Feature: Tuvan Culture

Of the republic’s 308,000 people, over two-thirds are ethnic Tuvans; they are Buddhist-shamanist by religion, Mongolian by cultural heritage and Turkic by language. Tuvan Cyrillic has a range of exotic extra vowels and most place names have different Russian and Tuvan variants.

Colourful khuresh is a form of Tuvan wrestling similar to Japanese sumo but without the ring, the formality or the huge bellies. Multiple heats (rounds) run simultaneously, each judged by a pair of referees, flamboyantly dressed in national costume. They’ll occasionally slap the posteriors of fighters who seem not to be making sufficient effort. Tuvans also love Mongolian-style long-distance horse races but are most widely famed for their khöömei throat singers. Khöömei is both a general term and the name of a specific style in which low and whistling tones, all from a single throat, somehow harmonise with one another. The troll-like kargyraa style sounds like singing through a prolonged burp. Sygyt is reminiscent of a wine glass being rung by a wet finger: quaintly odd if you hear a recording but truly astonishing when you hear it coming out of a human mouth. Accompanying instruments often include a Jew’s harp, a bowed two-stringed igil or a three-stringed doshpular (Tuvan banjo). Rhythms often remind listeners of horses galloping across the steppe.

The biggest throat-singing ensembles are all-star Chirgilchin, inventive Alash (www.alashensemble.com), Kaigal-ool’s Huun Huur Tu, ethno-rock band Yat-Kha (www.yat-kha.ru), Khögzhümchü and the girl band Tuva Kyzy (www.tyvakyzy.com). Many members of these bands also perform with the Tuvan National Orchestra. Until his untimely death in 2013, Kongar-ol Ondar was the best-known throat singer outside Tuva. He collaborated with Frank Zappa and worked on the soundtrack for the Oscar-nominated film Genghis Blues.

Learning khöömei has become surprisingly popular among foreigners in recent years; arranging lessons is now much simpler than it once was.

Experiencing Khöömei

Without doubt, Tuva’s great draw is throat singing, aka khöömei. If you're interested in seeing a performance, by far the best place to start is the spanking-new Centre for Tuvan Culture, a two-storey timber building opened in late 2011 on the site of the old museum. The current director, Igor Koshkendey, who speaks English, is the first point of contact at the centre.

For a more hands-on experience, take a throat-singing or doshpular (Tuvan banjo) lesson with National Orchestra member Evgeny Saryglar, who is also always in the know about upcoming khöömei performances in Kyzyl and beyond.