Abakan, Khakassian Autonomous Republic, Russia

“If the numbers on your bus ticket add up to six and six you must eat it.”

“Why?”

“Because if the numbers add up to the same figure it’s good luck.”

“And if I have this good luck, and don’t eat the bus ticket, I will have bad luck?”

“Exactly.”

“Mine adds up to nine and five.”

“Then you should not eat it.”

“Have you ever eaten a bus ticket?”

“Of course.”

“Did you get sick?”

“No. I have strong stomach.”

The Khakassia Republic in Siberia has a reputation for superstition and shamanism but somehow I had imagined something more exotic. Khakassia is one of the cradles of Central Asian civilization, of the Turkic peoples whose homeland I have essentially been traversing since Istanbul. Nestled close to the borders of Mongolia and Kazakstan, Khakassia was originally home to Mongol-looking people whose descendants still speak a relative of Turkish. And excellent Russian. Because for hundreds of years now the Russians have been colonizing and now outnumber the Khakass by eight to one.

I was on a mini-bus with 2 english language students I had met who had offered to show me around. The tourist brochure boasts a jaw-dropping “30,000 cultural monuments” across the republic so it’s a bit ambitious to try to see everything. I had decided to focus in on the small town of Minusinsk just outside of Abakan (the Khakass capital), an old Russian settlement. Minusinsk is the region where Lenin was exiled, and therefore the town still boasts a selection of Lenin monuments amidst its 200 year old wooden Siberian houses and brightly colored cathedrals.

Most people probably imagine Siberia as vast uninhabited Tundra but Khakassia is mostly a hot fertile plain, with much more of a Central Asian than an Arctic climate. This and its proximity to Mongolia resulted in the dubious Khakass distinction of being the first people conquered by Jenghis Khan on his long ride west.

Just like for the great Khan ,and despite its 30,000 tourist attractions, Khakassia is just a waypoint for me. I am now a mere 10 hour bus trip away from the Autonomous Republic of Tuva. It has been my dream to travel to Tuva for five years, ever since I first heard the unique style of throat singing, which Tuvans use to generate sounds seemingly impossibly created by a human voice.

“Why do you want to go to Tuva?” asked Tatyana.

“I am interested in Tuvan culture.”

“I am sorry but for me this sounds like a joke. Tuva is a disgusting. Kyzyl is dirty. Maybe during the daytime the Tuvan people are nice but at night, when they drink, they become totally different creatures. And Tuva is 70% Tuvan. You won’t find many Russians so it’s very uncivilized. And you will see, they are so poor there that they can only survive with subsidies from the Russian government. A few years ago they wanted independence but then they realized that they could never survive without Russians. It’s just a horrible place. Why don’t you stay here in Khakassia where there is so much to see?”

Indeed. 29,970 monuments to go.