Shaman and the City, mystics in Mongolia.
Ian D. Robinson
It had been eighteen years since I’d trod the dusty streets of Mongolia’s capital Ulaan Bataar. The place had grown, a lot, it was well past the millionth citizen mark and the metropolis continues to expand up and over the hills that ring the city. The new millennium had come to the steppes and to a city which originated from a nomadic camp that simply grew too big to move. Most noticeable were the mobile phones stuck to half the population’s ears, the every-other-building abundance of restaurants, pubs and karaoke bars, almost none of which existed in ’92 when the nation was still shivering in the shadows of communism, and the choking hundredfold increase in traffic for which the streets struggled to cope.
Still, the old ways were not all gone, not by a long shot. On Ondor Gegeen Zanabazaryn Gudamj Street there is a dirt yard with a little huddle of ger, the round felt tent of the Mongolian herder, this humble establishment is the rather more grandly named ‘Centre of Shaman Eternal Heavenly Sophistication’ and is Ulaan Baatar’s last formal link to a faith that preceded the Buddhists, who have their temple further up the road, and the Christians who are throwing up their houses of conversion as fast as they can pass the donation box.
The Centre of Shaman Eternal Heavenly Sophistication would have been easy to walk past, there are a lot of dirt yards with humble ger in Ulaan Baatar and the sign was small and faded. More telling were the opposing tridents adorned with black and white yak hair and coloured silk offering scarves or khata, the light and dark representing nature’s counterbalancing forces. On a raised wooden platform stood the centre’s main ger reached by creaking steps and surrounded by an unkempt garden.
I stooped inside the ger through the low door, “No photos!” an assistant yelled upon seeing my touristy face. I nodded and took a seat on the left of the tent with a line of locals; believers in the forces of good and bad and in the gods of old, who had come to have their fortunes told. An unearthly croaking screech made me jump and look around for its source. On the other side of the tent, chained and padlocked to a perch was a fully grown eagle, when I’d first seen it moments before I’d thought the creature was stuffed. Now it danced and bobbed on its perch, eyeing me as if I was a tasty looking rodent.
Tired looking bear skins lay on the floor, an old suit of leather armour hung beside other feathered costumes and next to an altar adorned with animal skulls, semi-Buddhist scroll paintings, carved wooden horse heads and platters of offerings of dried curd, fruit and butter. Portraits of various long dead Khans lined the walls along with ritual daggers, a horn made from a human thigh bone, hide drums, all beneath a coloured glass chandelier that looked like it could have come from Liberace’s bathroom.
A rotund middle-aged Mongolian woman shuffled into the ger in jeans, sneakers and a pink sweatshirt to take a seat on a wheeled swivel office chair. The woman didn’t look like she was a medium with direct lines to the underworld and the forces of darkness but apparently she was the Centre of Shaman Eternal Heavenly Sophistication’s resident shaman. The first in line took their places opposite her on a wooden bench, handed her some money and the shaman began her divination of whatever it was that ailed the young couple and, who I guessed, were one set of parents.
For several minutes she sat with her eyes closed, on the other side of the tent the eagle ceased its dancing and cocked its head as if to listen to something no one else could hear. Then she started mumbling before opening her eyes to begin what sounded like a light hearted conversation. At first I thought she was address her clients in front of her but she wasn’t facing them, it seemed she was chatting to someone who wasn’t there, at least not visibly.
Finally the shaman talked to the family.
“They want to have children, but they can’t.” A local lad who had taken a seat next to me offered his own translation after guessing my Mongolian was hopelessly inadequate. At first the childless family looked anxious but then their faces relaxed into smiles of relief, whatever it was they were being told it was what they wanted to hear.
“She says they must pray, then give gifts to the spirits outside.”
“What kind of gifts?” I whispered.
“Usual things, money and vodka, then they will have a child.”
A few minutes later the family left chatting excitedly, obviously in no doubt that the shaman’s prophecies were bound to come true. The line of seekers slowly moved along; a man in his thirties in a track suit, a mother with a small boy, an old man in deel, the traditional long Mongolian cloak, and a heavily made-up young woman in an impossibly short green one piece dress who looked like she’d come straight from a nightclub. Someone’s cell phone started ringing and the eagle, quiet until now, started croaking and then launched itself into the air in an attempt to take off before very quickly coming to the end of its chain and fluttering in an ungraceful heap to the floor.
“Yassir?” The shaman yelled at the great bird, what’s wrong?
An assistant who had been changing light bulbs in the tent unchained the eagle and took it outside where it was re-chained to a bench.
“It’s your turn.” My impromptu translator told me and we took our places on the bench opposite to soothsayer, “Give her some money.” I was told.
“Ten thousand tugriks is OK.” I handed her the note, about ten dollars and she stuffed it in a draw next to her which was already bursting with cash.
The woman stared at my face for several moments, long enough for me to start feeling uncomfortable.
“You have had trouble in your past.” She told me.
“Um, yes.” I replied wondering if there was an adult in the world who you could say that to and not get the same answer.
“Those things are past.” The seer went on, reassuring me.
“You are going west.” She added.
“Yes, tomorrow.” I confirmed, and in fact I was about to fly to the Altai Mountains in Mongolia’s far west for two weeks horse trekking.
“Are you a monkey?” She asked.
“Are you a monkey?” the lad next to me explained, “you know, the twelve animals, the tiger, the dragon, the pig and so on.”
“Oh, yes, I’m a monkey.” She was right, a one chance in twelve guess but a pretty good one I thought.
“Then be careful of water! That’s all! Next!”
And I was out the door, my tugriks were up. The next day I flew to the west, where, with a cautious attitude to water I didn’t have any aquatic mishaps, and I am grateful to the Centre of Shaman Eternal Heavenly Sophistication for the warning!