Off the grid in Mongolia: Part 3


Lonkh gathers some moss and starts the fire.  His hands are dark and leathery.  Lonkh is a small guy and could be anywhere between 28 and 52 – it’s hard to tell, as it often is with the nomads living the hard life.  But turns out Dekke and Lonkh used to be classmates in summer school for nomadic children, whenever their parents would be able to bring them there.   Dekke leans over to tell me that “Lonkh” means “half-bottle”, because he’s as tiny as a small bottle.  Bottle of what, I’m thinking to myself, but don’t go there.

The most striking thing about Lonkh is his riding style.  Most of the time he slumps in the saddle, half-hanging off the horse, very much unlike Dekke who is riding with a very straight back.  I ask him why and he gestures that this way is better if you need to place a girl in front of you in the saddle  (just in case he finds one randomly roaming around in taiga, I guess).  As she translates this pipe dream, Saraa breaks into her typical explosive laughter.  Dekke just rolls her eyes and shakes her head.  Clearly, they are not rooting for the old classmate.  In response, he just sends them his best smile (with whatever teeth are still in place).  I really wish I could have been there when this Fresh Prince was courting the girls of the nomadic school when they were all teens.

Dekke is married now and has two grown sons back in the nomadic village.  Her husband drinks and often tries to beat her up, so she avoids him by spending weeks in the taiga with her horses, sometimes alone, sometimes guiding people between the mountains and the settlement down in the valley.   She often eats what she finds in taiga and usually sleeps outside, in a makeshift bed made out of saddles and a blanket.  It’s really comfortable, she says.   She can’t sleep inside other people’s homes anyway.  The spirits of other people’s ancestors come to her at night and bother her, so she prefers to sleep in open air.  You see, Dekke’s father was a famous local shaman, so she has a gift.  But she was a bastard child, and thus he passed on to her no knowledge.   So she just sleeps outside, away from other people’s family altars, summer or winter, and it’s better, she says – fresh air, and my horses can see me, and we are happier that way.    I look at her calm weathered face and think to myself, I don’t think anybody can beat this woman up even if they tried.   And then  I think maybe she is the spirit of this taiga herself.  The Taiga Spirit in red Mickey Mouse sweater.


Mighty Dekke

As for Saraa’s life – that could easily be produced as a Mexican telenovela.   The very traditional marriage, the baby, working as a nurse in the settlement’s hospital to feed the family,  her desire to study more and maybe become a doctor, the classic mother-in-law, who called her a whore for wanting to go the city to study, the divorce, the long hungry years of being a single mother in a settlement with very few jobs, her first business:   taking reindeer loaded with barrels of vodka to the illegal gold-mining camps deep in the mountains, at night, in the dead of winter,  the mind-blowing profits coupled with the very imminent danger, and a sound advice from a kind old man at the camp who warned her one night – woman, it’s time to leave the camp now, before it’s too late.  Her next venture was a bit safer:  she figured the local prisoners had too much free time on their hands, they should be carving traditional souvenirs from reindeer antlers and she would find how to sell them.

Her fate took turn for the better shortly after:  a young and handsome military officer met her at the post office and started courting her.  She held her guard up as long as she could.   He had been proposing for to her for 5 years, and all those years she was telling him – listen, been there, done that,  you can move in, but I ain’t gonna promise you nothing.   The officer eventually won the battle – she married him right after she realized he had become a real father to her son.


Saraa works as a tourist guide now, having learned English on her own, and that’s how I know everything that’s going on:  she’s local, she’s a woman, she’s plugged into the grapevine and she likes to share, if you like to listen.    Dekke is her close friend, too, and strangely enough, right here right now, deep in the middle of Mongolian taiga, with no connection to the outside world, I feel absolutely safe and protected  with these women by my side.


We get back on our way.   The taiga is stunning, the ground a mix of purple, orange and emerald green.  The forest is still whispering all around us, but now it feels friendly.  You get under its spell, you feel like you belong, you stop taking pictures to avoid producing that foreign sound of camera clicking.

