Tuva or Bust!

Book Card  -  Volume 21  -  Book Review Number 1  -  Sun, Sep 29, 1991 9:36 PM

TITLE: Tuva or Bust!
AUTHOR: Ralph Leighton
PUBLISHER: WW Norton & Co.

The late physicist Richard Feynman was, in my opinion, the foremost ponarvian of the twentieth century. And for years now a fellow named Ralph Leighton has been playing Boswell to Feynman's Johnson. In his two previous books, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, and What Do You Care What Other People Think? Leighton has documented many of his mentor's wackiest adventures and most improbable ponarvs. In this book, which is subtitled "Richard Feynman's Last Journey", he documents Feynman's last and greatest ponarv of all: an attempt to visit the remote country of Tuva.

It all started during a casual dinner conversation in the summer of 1977. The topic turned to geography and Feynman asked his friend "What ever happened to Tannu Tuva?" Leighton, the victim of many Feynman pranks, replied "There is no such country!"

But this time Feynman was not bluffing. As a child in the 30's he collected stamps, and the most interesting stamps came from a place called Tannu Tuva, which appeared on maps of the day as a purple splotch growing out of Mongolia. He and Leighton consulted their encyclopedia and discovered that Tuva was now masquerading as Tuvinskaya ASSR. They then discovered that it's capital was a city named Kyzyl. "A place that's spelled K-Y-Z-Y-L has just got to be intersting," exclaimed Feynman. Then and there they decided to visit Kyzyl together.

Leighton's book chronicles the decade-long struggle to outwit the one force that stood between them and their goal: the labyrintine bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. Visitors to the USSR are only allowed to visit cities that have an Intourist Bureau (an arm of the KGB) and Kyzyl was far too remote to have such a bureau. One of the many schemes that Leighton and Feynman hatched was to create an imaginary flood of tourists demanding access to Kyzyl so that the Soviets would open an Intourist office there.

As with all ponarvs, the project carried its progenitors in directions they never could have anticipated. Incredibly, the two became amateur diplomats and successfully negotiated a treaty that paved the way for a major archeological exhibition at USC, just so they could get an invitation from the Soviet Academy of Sciences to do a Tuva documentary. Many of their stunts started small avalanches of activity in far corners of the world, the echoes of which are still being felt today.

I see an interesting parallel between Feynman's quest and the attempt by Michel Vieuchange to visit Smara, (see Smara: The Forbidden City, my book review from volume 4). In both cases, the travellers face overwhelming odds to reach a distant place essentially "because it's there." The Russian bureaucracy is more absurd than the Sahara, but just as relentless.

In the end, Leighton does make it to Tuva, but not Richard Feynman. "The Chief," as Leighton calls him, succumbed to cancer a few months before he could make the trek. But Feynman's followers are determined to carry on his legacy, and readers are invited to join a "Friends of Tuva" society. (For information send a stamped self-addressed envelope to Friends of Tuva, Box 70021, Pasadena, CA 91117).

The hardback edition comes with a "soundsheet"; readers with access to a turntable can hear some unique Tuvan music: "Reka Alash," sung by Oorzhak Khunashtaar-ool in the "sigit" or "whistling" style and "Artyy Saiyr," sung by D. Damba-Darzha in the "kargyraa" or "wheezing" style, accompanied by A. Laptan on the byzaanchi. And each chapter is adorned with images from the truly wonderful Tuvan stamps. Tuva or Bust is an indispensable addition to the library of any true ponarvian.