Chasing the Shaman in Mongolia

"I don't think you can see the Shamen," the fixer murmured. He watched his cup, the table, a fly, anything that wasn't our eyes. "They are far from here. In the mountains. It would take a long time to see them." He traced a line along a creased map of Mongolia. "Maybe four days drive. Then five days on horseback. It's not so safe." With every reason he offered not to chase the Shamen, it became more of a mission.

"Can we fly there?," someone asked.

He took a slow sip of his tea, looked over his shoulder, around the room, and came back to not looking at us. "I don't think it's a good idea."

We'd trekked all the way to Mongolia to see a Shaman. Mystics that secret away in the mountains, migrating with herds of reindeer, falling into trances, channeling spirits, predicting the future- changing the future. And yet everyone said "No."

Another fixer, Bobby, also warned us not to try. "They know you are coming," she said quietly, as if cast in a bad horror film. "If they want to see you, they will see you. And if they don't want to see you… they will disappear, or change the weather. They are powerful like that." She looked out the window, and back to us. "Go to the Gobi instead! It's very beautiful!"

The Gobi?! We wanted Shamen, not sand!

At the Grand Khaan Irish Pub, I ordered a beer and unfolded the map of the country, and we began to plot. We'll hire a 4×4 Jeep, and load it with backpacks, sleeping bags, and beer. We'll head north-west to Lake Khovsgol, the edge of which touches Siberia. From the map, it didn't look far: maybe about 800km. A day's drive along a main road. Not bad. We knew in the summer, the Shamen would descend from their mountain hideaways, and circle the lake. But Mongolian summer was months away. So instead, we'd fire our driver, get some horses, ride into the mountains, and find the Shamen. Three days? Four days? Five days? We were ready.

“We” was me, and Lollion, and Amanda.

I barely knew Lollion. I'd apparently met her at a cocktail party two years ago, exchanged a quick "hullo," and that's about it. Through a chain of mutual friends, it was determined we both wanted to see Mongolia, so — against all reasonable judgement — we decided to travel together.

Amanda, a friend from college, agreed to join us on a whim just a few weeks earlier.

Of the three of us, none was prepared.

First, Mongolia's a big country. Huge. It's hard to describe, but take France, and Germany, and Austria, and most of Poland, and shove them all together. That's Mongolia. In the south, it's a vast desert. In the north, it's all frozen. There's volcanos, mountains, rivers, lakes, sandstorms, fields, steppes, and almost no people. Three million, maybe, and half of them live in the capital. The rest are nomadic farmers, spread out across landscapes and valleys and nothingness.

In this nothingness, we set off. And then we discovered the first problem with our proposed timeline: in Mongolia, there are no roads.

There are roads drawn on the map. I can show you. The road we took was labeled, clearly, "Main Road." It's the largest road on the map. And yet, just a few miles from UB, it disappeared, and gave way to dirt and sand. We took to the fields, driving in the paths of cars before, veering this way and that, bouncing up and down over moguls, taking a left suddenly and then a right to avoid a herd of sleepy cows. My head slammed into the roof of the vehicle, so I pulled my seat-belt tighter, and held on to the dashboard. We passed a car, swerving out of control, and then an oil tanker racing through a field, leaving a storm of dust in its wake. Lollion lurched into the front seat, and grabbed the driver's arm. "Stop," she cried, one hand over her mouth.

Dust flapping up around us, outside the car, she vomited for the first time. Amanda and I watched the landscape, awkward, and feeling bad. But we'd get used to this. Every few hours of driving on this wild terrain, our friend would throw up. The road was bad. Awful. She cleaned up, and sheepishly climbed back in. "I'm okay. I just get a little nauseous. Let's move on." Bairaa, the driver, spoke not a word of English, but tossed away his cigarette, started the engine, and we set off again.

There were no road-signs, no markings, and no directions: just crisscrossing and splintering and conjoining sets of car tracks, heading into the distance. The GPS on the dashboard was nothing more than a very smart compass. "Head SSW," it read, and Bairaa did his best to follow the set of tracks that were heading SSW. A lake in the way? He'd make a guess. A mountain in the way? He'd just head over it.

Hundreds of little squirrels, zuram, scurried left and right and dove into holes in the dirt. "Can you eat them?," I asked Bairaa, pointing to my mouth, "Zuram food?" "нет! нет!," he howled in Russian, and pointed to my head, tapping it. "For hats?," I asked, confused. "да!," he laughed, "Hats!" I wanted one for a pet.

The first night, we stayed in a tourist camp, filled with a dozen young Japanese and Chinese tourists. We passed a bottle of vodka while an old Mongolian sang from his throat, and played songs about Chinggis Khan on his horse-head fiddle. I silently cursed: we were treading in tourist country, and that's never fertile ground. The traditional experience of sleeping in a ger was belied by the power outlets, to charge your cellphone battery, and the sit-down toilets.


Nevermind. After this first night, we left tourist country behind, with it's warm showers (or showers at all), and sit-down toilets (or anything more than a hole and two rotting planks), and silly foreigners (we would only pass two tourists, once, after this night). Instead, on the (not a-)road again, we escaped into rugged Mongolia.

And then an SMS text arrived on my iPhone.