On top of the mountain we ride up to a bunch of piled up stones.  These are oovos – a shamanic tradition, a way to please the local spirits.  Some are decorated with blue silk scarves – the color of the sky, some with animal skulls.  There are Mongolian banknotes tucked between the stones, and there are also cans of beer.  Everything you need for a spirited party, in other words.  We circle the mounds on horseback three times clockwise to ask the spirits to protect us on our way.

But I already know I got nothing to worry about in this neck of the woods.


Off the grid in Mongolia: Part 2

off into the mountains on horseback


Countless torturous hours later, the mini-van spits out my pitiful remains and a very fresh Saraa.  We are now in the very North of Mongolia, in the Tsaaganuur settlement right at the northern border with Siberia.  Too tired to have any dreams , I plummet to sleep like a rock.

The early morning welcomes me in Saraa’s voice: “Good morning, sunshine, they are here!”

“They” includes a pack of horses led by a beautiful Amazon, adorned with  a red Mickey- Mouse sweater and an impenetrable smile.   Her name is Dekke, she is a Tsaatan, a horse-woman and a taiga guide.  A small Mongolian man half-hanging sideways off a horse behind her is Lonkh, joining us to go in the same direction.

Dekke takes off her glasses and looks me up and down.  Forward comes a horse – well into its senior years, of a very beautiful grey color.  Clearly, I will have to prove myself to this woman somewhere along the way.

Dekke puts her friend Saraa on a pretty white horse with auburn spots.

-Watch me fall off this thing! – cheerfully informs me Saraa. –  I always do!

We ride into the heart of the Magic Forest –  the scenery is straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster.  One minute you are riding past a blackened tree scorched by a lightning, with its dry arms up into the skies like a dire warning.  Another, you are at the top of the hill, the thick grey clouds staring you in the face,  and the wild grass whispering from down below:  fresssh flessshh…

The arrival time to the village remains unknown.  We get there when we get there.  Could be today, could be tomorrow.  Depends on how well you can stay in the saddle, they say.   And don’t snap photos on horseback – she startles easily.    Through the thick woods, across the swampy valley, over the burned patch, around the small lake.  My horse is now breathing heavily ascending a big hill.

A big group of vultures starts circling in the sky right above us.   The word “carrion” pops up in my brain.   And then I realize that the closest thing to carrion around here is me.  Suddenly, I feel uneasy. I force the letters in my head to rearrange into “carry on” and straighten up in the saddle.

There are no road signs anywhere, no markers, no park guides.  There is no compass, no map, no satellite phone,  no chance for an emergency helicopter.    There is only Dekke, who knows this taiga like the back of her weathered hand, and then there is Saraa who knows everything else you need to know for survival in this neck of the woods – except she keeps falling off her horse.

Just like now – we hear a dull thump and a piercing shriek behind, which can only mean that Saraa fell of her horse again, so we stop for a much needed break.

Dekke the horse woman

into the wild

vultures playground

Dekke and Lonkh making strides

(Next chapter)

Off the grid in Mongolia: Part 1

The guidebook said: “It is extremely difficult to get to the Tsaatan reindeer tribe.  No more than 50 tourists a year make it all the way to the nomadic village”.  Excellent, I thought to myself, that’s exactly where we’re going next.

Fortunately, every tour operator in Mongolia’s capital city of Ulan-Bator seemed to offer a trip to the Tsaatan village.  Unfortunately, they to take the visitors to a typical fake “ethnic village” arrangement.

Grouping tourists in dozens, the tour operators would put them in pimped-out SUVs and take them to the nearest site, where formerly nomadic Tsaatans would perform their Native Song and Dance.  A lavish lunch with the imported beer would be provided, after which the formerly nomadic mountain reindeer, now sick from living at the low altitudes, would be arranged neatly for the photo opp.  For an additional fee, a properly costumed Scary Shaman would read your fortune and vaccinate you against an evil eye and the mortgage rate hikes.

Not exactly what I had in mind.

