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Published: August 7th 2009
Blue bands tied loosely around a lone tree greeted our arrival. The colour of Tengger. God. Each band representing a dream of those who dared to ask. A wish cast upon the wind. There never was a road. Mongolia doesn’t have roads. The track there hadn’t been much of a track either. More a place where trees weren’t growing. We sighted the Shaman’s cabin perched alone in a dark corner on the edge of the forest. “Anyone there?” No response. We looked around the back. Why doesn’t this cabin have any windows? I wondered…… Strange. Sun rays tore down through the enchanting blue sky. A wisp of stratospheric cloud illuminated brilliant white ruined the skies monotone perfection, but perhaps added to the fullness of the landscape on view before us.
The silence that began as silence became deafening. A slight rustle amongst the trees gently swaying in the still afternoon air. A bird singing. Some insects making their insect sounds. The stillness and silence heightened our senses and confused them. It was possible to smell the blue of the sky, to taste the sweetness of a birds lullaby and to feel the itch of an insects rustle. Rustle rustle. No.
The shaman's father
After the ritual the shaman noticed I liked photography and asked me if I wouldn't mind taking some pictures of his family. Of course I said yes.
Now I’m getting carried away. It was a tranquil scene. Nothing more. The shaman wasn’t home so we waited… and waited…and waited some more… and I fell asleep dreaming of…… “Please, come in”
. The shaman only spoke Darkhad; a dated form of Mongolian, but Ulzii translated and we obliged. The shaman’s home was dark. It smelled damp and looked dirty. He lit a fire. Light entered through three letter box sized windows and the door left ajar. Narrow beams of the sun’s rays competed to illuminate the shaman’s toothless smile as he moved around the room. His voice boomed with a lisp. If you can imagine such a thing. I glanced the carcass of a small bird nailed to the wall at one end of the dingy cabin, wings spread, head uncomfortably crooked to one side. For whose benefit I wonder? The fireplace hissed and crackled into life. Tea was promptly boiled.
We had arrived unexpectedly, though he didn’t seem to mind. He addressed us indirectly through Ulzii. Seldom making eye contact. Is he shy? His voice would suggest otherwise I thought. “The Shaman performs according to the lunar calendar. Today is not a good day.
Me before the shaman
He used his maracas type drum stick to hit us across the backs when he wasn't using it for drumming
Could you wait until tomorrow?”
Hummmm? We thought of Eddy waiting back in Tsagaannuur. It wouldn’t have been right. “Is there no way we can go ahead today?”
Discussion was required. Persuasion needed. We left Ulzii to work her magic and waited outside.
Afternoon was transitioning to evening. White light became gold light and the world absorbed a mystical golden hue. The shadows of fir trees protruded across the ground like conical hats ever growing as the sun sank towards the inevitability of the horizon. Bold oranges in the taiga forest became radiant. Even luminous. A line of snow capped peaks, forbidding and impenetrable stood gilded in divine light. The warm green grass and compelled us to sit and admire, and its voice we duly obliged. A lone horse wondered past. Noisy silence persisted and I liked it. “The shaman says he can do the ritual today”
Phew! “But if you could wait until tomorrow it would be better”
Ummmm?… We thought about it, but it wasn’t an option available to us. “Sorry, but we really can’t stay until tomorrow. Eddy might be really ill.
Today is fine with us if it’s ok with the shaman” “He says it’s ok. But first we need to collect his drum. He needs it for the ritual, but it’s at his parent’s ger.”
No problem, we’re working on Mongolian-time anyway!
They drove off leaving us behind. We started to feel excited. Inside his cabin the shaman’s prayer mantelpiece used during rituals loomed above us. It demanded inspection. Sky blue in colour and with thirteen individually crafted talismans hanging delicately in a row. Each talisman representing the fundamental animals and beings of life on the Mongolian plains and those whom we would be asking for help tonight. An ox, a horse, an owl, a wolf, an eagle, and others to represent our ancestors all engraved in a silver whose tarnishing betrayed its impurity.
