"Oh my god, we searched for you everywhere! My name is Ayan, and you, I already know, are Iris!", the Minister's translator had walked towards me, taking my right hand with both of his so as to shake it most vigorously. "The whole city knows you already, your description was transmitted to all police agents!", he recapitulated the events of the past two hours. For the lack of anything else to say, could I formulate it the way that I was at least flattered that they put so much effort in trying to find me? Not really. For Christ's sake, it wasn't like I was really lost, to start with!
But that is another story.
In any case, my travel partner and I, we had found each other again. Now, how to get rid of our chaperones? They had taken us to the tourist office and were, in fact, engaged on an advertising bender, opening all sorts of brochures in front of us, trying to sell to us the best hotels, cruises and resorts of the region (well, if Tuva had any resorts or cruises...
). There was no way we could convince them that we wanted to just stick our thumbs out and hitch-hike away from here. After I had got 'lost' to so dramatic effect already one time today, they wanted to make sure we slept in one of the city's best hotels tonight!
We negotiated for a bit, and got to a compromise that pleased neither party involved, but placated both: Gregor and I would take a minibus to a small town an hour south of here, and stay in the only 'hotel' there, the municipal guest-house. The sort of thing all decent-sized villages have, most of the time used not by travellers but by workers arriving from other villages or the city, laying new gas pipes for example, or working on the municipal telephone lines.
By moving there, we would have the change of scenery from the capital city that we desired, and it would be cheaper.
The minister and Ayan escorted us to the minibus station, and Ayan warned us one last time, that he told the driver exactly where we were headed, and that he was also going to phone the hotel tonight and tomorrow morning to see what we were up to. "So please guys, no funny tricks!" If I had entertained the thought of starting to walk away trying to hitch-hike instead, this uprooted the idea. The message was clear, and so we stuck around, finally took our places in the back of the vehicle and paid the fare.
A girl came and sat next to me, and started chirpily chewing my ear off, with precisely the openness and sociability with which Tuvans strike you so often. After she had peppered me with questions about my life in Europe for a good while, she invited me and Gregor home: She lived on a stoyanka
, a traditional farm, with cows and sheep guarded by big, dangerous dogs, her and her family housing in yurts, making their own butter and yoghurt. We would have to get off some 20 kilometers after the next village, and then we would have to walk four kilometers out into the countryside from the road. We would for sure love staying with her, she would give us lots of salty tea to drink and stuff us with gorgeous food! It sounded enticing indeed, but our path had been laid for us by others: The people at the hotel were waiting for us, and Ayan would soon call them to see if we had arrived.
However small the chance, if Ayan and the minister indeed would get the police to actively look for us, as they said, that was potentially bringing trouble on any alternative hosts. So really, we had to decline. A phone, the girl did not use. This was a one-off chance, and it had just effectively passed, even before the offer was made.
We ended up getting off the bus as convened over an hour ago in the village of Saryg-Sep, the minibus driver dropping us off exactly at the door of our quarters for the night. A hotel worker was already standing outside, smiling at us and enthusiastically waving, before she came scurrying over to help us carry our bags inside. "Oh my god! Foreigners arrived! I am going to tell everyone that I met foreigners today! I work here for years, and the last foreigners came two years ago in 2010! They were French and driving their own car. I did not work that day and I missed them!"
Once inside, she made us each a cup of tea and sat us down to register our arrival. Handling our passports she looked at them as if they were articles beamed in from outer space, and filled in all needed detail into the large, frayed ledger with a hesitant hand, as if she had never done this before. "You live in Amsterdam? In which country is that?"
There were some letters from the Latin alphabet she could not read, about which she asked me for help: 'W', the letter with which Gregor's surname begins and 'r', the second letter of my name.
But she did not see the task as a chore; all the while she was excitedly giggling as if she could not believe the adventure coming over her today!
Her name was Natalya, and after she finished signing us in, she made us another cup of tea, and kept us for a rather long and intense exchanging of ideas. So interesting, a tète-à-tète with real foreigners!,
she must have been thinking. Foreigners! Not Kazakhs or Chinese, no, Europeans!
