In 1977, Richard Feynman – Nobel Physics Laureate of 1965, amateur safe-cracker, practical joker and all-round ‘curious character’ – set out on one fantastic final quest…..

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman has always had an infectious enthusiasm for extraordinary adventures and zany schemes. His plan to visit the remote land once known as Tannu tuva, a country at the incorrectly calculated ‘centre of Asia’ known only to explorers and stamp collectors, forms the subject of this adventure.

As a boy Feynman had an extensive stamp collection containing stamps from the most remote corners of the world. As an adult, while discussing the strangests outposts of the globe Feynman wondered: “Whatever happened to Tannu Tuva?! I had plenty of stamps from that country”.


Immediately Richard and his best buddy Ralph Leighton got overly fascinated by this strange and forgotten land located somewhere North of China and Mongolia. They quickly learned that it’s capital is Kyzyl and yes, who could resist a land whose capital city is spelled K-Y-Z-Y-L and where soloists in the höömei style of throat singing can produce two notes at once? Not to forget about the fact that it’s located in the incorrectly calculated centre of Asia!


Struggling cheerfully with postal delays, a fiendish Soviet bureaucracy, the blockades of the Cold War, the exquisite intricacies of the Tuvan language and the cancer which eventually killed him, Feynman came within an ace (and a few days) of achieving his goal.

They eventually come up with a sly scheme where they bring an exposition, Nomads of Eurasia – composed partly of Tuvan attributes – to the USA granting them ‘specialist’ status rights to visit Russia! As Eurasian Nomadic experts they finally get a chance to visit Kyzyl and stand in the centre of Asia!

Centre of Asia monument Kyzyl 2

To facilitate the process of getting themselves to Tannu Tuva, and to share their Tuvan fascination with the rest of the world in 1981 the two friends create the Friends of Tuva (FoT) organisation to commemorate Tuva’s 60th anniversary as a distinctive splotch on the world globe. Because FoT is a brainchild of Ralph Leighton, it is impossible that it could even resemble an organization.  Rather, it has been a clearinghouse of information about Tuva and its “patron saint,” Richard Feynman.

Tuva or Bust, book

Feynman’s heroic and often humorous efforts are chronicled in the book ‘Tuva or Bust!: Richard Feynman’s last journey’ by his friend and fellow bongo-player, Ralph Leighton; It forms a fitting tribute to a great scientist, a most remarkable man and an even more remarkable country visit!

Sources: Feynman.comXconomy, FriendsOfTuva, Wikipedia, Amazon

  • jess sconé