Page last updated at 11:54 GMT, Saturday, 19 September 2009 12:54 UK

Tuvans keen to protect traditions

The Russian republic of Tuva situated in the far south of Siberia is one of the remotest spots on earth, but now there is talk of building a railway. Angela Robson has been to Tuva, where there are fears that this could ruin a unique way of life.

At around 0300 the temperature in the yurt plummets and the wind begins to howl.

A young nomadic woman, who had earlier tucked me into my makeshift bed on the floor, snores loudly in my ear.

Proposed railway site
A railway would cut through Arjaan 2, an ancient burial ground

We are in the high steppes, in the remote province of Erzin Kozhuun in southern Tuva, close to the Mongolian border.

Under a pile of blankets in one corner of the yurt is a holy man, a shaman. Asleep, he seems a shadow of the creature who at midnight, his face obscured by an elaborate feathered headdress, had lit a fire on the forested slopes outside, calling to sky spirits and beating a frenzied rhythm on his drum.

Grateful for isolation

I had arrived at sunset the previous evening, after being driven along a series of rocky mountainous paths by Altair, a nomad by birth and now a businessman living in Tuva's capital, Kyzyl.

We had come to stay with Altair's family, a group of herders who moved with the seasons.

Altair, a stockily built man with a powerful presence, smiles rarely. He initially appeared to be permanently on guard.

We had met in Abakan, in neighbouring Khakassia. At times, he had driven at what felt like alarming speeds over the high snowy peaks towards Tuva.

Temple in southern Tuva
Nomadic lifetyles and Buddhism are flourishing again in Tuva

"Did it not frustrate him," I asked, "that Tuva, surrounded by 2,000m mountains, without a railway or airport, was so closed from the rest of the world?"

"We are grateful for our isolation," he answered gruffly. "It helps us to rebuild what the Soviets wanted to destroy."

When Tuva became part of the Soviet Union in 1944, the Buddhist temples were demolished and holy men were persecuted and often killed.

Despite stiff resistance by the nomadic population, people were moved to collective farms and high-yielding cattle breeds were introduced.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, nomadic lifestyles have returned and Shamanism and Buddhism are once again flourishing.

Map ofTuva, Russia

Early the next morning, Radish Balchira, Altair's cousin, rides over on horseback to meet me in the yurt.

"Life was actually easier during communist times," he says. "Special trucks brought us food and grass for the animals on the collective farm, but it's better to have returned to our traditions. We can worship freely and move as we want."

Yet Tuva has many challenges. Half the population is unemployed and there is a huge problem with alcoholism, particularly among young people.

A new joint project by WWF Russia and Oxfam hopes to promote new patterns of economic development in Tuva while protecting traditional ways of life.

"Many of our goods are imported," says project co-ordinator Dalana Kadygo. "Our chickens come from the US and our milk from the Netherlands.

"Under Russian law, people have no access to credit and cannot take out a mortgage. It is frustrating."

The railway dilemma

Tuvans are faced with a dilemma. The area is rich in minerals, such as iron ore, bauxite, coal, gold and cobalt, and there is the potential to start a very profitable mining industry, build a railway to service it and create jobs.

It will bring economic benefits, but for social and cultural life, it could affect us in a negative way
Chash-ool Sergeevich
Tuva's minister of labour

The Tuvans' respect for nature means that they are circumspect about developing a mining economy. They are aware of their position as custodians of one of the great natural wildernesses.

Two days later, I walk through Kyzyl's former industrial heartland to meet Chash-ool Sergeevich, Tuva's minister of labour.

He is a tall, jovial man who quickly gets to the point. The country's employment situation embarrasses him, but he does not necessarily feel that the railway is the solution.

"At first, with the railway, there will be a lot of outside business coming to Tuva. It will bring economic benefits," he says. "But for social and cultural life, it could affect us in a negative way."

An extraordinary exhibition in Tuva's National Museum shows gold ornaments, plaques and weaponry dating back to the 8th Century BC.

A curator tells me they once belonged to high-ranking members of an early nomadic community, and had been excavated from an ancient burial ground in northern Tuva. The proposed railway would cut through the area, which is known as Arjaan 2.

Before I leave Tuva, I go to Kyzyl's main Buddhist temple to join the queue of people waiting to see the country's head lama.

When I finally meet him, Baira Bashki's serene round face glows warmly.

I ask him to explain the persistence of religious and cultural life, despite the persecution of communism.

"I do not have to explain it," he says with a smile. "I am a Buddhist. I believe in miracles.

"When the Dalai Lama came to Tuva in 1991, people met him with so much joy it seemed that 30 years of Soviet law had never even existed."

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