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.

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.

The DNA itch

“Why Mongolia??” – everyone kept asking, surprised with my choice.  Let’s call it a DNA itch.  Some sources say about 25 million people worldwide can trace their bloodline back to the father of Genghis Khan, who must have been the most successful man when it comes to fulfilling a true biological objective of any male.  And Mongols have rolled through my native lands like forest fire, albeit many centuries ago.

All I can say is that for about 5 years I’d been dreaming about endless fields, dusty horses and the flavor of the wind.  Who knows – maybe my great(x10)grandfather, too, was a great Mongol and he’s to blame for my occasional bouts of uncontrollable anger?  (That would explain a lot).  And then I read in the guide book that Mongolia has “13 horses to each inhabitant”, and that was it.

Mongolia turned out to be exactly what I had been craving.  Horses?  There they are, peeking at you mischievously from under the bangs .  Endless fields?  All right, saddle up – to reach the next village, take right at the horizon.  Open air?  Sleeping in a Mongolian yurt, you have no choice but to wake up with the natural daylight, pouring through the roof opening  – about same time as sheep, cows and other cattle outside your door.

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