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Adygzhy Sambuu – double champion of reindeer herders’ festival in Tuva

Adygzhy Sambuu from Adyr-Kezhig village became a double champion of the 16th reindeer herders’ festival which just took place in Todzha kozhuun. He was able to saddle and load a reindeer faster than anybody else, and was first in the main competition – reindeer races.

The events in the last type of competition evolved dramatically – out of the eight reindeer riders who started, only four finished the race. Half of the animals simply outright refused to go in the direction of the finish line. The last meters of the finish stretch became very alarming for Adygzhy, who was the first to get there. His reindeer suddenly made a sharp left turn, and kept going practically parallel to the finish line. The other riders began to catch up to him.

And only in the last moment, as another rider could have won, the reindeer suddenly sprinted to the finish, bringing the gold medal to his young master. It is interesting that in both of the loading of the reindeer and the race, Adygzhy surpassed his father, - the very experienced Analolii Sambuu, who also participated in the competitions.

The 16th festival, which is popularly known as “Nomadic Todzha”, brought together 27 reindeer herder families at the aerodrome field in the settlement Saldam, as well as the people from neighboring villages, and visitors ranging from official persons and scholars from Kyzyl to an American researcher and a female journalist form Krasnoyarsk. This time, there weren’t many reindeer – a lot of snowfall this winter made it impossible for most animals to descend to Saldam. 100 Evenk female reindeer, who filled out the local reindeer herd, are still undergoing acclimatization in Toidzha taiga, and have survived this brutal winter without losses, as the head of GUP “Odugen”, Aleksei Mongush told us.

Among the chooms raised on the festival meadow, only one was of birch bark. The complicated two-day process of boiling the bark, which was described in detail by the ethnographer Sevyan Vainshtein in his book “Mysterious Tuva”, has been abandoned by contemporary reindeer herders, who now prefer canvas and other materials that are more practical and suitable for transportation..

Canvas, snowmobile and radio are now the most necessary things in a reindeer herder’s existence. Spectacular snowmobile races have only recently been added to the traditional types of competition in the reindeer herders’ festival – firearm shooting, wood chopping, lasso (arkan) throwing, races on wide hunting skis and leaps over sleds. The Todzha snowmobile parking lot was filled in in January by another two vehicles, which were given to the herders by the head of Tuva, Sholban Kara-ool.

The highest speed on a snowmobile was reached by an entrepreneur, a native of Todzha, Maksim Chyrgalan. “I lived in Kyzyl, Krasnoyarsk, but I have always been drawn back to Todzha, - says Maksim. – I keep trying to explain to myself why, no matter where I am, I am always being lured back. I have my own theory about it. You see, Todzha – the name is feminine. That is why she never lets go of her men. No matter where they go, she always draws them back to her. And we keep coming back.”

Maksim’s theory is confirmed in practice. A lot of people migrate to Toora-Khem, people from other districts move there. It has its own special unhurried rhythm, extremely white snow, very clean dogs who look like they’ve just had a bath, and their own ways of mutual relationship between the people; there is some distrust of outsiders. But that can be overcome, if the new settler does not try to dictate his own rules of the game, and instead quietly works himself into the already formed local way of life.

There is a café at the festival meadow, which serves boiled reindeer meat. This is a rare opportunity for the people from the administrative center of the district to taste the local delicacy. In 1940, the reindeer population in Tuva was 20 thousand individuals. During the Soviet period, the herders had to give to the government 1000 bodies of reindeer according to plan, and by 1072 the population decreased to 5,500. by 2003, the number of domestic reindeer dropped to the critical number of 516 individuals.

The subsidy allowance in the past few years helped to improve the situation somewhat. So, over the course of last year, there was a 30% increase – the “imported” reindeer helped to some extent. Now the population is 2192 reindeer, out of which 1652 live in Northern Todzha. The subsidies for reindeer last year counted 1,600,000 rubles, out of which 1,300,000 came out of the republic’s budget, as Ai-Mergen Khovalyg, the vice-minister of agriculture, who was visiting the festival, told us. This year, 3 million rubles will be assigned for this purpose. Within the program of the social development, 4 houses are being constructed for the herders in the village.

These days, 4 radios, given to the herders by Sholban Kara-ool in January, will be activated. In the words of the head of the district administration, Ayas Aiyr-Sanaa, they will now undergo registration, the main station will be in Toora-Khem, the reindeer herders will have two, and another one in the most unreachable place – Khamsara, because the 147 people there turned out to be completely without any means of communication.

The future reindeer herders of Tere-Khol are undergoing “training” in Todzha. Tere-Khol kozhuun lost its reindeer herding status in 2006 with the death of the last reindeer herder. His children sold the herd. Now the kozhuun is trying to re-establish reindeer herding. Last year, the SPK “Balyktyg” obtained 48 reindeer from Todzha kozhuun. This herd is still grazing under the supervision of practicing herders in Todzha areas.

It is interesting to note that it is Todzha, in particular, the southernmost point where northern reindeer are bred, that the Austrian researcher Otto Maenchen-Helfen, who was in Tuva in 1929, considered the original home of reindeer domestication in the world.

“Except for the borrowed technique of milking, reindeer domestication was preserved in Todzha in its ancient, original form,- writes the foreign scholar in his book “Journey to Tuva”. –

Moreover, one feature is so utterly ancient that it is found only in connection with one people. It is hunting and domestication of wild reindeer, an art that today is encountered only in Tuva. The descendants of the very first reindeer domesticators, and, perhaps of the first animal domesticators - still live today in the ridiculously insignificant Tuvan kozhuun – Todzha. I don’t know how others might feel, but I admire those small Todzhans, in their shabby clothes, and so talented!”

The reindeer herders were the main heroes of the festival; they had the attention and applause of the spectators, presents from the head of the republic, from the ministry of agriculture and animal husbandry, local administration and local entrepreneurs. For them sang the masters of the arts, they were interviewed,. American ethnographer Brian Donahue, who communicated with the reindeer herders beautifully in their own Tuvan language, (he has lived among Todzhan reindeer herders for three years), considers it extremely important to preserve reindeer herding and the base of subsistence associated with it. The researcher is convinced that its disappearance would lead to an irretrievable loss of biological variety and loss of unique cultural heritage of the world.


Adygzhy Sambuu (summon Adyr-Kezhig), the victor of reindeer riding races; the festival meadow; father and daughter; the victor of snowmobile race, Maksim Chyrgalan; Toora-Khem; choom of the “Odugen”; a herdsman with his charges; awards to the best; competition in leaping over sleds.

Dina Oyun, translated by Heda Jindrak
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