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It reminds me hugely of Mongolia. Grubby-looking tenements, potholed roads, rubbish and poverty all around the city. The limits end immediately, in the rubble of landfill, as if scared by the immensity of the steppe which lours beyond.

My not very sleepful night and the grim weather doesn't help the depressing nature of the place. Out at the lake close to the Mongolian border to the south, it was great to be among nomads again, to share in tea-drinking and be eyed up by sets of curious eyes. Somehow comforting to be in a yurt's muffling womb embrace once again. But I slept terribly on the floor, an arctic wind knifing through the bottom of the tent, shredding my sleeping bag's warmth.

In my morning daze, sheep bleated and goats sneezed while bodies stirred and the older members of the family set about their chores. At night the dogs growled and occasionally fought. The matriarch's face was moon-round, with the high cheeks of the Mongol, creased into rivulets around her eyes, but smooth and shiny on her prominent forehead. The stove upon which all the cooking is done and the focus for the family wheezed. We breakfasted on delicious yoghurt spread onto pieces of bread and topped with rich currant jam, and noodles with unidentified/iable pieces of lamb swimming among globules of fat.

I ventured outside into the rain whose sheets were whipped near-horizontal by the wind. The young girls were milking the goats, and my boots squelched into the flock's droppings two inches thick. The lake shone a glassy grey, but there was no sign of the sun. I tried to take some photos, but gave up and went back inside. We drove back in near silence. I dozed fitfully, prodded periodically from my uncomfortable slumber. The driver laughed at me.

In the afternoon, the weather cleared. Kyzil, it turned out, is a very approachable, unthreatening town. The streets are wide, lined by grass verges and trees. Few buildings exceed a couple of stories. Many are made of wood, with the odd ornate frame around a window. The town hugs the southern shore of the Yenisei River. Just to its east, the ‘big' and the ‘small' Yenisei meet to form one of Siberia's most important waterways, travelling 3,200 miles to the mouth of the Arctic Ocean.

Government buildings dominate the centre. The parliament, perhaps aptly, faces the white block of the national theatre, which is vaguely styled on a Tibetan monastery. Flowerbeds and fountains divide the two.

The summer sun here is deceptive. It paints the city with a patina of normality and even cheer. But you know that underneath people are scratching a living. A man sells two cups of cedar seeds on a fold-out able, another a few lengths of shoelace. What kind of profit margin is that? The sun, the breeze in the trees, the outdoor cafés. All give the illusion that all is well. But come winter, pensioners will be freezing to death, as temperatures fall to – 40 C. It must become a most inhuman place. And I don't see a radiator in the room I sleep in. In 1997/8, there was no heating at all. The government couldn't afford it.

Tuvans are a proud people — proud of their land of rivers, steppes, mountains — and of their cultural heritage, especially throat singing. They even have a Throat Singing Institute, though it consisted of little more than a few rooms in the basement of the former Party headquarters. The country is desperately poor though. There is some mining, of coal, cobalt, gold and asbestos. And they also make rugs. But that's about it. The colourful, expensive book I've bought about the country seems to plead for investment.

The Regional Museum did its best, though it slipped into the Russian fervour for stuffed animals and birds. Taxidermists must live well in Russia. Tuva is famous for its stamps, strangely enough. Every philatelist knows it. In the 1920s and 30s it produced more stamps than the US and UK put together. More importantly, they were uniquely triangular. The Tuvans are also adept sculptors, carving soapstone into all sorts of subjects, from galloping horses, loafing yaks, wrestlers and monks playing with bears, to the country's symbol: a dragon chasing its tail in an endless cyclical motion.

We visited the Buddhist monastery, shiny new and brilliant white, in a plot of land behind the sports stadium. Its walls were bare and utilitarian, and the only feature was a projecting skylight at the centre of the room. It cast shadows and cubes of light across one side of the white-washed walls, and from its heart hung a kite-like chandelier of blue, green, red and purple, whose facets were alternately lit up or in shadow. A young monk chanted while a kneeling woman held a plastic bag of buckwheat in her lap. She would later make a now blessed porridge for the sick person.

We spoke to a young monk, the head lama's deputy. He had a round orb of a face with archetypal drawn lids and a friendly manner. When he spoke of how Buddhism was integrated into Tuvan society and culture, he intertwined his workman's fingers and made a bird-flying motion with his fingers.

Buddhism first came to Tuva in the 6th century, he said, but only became officially accepted around the 14th. Before the repression of the 20s and 30s, there had been 28 monasteries. All were destroyed, home to some 500 to a thousand people in each. This was part of their karma, he said. Recently, there had been a revival of the monastery's traditions. Tibetan monks had come to teach in Tuva and there were now eight monks and over 30 apprentices.

I wanted to press him about why he thought there had been repression. I don't have a glassy-eyed vision of what Buddhism represented before the advent of communism. The lamaseries were hugely powerful, owning vast tracts of land and forcing the population to contribute to their upkeep. Nearly a third of the male population was a lama before the revolution. They strangled the country and kept it in the dark ages, much as the Catholic Church did in medieval Europe.