A couple days later, the Universe sent me my new guarding angel, Miss Saraаngerel.  Born and raised in a small settlement all the way up North, Saraa is a true Mongolian Woman and an unstoppable force of nature.  Within 36 hours she confirmed the current coordinates of the nomadic tribe, arranged all the travel, stopped the rain and took me onto the 100%-local route to the Northern mountains.

It started with a 24-hour haul across the Mongolian offroad inside a beat-up Soviet van.   Saraa put me in the VIP seat next to the driver, while about a dozen of illegal gold miners packed in the back.  The remaining space got filled with their gear and what looked like barrels of berry jam.

The van went on an all-night mad dash through the low hanging clouds and the steppe grass.  Every five seconds it would skip over a bump, smashing everyone’s heads against the ceiling.  The crowd behind me didn’t seem to mind, never stopping drinking, smoking and singing the endless folk songs.  My girl Saraa was blooming like a centerpiece in the middle of the motley crew, singing along and flirting all around.

Meanwhile in the front seat I was guarding my head against the jumpy ceiling while trying to keep my motion sickness at bay.  Every now and then my scrambled brain would shut down completely, making me curl into a tight ball on the front seat.   Every time that happened, a teenage-looking driver would take one hand off the wheel, probably jeopardizing the whole car, and cover my head so I don’t fly up too high over a bump – the Mongolian hospitality at its best.

Mid-way down this road to hell we made a pit stop.  The full moon was illuminating an array of limp wooden shacks amidst an open field.  The boys scattered from the van and sprayed every vertical surface in sight.  I followed the gang into a dark shack:  a couple of crude tables, a single bulb under a low wooden ceiling, and a California-king wooden platform in the corner.  A sleepy-looking young woman turned on the fire and started on the Chef’s special:  home-made noodles with dry meat.  Two toddlers were sleeping on the floor stove-side.

Exhausted beyond words, I sprawled on the make-shift bed in the corner, feeling my new friends stretching alongside in front and behind me.   In the distance, Saraa’s voice encouraged “You rest, honey, only 12 hours of driving left, and then we switch to horseback”…

Horsing Around

As a child, I loved the concept of horses.   I used to collect every magazine page, every postcard or a stamp with a horse on it, putting them in a special album.  I was fascinated with horses and dreamt of riding like a western movie hero, galloping fast and furious, on a wild mustang that would only listen to my command.  It was a very intense, but also a very long-distance relationship: there were no horses anywhere near my home.

Finally, at the age of 14 I lucked out and got a horse-back ride in a summer camp.  The mare was senile and quiet, and the solemn 10-minute snail-pace ride went without a hitch until I tried to get off the horse, caught my shoe in the stirrup and fell down, shattering the bones in my right arm.  It took forever to heal and the dream kind of lost its luster.   I figured I’d never gallop wild like Clint Eastwood, and that was that.

But the dream came rushing back to me  when I found myself in Mongolia.

There were horses everywhere.  One of the main events of the Naadam Festival is the horseback race by 7-year-old kids.  Locals decorate their homes with paintings of horses.   About half of the traditional music is dedicated to horses and riding, there is even a  musical string instrument called “horse-head”.   Looks like a horse head, sounds like a woman weeping in the open steppe –  guaranteed to squeeze a tear out of the most cynical bastard.  A horse head is also on the local airline logo.

Mongols even have a special word for a person’s spirit, your most inner self:  it’s “wind-horse”, and the stronger you are, the stronger your “wind-horse” is perceived to be.  “Wind-horse” is a term widely used in Shamanic practices, too.

In other words, my childhood obcession resurfaced.  So one day somewhere in the countryside I gathered the courage to ask the locals if I could return to the camp on a horse instead of a van.  Sure, they said.   Gallop ok? – I double-checked.  Whatever you want! – they gestured, put me on a quiet-looking horse, and sent me back to camp with two local boys, about 7 and 12 years old.

It was a nice, dry day.  There was about 2 miles to the camp.  The kids were young and seemed pretty friendly.  How hard can it be to gallop a little, I thought.  I was looking forward to a nice ride, getting comfortable in a saddle, when suddenly the boys lashed their whips, shrieked something wild and our horses suddenly took off like they just got fire lit under their tails.