She bestowed a lot of local knowledge on me over the course of the following few cups of tea, and I began not to regret having come anymore. Gregor patiently sat on the chair next to me and listened to the conversation in the foreign tongue. At some point Natalya paused, seemingly randomly in the middle of a sentence. "Cлышали гул?" Did you feel the rumble?
I had not. But twenty minutes later, there it was again. Very faint and far away, I would not know how to describe the phenomenon other than the earth grinding its teeth somewhere miles beneath.
"They always told us in school that Tuva lies on the sutures of a geological Tuva-Mongolian micro-continent, and that it is therefore a high risk seismic zone. But we never believed it! Only thirty years later, December last year, the first serious earthquakes of our lives happened! And we have been shaking the whole year! There were times when the earth was like gelatine. The lights go out, and you try to run outside as far away from the houses as possible. You hold on to a tree, so as to try to stay on your feet. There were workers here, who arrived laughing: "As a child I survived the earthquake of Tashkent", one of them said to me, "I am not bothered by your earthquakes here." With the Tashkent earthquake he meant the most devastating earthquake of Central Asia which happened back in the 60s. But days later him and the other men, they sat out on the street the whole night after an earthquake, pissing their pants so scared they were!"
The seismic centres were always somewhere out in the taiga, in uninhabited places, the first being over a hundred kilometers from the village Saryg-Sep, where we were now. But since then they had been coming closer: The centre of the strongest earthquake in February 2012 was only 50 kilometers from here, and right here in this village they measured 8,5 points on the MSK scale. Russia uses the Medvedev-Sponheuer-Karnik scale on which the highest point is 12, rather than the Richter scale we use in the West, which measures intensity on a scale between 1 and 10.
Indeed only a week after we left Tuva, there was an earthquake whose seismic centre was located as being only 15 kilometers South-East from the capital city Kyzyl. Thankfully, it was only 3,2 points on the MSK scale, and ended up being the last earthquake of the year.
"The worst thing of this was that the earthquakes destroyed parts of our homes, our ovens especially. The government promised to dole out subsidies to those most affected, but in the end we received nothing. People with historic, a hundred year old houses even received nothing! And there were devastating hail storms this year as well, which completely destroyed this autumn's harvest; and it is not the first time something like this happened. The politicians put all the money into their own pockets and live in the lap of luxury, while the people suffer. Me myself, I am already a pensioner, and yet on top of the pension I receive I have two jobs to make ends meet." I thought back to the lady we met earlier today, coincidentally, the Minister of Finances. What a long day it had been! In any case, it could hardly be expected that she would be the glorious exemption from the systematic embezzlement going on among the ranks of those of her profession.
We drank the last cups of tea by candle-light, then Gregor and I wandered off to our room as Natalya put the generator on.
There can be said to have been a bit of an anti-climax as we realized we were paying for a place to stay for the first time in two weeks, but there still was no shower to scrub off the filth of the hundreds of kilometres of Altayan mountains and Tuvan steppe left behind us. The female toilet, an outhouse like usually, was lacking toilet paper, but had half a book (about plumbing, with text and illustrations) from which you could tear one yellowing, rancid page at a time. The male toilet did not even have an analogous book, I heard from Gregor.
Cowering trembling behind the generator, Gregor found a kitten. It may have been deaf to choose that particular spot to sit in. Even standing next to the thing, the noise was ear-splitting. The frail, jittering animal had eye-disease and was barely bigger than Gregor's palm. Scooped up with the left hand and sheltered by a cupped right hand from above, it purred blissfully as he held it close to his body, onto the hollow above his solar plexus. He took the smelly little furball to bed later that evening.
Before bedtime we wanted to go out to get some beer, but Natalya advised us against this: "You know, the locals all get drunk after sun-down, and if you are from outside, they can easily start making you problems." It was a story we had heard many times before.
I let Gregor play with the furball, wrapped myself up in a few blankets, and simply snoozed off.