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Where is it and why is it so special?
The Republic of Tuva is located in southern Siberia and on the edge of Mongolia. It is about halfway between Novosibirsk and Irktusk, south of Krasnoyarsk. The Republic of Tuva is the former Tannu Tuva, a country in south Siberia first annexed by Russia in 1914 and then absorbed by the former USSR in 1944. Tuva was at one time an oblast of Russia, and then the Tuvinskaya ASSR, and is now a member of the Russian Federation.
Tuva extends from the coniferous forests of the taiga in the north to the rolling steppe of the south. 82% of the lands of the country is hilly and the rest 18% are covered with savannas. Tuva is an area of great variety, with almost every type of landscape: luxuriant meadows, boundless steppe, medicinal springs, beautiful lakes, rushing mountain rivers fed in spring by melting snows, dusty semi-deserts and snowy chains of mountains. The area is situated just north of Mongolia. The Sayan Mountains in southwest Tuva give rise to the tributaries that merge to become the mighty Yenisei, one of Siberia's major rivers flowing over 2000 miles to the Arctic Ocean. The Tannu-ula mountain chain that is the eastern border of the Altay Mountains is located in the southern part of the region.
The mountain ranges form its natural border and have long protected and isolated this region so that the railway network that reaches nearly all other parts of Siberia did (and still does) not enter the Republic of Tuva. Moreover, the Soviet Union kept Tuva closed to the outside world for nearly half a century, and most of this country is still remote and difficult to access.
So far, few foreigners have been to this remote land. Nonetheless, Tuva has been known to stamp collectors since its first issues in 1926. Today it is famous for its stamps, its singers who are able to produce two separate notes at the same time (See the Scientific American article published in 1999) and Scythian gold from burials mounds, which were discovered in 2002 in at an archaeological dig not far from the capital, Kyzy (see National Geographic article published June 2003.)
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General tourist information
No matter where you got your visa registered prior to arriving in Tuva, in Kyzyl you need to register again before traveling around Tuva. Most Kyzyl hotels will do this for you, though some may be reluctant. Your Tuva registration is sometimes checked elsewhere by hotels in rural Tuva, and certainly by the police in Toora Khem where re-registering is ESSENTIAL on arrival off the boat from Kyzyl. If you come down the road from Abakan via Abaza to Ak Dovurak (daily share taxis around 6am), then you're supposed to register in Ak Dovurak, but I don't know the details of where to do this.
- To get to Tuva from Irkutsk the sensible way to go is to fly - every Saturday, 3300R one way (2002 price.) Saves LOADS of time.
- From Krasnoyarsk on the Trans-Siberian line, take the train to Abakan and then catch a ride to Kyzyl. Buses to Kyzyl and shared taxis leave from the Abakan TRAIN STATION (not the bus station). There is a bus but don't bother. Shell out the extra money and take a shared taxi rather than a bus. It should cost 400눠R per person, but takes 5.5 hours instead of 9-11 by bus. And don't plan to rush along the Abakan-Kyzyl road by night bus - the scenery with views of the jagged Ergaki mountains is about the loveliest in all of Russia (except perhaps Kamchatka) and really should be seen by day. Shared taxis run from the Abakan train station and, sometimes, you can negotiate a sensible deal to go alone - i.e. pay 4 times the price - so that you can stop here and there along the route. But even the regular shared taxis are usually happy to stop once or twice for photos, if you ask nicely.
- Svetlaya lake, about half way, looks great from the photos, and is popular for short treks and to go camping, but beware doing that alone. See below for more about safety issues.
- If you plan to travel between Altai and Tuva, there's no need to go all the way back up to the Trans-Siberian railway. There are overnight trains between Abakan and Novokuznetsk (quite an intriguing city in itself). Then there are about four buses a day from Novokuznetsk down to Biysk, which has a small but interesting old city area. From Biysk, it's an easy hop to Gorno Altaisk, where you MUST register if you want to visit the mountains of the Altai Republic.