I barely had time to grab fistfuls of my horse’s mane, as I had immediately lost the reigns and any control of the situation.  I would later find out that the 7-year-old was some kind of a national horse-riding champion.  And the 12-year-old was some kind of  an ex-champion.  And that both of their horses had won multiple races.  And that although my horse had not been a champion, she had ambitions, too, and would not tolerate hanging too much behind the others.

StoOOooOOp the hooOOooOOooOOrse! – I was trying to yell,  swallowing mouthfuls of dust and flying pebbles, trying to hold on to the mad beast under me.  My whole life flashed in front of my eyes, including the damn horse album.  I was holding on for dear life, feeling all my internal organs tumble inside and the brain matter bump around in my head, smashing against the cranial walls.   The wind was about to blow the contacts straight out of my tearing eyes, the right arm started to itch again where the fracture had healed over a decade ago, as I started planning my imminent fall.   From time to time the little rascals would glance back at me, clearly mistaking my SOS signals for expression of glee, scowl and whip their horses hard, making them going faster and faster.

I was just about to let go and accept my dire destiny, when my horse suddenly changed the gait.  It was now moving in a wave pattern:  jumping forward on both front legs, hanging in the air for half a second each time.   All of a sudden, the body caught onto the new rhythm and balanced itself out, I recovered the reigns and realized – this was it! That was the gallop!  Finally, the horse and I merged into one wind-horse spirit, moving in unison.  It was like flying and felt totally euphoric, the best sensation ever, worth every moment of the horror leading up to it.

Unfortunately, we were already sprinting into the camp.  The little juveniles were already there, cheering my effort.  After peeling off the crazy horse, I tried to stabilize my jelly legs, squeezed out a happy smile, and limped into a guest yurt, where I collapsed on the nearest cot and proceeded to manually shift my eye lids back into their natural position, waiting for my stomach to find its way back down.

Over the next couple months spent amidst the mesmerizing Mongolian landscapes I eventually learned how to gallop without clutching a horse’s mane, just leisurely slumping in a saddle, almost cool like Clint.  And just when I was about to feel very proud of myself, in a village somewhere a wild-looking horse stormed past me full-speed, foaming at the mouth.  In the saddle, a pink-clad teenage girl was typing away furiously on her sparkly mobile phone with both hands, her head down and the reigns just tied to the saddle, letting the horse find its own way across the wide open land.


Clearly, I will never ride like Clint Eastwood.  Nor like an average Mongolian child.

But I learned something better in Mongolia:  every one of us has a wind-horse inside.  And if you let yours run wild,  it might take you to the happiest place you’ve ever been.

Killing me softly with his song

Russians sing when they are drunk.  Americans sing before a baseball game.  Mongols sing all day long.

They all live through the songs –Mongolian shamans, Mongolian women, Mongolian children, Mongolian youth and Mongolian elders.  Even walking the streets of modern Ulan Bator, you might pass a city-dressed Mongol on his way to work and realize he’s humming an old tune.  Music of every kind is so important for the Mongolian psyche that in the very heart of Ulan Bator you will find – against all odds  – a monument to the Beatles.

There is a Mongolian folk song for every life occasion.  You’ve got your short songs (happy and peppy), you’ve got your long-form (used during a 2-day horseback ride to the nearest town);  you’ve got songs about motherland and ancestors (performed at weddings and birthdays, as well as each Tuesday and Thursday);  you’ve got your weather and Nature songs (counted in hundreds); you’ve got your humorous songs; your sad songs; and of course you’ve got the unforgettable Mongolian throat singing, the sounds of which makes you wish you’d drop dead immediately right where you are so you could be re-born a Mongol, preferably in the open steppe, better yet – as Genghis Khan 2.0.

Fortunately,  I managed to thoroughly document the Mongolian folk music in all its glory using my new HD camera during a 2-hour colorful spectacle by the famous, classically trained Mongolian performers wearing the lavish traditional costumes upon the grand stage of the Ulan Bator National Music Theatre.

