Editor’s note: On Friday, we comb through the archives and revisit an adventure from an earlier time. This week, we take a trip to the Republic of Tuva circa 1989 and follow one of the first western hunters in the area for decades. This story originally appeared in the July/August 1990 issue of Safari Magazine. Enjoy!
The Republic of Tuva is formed by fertile valleys and alpine grasslands. With its unique mountain taiga and rough steppes, it is a country of extremes. It suffers under the summer wind and heat up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and in the winter temperatures fall to -52 degrees. In the north they have caribou, in the south travels the camel – not even 200 miles apart from each other.
Nature is not kind to the 300,000 inhabitants of the country. Many times storms and permafrost destroy their crops yet they manage to earn a living. Tuva impresses by its untouched nature – the clean air and crystal clear waters. Even along the Yenisse’s ferry area, you can count the sparkling pebbles on the river’s bottom. It is a nearly undisturbed environment, in comparison to many other areas of the USSR.
In this place, even in the fall of 1989, hardly ever a tourist has visited, not to mention a foreign hunter. Even the ever-present Russian travel monopoly, Intourist, had to pass: there was neither an Intourist hotel nor a local representative . Real pioneer’s work had to be done here – an exciting opportunity, thanks to perestrojka!
The short-termed invitation, “in order to consider the organizational and economical possibilities of hunting tourism,” seemed promising. The order of business included prices and terms, accommodations, transfers, theoretical and practical ideas of guiding and selective trophy hunting for foreign hunting guests, as well as the true delight of each hunter’s heart- an outstanding variety of game to hunt. Brown bear, Siberian roe deer, musk deer, Siberian ibex and wolf, capercaillie, woodcock and the Asian brother of the American wapiti, the maral stag, can all be hunted here. Later on, the Tuvans informed me of a dense population of argali along the Mongolian border that was not marked on the game maps. The variety of game, most of it up until now available only in Mongolia, is sensational.
When the small Yak 40 jet stopped in front of Kyzyl’s unpretentious airport building, a warm desert wind welcomed us. We were the only tourists. After a friendly welcome by Alexandr, we immediately left for the hunting area. There was no time to waste, we only had one week for our visit. The drive into the Sayan mountains began with the antediluvian Yenisse ferry and took us through endless farming areas, broad rivers, swamps and the deep taiga forests.
The endless taiga forests finally end and we reach the camp, A fresh night wind reminds us that we are in Siberia. While the nosey laika dogs sniff at us, Wolodi, a famous maral hunter, challenges the mating stags with his self-built bugling horn. Wolodi’s salute is successful, a half-dozen marals answer to their imaginary competitor. He calls again in another direction, once up to the sky and then flat above the ground. One time he presses the air through the horn and the next he sucks the air,with the same result, deep into this body. The effect is incredible. The stags answer with their long whistling and “yodeling,” somewhat comparable to a donkey’s cry. Their call is very different from the deep roaring of the red deer – the maral’s European nephew.
At 5:00 a.m. the next morning, we begin our hunt, With dimmed lights,the vehicle bumps towards the hunting area. The dew on the moldy and yellowed leaves sparkles like glass chips. As we climb up the steep hills on well worn game tracks, Wolodi again and again calls to the bulls. I wonder how he can inspire them to answer with such queer, extended and skipping sequences, but it works!
The maral seems not to be very territorial. The bulls and their harems are the vagabonds of the densely covered, wooded mountain slopes and gorges. We constantly stalk uphill, sometimes climbing up slopes with 60-degree grades.
At sunrise, the forest around us changes into a gold, gleaming miracle as millions of larches and birch trees shine like pure gold – the Siberian Golden October. This unique and short beauty reminds me of a North American Indian summer. Suddenly, another maral stag calls from not too far away from us. Wolodi responds with his bugle and the stag answers quite angrily. We have to reach the next ridge to get a close look. I am wondering what size the bull is and what quality the trophy. Eight points per beam – that is a royal. I would not hesitate to take an excellent bull if it had seven points.
We have to move with utmost caution and I wish we had already passed the open hillside in front of us. We move into the wind and are careful not to alert the females. We must make a small detour downhill and pass through the forest again, It will take us at least an hour and I hope the game will wait for us.
At that moment, as Wolodi teases the stags again and gets his answer, we happen upon two Siberian roe deer. Very seldom do I sit that fast on the seat of my trousers! With the down wind, I would have to observe and shoot in the same second. But my luck ran out and the old, mature buck, a young male and a female got away. The old buck had only one beam left. It already had cast the other. These roe deer are nearly twice as big as their European cousins, but they are not popular with the Siberian hunters. In the midst of the forest, we come upon very impressive bear tracks – a good reason to hold my rifle closer. The fresh scars on a pine proved that we had entered the empire of at least a seven-foot bear.
We finally reach the last mountain ridge and see the fellow we are looking for – still a half-mile away and surrounded by four jealously guarded females. What an impressive picture when the slate colored stag stands in the sun, head up and antlers tossed back to the rear while calling.
Wolodi is now very discreet with his bugling. He knows any carelessness will destroy today’s chances. As we draw closer, I get ready to shoot, although my 7mm Remington Magnum Mauser 66 is still fixed on my rucksack. I begin having doubts -how old is this stag, is it really mature? Is its hump and its crumpled facial expression a sign of age? While I think, the stag determines its own destiny. Without any perceptible reason, it starts towards the nearby forest. In the next moment, as my scope stops on its breast, the stag disappears in a flashing bright light, The rays of sun rest fully on my objective lens and I am totally dazzled! Wolodi reacts immediately, taking off his cap and holding it against the sun. That helps, just in time! Twenty more yards and the bull will disappear into the gold-colored taiga forest.
The maral takes the bullet without any significant reaction and enters the thicket. Although we are pretty sure it was hit well, we have our doubts. A 600-pound stag needs an absolutely accurate hit, especially during the rut. After half an hour we walk down to where the stag had been. No blood. No cut hair. Ten minutes later, we enter the thicket where we find the blood trail – and my stag.
After a short rest, we take care of the game and start downhill. This is a hunt for the “upper drawer” of my memories.—Dr. Egon J. Lechner