Visiting the shaman had seemed a good idea. Now I had to think of something to ask him for. To cure a problem. An ailment. For guidance. But I didn’t have anything really. Caroline, the same. We racked our thoughts and he sat waiting. “My shoulder hurts every time I carry a bag - always in the same
place - has done for years” Shitty problem I thought. But at least it’s real and she’s thought of one. He inscribed it onto a strip of sky blue material along with her name, age and place of birth. All in Cyrillic script. Now my turn. I continued to rack my brains until the one numbskull idea I kept trying to suppress finally found its way past my teeth, and so ended up inscribed onto my own prayer band. He laughed hoarsely. Clearly a new one for him.
We prepared our evening meal in the dark. The shaman didn’t eat. He said to save him some food for after the ritual. We didn’t ask why. The mantelpiece was set-up outside his cabin and offerings were prepared. Some fruit, vegetables, cigarettes, vodka, tea and a small amount of money. Bear skins were laid out for us to sit upon during the ritual, and his costume laid ready, next to his cow skin drum. “First I must ask the gods permission to continue. Today is not the right day.”
We waited nervously. A few twings and twangs of a peculiar instrument later and the
Tree outside shamans home
Every band attached to the tree represents someone's request to the shaman
verdict was announced: “Only two of the spirits have agreed to come because it’s the wrong day. Are you sure you don’t want to wait until tomorrow?”
We briefly contemplated the consequences of only two spirits out of thirteen coming. Kind of difficult to contemplate…………… We decided to go ahead anyway.
Illuminated only by a small torch, the dull yellow of our vehicles sidelights and infinite stars piercing holes through the icy cold midnight sky, we stood around the shaman and his prayer mantelpiece, waiting anxiously for the ritual to start, shivering in the cold. What the hell a passerby would think I have no idea. Not that there would be any. And why did we feel nervous? You’d have to be there I suppose. A surprise at the last second when we discover our driver, Moggy, has decided to take part in the ritual too. This guy must be the real deal. Moggy doesn’t strike me as the superstitious type…..
With the crash of a drum it began! Crash! Crash! Crash! And his chanting began in synchrony. First quiet and guttural, but reaching frequent crescendos in a rhythmic pattern.
It intensified as he danced, chanted and pummelled his drum at an ever growing rate. Ulzii flicked milk from a paint brush towards the mantelpiece as instructed. Offerings to the spirits. Every second he became more and more absorbed in the ritual. Every second chanting faster. Dancing faster. Beating his drum harder. Jumping higher until….
With his heavy cloak laid ready, at one final crash of the drum he collapses into the arms of Moggy and Oktber. Barely prepared they struggle to catch him, but seemingly they know the scenario and what to do next. He lies motionless, limply in their arms, spread out like Jesus dead on a cross.
Frantically they untie the bright orange sash of his traditional Mongolian deel from around his midriff. Slipping the sleeve of his deel partially down past one of his hands, the sash is knotted around the sleeve. In one motion they remove the deel sleeve and replace it with the cloak of the shaman. They repeat with his other arm, struggling to support his weight. His human spirit now symbolically trapped in the clothes of a mortal and replaced by the spirit of the shaman. His black boots are replaced
with ones made from reindeer hide. But still, he hangs limp. Finally, his hat is replaced with a painted headdress. Tassels conceal his human eyes now replaced with the painted eyes of his headdress - eyes into the spirit world. His transformation from mortal to shaman of the spirit world was now complete. The ritual began in earnest.
Oktber and Moggy lower him to the ground where he sits cross legged for a brief moment. Violently, he jerks into life. More chanting. More Dancing. More drum bashing continues. Prompted, we make our offerings to the spirits; a couple of oranges, some cigarettes, some vodka poured in quadruple-shot measures, and about 10,000 turugs (£4.50) are placed on the mantelpiece. Being careful not to show our backs and offend the spirits, we return to our bear skin seats. Intrigued.
