Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Blue Sky

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The Blue Sky

A Novel

by Galsan Tschinag

The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag X
The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 192 pages
    Nov 2007, 224 pages

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To reach the homeland of the Tsengel Tuvans one has to travel to the furthest western corner of Mongolia, to the High Altai mountains to a province the size of the Netherlands, bordering China. More than 90% of the population of the area are Kazakh Muslims, the remaining 10% are Khalkh, Urinakhai, Khoshuud and Tuvans.

The Tuvans are a Turkic-speaking people (i.e. their spoken language belongs to the Turkic family; other Turkic speaking countries include Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and, of course, Turkey). Today, about 4,000 of Mongolia's approx 2.3 million population identify themselves as Tuvan. Tschinag writes in The Caravan that the Mongolian majority's regard for the Tuvans brings to mind the Chinese's regard for the Tibetans or the Russians for Chechnya. While an additional 200,000 Tuvans live in China, the vast majority, more than 300,000, live in the Republic of Tywa (also known as Tuva) in Southern Siberia. Tuva is one of the 20+ Republics forming the Russian Federation.

Since 1993 Tuva's official English name has been the Tyva Republic but it's more commonly known as Tuva. The eastern part is forested and mountainous, the west is drier lowland; there are more than 8,000 rivers running through the republic and numerous lakes, many of which are glacial, salt lakes. Summertime temperatures can rise to +18°C (64°F), in winter they can fall to -32°C (-26°F) Natural resources include coal, iron ore, gold and timber.

The prominent religion is Tibetan Buddhism, combined with native shamanism (Tuva is apparently the only country in the world to have shamanism as an official religion). Well known Tuvans include the singers Sainkho Namtchylak and Kongar-ool Ondar, and Galsan Tschinag.

Did you know:

  • The Tuvan people are renowned for their throat singing, a technique that generates multiple notes at the same time from one vocalist - click the link to see and hear a demonstration (the page is slow to load).
  • There has been little film coverage of Tuva; one exception is a 1995 documentary titled Genghis Blues about Paul Pena, a blind blues musician who taught himself to throatsing and incorporated the sound into his music. In 1993 the first group of Tuvan throatsingers toured the USA. Paul went to meet them and they were amazed that he had mastered the art form. They had never heard anything quite like his voice which they likened to the sounds of the tremors in the earth. Naming him "Chershemjer" (Earthquake) they invited him to travel to Tuva for the 1995 triennial throatsinging contest. Paul won the kargyraa category and was also named "audience favorite". He was honored by the Tuvan people, not only because he mastered kargyraa, but also because he learned to speak their language. Sadly, he died of pancreatitis and diabetes in late 2005.
  • Nova made a documentary back in 1989 titled The Last Journey of a Genius, which was made into a book, Tuva or Bust. The book and documentary follow the bongo-playing scientist, adventurer, and Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman on a long anticipated trip to Tuva. It appears that his interest in Tuva traced way back to his childhood in the 1930s when he, a keen stamp collector, became enamored of the off-the-wall Tuvan postage stamps which came in all sorts of shapes (triangles, diamonds, etc.) and showed novel scenes such as men on camels racing trains.

This article was originally published in December 2006, and has been updated for the November 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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