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Journey to Tuva - 1. Before the Trip

- "Where did you say?" asked the jury member, once more.

-"'To Tuva!" I said again.

- "Show me on the map!"


She pulled out a big, old world atlas from the library - the kind of thing you could get lost in. Opening the section about Central Asia she handed it to me. After hovering my finger over the Russian-Mongolian border for a few seconds, I put it down on a small spot - Tannu Tuva.


- "There" I said, "Here is Tuva."



I had just told about my project of going to Tuva to explore their music and culture to six ladies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had played a Tuvan folk song on the Turkish rebab, a traditional bowed string instrument. They looked a little confused, but I knew that I had attracted their interest. The jury, who was apparently following music closely, asked if there already was a rebab in the Silk Road Ensemble. They mentioned that Yo-Yo Ma lived a few blocks down the street and said “Maybe you should go meet him” ... After a few more questions, they concluded our interview saying that they will get back to me in a week.


As I headed out from the big hall, I was struck by all the interesting objects around me – an embroidered copper bowl from India, a miniature from Iran on the wall, a tiled vase from Turkey on the carved wood table... As I looked at each object with interest, the lady of the house told some stories about these items which she brought with her from her travels. As I walked out she welcomed the next candidate who had just arrived.


This is how my interview went for a post I randomly came across and applied to, which was the announcement of a Boston-based travel club's travel scholarship. Founded in 1934 by five Boston women, the club had been providing scholarships for women who needed to travel for their research and studies since then. I didn’t have high hopes for receiving this scholarship, which was given to two women every other year, however with my preparations during the application process, I got more and more attached to the idea of going to Tuva. After a few impatient days, I finally received the good news.


Until that moment it had been a dream for me to go to that little country, which had been enduring time deep in the center of Asia. I was looking at photos taken on its endless steppes and misty mountains as I listened to its enchanting music. Upon receiving the travel scholarship the adventurous dream of going there had suddenly become real and to be honest, I was a little intimidated by the idea of actually going there. There were no direct flights to Tuva, it was hard to find clear information on how to get there and didn’t know anyone to ask about these yet. To the questions I asked in some forums on the internet, I was receiving replies such as “Tuva is a dangerous place, I don’t recommend you to go there” or “Tuva is not safe for visitors”. On top of these, the dramatic speaker in a documentary I watched saying “Tuva is Russia’s hell-hole, with the highest amount of crime and alcoholism in the whole country” really took my hesitation to the next level. I wasn’t sure about what kind of a route to follow, all I knew was that I was going to go there and needed to find my way around.


So, what I did is, I began learning Tuvan language. Given my interest in languages, this was the most enjoyable and stress-free step of the preparation process for me. First, I learned the Cyrillic alphabet and then began working on the basics of the language from the limited resources I could find. Tuvan is from the same Turkic languages family as Turkish, which made my learning experience more interesting. This way, I studied Tuvan for half a year until I went there. Considering that there are only about 280.000 native Tuvan speakers in the world, I was investing on a skill that I probably wouldn’t be able to use outside of Tuva, but still, I thought learning their language was the best way to communicate with the local people on a more intimate level, though my language skills were elementary. With Russian and Tuvan widely spoken, there are not many English-speakers in Tuva. Therefore, I was very fortunate to meet some Turkish speaking people and have their help when I was there.


In the meantime, time was passing by and I was still doing nothing tangible for my trip other than learning Tuvan. As a matter of fact, leaning Tuvan had turned into a stress-relief method for me, with which I avoided getting down onto the main things I needed to figure out, but without feeling the guilt of not doing anything. One day as I was walking along the Charles River, dragging my feet and lost in the questions in my mind, somebody called out my name, with a perfect pronunciation. It was my Turkish friend Can, who I hadn’t seen in years. He was a composer and had just moved to Boston. I quickly told him the story, which got him excited too. He was familiar with Tuvan music as he was interested in it at some point and had done some research on it. Can, having received the Fulbright scholarship a few years earlier, suggested checking the Fulbright database to see if there are any Tuvan people registered on it. He also recommended a book for me to read, named ‘Where the Rivers and Mountains Sing’. The book belonged to ethnomusicologist Prof. Theodor Levin, who had done extensive work on Tuvan and Central Asian music.