He performs in his elaborately constructed shaman suit. Its long tassels flailing with fervour and he dances - each tassel representing a snake. Some red, some blue, some white, some yellow and some with eyes sewn into their ends. Asked to select a tassel I choose a blue one. I tie my prayer band around to secure my request. “This makes
sure the spirits will never forget your request because the knot will always be there”. Caroline and Moggy follow suit and the ritual continues.
A thump of the drum, a rattle of the maracas and a clink of his costume coalesce with vitality, like waves coming and going he rocks from side to side - ten minutes have passed, his ceaseless energy never failing. He stops and we are plunged into silence. Momentarily. It’s clear we are supposed to do something here. Oktber hurriedly fetches some tea which he slurps from a silver bowl held before him. A cigarette is lit and placed in his mouth. A single puff and he spits it out. “It’s because the spirits are from a long time ago and they wouldn’t know what modern cigarettes are”.
Hummmmm? Attention to detail if he’s faking it I suppose. Evilly he laughs and for a moment it seems he’s fallen to the dark side. No explanation given. He is fed some vodka, which makes him cough. Violently. He starts to make the sounds of a pig, snorting……………………
Ouch! He whips me across the back with the tassels of his suit as I
He becomes the shaman!
He falls backwards, arms splayed wide. Moggy holds him as he lays limply and Okbter changes his clothes
kneel, facing the ground before him. Three times his drum is passed across my head, three times a small piece of my essence collected and three times whacked to oblivion under the smite of his heavy hand - along with a piece of my hearing. Asked to bend forward he thumps me on the back, painfully, with his maracas. “Are you a religious man?”
He demands, now kneeling in front of me, though his attention is seemingly focused on something I can’t see. Every question chanted in a familiar pattern. “No, I never have been” “What about when you were small - a child?” “ No - never in my life. I’ve never been religious” “Ha Ha! That’s strange! You will be a religious man one day!”
Tiny mirrors attached to his costume glint in dull torch light. Scaring away bad spirits. He shuffles around uncomfortably. I see a twinkle in a wrinkle on his sweating face. Still, he stares into nothingness. “Why were you sad when you were young?”
He asks as if presuming to know something about me. I
The shaman performing
His headdress had painted eyes. Eyes which see to the spirit world. Tassels conceal his own eyes
hastily rack my memory. “Difficult to say - I don’t really remember”
Was I sad??? “How has your sister’s health been lately?”
He changes subject as quickly as the wind changes direction. I suppress cynical Lee and answer. How did he know I had a sister? Pretty high odds I suppose. Cynical Lee reappears but I quash the thought quickly. “You haven’t seen your mother for a long time. She misses you a lot. How does that make you feel?”
This guy is good. He couldn’t have known that……… “Sad, I suppose. It would be nice to see here again” “She misses you too. You will see here before long”
Enough of the predictions and foresight. He chants me questions about my request and I answer. There is of course more dancing, more chanting and more drum beating. That you can assume for any given minute. Finally, he asks me to chose a talisman from the mantelpiece and rub my head against it three times. Some incense is lit and passed around my head three times. More incense is lit and I’m asked
to pass it around his body three times. He takes huge swig of vodka. It’s topped back up and passed to me. I’m expected to finish the glass and do so. With difficulty. The ritual moves on. Caroline’s turn. Then Moggy’s.
By now it’s been almost 3 hours. Ten O’clock has become one O’clock. The wintery air bites our exposed skin and is starting to make us cold to the core. It’s almost pitch black, and while we’ve all sat and watched in wonder for the last thirty minutes outside his forest home, the shaman has relentlessly danced and chanted - seemingly stuck in an interminable trance - passionately chanting as he asks the spirits for their help and simultaneously receives their advice.
Oktber, Moggy and I surround him as he dances. Catching him each time he almost falls. He remains unaware of our presence I’m certain.
