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Controlled from the 6th century by a succession of Turkic empires, in the 1750s Tuva became an outpost of China, against whose rule the much-celebrated Aldan Maadyr (60 Martyrs) rebelled in 1885. Tibetan Buddhism took root during the 19th century, coexisting with older shamanist nature-based beliefs; by the late 1920s one man in 15 in Tuva was a lama.

With the Chinese distracted by a revolution in 1911, Russia stirred up a separatist movement and took Tuva 'under protection' in 1914. The effects of Russia's October Revolution took two years to reach Tuva, climaxing in 1921 when the region was a last bolt hole of the retreating White Russians. They were swiftly ejected into Mongolia by 'Red Partisans', to whom you'll see monuments in Kyzyl and Bay Dagh. Tuva's prize was renewed, if nominal, independence as the Tuvan Agrarian Republic (Tyva Arat Respublik, TAR), better known to philatelists as Tannu Tuva. However, to communist Russia's chagrin, Prime Minister Donduk's government dared to declare Buddhism the state religion and favoured reunification with Mongolia. Russia's riposte was to install a dependable communist, Solchak Toka, as prime minister, and, later, to force Tuvans to write their language in the fundamentally inappropriate Cyrillic alphabet, creating a cultural divide with Mongolia. Having 'voluntarily' helped Russia during WWII, Tuva's 'reward' was incorporation into the USSR. Russian immigration increased, Buddhism and shamanism were repressed and the seminomadic Tuvans were collectivised; many Tuvans slaughtered their animals in preference to handing them over.

Today, some people have reverted to trad- itional pastoralism but, unlike in neighbouring Mongolia, yurt camps are often hidden away in the remoter valleys, largely because gangs of ruthless rustlers have scared herders off the most accessible grasslands. Buddhist-shamanist beliefs survived the oppressions rather better. Even avowed atheists still revere local arzhaan (sacred springs), offer food to fire spirits and tie prayer ribbons to cairns and holy trees using the colours of the national flag: blue for sky, yellow for Buddhism and white for purity and happiness.