In a couple days I heard back from Can. He had found a Tuvan person on the Fullbright database and put me in touch with Tayana who was studying in Alaska. As Tayana answered some of my questions, she also put me in touch with other people. One of these people was Aziyana, a Turkologist, who I was going to meet both in Istanbul and in Tuva later. In the meantime, I wrote an email to Prof. Levin. He replied with a long email in just few hours. His email began with the words “Greetings from Kyrgyzystan”. In this short time he had already corresponded with Tuvan musicologist Valentina Suzukey, had told about me and translated her email from Russian to English before passing it on to me. Both of them had attached contact information of Tuvan musicians to their emails. My contacts in Tuva were increasing. I wrote an email to the musicians, translating it to Russian with the help of a friend. The replies I received were quite friendly. I decided to write back in Tuvan, writing my very first email using Cyrillic alphabet – brief and concise.


As the details were unfolding I was reading, watching and listening everything I could find about the subject matter. That is when I came across the video of American mathematician Richard Feynman speaking about Tuva. This was his heart-warming talk on how his curiosity for the little country he saw in the world Atlas as a kid turned into a passion of learning more and desire to go there to explore. The video was shot at his house a week before he passed away. Unfortunately, he could not go there. Listening to this talk full of the spirit of adventure and enthusiasm got me more and more motivated for my trip and I promised to send a salutation to Feynman once I made it to Tuva. A few weeks later following that, I attended a meeting of artists from around Boston and asked the participants if anyone had any information to share about Tuva. A lady came up to me and said that her grandmother and Feynman were cousins, and that she knew about his interest of Tuva very well. Amazed at this coincidence, I thought to myself, what are the odds of coming across the grand daughter of Feynman’s cousin in this little room. Ever since I had decided to go to Tuva these funny coincidences were happening, and I though to myself, maybe they are not coincidences at all.


In the following weeks I came across an article on a Turkish newspaper on the internet, titled “The ancient musical instruments of Turkic peoples revive in the hands of the masters”. The article was mentioning Tuvan instruments that were being exhibited in a music instruments museum in Izmir, Turkey. The project, named “The journey of the two-stringed from Central Asia to Anatolia” was aspiring to bring three ancient bowed string instruments back to attention – the ‘igil’ of Tuvans, ‘qyl qopuz’ from the Altai steppes and ‘ıklığ’ of Turkey from the Taurus mountains. The project was led by instrument maker and collectioner Güner Özkan and the instruments were made by Ozan Özdemir, based on the models Özkan provided. It really excited me to hear about these instruments and I immediately wrote an email to Özkan, but could not reach him.


First thing I did upon going back to Turkey, I visited the museum in Izmir and saw the instruments. In the meantime, I had an appointment with rebab player Refik Kaya while I was in Izmir, who is also an instrument maker and had done prominent work on rebab, developing and enhancing the instrument. Taking my rebab with me, I went over to his house and we worked on some pieces together. The surprise was, one of the guests who arrived after our lesson was Güner Özkan, who I had been trying to reach out to. We immediately started talking and when he heard that I was going to Tuva, he got even more excited than I was. He said, “Come to the museum tomorrow, there are things I’d like to show you”. We met the next day.


His interest for musical instruments since he was a child led him to collect more than 300 instruments over the years, all of which he donated to the museum’s collection. Also an instrument maker, Mr. Özkan has organized exhibitions in US, Europe and Far East to feature the Turkic musical instruments. When I arrived at the museum, he took out the instruments behind the glass cabinet and handed over to me for me to play. This was my first close interaction with the igil. There were various peculiar instruments scattered around in his office, which were instruments donated to the museum and needed some maintenance. As I looked at the awards that he received around the room he told me about his research on Turkish music instruments. At that time he was working on his book in which he compiled all the traditional music instruments in Turkey. He shared all the information and resources he had with me generously.


As I was telling him about the trip I was about to make he was calling people on the phone and telling them “there is a young lady here who is going to Tuva, come meet her!”. One of the people I met was playing the Tuvan string instrument igil and was doing the Tuvan style throat singing masterfully. Everyone had a curiosity and admiration for Tuva. When it was time to leave they sent me off as I was an adventurer venturing out to the uncharted lands. We agreed to meet one month later, with instruments in my hand that I brought back from Tuva. Upon my return, Mr. Ozkan was going to take measurements of my igil to build a replica for the museum.



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Next Chapter:

2. The Journey - Moscow and the Siberian Express


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