Just as it had began, it ended. Reaching a feverish crescendo he drops his drum and maracas and falls backwards - arms splayed wide. The sleeves of his costume are tied and the clothes of the mortal replace those of the shaman. His reindeer boots are replaced
The shaman performing
The long tassels on his costume represent snakes. Some had eyes sewn into their ends. The snakes scare away bad spirits and represent the shamans connection to the animal world
and once again he is wearing his haggard ‘Dr Marten’ style boots. Finally his headdress is removed and replaced with a broad-rimmed hat. Moggy and Oktber lower him to the floor where he sits cross legged - slumped forward and not moving. We all wait anxiously until slowly he begins to move. A dishevelled shell of a man; exhausted and frail. He almost looked confused. A few minutes elapse. We help him to his feet. He wobbles and looks at his watch. “Sorry I couldn’t put on more of a show for you. My body must have been too tired.”
He tells us, speaking about his previous actions in the third person - as if it wasn’t him that had just performed. We of course refute his apology, thanking him for allowing us to come at such short notice. “The spirits have told me what I must do”
Straining our eyes we hastily disassembled the stage of the ritual. Biting cold nipping at our hands and faces under the midnight sky. The shaman, who before the ceremony had been distant at best, now became alive with interest.
Two foreigners staying at his home. The first foreigners he’d ever performed for. “Two foreigners came before, maybe a couple of year ago, but I didn’t have a good feeling about it. The spirits told me I shouldn’t perform for them, so I didn’t. When I came home today and saw you two asleep on the grass outside my cabin I had to look twice!”
Clearly we are good people I thought! “If you want to ask me anything about the ritual, just ask. If you want to look at the costume, you can. It’s here. Please. You can look…”
The shaman now devours the food we’d left for him. Cold pasta in a tomato sauce. Really not appealing…. “I knew you must be good people when I saw you eat this food for dinner. Good people will eat any food!”
After finishing the food he takes great interest in the oranges we gave as offerings. “I’ve never seen these before. Did you get them in Ulaan Baator? Ummmm? I’ve heard you can buy all sorts of strange things there”.
oranges are shared between us all along with all the other offerings made. Nothing wasted in the name of posterity. This is the north land. You take what you get while you can.
The vodka was shared. Laughs and smiles exchanged. He hadn’t tried to glean any information about us prior to the ceremony - keeping his distance. Only now the shaman revealed himself and this only added to our sense of his legitimacy. “How did you become a shaman? Can you tell us about it?” “I’m 45 years old now, and I became a shaman when I was 13 years old. At first it was so difficult because I didn’t know anything and had to pray to the spirits for hours every day to learn”
He smiles a disarming, toothless smile as he looks into nothingness reminiscing - his face illuminated by the few candles sparsely spread around the room. I suspect he doesn’t get a lot of visitors living so far away from civilisation and he seemed to be enjoying the company. “As far as I’m aware, there are only 10 real shamans in this area. There
The shaman performing
The metal and mirrors attached to his costume are to scare away bad spirits as they glint in the light
are many who claim to be shamans but they are deceitful and only want to take people’s money. I know I am a real shaman. I talk with the spirits every day and I’ve helped many people”
Ulzii later explained how his wife had left him because of his being the shaman. In Mongolian society that is unheard of. Clearly he is devoted to his work. “So how do you know how to treat people’s problems?” “The spirits always help me when I ask them to, and if any medicine is needed they tell me where to find it and how to prepare it. Sometimes I have to trek for days into the mountains to places I’ve never been before - only with the spirits to guide me. I sometimes have to find incredibly rare mountain flowers for people’s treatments. I find them every time because the spirits know where to find everything”
He opens a box full of packages wrapped in newspaper. A strong smell of flowers permeates the room. Seemingly he has made supplies. “This is what the spirits told me to give you”
Me before the shaman
He whipped all of us with the tassels of his costume. Collecting a part of our problems in the process
me two tiny pieces of iron ferrite. “Keep it with you at all times, preferably near to your heart.”
For Caroline he presents a different treatment. “This flower you must burn like incense when you feel the pain in your shoulder. Inhale the smoke. If the problem doesn’t disappear from this alone, then infuse this one with boiling water and drink the tea. This should solve your problem”
He produces two packages wrapped in newspaper and hands them to Caroline. We thank him, intrigued. “What do you believe happens when you die?” “Nothing!”
