Traveling in Mongolia, despite the whole stabbing debacle, is one of my favourite travel memories, and during my three day safari in the Gobi Desert, I had one of the most genuine, epic, freaky experiences of my life.
I was staying with a local nomadic tribe in the Mongolian Desert, sleeping and eating in their the family ger (a special tent) alongside them, with two of my friends, and the family had been nothing but warm, hospital and friendly. We had ridden their horses through the desert, they had let us borrow their motorbike to have some fun on the sand dunes, we were sitting on the floor drinking tea with the whole family, it was brilliant.
Night soon came, and we knew we would all be sleeping body by body on the floor together, the three kids, the mother and father, the grandparents, all of us. It’s good to push our comfort zones, and this was an amazing opportunity to sample a culture so, so different from ours.
One thing had happened earlier in the day, that had pricked my interest. The father, in very broken English, had declared his pride in the fact that his 16 year old son had just became a Shaman, just one month ago. There’s only one Shaman who works within each ‘group’ of nomads, and for his son to have his calling at the tender age of 16 was something very special. Wow, I thought. This is fascinating.
So the sun soon set, one of the best i’ve ever seen, and it was time to retire to the ger for some more tea, perhaps some music, and an early night.
As soon as we got inside the ger, the energy had changed. All the smiles and warm nods had disappeared, and the family at best couldn’t care that we were there, at worst clearly wanted rid of us asap.
The sun had fully set by now, and it was dark as pitch outside, the wind was banging on the door and a sand storm had appeared out of nowhere. The horses outside were making a lot of noise, we could hear all the farm equipment banging around outside. Freaky.
We sat down, trying to ignore the storm outside, and began playing cards with the whole family, but the energy was all wrong and the mother was nowhere to be seen. Could she be outside in the storm? Surely not.
Soyolo, our guide, could sense my uneasiness, and he told me not to worry. He said that the 16yo Shaman son was new to being a Shaman so things didn’t always go according to plan, and he has a feeling that tonight he would be possessed by two other spirits who had been residing in the desert.
As Soyolo was explaining this, the mum came barging through the door, demanding everyone gets up, stops playing cards, and clears all the furniture, and everything else from the centre of the ger. Make space, make space. The fire however is stuck permanently in the centre of the ger, so there was no moving that. We hopped to our feet, shocked and confused about what was going on. We stepped back and back further, and let the family deal with what was going on.
We hadn’t noticed but amongst all the commotion, the Shaman had disappeared too, what was going on? Before I could get my head around it, he came bursting through the door, he Shaman burst into he tent with a full head gear, complete with eagle feathers. His coat consisted of a full fox fur, with two eagle heads sewn to his shoulders. He was carrying a lambskin drum and a scepter shaped like a dragon. The whole family was in the tent by this point, wide eyed and focused on their Shaman son. With 16 people now in the small tent, the Shaman began spinning around uncontrollably on the spot, banging his drum more and more furiously until it reach a climatic crescendo. Finally he collapsed at the back of the tent, in front of the alter.
I was sitting idly in the tent and unbeknownst to me, outside due to the full moon, the spirit had returned to the Shaman, so his spirit guide (a role his father had assumed) and him had to expel the spirit from his body before it could do any damage.
He slowly rose to his feet, with the help of a cane. He was bent over and inched towards the alter like an old man, struggling to walk. He turned and faced the family, his face entirely obscured by his ornate headwear, and gingerly sat down on the religious mats, with the candles from the alter burning behind his head.
He began to speak, but not in his normal voice. His voice had adopted the voice of the spirit that possessed him, in his horse, croaky, elderly voice he summoned certain members of the family to come and kneel at his feet. At this point his speech sped up and he began speaking in tongues which only his spirit guide could understand. The guide translated for the rest of the family, the Shaman’s brother was called to the alter, he was lashed by a ceremonial whip 4 times on the back, after the 4th lash he recoiled and the Shaman was placated with 2 cigarettes and a bowl of Mongolian beer.
This continued for around another very intense 30 minutes, until he began spinning uncontrollably again. After he collapsed this time, the spirit had been expunged but only to be replaced by the spirit of an old woman. He arose again, but this time he was even less mobile. The spirit was clearly very elderly, the Shaman warily pranced around the tent, aided by his (her) cane. Again, he settled at the foot of the alter but his voice had changed once more, adopting the old, female voice of the new spirit possessing him. More people were summoned to the alter, more alcohol and cigarettes were given as an offering to the spirit, in a bid to minimize the damage she could choose inflict. Throughout the ceremony the Shaman would throw up into a container specifically placed in case this happened. After he continually vomited I knew, regardless of my beliefs, this was a genuine religious affair for them.
Fortunately, I was never called to the alter, although throughout the entire ritual I was sure that as an obvious outsider I would be called to explain my self, this time I escaped unscathed. Every so often, when the spirit was riled by frustration or a perceived lack of attention the Shaman would stand up, and spin around in the style of a whirling dervish, banging his lambskin drum feverishly, only to eventually calm down again, consume another cigarette and relax.
With the second spirit finally appeased, the entire extended family began chanting Shaman incantations in unison. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more like a fish out of water, but I sat through it, watching attentively and after one last aggressive spinning session and subsequent collapse, the Shaman had expelled both spirts and was left to recover in front of the alter. He disrobed from his traditional attire, leaving a skinny 16 year old boy, looking drained, weary and ready for bed.
After 2 hours everything was over, I went outside where the dust storm had almost entirely obscured the moon, to get some fresh air and try to dissect what had just happened. The Shaman came out a couple of minutes later, he shook my hand and although he didn’t speak English, he uttered “sorry” in the middle his Mongolian address. I guess he was sorry for scaring me, it was a nice gesture, and it reminded me why I already have such an affinity for Mongolia and its people.
It was intense, and I was very fortunate to be there but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t freak me out a little! Oh, and the shaman slept beside me that night, wonderful.