Our Toyota 4×4 lurched and dodged between the trees. Nyam Bileg seemed to be winning at an Olympian task. At one point he drove at a perilous angle along the edge of a dry gully.
When I’d arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Oyuna handed me a blue dael – the traditional three-quarter length cotton, silk or wool gown worn by men and women. Serving as a coat, robe or a dress, for every day or ceremonial occasions, it buttons beneath the right arm and at the right shoulder to a high, round collar. It is convenient for riding, travel and extremes of temperature. When cinched at the waist, a pocket of material is formed for carrying personal items. She told me I would find it useful. Now I was beginning to understand why. It offered a handy way of being private when peeing out in the wilds.
One last stop and we’d be home and dry, or so I thought, as I closed my dael and wound my way back to the 4×4 through cow parsley and gorse bushes. A large puddle turned out to be a stream flooding across the forest track. The front wheels jammed in tight, and the back wheels spun deep into the mud. We watched Oyuntsetseg, Ider Od and their companions disappear down the hill in their resilient little Russian-built UAZ van. Their driver, Tulga, was a Dayan Deerkh man, so he knew the lie of the land. Some 3 hours later, the Toyota was pulled out by a tractor.
Man vs. wolf
We arrived in Arkhan Valley in time for cow milking. Calves frisked around outside the corral until their mothers were done, and then they were let loose. Great patches of permafrost were pointed out to me as I watched.
The valley is remote, far from towns and markets. Just 18 miles from the Russian Buryat Republic border, it has been home to one of 6 guardian communities east of Lake Khuvsgul, allegedly dating back to Chinggis Khan. Their duty was to protect the border. From 10 families in the valley in the 1930s, there are now 3 or 4 families.
40% of the population herds 34 million head of livestock accounting for 20% of Mongolia’s GDP. Meat is used domestically, but skins, wool, cashmere and leather go to Russia and China. Mongolia exports 6,700 tons of cashmere per year which adds up to 28% of the total world supply; it is second only to China.
Wolves, not just harsh weather conditions and disease, are the herders’ dreaded enemy. They hunt in pairs at dawn, or carry out ambushes as a pack. The dogs kept in kennels near the corrals seem friendly enough, but they are fierce fighters. Wolves are still hunted with eagles in Western Mongolia near the Altai Mountains bordering Kazakhstan.
That night we enjoyed feasting, vodka and song. A good singalong is invariably part of an evening’s entertainment out on the steppe. My unaccompanied rendition of ‘Ain’t she sweet’ worked out fine – a relief given that I am no pop idol!
A sheep was slaughtered, eviscerated and fleeced by Erdenebaatar a.k.a. Curtain in our honour. He had worked in a KGB battalion as a bodyguard for its last two communist leaders before democracy in 1990. He had a military man’s way of walking and standing tall. Instead of serving up boiled mutton, he cooked us a special dish: Khorkhog. Stones are thoroughly heated in the fire and then layered with chunks of mutton in a closed metal milk container along with a little water at the bottom. The end result is about as juicy and organic as you can get.
60-year-old Yanjinlkham is the youngest daughter of Sendmaa, heroine of Oyungerel Tsedevdamba & Jeffrey L. Falt’s novel, The Green-Eyed Lama: Love and Betrayal in Mongolia (Grasset & Fasquelle, Paris, 2017). She showed us the wooden chest painted in interlocking patterns by Lama Baasan. A small shrine (avdar) to the gods was laid out on top − illuminated by butter lamps − including religious icons and images, pictures of consecrated animals, votive offerings of milk, photos of deceased relatives. She also brought out a mandala and a prayer flag painted by Lama Baasan, and some sutras which had been hidden in caves in the hills during the Stalinist purges when he was imprisoned.
Yanjinlkham’s fine features and high cheekbones like those of a supermodel reminded me of a Navajo American Indian. According to recent DNA-based studies, the ancestors of Native Americans hailed from northern Mongolia and Siberia, trekking across the Bering Strait to Alaska about 20,000 years ago via a long-gone land bridge. I was told there are distinct parallels between the shamanism of certain peoples of the American north and their Siberian cousins.
Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ / Through rain an’ wind an’ weather . . .
We took off for Zerleg Valley where we visited a kindergarten summer school and a 106 year old lady in her ger (tent).
