcanoes in Tuva, the highest of which is Shevit, more than 2700 meters in height. Tozhu is known for its springs, with a large number of mineral and thermal springs. The best known spring is called Choigan.
Tere-Khol region (East)
In the east of the Republic is located the most distant settlement, the administrative center of Tere-Khol kozhuun – Kungurtug. It is a place that is hard to reach, one can get there either by helicopter or by long winding tracks through mountain passes and taiga. But the difficult roads do not frighten those who wish to see the lake of Töre-Khol, keeper of ancient secrets. In the center of the lake there is an ancient settlement of the 8th century, Por-Bazhyng. How many legends have been created by the locals, how many theories have been put forth by researchers!
The settlement is 211 meters long and 158 meters wide, the ruined walls reach 10 meters in height, with all four walls oriented exactly to the points of the compass. There are differing opinions about this island settlement. Por-Bazhyng is known as an ancient fort, built by the powerful khan Moyun-Chur (Boyan-Chor), but it was more likely his son Böge-Kagan of the Uigur Khanate. Locals quite like the version of history that Por-Bazhyng was a palace complex created to please a woman’s whimsy. The great Bayan-Chor marred a beautiful Chinese princess, Nin-Go, who wished to have a summer residence in the cool mountains, in order to escape the baking Chinese steppes. Por-Bazhyng was Boyan-Chor’s gift to his young wife. In a different legend, the princess Nin-Go decided to put up a memorial complex in this place after the death of husband, however the grave of Boyan-Chor has never been found.
There is also an opinion that Por-Bazhyng is a temple complex. It has also been shown that it is a miniature copy of the capital of the Uigur khanate at that time, Kara-Balgasun. All of these versions about the four remaining lives of Por-Bazhyng have been performed in a play by the Tuvan state puppet theater, told around the fires of archaeological expeditions, and are known to every local resident, who can tell even more legends connected with the lake and the fort.
It is known to scientists that the island was once a glacier which melted over time. Melting of frosts could lead to this site going underwater, in about 100 years. Meanwhile, Por-Bazhyng is a an object of cultural and historical legacy of federal significance, of which in Tuva there are only two. Photos of the settlement, made by satellite, have shown markings on the bottom of the lake which are similar to towers and roads. There are similar settlements found in other regions of the Republic.
The east of Tuva is known for its medicinal arzhaan (springs), the thermal springs of Tarys and Üsh-Beldir, where people come to get healthy and young. The multiple dangerous rapids of Balyktyg-Khem attract rafting enthusiasts. And going up-river along Kaa-Khem one can encounter the picturesque settlements of Russian Old Believers.
Southern and Central Tuva
In the territory of the central Tuvan valley, rivers flow, medicinal springs burst forth, and lakes glimmer in the sun. Many of them are medicinal, for example the lake Düs-Khöl, which is also known as Svatikovo. Its salty water and medicinal mud are comparable to the Dead Sea of Isreal. People come here to treat their joints and a number of illnesses, covering themselves in the black mud. The water is very salty here, so salty that anyone can float in it with ease. The water temperature at the bottom of the lake (about 4 meters deep) reached 40 degrees centigrade. It is inhabited by millions of tiny red crustaceans. Here you can see a desert-type zone, with hot sands and rolling tumbleweeds. Not far from Dus-khöl is lake Khadyng, whose water is similar to sea water. This is a favorite vacation spot for the inhabitants of Kyzyl. Another neighbor of Dus-Khöl is lake Cheder, whose salty medicinal waters are rich in hydrogen sulphide.
In the Tuvan valley rests its deepest and largest freshwater lake, Chagytai. Local people connect this name with the name of Genghis Khan’s son, telling many legends about that great warrior and the possibility that his tomb is located under the lake’s water. Others say that the name of the lake comes from the Mongolian word zagystai, meaning ‘having fish.’ Indeed, there are certainly many fish that occupy this lake, and therefore many fishermen.
On the border with Mongolia, the lake Tore-Khöl is located among moving sand-dunes, with pure waters and golden sands that attract tourists from afar. This is the Ubsu-nuur basin, which has been included in the list of Worldwide cultural legacy due to the concentration of practically every natural landscape type here, from deserts to snowy mountains. It is the home of a great diversity of flora and fauna. This is also the location of the second federal nature reserve of Tuva.
In addition to aquatic riches Tuva is decorated by its mountains. One of the most revered is the rocky mountainKhaiyrakan, a holy place for believers. It is said that it possess a strong energy and healing power, which was felt by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama during his visit here. The name of the mountain can be translated as “Holy heavenly bear,” a deity, which has come down from the heavens. There are more than one of these holy bears in Tuva – Ak-Khaiyrakan is a different mountain where the spirits are worshipped and rituals take place. Deep in the mountain is the cave of Mören, which beckons spelunkers with its secrets.
