(Note: I’m still playing catch-up! Recapping things I did September 2017…)
Back in UB, Jurgen, an older gentleman from Amsterdam, mentioned he was going to go to a shaman ceremony, and invited me along. I met up with him on a Thursday morning in September, and we went to the shaman ceremony together.
The ceremony was held inside of a ger (the Mongolian word for a yurt.) It was filled with paintings, animal skins which may or may not have been real, photos of various people and landscapes, (fake?) stuffed tigers, and also included modern appliances like a TV, microwave, and fridge. Opposite the entrance was what might be considered the “altar” part of the ger, which was composed of tables lined with dozens upon dozens of candles and small bronze cups full of milk. The shaman was a woman, as were her three shaman apprentices, and the majority of the attendees were women who brought food, candy, and small articles like children’s clothing to be blessed, as well as offerings of milk, OJ, and vodka. Since there were so many women, and because the shamans were women, I thought that it was a ceremony for fertility or something, but later I gathered from a woman who spoke a little English that it was a regular ceremony with blessings for the sick.
Because older women are purer, the women sat in descending order of age, with the older women sitting deeper in the tent, alongside the edge, and the younger women sitting closer to the door. Men were seated at the opposite side of the tent, similarly in order of age.
I didn’t get any pictures of the shaman ger, because even as I was writing notes down, one of the shaman apprentices came up to me.
“What are you writing?” she demanded.
“Um,” I said, and stuffed my notebook away. “Nothing.”
Since we had a bit of a language barrier going on, the shaman apprentice had to be content with staring suspiciously at me, and I kept my pen and notebook tucked away, and I didn’t try to snap even a sneak photo of the tent.
The ceremony went something like this:
The shaman sang for the entire thing.
The shaman apprentices banged drums at the front of the tent, and when the shaman’s singing picked up pace and volume, they would spin in frantic circles, drumming faster and faster as they circled the tent. The junior-most apprentice (or maybe she was just an assistant?) would help the other two apprentices if it looked like they were going to trip over something during their drum-spinning, since they also wore headdresses that seemed to cover their eyes.
As the shaman’s singing continued, a couple of rounds of ferocious drum-spinning and tent-circling happened. Then 10-tubruk notes were handed out to everyone, which we had to fold into small cups. We were given some grains of rice and what I think were a few small beads, which we tucked into the 10-tubruk note cup. We were also given handfuls of candy and cookies, and a cup which was then filled with milk. The shaman continued to sing, and at various points we had to move our handfuls of note, candy/cookies, and cup in circles while saying what sounded like, “Hur-reh, hurreh hurreh hurreh.”
I might have spilled some milk on myself.
The hurrehs continued. Kind of sounds like hooray, I thought. (Alena later told me that some linguists think “hooray” actually derives from the Mongolian hurrei.)
Finally, at some point everyone received the signal to drink the milk, so I drank the milk. A shaman apprentice also lit some incense and went around to every person to circle them with incense; the woman next to me called someone on the phone and occasionally I would hear, along with our hurrehs, the tinny sound of the person on the phone saying hurreh hurreh with us. Idly, I looked up at the ceiling of the ger and saw a huge stuffed bird.
Then, at some other undetermined point, people began to eat the candies and cookies. At this point, the ceremony had been going on for about an hour longer than I considered comfortable, and since I hadn’t had breakfast, I was very enthusiastic about the candy and cookie eating.
Still the ceremony was not over: while we folded up our rice/beads into our 10-tubruk notes, people lined up to speak to the shaman individually. We were coming up to the two-hour mark at this point, I think. The apprentice shaman with a bit of English came over to me and Jurgen. “Did you feel something?” she asked.
Jurgen, who was a spiritual individual, talked about how he felt something during the prayer for the ill, especially since he has sick friends. (Apparently, the hurreh part of the ceremony was the prayer for the ill.)
“Did you feel something?” the shaman asked me.
“Uh,” I said. “It was meditative?”
That’s also when Jurgen and I found out we each had to pay the shaman 50,000 tubruk.
She gave us individualized blessings/advice when we went to pay her. The shaman apprentice translated my advice as: “You do not have any serious physical or mental problems. But you should learn to trust yourself more. Also, don’t remember your family.”
(I was onboard until the last part, which I then assumed was a mistranslation.)
Alena in UB
Eventually, after I had bummed around UB for a while and learned to ride a Mongolian horse decently well, as long as it wasn’t galloping and also trying to turn at the same time, Alena flew in to join me.
Alena and I wandered around UB together. In Sukhbataar square, the large public square in the center of UB that is always filled with activity, we came across a large group of students, giant plastic garbage bags stuffed with something and scattered across the square, and a stage.
“I wish we knew what was going on,” we commented to each other, as a woman in a Mongolian deel began speaking in onstage.
“Hello! Welcome!” English boomed across the square, almost immediately after we lamented not knowing what the whole deal was about.
One of the students translated the Mongolian throughout the first woman’s introduction, and we learned that the school kids were trying to break the world record for the largest origami Mongolian flag.
“Wait,” I said to Alena. “Is this the world record for the largest origami flag, or the largest origami Mongolian flag? Because one of those would be a lot less impressive than the other.”
(It was the former.)
Alena and I also visited the Naranthuul black market, a large market in UB crowded under a whole bunch of tents. I really wanted to buy a Mongolian deel, but they were either all too shiny or too large (sad), and I did end up buying a hat for the cold weather I anticipated in Russia; we searched for gloves, but we were strangely unable to find a single pair of adult-sized gloves in the entire market.
“Do Mongolians never get cold hands?” we wondered.
After the the black market, we wandered around the city trying to find a tour agency to see if we could hire a car. During our Jeju Olle trek on Jeju, we learned there were two sister-trails created by Koreans living in UB. One of the Mongol Olle trails went through a national park we were going to be visiting by horse later, and the other one was a little far from UB with little public transportation.
As we walked the streets looking for one of the tour agencies which I swore I had seen like, a billion of, yet couldn’t seem to find when we were actually looking, we saw the Wenzhou Hotel. Wenzhou is a place in China.
“Hey,” I said to Alena. “The Chinese hotel has got to know some drivers. Maybe they even speak Chinese.” So we went into the Wenzhou hotel.
The minute we stepped in side, Alena whispered to me, “Oh my god, it even smells like a Chinese hotel.”
It did: it had this strange homey smell that was part cigarettes and part Chinese-food. Sure enough, the woman at the reception desk spoke Chinese. Hallelujah. With our Chinese, we hired a driver for a day, and it only cost us about half the price of a driver from a tour agency (we eventually found one of those, when we were no longer looking, and checked prices with them.)
Our other adventures in UB included: visiting the Gandan Tibetan monastery, eating Korean food, me getting excited about a bunch of pigeons, and eating a whole lot of mutton at a Mongolian restaurant, and eating more Korean food.