There are White Shamans, Black Shamans, Yellow Shamans (those mixed up with Buddhism) and then there are … let’s call them Shaman X. and Shaman Y.
I met the fellows at a special shaman session at the sacred mountain just outside Ulan Bator, where I accidentally ended up after a series of random events. X. and Y. are both about 30-something, manage the operations at the central office of a local airline, drive SUVs, and like vodka not only for shamanistic trance-inducing qualities, but also in general, you know – for hanging out with buddies. They became shamans strictly for the patriotic and nationalistic reasons. Somebody gotta carry on the traditional ways, so they got trained, designed their outfits, procured the proper drums and now gather at the mountain on all important dates to drum together, thank the local spirits and so on.
But that’s not all – these two also volunteer to guard the community against fake shamans who charge people money pretending to take care of their problems. (Traditionally, a true shaman cannot charge a patient or even suggest the size of an expected donation – a patient should volunteer as much compensation as they can afford and deem proper). These two don’t even treat patients or take money for shaman duties, they earn salaries at the office. But they do visit those who abuse shaman traditions for money or other forms of personal gain, as sort of Shaman Morale Police. They didn’t share on how the visits go, but I sincerely hope they just use harsh words and maybe shaman drumming to instill some sense into the scam artists, although I can’t be sure their approach is that mild, having been where I’ve been with them.
Bald and beautiful, Shaman X. looks like a spitting image of Chingiz Khan during his golden years. Shaman X. definitely knows how to take a bull by the horns: mere 5 minutes after the formal introductions, at the dinner in nearby yurt he patted the blanket next to him telling the “pretty little girl with the camera” to sit there. That didn’t sound like an invitation, either – more like a direction from the absolute king of this domain. I was promised earlier that I could take any pictures I’d want at the subsequent ceremony, so I remembered Indiana Jones at that memorable dinner and took the VIP seat, trying to keep a straight face. You learn new things about yourself through getting into predicaments on the road. Apparently, things I’d do for a potentially cool picture include being hand-fed boiled mutton off a knife blade by a questionable character for much longer than my grandmother would approve.
Three vodka shots later Shaman X. shared two things: one, that he liked me, and two, and I quote, that he was a gangster, beating up those who wouldn’t listen. (I prayed to myself that he only meant those bad, bad scam artists pretending to be shamans). After which he stretched on the blanket and put his heavy bald head into my lap. The lightness of being was becoming so unbearable, I had to excuse myself from the table to go change the perfectly full battery in my camera.
Luckily, the other comrade, Shaman Y., turned out to be a bit more refined. As he discovered we both spoke Russian, he was ecstatic to share the stories of his college years in Russia, where he’d found true friendship with Alex and true love with Svetlana, who cried baby tears when he finally had to return back home to Mongolia. Touching story, really, the first three times around. Unfortunately, vodka had the strange effect on Shaman Y. – after each third shot, his memory went blank, so he felt compelled to tell me the Alex-Svetlana saga again. And again. And again. I kept nodding, patiently, far away in my head – at the upcoming ceremony, to be exact, where I’d be rewarded for all my new achievements in self-restraint.
Finally, elated, the delegation headed for the sacred mountain, to party with the spirits of the locale. Vodka and milk poured into ceremonial cups, candy and cookies piled high on placemats, voodoo figures created from mixing ashes, earth and flour (the intro photo above), masks on, fire started and on with the drumming.
The sound of shaman drumming creates a staircase to heaven, they say, and when this group started drumming deep and raw, the wind calmed down and the tree leaves stopped rustling, and only the girl with the camera was clicking away like she was in trance.
And then we ate some burning sticks fresh from the fire.
Yes, I said “and then we ate some burning sticks fresh from the fire”. (See video below).
And then candies, vodka and milk were fanned at the mountain’s foot to feed the spirits, and then we smeared the ashes, still warm from the fire, on our inspired faces, and only then was I to discover that the true sound of shaman drumming doesn’t get picked up by digital devices. (The shamans later confirmed – even a recent Japanese delegation with the special hi-tech sound equipment wasn’t able to record the true intensity of the sound). Live, the sound of a shaman’s drum vibrates right through your flesh and bones, but a digitally recorded version reflects just the outer shell of the sound.
“Oh, that’s great”, I thought to myself now that I would have to pay for the worthless footage throughout a long eventful night at the camp with the drunk gangsta shamans.
First thing I saw back at the camp was a big bonfire, pots of hot soup, courtesy of the local shaman cheerleading squad, and – naturally – couple of cases of horrendous Mongolian vodka. A long list of F-word derivatives flashed through my mind. In a hot second it was pitch-black, so the congregation solidified around the fire and the singing competition ensued. They weren’t taking “no” for an answer (which was becoming a recurring theme), so I had to participate in this insane karaoke, belting out a Russian version of the cowboy ballad under the watchful eye of Shaman X., whose heavy stare across the fire really REALLY made me nervous.
Luckily for me, the wonderful Mongolian vodka knocked the wind out of Shaman X. long before the midnight, or maybe the local spirits decided to spare this airheaded blogger, so I landed for the night in a warm and friendly yurt with some wonderful people, promising myself to be much, much more careful about where I collect my stories from now on.