There’s my Mongol Bucket List, which includes things like Camel Fest (check), Eagle Fest (check), and seeing the Gobi Desert (soon to be checked). And then there’s my Secret Mongol Bucket List. Secret Mongol Bucket List contains only one thing–seeing a shaman. The reason it’s on my Secret Mongol Bucket List is because I don’t feel super comfortable asking for it. Luckily Swiss Friend has no such qualms, because today she texted one of our Mongolian friends and was like, “Yo, we want to see a shaman.” And Mongol Friend was like “Tonight, we dine in hell! And/or go see shaman, or whatever.”
Seeing the shaman required some pre-game spiritual cleansing, and by spiritual cleansing I mean buying copious amounts of vodka, milk, and cigarettes. When we first walked into the ger, it was a bit underwhelming. I mean, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was expecting, but it wasn’t small children tearing around while a badly overdubbed Cars played in the background. Then the shaman walked in, and he was the definition of shaman: old, gnarled, grizzly, vaguely terrifying. Except then he sat on the bed and the actual shaman walked in, and the actual shaman couldn’t have been more than like, thirty. Luckily shamanism is not a medal they give you when you hit the life-expectancy mark.
With the help of his sidekick, the shaman lit some candles, poured some things into other things, and then got dressed in a giant, elaborate deel that took him from on the small side to hulking. On came the blindfold, then the mask, which was actually really creepy–it had eyes way up where his forehead should have been and long black strings that hung down and covered his entire face. Finally came the accessories–the whips, bells, sticks–which culminated in placing a giant drum into the shaman’s hands, and then the party got started.
As the shaman beat his drum to kick his spirit out of his body and invite another one in (or something along those lines), he started twitching, then kind of freaking out, and then he stood up, spun around, yelled, and fell down to the ground where he snuffled around like an animal while I attempted to understand what the actual fuck was happening.
And that’s how we got acquainted with Spirit Number 1, who pulled himself off the ground and arranged himself piously on a piece of blanket before inviting us down to talk to him. Spirit Number 1 was three hundred years old, or thereabouts–can’t be sure, as all our information came through multiple filters, because apparently the spirits speak an archaic Mongolian that requires translation first into modern Mongolian by the sidekick and then into English by our friend. So I introduced myself and the ghost laughed at me, which pretty much sums up my life in this country. After getting through the pleasantries, we asked our questions (jobs? please? jobs) and got a whole host of super useful life advice in return like, “do what you think is right,” “what your choice is, make that choice,” “everything is fine,” and “think good thoughts,” which is about when I decided Spirit Number 1 was actually the ghost of Mr. Miyagi. Mr. Miyagi also claims to have healed my knee, but my knee either hasn’t gotten, or couldn’t read, the memo.
Oh, and in case you were wondering what the shaman does with all that milk and vodka, the answer is he drinks it. While shamaning. His sidekick also puts the cigarettes vertical in this really long pipe so he can smoke from under his mask without setting his head on fire. It’s a good system.
Eventually Mr. Miyagi excused himself and we retreated to the side of the ger to watch the shaman drum the spirit out of his body. At that point we thought we were done, but it turns out Mr. Miyagi was just the opening act for Spirit Number 2, aka Great-Grandpa.
Great-Grandpa, we discovered, was a pretty epic Chatty Cathy whose giggles, we were lead to assume, had nothing to do with the fact that his physical host had by that point consumed three-quarters of a bottle of vodka by itself. Great-Grandpa wanted to know all about us–our names (laugh laugh), our ages, where we were from, what brought us to Mongolia, and why our noses are so big because it’s not a party without someone’s grandpa being drunk and vaguely racist. Then came questions: Dear Grandpa, I can’t a job to save my life. Don’t worry, my dear child, you won’t have to wait long. Grandpa then proclaimed my soul healthy and sent me to the corner so he could make Swiss Friend send her bad thoughts into a cup because her metaphorical/metaphysical Job Door was closed, or something.
In return for opening the job door, Great Grandpa asked for a song, so we sang him one. And then: “Great-Grandpa wants to know why no husband, no children.” So if you were wondering whether it’s possible to speak to any Mongolians ever without getting asked the Eternal Question, it isn’t. Seriously. Even the dead ones want to know what’s wrong with you, you unmarried witch.
We explained to Great-Grandpa that in Europe, it’s totally cool not to have a husband at 27, which sparked a very long discussion in which Great-Grandpa wanted to know everything about Europe. He was also perfectly happy to wax at length about ancient Mongol hobbies that, from what we gathered, began at “war” and ended at “kidnapping women,” so there was that. He told us all about how Mongolia is the best country ever, and spirits in the sky, and how Mongolia is the best country ever, and have we ever seen a bear, and how Mongolia is the best country ever, and do you like vodka because I like vodka, and how Mongolia is the best country ever, and how do you say “father” in German, and do you have holidays like Mongolian New Year from the Best Country Ever?
And that’s how I got to explain the concept of Thanksgiving to a shaman possessed by the spirit of his great-grandfather while one or both of them was heavily intoxicated. Unfortunately, Great-Grandpa took issue with the fact that Thanksgiving requires eating a sky animal, which lead to a very circular debate across multiple languages and planes of existence concerning whether turkeys can be classified as “sky animals” if they can barely fly enough to get themselves out of the road before you run them over.
And yes, we asked Great-Grandpa about husbands. We were out of questions and he was very insistent we come up with more so we were like, “Uh…boys?” According to Great-Grandpa, Swiss Friend gets a man in 4-5 years. Oh, yeah, Tina, you too. Very nice. Think about want many children so have many children. Think good thoughts. Maybe I get higher shaman level because talk to people from different cultures. If you come back in nine days, I will make it rain only on this ger.
All in all, the visit to the shaman lasted three super interesting, highly entertaining, hours. We got to see a super cool side of Mongolian life that I didn’t think was in the cards, and possibly helped a shaman level up in Shaman WoW while we were at it. I am, and ever shall remain, a cynic, but: think good thoughts. It’s what Great-Grandpa would have wanted.