He laughs. “The end! If you are buried in the ground, then it’s just the end. Nothing will happen. There is no afterlife”
I couldn’t help but admire this viewpoint as it completely corresponds with my own. But he had more to add. “If seven shamans all unite upon a person’s death, then that person will enter into the spirit world. The shamans will free their soul from their body and they’ll be sent to walk amongst the spirits for eternity” “Have you ever done this?
Me before the shaman
He whipped all of us with the tassels of his costume. Collecting a part of our problems in the process
Have seven shamans ever come together?”
I ask intrigued by this idea I haven’t heard of previously. “No. I’ve never seen this in my life. It only happens to those who the spirits choose.” “How would you know if they had chosen someone?” “They would tell me where to go and who to see. Always, the spirits know everything”
By now it was 2am. Outside a hard frost covered the previously warm grass. The moonless night made visible the reds and greens of distant nebulas amidst a sea of glimmering stars. A view into the past. A distant dream. Infinity and nothingness, but the ceiling on our world. Perhaps the beginning of the next. Maybe.
He had one final prophecy for us: “Tonight there will be wolves. The spirits told me.”
Since arriving in Mongolia I had dreamed of seeing or hearing wolves but as yet hadn’t been so lucky.
Retiring to our tent pitched next to his cabin, we said goodnight and thanked him for the experience. I’m not so sure I believe in this kind of stuff, but I
left with one thought: Even if I don’t believe in any of it, one thing is for sure - he does!
An hour later we heard wolves howling in the not so far distance. A fitting end to a memorable experience.
******************* A footnote: Our trip ends prematurely…………….
Changing the subject, here is where our trip suddenly went wrong! The following day we returned to the guesthouse in Tsagaannuur where we had left Eddy and Liza (the two we were sharing a vehicle with). Eddy had been complaining of feeling ill and had suffered a high fever for the 4th time in 6 or so days. Each progressively worse. I suspected some kind of tropical disease or malaria based around what I know of it, and the fact he’d been basically living in the jungles of the Philippines for the last six months. I suggested as much - but I’m not a doctor and we were in the middle of nowhere - it would be impossible to diagnose in a backwater of Mongolia. Despite medicine prescribed from local doctors the illness showed no signs of improvement.
The latest doctor had suggested he had a
kidney infection, and a pain in his sides tended to confirm this. The decision was taken to get back to Moron, the nearest hospital, where he could be better assessed. En-route we stopped at a town café where we met a doctor who suggested he had a liver infection - taking the yellowing of his tongue as evidence. With nothing we could do about it, this information was neither here nor there. She did administer the injection that the other doctor had prescribed to his rear though, much to the amusement of the locals who all gathered around to watch and stare!
After hardcoring it through the night we arrived in Moron at 2am - 10 hours after setting off. Eddy was promptly taken to hospital where he had a kidney X-ray. They confirmed he had a DOUBLE kidney infection, and suggested he get back to Ulaan Baator quickly where he could be treated better. Insurance companies were phoned and that afternoon it was decided he would be taking the next, immediate, flight out of Moron to Ulaan Baator.
And so it ended a mere two weeks after it had begun. But that’s life. We had planned to
visit the far west of Mongolia where we would see traditional Kazakh culture, but it wasn’t to be. We headed back to Ulaan Baator, taking four days to do so. Central Mongolia was disappointing after travelling to the far reaches and there won’t be any blogs about it from me.
Eddy was taken to ‘the best hospital in Ulaan Baator’ which he later described to me as ‘fucking grim. Slops, freezing room, nurses who haven’t smiled since Stalin's day’.
Ummmmmmm. Sounds great! He was later diagnosed as having malaria when all treatments for his ‘double kidney infection’ didn’t seem to be working and the fevers still kept progressing. A couple of days later he was evacuated by air ambulance to Bangkok where he could get decent treatment.
Thankfully, he’s now recovered!
Eddy also writes a blog on this website under the name of EdVallance if you want to check it out.
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