The autonomous socialist republic of your dreams

Kyzyl - I should come clean. This is not really about Tuva. At least not about the Tuva on the map - designated as either Tannu-Tuva, Tuvan Autonomous Socialist Republic or the Autonomous Republic of Tuva.

The Tuva I want to talk about exists mostly in the mind, in messages on the Internet and fringe forums dedicated to the memory of a dead American nuclear physicist and the oddball Californian cult he left behind.

I did visit the real Tuva, some 2,500 miles - and two rock-hard in-flight Aeroflot chickens - from Moscow. Nestled in the mountains next to Mongolia, Tuva is blessed with spectacular scenery. It is cursed by one of the highest crime rates in Russia (if you include cattle rustling) and lethal supplies of asbestos.

The other Tuva is far more romantic. I encountered it first at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport, starting point for overnight flights to all the most remote outposts of Russia's still sprawling empire. In the Intourist departure "lounge" a small red sticker announced the cult motto and the title of its canonical work: "Tuva or Bust".

The whole thing began with Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who, between helping to design the first atom bomb as a Manhattan Project member, performing as a safe-cracker and jazz drummer, and working out why the space shuttle Challenger blew up, developed a fixation with travelling to Tuva. He never made it.

More successful was his drumming partner, Ralph Leighton. A former high school teacher from Pasadena, California, he now runs "Friends of Tuva" - described on the Internet as "the central clearing house of information and Tuva-related merchandise". (Among merchandise on offer is Tuva T-shirts, a collection of lectures on nuclear physics, the greatest hits of Tuvan throat-singing, the annotated English translation of a German ethnographic study and posters of Professor Feynman dressed for a fancy dress party as a Buddhist monk.)

As well as Friends of Tuva, there are splinter groups: The Richard P Feynman Memorial Bicycling Society, last sighted somewhere in Cheshire, and the Tannu-Tuva Liberation Front, also known as the Tannu-Tuva Collectors' Society, a group of hard-core Tuvan stamp collectors based in Florida. Further from the mainstream is the Society for Creative Anachronisms - New Age groupies who roam Pennsylvania in yurts, Tuvan-style nomadic tents made of felt.

While Feynman never got to Tuva, a small tribute to his enthusiasm was put up in Kyzyl in 1991: a stone plaque glued to a wall near a Soviet- era monument hailing Tuva as the "Centre of Asia". I went to look at it on my first night in the capital.

I must now report the bad news. The plaque has gone. All that remains is the stain of glue carried from California to try to secure Feynman's immortality.

This is what the plaque said: "Richard Feynman 1918-1988. His attempts to reach this spot in the lands of his dreams inspired others to set foot here."

The Tuvans, baffled by all the fuss, are dreaming of reaching a far more exotic faraway land. In the local parliament building operates the headquarters of a new cult: Friends of America.