Unfortunately, I also managed to accidentally delete that whole file at some point along the road.

Luckily, I still have a golden nugget to share  – a down-to-earth, hardcore authentic musical performance by the true artists, who need no elaborate costumes and no fancy stage to spill out their hearts when the time feels right.

However impressive the traditional Mongol folk music is, though, it does get even better than this:  just search the YouTube for the Mongolian rap videos.   A sentimental fool that I am, I can’t help getting all misty watching how Mongols always stay true to their roots: even in this seemingly foreign music genre,  even when riding black SUVs instead of black stallions, even when donning baseball caps and holding back roaring pit-bulls… Even then they manage to make every song to be about the vast Mongolian fields, the endless sky and the ancestors that look down on us from above;  about the unbreakable Mongolian brotherhood;  about the Genghis of the past and the imminent coming of  Genghis of the future;  and always – with no exception – a little bit about love.

Word Play

In spite of using Cyrillic alphabet for writing, the sound of spoken Mongolian feels like you are being sandblasted.  The most common sounds in Mongolian are “khrts”, “chrkhlr” and “tlkh” and every sentence sounds like it ends with a triple exclamation mark.   When two Mongols greet each other unexpectedly behind your back, the body’s natural reaction is to startle and duck.

The Lonely Planet writers  –  with their love for a juicy metaphor –  compare the spoken Mongolian to the “sound of two cats fighting, one finally throwing up on another”.  And they are right.   Here are some options in Mongolian for “making love” (pronounced with extended vowels, heavy aspiration and forceful emphasis):






Just as French is commonly described as the language of love, Mongolian sounds like the perfect language to coordinate the wipe-out of them weaker nations off the face of the planet.  Try this phrase: “Bee chumd khayartai”.   Now say it louder.  And more forceful.  And now more sternly.  Now you are getting closer.  Sounds like “execute every one of them”, doesn’t it?

Actually, it’s Mongolian for “I love you”.

But it was the shortest word in Mongolian language that really baffled me.  When I first got to Ulan Bator, every day somebody would yell “Hui!” at me and wave their hand.  The thing is – “hui” in my native Russian means “dick”.  Considering Russia had been imposing Soviet culture here for decades (Russian had been mandatory in schools until recently), I was sure that was the Russian cuss word they were throwing at me.  Naturally, my mood was gloomy that whole week.

“What do you mean, dick?” – I pondered, checking myself out in the mirror.  I tried to change into a long modest skirt, and from the skirt back into the pants; I tried to smile at people, or avoid looking them in the eye – no matter what I did, at least once a day a “Hui!” came towards me, often with a wave.

Finally, on day seven I got smart enough to ask somebody.  Turned out, “hui” did not mean a “dick” from borrowed Russian, but a “hey, you!” in authentic Mongolian.   Apparently, all those Mongols were just being friendly to me, a complete stranger, and I suddenly thought – oh, what a beautiful language this is.

"Do not litter" sign

Calamity in a skirt

Long before reading anything about the iron will of a Mongol woman, though, I learned about it the hard way.

Right upon arrival, I had found myself in a crowded Ulan Bator stadium for the grand opening of the National Naadam Festival – the biggest cultural event of the year, complete with horse riding, archery, wrestling competition and a big parade featuring Genghis Khan impersonator.

The sun was shining bright, and the crowd was filling the space up to the brim.  I took my place in the lower section next to a young woman with a baby.  Pretty soon, there were 40 of us in the 20-seat bench, fitted tightly into our positions by the elbows, knees and sides of our new closest friends all around.

I became one with my neighbors, the parade was about to start, so I took the lens cap off my camera and got ready.  The young woman next to me took out her breast and started feeding the baby.   Suddenly, there was a commotion behind us  – an old Grandma, decorated with medals, showed up with her 20-year-old granddaughter.  Respect for elders is one of the cornerstones of the Mongolians society, so the people behind me shuffled, against all laws of physics, and freed two seats for the newcomers right behind me.

