Tuva is one of Russia's poorest and most dangerous republics, with high alcohol and drug addiction and low employment. It's a place where neither communism nor the free market economy has worked, so people are looking further back in time to when traditional ritual beliefs ruled their lives.
Now, to the little-known, semi-autonomous Russian Republic of Tuva - pretty much "slap bang" in the geographical heart of Central Asia. Like much of the now defunct Soviet Union, Tuva is in all sorts of strife as they battle to assimilate into the contemporary capitalist world. But, Tuva does have a secret weapon - the mystical Shamans, traditional healers that have practised their craft for hundreds, if not thousands of years.Reporter Nick Lazaredes tells us the Sharmans are convinced they can heal their ailing homeland and, as you will see, Nick's assignment turned into something of a personal odyssey...
REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes
Deep in the heart of Asia is an ancient tribal land steeped in mysticism. The autonomous Russian Republic of Tuva has been left reeling in social turmoil in the free market chaos that followed Communist rule. Now Tuva is turning away from its recent past and looking even further back to a time when traditional ritual beliefs ruled their lives - worshipping the spirits of earth, wind, fire, and water.
SHAMAN (Translation): Nature can survive without humans, but humans cannot survive without nature.
Tuva offers some remarkable contrasts - dotted with lakes and ringed by mountains, from deserts through to alpine forests. But the Yenisey River - by volume the 6th largest in the world - is its greatest pride. Tuva's Shamanist regard the water as a pristine spiritual entity, gradually spreading throughout the globe sewing the seeds force a worldwide shamanic revival.
While in terms of its natural beauty, Tuva may well be regarded as Russia's Shangri - La, on another level it could also aptly be described as Russia's hell hole. With almost three in ten Tuvan males dieing from alcohol poisoning and almost half as many lost to suicide, it has one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the former Soviet Union and that's not all. The rate of infant mortality is amongst the highest in Russia, while staggering levels of unemployment continue to worsen. Violence and crime are so bad, foreign visitors to the capital are warned not to leaf their hotels after sunset.
SHAMAN (Translation): The problem of drunkenness, of alcoholism comes by itself, because there's no work. In the villages, in other places, there's nothing.
With society disintegrating Shamans have taken on a more prominent role in the community, hoping the old ways will turn the tide of this ominous tragedy.
SHAMAN (Translation): People started to drink a lot, that makes them go wrong. I heal them, the ones who have an alcohol addiction or the many drug addicts in the same situation.
Dugar Suron is one of Tuva's most respected shamans. He blames western style civilisation for Tuva's social decay, a process that started when Tuvans were forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle.
SHAMAN (Translation): Why did our people start living in one place? That change ruined everything for us, and we lost that law of nomadic people that we had. That is what it was.
The loss of their nomadic way of life was devastating and profound, but Dugar prefers to look forward with some bold predictions about his ancient craft.
SHAMAN (Translation): It's the century of shamanism, I think so. Whatever of its various shapes it takes.
Dugar is convinced that Tuva's spiritual revival will eventually trigger a global Shamanist renaissance and a new respect for the world's indigenous cultures.
SHAMAN (Translation): This time will come, it will come. This century will depend on people coming to understand that we've become over-civilised and in this century they will definitely have to move over to the better side, to the national side; that of the ethnic Tuvan people, indigenous Australians and so forth - that's the side to cross over to.
On the banks of the Yenisey River, not far from Tuva's capital, Kyzyl - a myriad of wooden pipes criss-cross the forest channelling spring water which Tuvans believe to have magical properties. On some days several thousand can be found clambering along these damp trails enjoying what they believe is a gift from the spirits of nature. This is no male dominated religion, in a small forest, near her village home, Nadezhda pays homage to the spirits that gather there.
Nadezhda believes Shamanism is her vocation a spiritual gift she says she inherited from her grandmother, a respected Shaman. Constantly seeking a deeper connection with what she calls the earth spirits, Nadezhda believes she developed her magical healing powers after a six month odyssey deep into the Russian Taiga - the coniferous forest which blankets Siberia.
NADEZHDA (Translation): I went to the Taiga to sort of accumulate some power and sort of to worship nature, to communicate with nature. That's how it was.
For six months she had almost no human contact. But it seems she wasn't alone.
NADEZHDA (Translation): When I was working with my Tuvan drum wild animals came very close to me, some hunters came and said "œThere are so many animal footprints all around. Did you see them?" I said "œNo, I didn't." And apparently they come when they hear the drum. They like to listen to it. It turned out they came for the sound of the drum.
The power of music is integral to Shamanistic belief. It said to bring those who practice it into close harmony with nature. This haunting traditional art form is a sophisticated variant of throat singing where the vocalist can produce more than one sound or frequency at a time. Here, known as Khoomei.
ELIZABETH GORDON, RESEARCHER: It's a musical construction of identity. The Tuvan people say that when they sing Khoomei, they become part of the countryside, they become an actual physical part of Tuva.
Elizabeth Gordon is an Australia who moved to Tuva earlier this year to conduct research into this vocal art form that she says is without comparison.
ELIZABETH GORDON: It does sound so other worldly, it really does. For a particular group of people to say that their music identifies them as people and as a nation, that is fairly remarkable, from where I'm coming from. For the Tuvans, their music, that is their identity. And that's yeah, that's incredible, really incredible for me.
This group of boys has been studying the art of Khoomei for less than a year. The Tuvan culture may have been revived, but its long-term survival faces many hurdles. Elizabeth believes the most serious threat is the growing disillusionment of Tuva's younger generations.
ELIZABETH GORDON: Most of the young people I have spoken to here want to get out of Tuva, they go to universities, in Novosibirsk or Moscow and then they don't come back. If the younger generation all leave, what's that going to do for the culture? You're going to end up with a very old culture that will eventually die out.
Dugar is taking me into the hills to an ancient site renowned for its healing energies. As each ceremony must have a purpose, Dugar has offered to perform a healing ritual for my son Koby who is profoundly autistic. On a small fire, offerings are made to the spirits in the form of flour, meat and confectionary, with a small photograph of my son in one hand, holding his drum in another the ritual begins.
Calling to the spirits of the mountain, the spring and the trees, the shaman makes offerings, pays them homage and asking for their help. At the end of this dramatic ceremony, Dugar informs me it was a success. Told not to expect any sudden changes in my son's condition, Dugar said that gradually signs of improvement would emerge and that in time I would understand the power of this healing ritual. Although he is confident that Shamanism and the other unique aspects of Tuvan traditions are here to stay, there is one threat to Tuvan culture that has Dugar deeply worried - the arrival of the railway.
SHAMAN (Translation): Civilisation is civilisation and it will stay that way, but a train coming here I think is; I think that our Tuvan people might even, as we say, disappear - they might move elsewhere, forget their language. And the nature will be utterly ruined.
Construction has started on a rail link that will connect Tuva into the Trans-Siberian network.
SHAMAN (Translation): Right now they're promoting it: "œOh, it's going to be great, you're going to be rich, there'll be many jobs, the Tuvan people will be working there." No. They won't hire the Tuvan people.
With the arrival of the railway a few years off, Tuvans have some time to repair to the inevitable changes it will bring.
SHAMAN (Translation): That's the gist of it. I think it's a very difficult question and I also think we ought to have had a referendum on whether or not the Tuvans wanted that railroad. But it doesn't work this way. A decree comes out and that is it. I mean, we're the ethnic Tuvans. We ought to have had something.
Original Music composed by
17th October 2010