Frisky young bullocks roamed free, and boys on dirt bikes roared by as we drove into town. A shower . . . and an outhouse . . . at last!
Damdin, his wife Ichinhorloo, and their family welcomed us with more feasting and song in the large well-appointed ger outside their dacha where would sleep in cosy comfort – after our midnight visit to two shamans.
The Night of the Shamans
A shaman is a healer, priest, herbalist, social worker, mystic and sorcerer; can ward off and battle with evil spirits, or contact the dead. S/he is a bridge between the spirit realm and our human one; and serves their community. Their soul leaves their body and travels up into the sky, or down into the underworld, via trance and ecstasy. Music, dance and words are an all-important part of the ceremony. Spirit is a form of power which makes things happen in our world. People often dread being called by the spirits to become shamans, and resist it, since being given such extraordinary power entails an element of anguish. It is a dangerous profession: there is a risk of madness or death.
A shaman’s wisdom comes from second or inner sight. S/he is often blind, as was the case with Shaman Od, the blind shaman of the Arkhan, who features in The Green-eyed Lama. We visited his grandson, Shaman Baatarkhuu, to whom the gift has been passed on.
Shaman Baatarkhuu showed us some of his grandfather’s belongings: a drum fringed with blue khadags; an owl-feather head-dress; a special knife; a horse-headed implement; nine coins; a jew’s harp; wooden beads. Shaman Od had been an epic song-singer of fairy and folk tales. His spirit helper was a bird like the garuda bird of Ulaanbaatar which defeated the poisonous snake, (symbolic of greed and hate blocking the human path to enlightenment).
The séance with Shaman Baatarkhuu was an extraordinary experience. Specific things were said which Oyuna (who was interpreting) knew nothing about. I was amazed, and a bit freaked out. Who are we, in the sceptical, materialistic, arrogant West to disbelieve and mock − as did one English friend? Interestingly, my friends with an African or Middle Eastern background were not so dismissive, but were open about their experiences with shamans or marabouts.
We went on to see Shaman Altantuya, originally from the Darkhad region. Her grandmother was a Tsaatan, one of the reindeer people of the far north. Initially her grandmother’s spirit visited her in dreams. Then Shaman Altantuya began to speak in someone else’s voice. She went to see the local shaman who told her she had to accept the calling. Her spirit is a reindeer guide as opposed to Shaman Od’s guide being a bird.
Byambajau, an 82 year old lady who joined us for late breakfast the following morning, treated us to some throat singing (khuumii) which involves the production of a fundamental pitch, along with a second, and even a third, note over it, simultaneously. The technique uses both the vocal and the vestibular folds (or “false vocal chords”). Byambajau taught herself to throat sing at the age of 16 as she sat watching over the cows grazing on the mountainside. The mouth and tongue are used to form and modulate the melody. When Byambajau tried to sing with music, the musicians could not find the notes to follow her. Any Westerner trying to learn the technique risks destroying their larynx.
Khuumii forms an integral part of the ancient pastoral animism that is still practised today; the spirituality of objects in nature is not just in their shape or location, but in their sound as well. So mimicry of nature’s sounds (animals, wind, water) lies at the core of throat singing.
We set off across the so-called “sable steppe” for Outegt spring, and a rustic day of haymaking and domestic tasks.
I watched mixed butter being made; and the residue of its oil being turned into candles for the household shrine. Yanjinlkham showed us her mother Sendmaa’s shrine; a conflation of Shamanism and Buddhism. The red goat is the Dayan Deerkh herders’ special god and Jamsran, the red protector, rides him. The sheep transports the glorious goddess. Sendmaa and her husband would ask the gods to protect their children from earthly troubles and misery.
Three treatises belonging to Lama Baasan were wrapped up in silk on a shelf above the shrine. During the purges when ger camps and monasteries were ransacked by Khorloogiin Choibalsan’s Stalinists, what could not be sold was tossed away in to the bushes. Children offered up their findings to the mountains, and stored them in caves. Oyuna remembers playing with religious artifacts as a child and creating imaginary monasteries out of them. She once found a lama hat in which swallows had nested.
Our final destination before heading back to UB was Chichin Valley, where we were welcomed by Bold and his wife, Enkhtuya. Our host greeted us in a superb blue dael. His belt had a fine buckle. As with the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara, ornate saddles, leather bags, jewellery and daggers were, and are still, utilitarian art forms.