Honorable Grandma

The parade commenced abruptly, like a thunderstorm.   A huge formation of horseback riders in period costumers with national flags swept across the field.  The packed bleachers went crazy, shouting, whistling and cheering the riders.  Wisely, the young mother next to me opened a sun umbrella as the nursing baby was becoming a tad overdone under the scorching sun.   Unfortunately, that completely blocked Grandma’s view right behind us.

Suddenly, I found myself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with no escape route.  The grandmother sternly slapped the umbrella out of the view, letting out a bad-sounding sentence.  The young woman counteracted pointing to a cooking baby.  The grandmother couldn’t care less, as Genghis Khan himself was about to make an appearance on the field.

The situation escalated to the level of “unsafe” in no time flat.  There was little I could do other than tuck my fragile camera between my knees and try to save my eyes from the umbrella pins jerking dangerously all around my face.   There must have been a sitting fight – when I opened my eyes again, the umbrella was still open and over our heads, but only a few pitiful patches of material remained on the frame.  The faces of both women remained emotionless as they continued watching the show, but the whole range of feelings reflected on the face of a young cop, wisely observing the brawl from the distance and not making a smallest attempt to get involved.

short arm of the law


So if you are a man in search of a wife who can throw a punch back at life and look good doing it, the one who could rule an army or a country while raising your 12 offsprings, the one who never backs down and doesn’t take “no” for answer even when she’s 80 years old, now you know where to look for her.

Just think carefully if you can handle a force of nature that is a true Mongolian Woman.

From Silk Road to Star Wars

There is a stereotype of an “Asian woman” in the West.  We tend to think about Asian women as quiet, gentle, soft-spoken – a beautiful wall flower, admired, but not heard from much.

You lose the stereotype pretty quickly in Mongolia.   There is just something in the way Mongolian women dress, carry themselves and look in you in the eye that makes you feel like there is no “weaker sex” in Mongolia.   Turns out – there really isn’t.

In Old Mongolia, a bride was chosen not for her looks or the dowry, but based on her ability to be her husband’s partner in tough times.  Unlike in many other cultures, when a village was attacked Mongolian women picked up the arms and fought alongside men to defend their children and households instead of fleeing to safety.   Some modern Mongols openly despise other neighboring cultures for having historically treated women like household decorations.   (Try mentioning the Chinese women foot binding and watch those eyes roll).

It’s hard to imagine that any Asian culture in the 12th century would enable an unhappy wife to divorce her husband and to re-marry without any social stigma.  However, this is exactly how Mongolian society was during Genghis Khan’s rule.  Moreover, Old Mongols believed that an older wife was the great choice for a younger husband, who would benefit from her wisdom that he himself had not yet acquired.  Some believe that to this date, and you will see many couples like that in modern Mongolia.

Genghis Khan himself paid a great lot of attention the advice and counsel of all his wives.   He warned against disregarding a wise advice from a woman.   Queen Regents were involved in many key episodes of Mongol Empire rule, starting with Genghis Khan’s mother,  on with his daughters who ruled the ancient Silk Route and continuing with the Queen Mandukhai the Wise, who in 14th century united Mongols once again under one ruler, refusing to allow China to take over the Mongolian lands.

After the young Queen’s husband had been killed prematurely, leaving her with no children, she found and adopted an orphan tracing his blood line to Genghis Khan himself, raised the child, married him and made him the ultimate ruler of the reunited nation.  Queen Mandukhai used to fight on horseback in front of her army, even pregnant with twins, left behind 10 children and the legacy of a nation’s savior.   She’s still revered today by Mongols just as much as Genghis Khan himself.

These days, Mongolian Queens remain a central subject of modern Mongolian arts, as well as women on horses in general – as the two most important things in Mongolian psyche.   Modern Mongolian women are just as beautiful as the history depicts them, and you can still tell a Mongolian woman in a crowd by the way she carries herself, proud and unapologetic.

