A Grand Adventure
August 14, 2011 12:48 PM   Subscribe

When Richard Feynman was a young boy his father told him of the remote land of Tannu Tuva, igniting an obsession that would remain with him for the rest of his life. The Last Journey of a Genius chronicles Feynman’s attempts to get to the country at the geographic center of Asia, all stymied by the Iron Curtain, although he did correspond with some of its citizens and was a fan of its distinctive music and stamps. A visa for Tuva finally arrived days after his death.
Most would suggest that the story ends there, but not so: Feynman’s friend Ralph Leighton eventually made it, and formed the Friends of Tuva; later, Feyman’s daughter Michelle made the trip her father planned but never completed, an emotional journey recorded by the Russian service of the BBC [MP3].

Richard Feynman many times previously on the blue, along with mentions of Tuva, throat-singing and the remarkable blues player Paul Pena.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul (20 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

Note that the graphic novel news was previously on the blue.
posted by knile at 12:57 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Cool post. I wondered why this seemed familiar, but I think Pynchon may have worked parts of it into Against the Day:

In much of the novel, Kit Traverse searches for "Shambhala," (257, 435−36, 447, 550−51, 607, 609, 628, 631, 686, 735, 748−50, 766, 772, 790−91, 793, 975, 1081), an "ancient metropolis of the spiritual, some say inhabited by the living, others say empty, in ruins, buried someplace beneath the desert sands of Inner Asia. And of course there are always those who'll tell you that the true Shambhala lies within" (Against 628). When Kit Traverse decides that "Tannu Tuva" is the hidden Shambhala (790), he strikes an idiosyncratic chord with a whole generation of readers who collected stamps in their childhood and remember the dramatic, brightly−colored triangular−shaped stamps imported at a pittance, un−cancelled and in mint−condition, from Tannu Tuva, which between 1926 and 1933 had produced them primarily for the western philatelic market, rather than for domestic postage. A small country on the border of Russia, Mongolia and Tibet, Tannu Tuva was absorbed into Russia before World War II. Not until the end of the novel does Pynchon explicitly refer to the "mint, never−hinged, superbly−centered Shambhala postage stamps" (1081). It is rare, and possibly nostalgic on his part, that the usually cryptic author would explain an enigmatic signifier that appeared earlier in the same novel.
posted by mannequito at 1:04 PM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think this is a very interesting post about Feynman and all but... HOLY CRAP GENGHIS BLUES IS ON YOUTUBE! This is just what I needed to accompany me while working today.
posted by munchingzombie at 1:09 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

We've been watching Genghis Blues here lately- I introduced it to my girlfriend's mother, who worked for the Russian service of the BBC! I'm going to have to share that link with her.

I love the way MetaFilter taps into the worldly zeitgeist at all the right moments.
posted by EricGjerde at 1:11 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Everytime I watch or read anything about Feynman I realize that he'd be the best friend ever, and I bet if I gushed to Feynman about it he'd just grin really wide and go, "Yes, that would be fantastic!"
posted by geoff. at 1:24 PM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here is a track by my favorite Tuvan throat-singing outfit, Yat-Kha.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 1:27 PM on August 14, 2011

(Actually, the link to the track I posted immediately above goes to an entire Yat-Kha playlist.)
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 1:29 PM on August 14, 2011

I went to a screening of Genghis Blues at a small venue in San Francisco a couple of years ago. I'm ashamed to admit I can't even remember what it was called, but it's on 24th near Treat. (I remembered! It's Blue Six.)

After the movie was over, there was a brief talk about it given by one of the people involved in making it (who was perhaps also a friend of Feynman's?). He talked about, among other things, how difficult it used to be to get correspondence, much less one's person, into Tuva, and how much easier it was now, especially because they had really advanced cell phones in Tuva (they got them from Korea, you know). In fact, they had holographic cell phones, and he had one too, and to demonstrate his, he called up Kongar-ol Ondar on his.

Ondar, who all along was just outside, proceeded to walk into Blue Six and play a few songs for us.
posted by kenko at 1:33 PM on August 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

He really likes his daily orange juice.
posted by stbalbach at 2:02 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Fantastic post. Thanks, Bora.
posted by homunculus at 2:34 PM on August 14, 2011

There is no such country.
posted by klue at 2:35 PM on August 14, 2011

From the third "previously" link in this post, this is one of my favourite bits of Feynman video. Payoff begins ~4:55 or so, but I haven't timestamped the URL because the ramp-up is worth it.
posted by curious nu at 3:05 PM on August 14, 2011

There is no such elder brother.
posted by Mapes at 5:52 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Radio Moscow's show about folk music did like 3 hours of music from Tuva bac in '87. Personally, I never heard of the place before reading the books by and about Feynman.
So at least when I heard all the talk about Tuva on Radio Moscow, I knew where it was.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:41 PM on August 14, 2011

Quick story. In 1996, I was part of a group that traveled to Tuva doing medical missions. However, I didn't really know anything about the medical part, so I joined a troupe of folks doing theater at orphanages. I didn't get a theater part and they needed something to distract the kids during set changes so I made up a little mime clown act with suspenders. We drove around the country in buses visiting TB orphanages putting on shows during the brief Siberian summer.

Anyway, we were based in Kyzyl for about two weeks, and one day I wandered down the river because it seems like crowds were headed somewhere. We ended up at this stadium (I think) where a Khuresh match was taking place. We were the only white folks in the stadium and I think they mistook us for journalists so we got seated right in front. Huun-Huur-Tu was playing at intermission. Later that day, one of the band members gave me a lesson in throat singing. Needless to say, it was one of the most incredible cultural events of my life.
posted by sciurine at 9:48 PM on August 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

Hm, that lat/long isn't right. Here's the stadium. It was just down the river from the monument that marks the geographic center of Asia, although I'm sure that claim is questioned.
posted by sciurine at 9:58 PM on August 14, 2011

Tuva or Bust is Ralph Leighton's 1992 book about this. Leighton was Feynman's longtime friend and was co-conspirator in the Tuva project.
posted by neuron at 10:45 PM on August 14, 2011

I was surprised to read "elder brother" too. I'm pretty sure Feynman only had one sibling, his younger sister Joan.
posted by Idle Curiosity at 11:47 PM on August 14, 2011

Mod note: Fixed familial reference in the post, carry on.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:08 AM on August 15, 2011

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