When people ask for advice for where to go in Russia, they ask, “Do you like Moscow or St. Petersburg more?”
My honest answer is neither. I appreciate both cities but if you really want to understand Russia and meet Russians, I say go to Siberia. In both Moscow and St. Petersburg, it’s pretty difficult to meet locals unless you already know people. In Siberia, any new comer is a friend because they don’t really have the same amount of tourists.
My absolute favorite place in Siberia is Tuva. Tuva is a small Asian ethnic republic in Southern Russia, on the Mongolian border. It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. It is also extremely remote. They have everything – mountains, steppe, domesticated reindeer, salt lakes, spring water so pure you can drink it off the ground, like, everything.
If you’re coming from Moscow, there’s a weekly flight to Tuva. But other than that, most people ride a train to the neighboring republic, Khakassia, to the city of Abakan. From Abakan, you take a private van for eight hours into the capital of Tuva, Kyzyl. The private vans are stuffed with passengers they pick up in Abakan and don’t leave until they’re full. So if you’re claustrophobic, you’ll have to deal with that.
Tuvans look like me! And speak both Russian and Tuvan. Tuvan is a turkic language with Mogolian and Tibetan roots. Tuvans are buddhist and some practice shamanism. It is such a neat place with the most interesting culture. Tuvans have dual identities because they’re both in Russia but they have a different culture from the dominant Russian identity. So when they meet an Asian-American, there are no confusing looks. It is such a remote place that many people in Russia do not know that it exists.
In Tuva, Greco-Roman wrestling is popular. The small republic is proud of its athletes and you can see that in their streets, museums, and media. People talk about their athletes all the time. Since the population is so small and word travels fast that a foreigner is in town, there’s a chance you’ll meet an athlete or someone married to one.
I worked for two weeks at a summer camp in Kyzyl. I rode in a small bus to the school everyday with the students and it was pretty typical to have kids on laps. I love places that don’t mind getting close up, because it’s so different from life in the US suburbs.
The children there were really unlike other kids I have worked with. I have worked with small kids in Samara, Ulan-Ude, and Nakhodka, and these were kids that radiated kindness, positivity, and an atmosphere of inclusion. I was just an onlooker. I was really impressed by what kids were capable of and how easy it was to feel spiritually and emotionally connected to the community while living there for only two weeks. I was so impressed I ended up writing a paper about the children in Kyzyl.
Tuva will always have a special place in my heart.