But the monk wouldn't be pressed. The closest he came was to say that the persecution was a result of bad karma in the past. That the people who perpetrated it would suffer too. The Buddhists took it as a punishment, but accepted it. They had to avoid negative states of mind and actions, in order to eliminate the reasons for suffering. The happiness of all living things was their ultimate goal.

While in Tuva I stayed with Volodya's family. He was the friend of the English tour operator who had organised my trip. I was supposed to stay in a hotel, but for various reasons, not least because they're rubbish, I stayed in the flat in the ‘Pentagon' tenements. The blocks are washed a dirty salmon pink, its balconies laddering up nine floors. Grubby, urchin kids play by puddles or chase the chalice of a deflated football. Concrete wrinkles and chips. Puddles fester. Dust and rubbish migrate from one block to the next, ambulant peddlers of poverty. The lift stinks of the last drunkard's cock-legged greeting card.

I slept in his and his wife's bed, while they slept on the sofa and the floor. I felt very guilty, and hadn't realised that this would be the situation when I accepted to stay there. But it felt like I would be insulting them if I afterwards left to a hotel. So I stayed. It was hard and awkward at times, but it was also a great privilege to be part of their family and to be welcomed so warmly.

Volodya's lamb-chop cheeks mould his face. When he laughs, which is often, they smother his nose and heavy-lidded eyes and mouth. He has the physique of a wrestler gone to pot. His trim greying hair has been bottle-dyed an unfortunate shade of dark brown. His belly flops over his belt, longing to rejoin his stout legs. He is a busy, quite hyperactive man when making sure everything's OK. He's jolly, always looking to laugh, to exude warmth and welcome. I am privileged to have met him.

Volodya is one of the country's most renowned throat singers. He's toured the world with his group. He pointed me round his photo albums. Friends enjoying being tourists; welcome dinners; farewells at airports. From France to Finland, and California to Belgium. But the young men in the photos, his friends, have all died. The average male life expectancy in Tuva is 49. He now has a new group, which includes one of his beautiful daughters.

Another of his daughters, Lidia, lives in the flat. She's very sweet. She says she's 26, but she looks older, perhaps in her mid-30s. She sports a beehive hairdo a la Marianne Faithful, and has the most delicate, porcelain hands I think I've ever seen. Brittle and beautiful. She comes to sit purposefully at the end of my bed. We try to have phrasebook-conversations. She's very patient, but flutters her eyelids at me a lot. Which makes me sad. She deserves better. She's not married, and thus on the shelf by Tuvan standards. I asked her why she didn't go out dancing on Saturday night. She said there were too many drunks, and made leering, groping gestures with her hands. She didn't seem to do anything, nor have any friends. She accompanied us for my entire time in the country, clutching my notebook or carrying my camera for me.

Throat singing, or khöömei in Tuvan (or even ‘voix guimbarde' (voice of an old guitar) in French), is the country's most important folkloric tradition. Tuvans rightly regard themselves as the masters of the form. Some of it sounds quite ordinary to the Western ear, like Louis Armstrong singing in Turkish perhaps. But some styles — and there are over five — are like nothing you've ever heard before. The sygit style sounds more like an echoing, hollow whistle which emerges from deep within the singer's chest. The pitch of it travels right through you in a haunting and bewitching threnody. More remarkable still, while whistling the singer maintains a low baritone note, effectively becoming double-voiced.

Volodya gave me a demonstration of all the different khöömei styles while sitting at the table in his floral wallpapered living room. He strummed and rattled his old doshpuluur guitar and gave me a running commentary of the different sounds and their meanings. My favourite is still the sygit. The sound is other-worldly, not like anything produced by a human. It reminds me of watching the Moomins on television after school when I was little.

In the best restaurant in Kyzil, at the back of the menu there's a price list of knives, plates and glasses, ashtrays and candles. Just in case you break one. The list is probably a result of all the drinking binges that have taken place there. Alcoholism is rife in Tuva, accounting for its tragically low life expectancy: 50 for men. Soon after breakfast there are drunks in the street. And by nightfall it's not safe to be a foreigner on the streets. You get too much hassle.

On my last day, we drove west along the valley of Yenisei. It was beautiful. The road ran along the hillside, the river threading silver below, and tan brown and ash-grey mountains looming in the distance. The steppe of light green was interspersed with forests of pine and beech. On our way back, we pulled off the road to the brow of a hill. It commanded a swooping prospect, with Kyzil faint in the distance, the winding river with its forested islands and banks, the metallic afternoon sky. At the top of the hill, a pyramid of rocks, promises and requests rose, alongside a wigwam of branches muffled with prayer ribbons.

Our visit coincided with a wedding party. The chubby, puppy-fat bride sported an embroidered, twinkling outfit which I thought was tremendous. The skinny, lanky groom was all in black, with a white shirt and a plastic flower in his lapel. He had cropped hair and a nervous smile. He held up his wife's dress from the back, as if he were pinching her bottom. Maybe he was. I asked them if I could take their photo, and they nervously agreed. I pray they come out. To the ventilator of their white (probably rented) Volga, a blond, white-skinned doll had been strapped, her legs and arms splayed, as if about to crash into the future.