Luckily, the rich heritage of the traditional Mongolian dresses hasn’t completely disappeared either – it is a Mongolian Queen’s dress that Star Wars’ Queen Amidala wears to her Senate meetings.   George Lucas must be a big fan, too.

Part 2

Gangsta Loving

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.

Shaman X. in all his glory

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.

feeding local spirits with milk and cookies

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.  ­

Young Blood, Old Soul

a Shaman’s hand-made drum from animal skin

Being a Shaman is nothing like being a Wizard.

Being a Shaman is a job, with very specific responsibilities and benefits.  You can’t choose to become a Shaman – the ancestors’ spirits must choose you, so you have to have an ability to sense the spirits and let them in (according to some sources, that explains why traditionally majority of shamans have been female).

Very often the calling manifests itself though a strange malaise, depression or nightmares.  This is how the ancestors let you know it’s been too long for them hanging in the afterlife – they are hungry, thirsty, bored and it’s time for them to borrow your body for some social networking.  So you get trained, get the special clothes and the drum made for you, and so on.  The Shamanic professional circles are very active, to include regular gatherings where newbies find their mentors, others celebrate anniversary of joining the profession or Shamans simply get together to sing and dance as a group.

Shaman A. is just only 18.  He’s a tall, blue-eyed student of Ulan Bator journalism school.  It’s a regular middle-class Ulan Bator family – complete with Mom and Dad, an older brother, a married sister, grandparents and 2 dogs.  Except this bloodline had some really strong Shamans in the past, so they knocked on Junior’s head about a year ago.  (It’s pretty unusual to see a Shaman that young.  The locals explain that after years of Stalin purges and communist rule many Shamans were eliminated, so these days the spirits choose very young bodies to come into).

A. sees the patients in his Shaman yurt once a week.   He’s strong enough to withstand 6-7-hour sessions, with up to 5 different ancestor spirits from his bloodline passing through his body.  Some of them are male, some – female.  Some are 200 years old, some – 800.  And each of them responds to certain type of questions.

First A. covers his face, drums for some time and then goes into trance.  The spirit comes into his body, abruptly he drops the drum, his voice changes, body slumps, and he lands on the placemat, where an assistant serves him milk or vodka (depending on the ancestor’s preference) and lights up a tobacco pipe.  Then the patients come in front of him for a consultation with the ancestor’s spirit.

The first patient is a woman pediatrician (2 university degrees) suspicious of an evil eye cast on her.  A 2000-year old Oma (“Grandma” in old Mongolian) from inside young A’s body confirms the diagnose through the mask on A’s face (“women and their gossip!”) and prescribes the remedy:  the pediatrician drops all her clothes above the waist for Oma to whip her with a Shaman’s whip, soaked in vodka.  (There is not a shadow of doubt on the woman doctor’s intelligent face:  while the young A. himself is her nephew, the old Oma inside him is her great(x10)grandmother, and you just don’t argue with the old Oma).  Meanwhile, old Oma spits and complains about the flavor of the modern tobacco offered to her – apparently, it tastes like shit.

Afterwards, more spirits and more patients:  the middle-aged couple is asking for advice about their son’s drinking problem; a young guy wants help in finding a better job; A.’s own father lands on the placemat seeking advice on selling some property; and finally a woman having trouble getting pregnant – the old spirit inside young A. guides his hands to give her a special belly massage.

Every hour or so there is a short break – young A. takes the Shaman mask off his face and steps outside for some air.  He’s about 6’7”, crew cut, dimples.  His back is covered with a wolf hide, a copper disk in the middle of his chest, reindeer antlers raised above his shoulders.   He’s camera shy and somewhat cute.

Then we go back,  the session resumes and another ancient Oma comes in through A.’s body to greet the baby born after a healing Shamanic massage performed by young A. on a mother who hadn’t been able to get pregnant for five years.  Oma smells the crown of baby’s head (seems to be a typical Shaman’s way to quick-check a patient’s status), giggles in a very old cracking voice, and brushes right past me without responding to my “hello”.

I leave without asking any advice, but wishing in my head for young A. to remain this strong for years to come.