A camp generally consists of a ger or two, alongside a log cabin, and livestock corrals. It can include grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Their animals are horses and cattle (and in the south, camels) along with sheep and goats. July is sheep-shearing month. About one third of the Mongolian population is now involved in herding. The rest are in towns or abroad.
Bold’s portable, round tent covered with white felt was roomy and comfy. The willow-wood latticework and painted support poles, rafters, roof crown, and furniture were in mint condition. The ger has been honed to perfection over the centuries. Its design is highly symbolic.
#etiquettetips : Fire is sacred, do not put it out, just let it die down;
− Never point a knife at any one; when giving it to someone, pass it handle first;
− Sleep with your feet towards the door;
− Don’t point your feet at the hearth or shrine (avdar) or other people;
− Don’t loiter or step on the threshold;
− Don’t lean on the central support columns, and walk around them not between them;
− If you tread on someone’s foot shake their hand by way of apology;
− The stretched out little finger is a strongly negative gesture;
− Do not sit on or touch someone’s hat, it is special;
− Do not walk in front of an older person or turn your back to the shrine unless you’re leaving the ger;
− Ask if it is O.K. to take photos;
− Do not bargain and haggle for goods;
− Take gifts; check with your hosts/tour company what would go down well.
I offered: wind up LED torches; picture books (for the kids), felt tip pens and bic biros; fun key rings; pretty hair clips, pins and brooches.
A day in the life of a herder
We watched boortsog (bread rolls) and fermented mare’s milk (airag) being made.
A tent was put up (used by haymakers and for distant herding), and Georgian green tea was made on the open fire.
I hung out by the corrals to watch sheep shearing . . .
. . . and admired a superb ox from a safe distance!
#travelwarning : watch the marmot holes when walking (or running) across the steppe! It’s all too easy to trip and sprain an ankle.
Tired but still fired up, for the last 48 hours of my trip there was no stopping. Panoramic Journeys are specialist operators when it comes to arranging trips to Mongolia, Bhutan and Burma Myanmar. They were recommended to me by a friend involved in RISK Productions’ hilarious series, An Idiot Abroad Season 02 The Trans Siberian Railway.
I met up with Enkhee and Emily from Panoramic Journeys and our first stop was the Chinggis Khan equestrian statue, a 45-minute drive east of UB.
We then hit the Black market, which is how a real market should be. I just hope it does not end up going the way of London’s markets which have been commodified by greedy local authorities to the point of samey blandness .
We enjoyed noodles at the Cashmere factory outlet before heading off to Sukhbaatar Square where a huge statue of Chinggis Khan presides over the parliament buildings.
Gandan-tegchinlen Monastery was closed in 1938 at the height of the Stalinist purges, but reopened in 1944. It was the only monastery in Mongolia to function during the Communist era, and one of the very few that escaped destruction. It is the centre of Mongolian Buddhism. The main temple houses an immense, overwhelming statue of Jansreig.
The National Museum is well worth a visit. Traditional Mongolian costume incorporating heavy silks and brocades; ornamental silver hair clips joined by strings of precious and semi precious stones of coral and turquoise, or silver chains; heavy-looking ear rings; hair sheaths and tassels; coral and turquoise caps with ear flaps; intricate waist ornaments, silver hair combs with semi precious stones . . . were a strange and gorgeous surprise. Fashionistas take note!
The high points of the day in terms of Buddhist art and culture were the Zanabazar Fine Art Museum, and the Choijin Lama Temple with its superb collection of religious relics and Tsam dance masks.
It’s worth having a drink at the five-star Shangri-La Hotel in Sukhbaatar District to people-watch boom-time Mongolians at work and at play. Our last supper was at Guantanamera restaurant down the road from uber-chic Continental Hotel.
Each to their Shangri-La: be it an ancient shamanic wilderness; an earthly Buddhist paradise; or a land of new business opportunities. Mongolia has it all. I long to go back.
Lonely Planet Mongolia by Michael Kohn | Lonely Planet, 2011
Mongolia by Jane Blunden | Bradt, 2008
Mongolian Phrasebook & Dictionary | Lonely Planet, 2014
© Georgia de Chamberet for The BookBlast Diary, 2016 c/o BookBlast Ltd, London. All rights reserved.
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