There is also the cliff Teve-Khaya, which can be translated as “Camel Cliff,” for its form is indeed reminiscent of a giant Bactrian camel sitting among the steppes. It is an interesting coincidence that this cliff, the creation of natures’ hand, appears in Tes-Khem kozhuun, where camels have been raised for a long time. The administrative center of this border region at one time was a gathering place for commercial caravans from Mongolia and China, a center of business. All the southern regions of Tuva – Tes-Khem, Övür, and Erzin, border with Mongolia, and therefore are territories of cultural exchange. One can find many local inhabitants who speak both Tuvan and Mongolian fluently. In the 9th century Kyrgyz tribes conquered a large territory of Central Asia, with certain parts of those people settling in the south of Tuva, where up until the 20th century and possibly even today one could find clans of people who called themselves by the name “Kyrgys.” These are the descendants of the 9th century Kyrgys of Tuva. It stands to reason that such a wide territory, once settled by ancient tribes and peoples, left behind a large number of archaeological sites. Petroglyphs can be found on the lone mountain Syyn-Chüree (Stag Heart) keep their own sad legend, as well as the cult structures from Scythian times known as Ulug-Khorum (Temple of the Sun), and the hard-to-reach petroglyphs of Mugur-Sargol of the bronze age, to name a few.
The west of Tuva is a more settled territory. It is a place of mountain rivers, impassible taiga and sky-scraping mountain ranges that is reflected in the hearts of the local people. They have maintained ancient customs and traditions. They pray to the spirits of the high mountains, such as Bai-Taiga, Kyzyl-Taiga, Möngülek, and Möngün-Taiga. Western Tuva is surrounded by the western Sayan mountains, and the mountain ranges of Shapshal, Tsagan-Shibetu, and Tannu-Ola, which continues further on to the south. It is a territory of snowy peaks. The glaciers are refreshed with the water of mountain rivers and lakes. Ak-Khöl, which means “White Lake” in Tuvan, is one of these lakes. Its banks are covered with ancient burials from Scythian times, which have been looted long ago. Another mountain lake – Kara-Khöl, or “Black Lake,” is considered to be a tectonic fault lake, like Lake Baikal. It has a roaring waterfall, and Scythian burials and standing stones on its banks bear silent witness to this lake’s stormy past. Yet another “white”-colored lake, Süt-Khöl, or “Milk Lake,” rests at a height of 1800 meters above sea level. Moreover, this lake is not silent at all, for local residents tell of an ancient being that dwells at the bottom of the lake, a blue bull. He makes a droning bull-roar from the bottom of the lake as a reminder. Indeed, this is not just a legend, there is an unusual acoustic phenomenon that exists at the lake, such as exists at some other lakes on our planet such as Victoria in Africa and Ladoga in Russia. The glacial waters of lake Khindiktig-Khöl sit even higher above sea level that Süt-Khöl. In the pure waters of the lake sits a mountainous island, which gives the lake its name. Khindiktig-Khöl means “lake with a belly-button” in Tuvan. It is located near the highest point in all of Eastern Siberia, and Tuva, the mountain Möngün-Taiga, known to the people as Mönge-Khaiyrakan-Khöl or Möngün-Mengi-Khaiyrakan (3796 meters above sea level). Its stealthy and careful inhabitants, the mountain sheep Argali and the snow leopard Irbis are rarely seen by humans.
Kizhi-Közhee are standing stones in the shape of warriors with impenetrable faces, witness of the great events that occurred during the empires of the ancient Turks and the successive inhabitants of this strange land. Some of the stones have been irrevocably lost, others are partially kept in museums. A kizhi-közhee called by the people “Genghis Khan,” however, watches over the steppes as before. The mighty warrior with a braided beard and instruments of war has stood tall for more that 1200 years, significantly older than Genghis Khan himself. Next to this stone figure stands Bizhiktig-Khaya, a cliff with petroglyph writings and pictures of not only individual figures and masked personae but entire artistic scenes such as the ceremonial arrival of traders.
According to legend, there are many places on the earth for making wishes. Such places also exist in Central Asia. Üttüg-Khaya is a mountain ridge with a hole right through the top, from which it gets its name – “Cliff with a Hole.” Üttüg-Khaya has a fairly tight entrance on the south side, which a person may pass through to gain blessings and the fulfillment of wishes. It is said that one must enter with good intentions, otherwise the mountain will react negatively.
In the 8th century CE, the Uigurs conquered the territory of central Asia, mixing with the local population and contributing parts of their culture while taking up other practices from those who had ruled the steppe-regions of distant Tuva. In Western Tuva, in Süt-Khöl, the descendants of these conquerors have retained Uigur ethnonyms in their names up until the modern era.
People here are very hospitable and try hard to maintain the wisdom of their ancestors. Well-respected masters pass on the skills of leather working to the young, as well as the rules of sewing national costume, the rare technology of making leather vessels called kögeer, metalworking, soapstone (Chonar-Dash) carving, construction of traditional musical instruments, food traditions, the subtleties of traditional decorative art, and many other traditions.