- At the present time it does not appear that there is a border open between Tuva and Mongolia that can be tranversed by nonlocals. Theoretically, the border between Mongolia and Russia can be crossed from Altai with prior permission of the Russian authorities. And there is one site online that mentions the possibility of crossing from Ak Dovurak to Mongolia also with prior approval of the Russian authorities. OTOH someone reported (2003) trying to obtain such permission in Moscow and being told that it was not possible.
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Touring and things to do
The landscapes are fabulous, wrestling is fun to watch and when you hear someone perform Syrygyt throat singing it's hard to believe that it's really coming from a human throat. Kyzyl is not lovely, but has pleasant tree-lined streets in the center, nice views across the river near the Shaman's totems, a Center of Asia monument, and 20 kilometers from town there's a pleasant, well equipped yurt-hotel if you can afford the 25 USD per night. Otherwise, however, yurts are much less common than in Mongolia.
If you catch a festival like Naadam it's way less touristy in Tuva than in Mongolia, and the other advantage is that although roads are bad in Tuva, at least there are some - unlike Mongolia!!! There's a new Mongolian consulate in Kyzyl giving visas almost on the spot, but plans to open the border at Kandaghaity (NOT Erzin) have yet to happen. The mini Naadam (in Tuva it is called Naadym) festival in 2004 will be held 10-12 September instead of the usual mid August dates in order to commemorate 60th anniversary of Tuva joining the Soviet Union.
In Kyzyl, do go to the tourist office. The people are very friendly and helpful, and not out to scam you (at least I don't think so!) Main trouble is finding the place as it's not marked and is inside government house facing the big theatre. Just go to the guards at the door and keep saying 'Turism' - hopefully they'll finally let you in and show you the way - to the left, upstairs then about half way along on the right. Some speak English in the office.
HOTELS IN ABAKAN
Best budget deal is Hotel Abakan ul Lenina 59 has basic but OK rooms for under 300R with shared but very clean bathrooms.
Nicest hotel is Hotel Park-Otel ul Pushkina 54A - it's just set back off the main street (pushkina) in a little park behind a shop called 'Kristal' - but you'd never find it if you didn't know to keep asking!
Suites cost as little as 600R. email@example.com may answer...!
Avoid the awful Hotel Druzhba
Personally I prefered Old Minusinsk to Abakan though the hotel there (the Hotel Amyl, ul Lenina 74) is pretty tatty - 180 rubles per dorm bed.
HOTELS IN KYZYL
Nicest place to stay near Kyzyl is actually 20km to the north at Camp Ai (a set of riverside yurts) Call Artur (tel 3 89 00) to see if any are available - costs $25 including meals - hot shower and wc en site.
In the city Hotel Kyzyl is a bit tatty but bearable Soviet sort of place from R170 and is very central.
Hotel Kotedzh and (next door) Hotel Odugen have a few cheap rooms but typically charge around 700R+ en suite. Comfy enough, if still Soviet in conception.
Hotel Mongulek right by the bus station seemed OK at first glance, but has a pretty bad reputation. And I wouldn't want to be there at night - though not having dared to, I can't say if you'd survive the situation or not... Still, play safe and avoid it (also they won't register your visa so no good for the first night, anyway!)
Don't underestimate the danger of drunks in Tuva and parts of Altai, especially after dark. West Tuva is one of the most lawless regions of Central Asia. Even local Tuvans are very nervous to travel in the west of Tuva without having a local friend - i.e. someone from the SPECIFIC town where you stay. The east, in contrast, is relatively safe, and the Todzha district is utterly different from the steppeland of Tuva - though only the Azas lake is really accessible if you don't have a major expedition.
Be sure to contact the Friends of Tuva as this web site has the most comprehensive information about this area of Russia.
This information was compiled from a collection of notes posted on the Lonely Planet TT by Markbek from his travels in summer 2002 plus information from the internet.
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