Book Excerpt: The Last Speakers

Welcome to a new feature on the blog we’re calling Library Fridays, where we’re teaming up with our National Geographic Books division to provide you excerpts and sneak peeks of some of our upcoming titles. Our inaugural excerpt, The Last Speakers, is one I’m particularly excited about. Part travelogue, part anthropological study, the book is National Geographic Fellow K. David Harrison’s autobiographical story about his efforts with the Enduring Voices project, which aims to preserve obscure languages threatened with extinction.

From the book The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison.
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Stretching eastward from Moscow lies a vast land that spans eight time zones. Most people think of it as a barren, snowy wasteland, or place of exile for dissidents. Yet Siberia would be the place I came of age as a scholar and a linguist and forged lasting intellectual and emotional connections. The many adventures I had there radically shifted my view of language and gave me a whole new understanding of how people organize knowledge and communicate.

My original semester as an exchange student in Eastern Europe somehow morphed into a five-year sojourn, and I began to explore the peripheries. I used to loiter at the Kazan’ railway station in Moscow, watching trains arrive from Baku and other exotic places and listening to some of the minority languages of Russia. I visited the local mosque to hear Tatar spoken, and the fruit market to hear Georgian spoken by the watermelon vendors. I felt drawn eastward, but visa and legal restrictions on foreigners held me back.

Finally, one day in 1996, I heard that travel restrictions had been lifted. On a whim, I packed my backpack and went directly to Kazan’ station. I stood in line clutching $200 in rubles and, when it was my turn, asked for a ticket to Tuva. The surly ticket clerk behind the window, without looking up, said, “There’s no such place.” When I persisted, she assumed that I was simply mispronouncing Tula, a Russian city where samovars are made. I shouted back at her through the little gap in the ticket window, insisting that a place called T-u-v-a did exist and thinking to myself that she could verify it if she would only heave her bulk up out of the chair and look at the enormous map of Russia on the wall behind her. People behind me in the queue tried to shoo me away, grumbling that I was delaying their purchases. However, being loudly rude in Russian, and with an American accent, sometimes gets results. I stuck to the ticket window, and eventually we reached an understanding. The ticket vendor sold me a train ticket to Abakan, the nearest city to Tuva where trains go.

Tuva had captivated my imagination by the simple fact that, in the late 20th century, people there still lived as nomads, in collapsible felt houses, making their own ropes, saddles, cheese, and wool. Protected by mountains, with no railroads, few airplanes, and no paved roads leading in or out, many Tuvans migrate seasonally, following their animal herds to greener pastures. I couldn’t wait to see it with my own eyes.

Buy the book here, and for more great travel titles, read our Trip Lit column, and check out our Ultimate Travel Library.