By Lisa Carducci
Since I was near Kanas, I expressed my intention to see a man I had interviewed two years earlier. Eerdexi (pronounce Erdesh) lived in the far north of Xinjiang, two steps from the Sino-Russian border. Tuva people have their own spoken language but no written system. Tuva is a rare language that belongs to the Turkic group*. But I was told that Eerdexi had died last spring. However, I can't help reporting his words from that time because Eerdexi was then a "living fossil" of Xinjiang Tuva culture.
As with most names in the locality, Kanas is a Mongolian word and means "fertile and mysterious place." The Tuva number about 180,000 and are mostly established in Baihaba Village, Hemu Tuva Village in Burqin County, and Kanas Village.
Eerdexi was 68 when I met him in 2005. "We all descend from Genghis Khan and his soldiers," he said, "and we have been living here for generations." According to some researchers, they might be descendants of weak and ill soldiers left behind by the Great Khan, while in the case of some old Tuva, the ancestors could have migrated out of the Siberia Tuva Republic 500 years ago.
In the past, Tuva people lived on hunting. "We are no longer nomadic," specified Eerdexi, adding that nowadays, the Tuva are mostly farmers and shepherds.
"When I was a child, we needed three to four days to get to town by horseback or by a cart pulled by a horse. Now, we have good roads." However, they are not practicable the whole year long. In the 1950s, there could be up to two metres of snow. Today, there is less snow, but transportation is not yet smooth. Temperatures may dip as low as -40 ºC sometimes. But the Tuva don't remain prisoners in their village in the winter.
"Look at these skis," indicated Taiban, Eerdexi's niece, who served as an interpreter. "The bottom is covered with horse hide. The hair allows smooth passage on the snow while they serve as brakes when one traverses a hill."
A bow on the wall, almost two metres long, was still used in games and festivals. Its string was made of leather. Eerdexi's modest house was like a museum with a variety of relics of Mongolian culture, especially Tuva, such as a wooden milk bucket, and wolf, marmot, and fox skin.
As the Tuva practice Buddhism, each home has a little altar dedicated to Buddha. One can also see the 10th Panchen-Lama's photos on the altar.
Excitedly, I awaited the opening of "the box" containing Eerdexi's most precious possession. "We Mongols have four special musical instruments, including the well-known horse-head violin. The fragile instrument in this box is a shu'er. Sixty centimetres long, it is made from a cane called halate cao that can be found only here, at Kanas, and harvested in September. Its stalk is naturally empty." I took the instrument to examine it. It was extremely light, like an egg shell. "You see the three holes," Eerdexi continued, "we pierce them for the fingers to cover them naturally, without any contortion."
Other materials have been experimented with in the making of the flute, but the perfect sound can only come from the halate cao.
"I am the last one to play this instrument. After me, it will no longer be heard. I will play one of my compositions for you – Wonderful Kanas." He played a very delicate tune, which was airy, languorous, and melancholy. I had the impression of hearing two instruments at the same time: one being a fixed tone and the other one, the melody. I remarked on this to the flutist. "Right," he answered. "It depends on the placement of the tongue and teeth on the instrument. The fixed sound is produced by the blowing, the melody by the fingers." Why are there no persons who will carry on this tradition? "Young people today," said the artist, "are not patient. They learn for one or two years, then let it go. This instrument, as simple as it looks, is very difficult to play. I started at the age of nine, and only at 22 did I perform in public. The younger one starts, the better it is."
But Eerdexi didn't condemn contemporary youth. "The young have other talents. They can speak several languages, such as Tuva, Mongolian, and Kazak, because of the environment, and Chinese, as the national tongue; even English for those who study." Local children start school at seven. Before, there was only the Mongolian language school; today, they also learn Chinese. For high school, they go to Altay. Then they pursue higher education at Inner Mongolia Normal University or Xinjiang Normal University. Some attend Minzu (Nationalities) University in Beijing. Eerdexi's house was built by the family about 40 years ago. It was all made of Siberian red pine, including the furniture, in contrast with the nomadic Mongols who live in yurts (tents). The family income was due to tourism for a large part. They rented rooms to travellers and horses for riding.
It has not been that long since the Tuva began getting married to others outside the clan, with other branches of Mongols but not other ethnic groups. The Chinese family planning law allows the Xinjiang minorities to have three children. If all three are the same sex, couples can try for a fourth. Eerdexi – it was long before! – had three boys and four girls and three of them had married. One of the boys was a teacher, another studied shu'er, and the last one was a herdsman. Two daughters were married, the third was a singer, and the youngest still attended school.
Eerdexi played two more compositions. Around a low table, we sat comfortably on carpets, savoring the homemade cookies and pastries, milk candies, dry cheese, yogurt, and butter tea. Taiban brought a pitcher of nai jiu (milk alcohol). The singer-daughter came in, looking elegant in her Mongolian dress with a decorated headgear. She sang, with a hada on her arms and a glass in one hand. When she offered the alcohol to me, I dipped my ring finger in it, and flung one drop towards the sky to honor the gods, one drop to the Earth who feeds us, and one to the inhabitants of the house, before drinking it. Then, she passed the hada around my neck as a sign of respect. Eerdexi has left us. His soul has gone away with the sound of the flute but his souvenir remains among us. Aqita! (thank you), refined musician!