I'd bought a Mongolian SIM card on arrival, so was always on the grid. Turns out that Bobby, after her fearful Shamanic warnings, had actually found us one. Find Ms Baikal in Moron, she directed, and she'll take you to see Mr Ganba. He can arrange everything. He'd arrange horses and lodging for the five day trek to see a Shaman. It sounded like a long ride, but I thrilled to the idea: could there be any better way to show up at a hidden mystic's tent than aching and tired, hair plastered to your face, reeking of sweat and manure, guided by someone named Mr Ganba? Hell, no!!

I texted Chinzo, our fixer in UB, to change our flights back home. We're staying longer!, I typed excitedly.

We still didn't realize how far from the lake we were. I could bore you with so many details of the ride, but suffice to say, it was a damn long ride. Sometimes there'd be five rows of car tracks ("a highway!," quipped Amanda), deep from the decades of use, but mostly we'd follow a solitary path. Baby goats and baby sheep would skip out of the way, while cows would ignore us. Cuddly baby yaks, wearing blankets to keep them warm, would bleat. And horses would gallop, unhindered, across the skyline.

One morning, we skipped breakfast, then spent an entire day lost in the mountains, listening to the same three cassettes over and over until one tape snapped. To ease the hunger, Amanda and I slurped down baijiu whisky, while Lollion dry-heaved in the desert. Bairaa would chuck out his half-smoked cigarette, shove us back into the car, and chase after galloping horseback farmers for directions. Finally, as the sun started sinking, we ate our first meal at 5pm.

The food in Mongolia was great. It was always the same, but always fantastic. Either rice or beef-fat-drenched pasta, fried potato slices, and fried beef. Sometimes it was served in three piles, sometimes mixed up into one. Sometimes it was soup, sometimes dumplings, and sometimes drenched in more beef-fat. But it was generally always the same. And always delicious!

I should note, though, that Lollion is a vegan. If there was rice, or potatoes on their own, she could eat that. And very rarely, there was a small coleslaw salad. But mostly Lollion would quietly open a package of instant kimchi ramen, while Amanda and I sucked down the home-cooked love-filled comfort food. Loll never complained, or even mentioned it, which astounded me. But I'd forget it, as I tucked back into my huge bowl of fat-drenched noodles, completely distracted. Mmmmmmm.


It took three days to draw close to the lake. On the way, we climbed a volcano, skipped rocks on a frozen lake, relaxed in hot springs, saw gers equipped with satellites and solar panels, slept in a village hotel from the pages of Gogol, passed honking through a hundred sprawling untended flocks of goats and sheep and cows and yak and horses and camels, and finally arrived at the northern capital.


For a big city, Moron is a tiny town. Small ramshackle houses sit side-by-side with picket-fenced gers, and city streets run the length of one long New York block. An election was looming, and candidate gers had been set up to spread the word. Banners and posters were everywhere. We were tired, and grouchy, and checked in at the best hotel in town, a gaudy Soviet throwback with clocks set to Moscow time, and — in only the top-class "Lux" suites — hot water. At $35 a room a night, this was a step up. We'd only been paying $3 a night so far. We got two of their four Lux suites. We showered, and ate, and slept like lambs.

The next morning at breakfast, Bairaa introduced us to Boldo, a local horse-guide dressed like every rural Mongolian, in a dusty, torn dell, tall black boots, and a hat. "I can take you to the Shaman," he promised, speaking some of the first English we'd heard since leaving UB.

"How far is it?," I asked, thinking of Mr Ganba's five-day trek. (After three days suffering in the off-roading jeep, my ass and legs already sore, a week on horseback was terrifying.)

Boldo thought, counted on his fingers, and offered a number. "Three days, by horse." This didn't sound so much better.

"Isn't there a faster way?"

He thought again. "Maybe…. By car, maybe it's two hours."

Two hours??? To hell with the romanticism of showing up tired and dirty to the Shaman. I was ready to do this. We shook hands, and set off. And, four hours later, we were still crisscrossing through fields, three of us crammed into the back seat. We'd pull up at a Shamanic tent, Boldo would shout the Mongolian equivalent of "Anyone home?," and we'd drive on. The ruts in the road grew less defined, and the time spent swerving to avoid trees or rivers grew more.

At this point, it might be nice to mention that none of us actually caught Boldo's name. So for the next three days, I called him Volto. Lollion called him Baltoo. And Amanda called him both Bosco and Roscoe. None of us were even close.

Headed up a steep incline, we passed three generations of men, walking slowly into the forest. Boldo rolled down the window to ask for directions, and two of them quickly squeezed into the car: a toothless, grinning old man, and a serious little boy. We drove on, further into the mountain and the forest, until we could drive no more. "Now we walk," Boldo said, and we silently walked into the trees.

The climb to the Shaman was postcard perfect. It was unreal.

A rocky path, leading up through a dead winter forest. Out of sight, a moldy teepee watches over a dry riverbed. The first thing I actually saw was the herd of reindeer, their feet bound, tripping through the forest, munching on moss. One of them, small and black and bowlegged and furry, couldn't walk right. He took a few nervous steps, then collapsed. His mother licked him, until he stood upright again. "This reindeer is very young," said Boldo, nodding. He talked with a dark stranger, who was smoking heavily and ignoring us, and then continued, "Yes. It is only half-an-hour old." As the reindeer's mother turned around, I caught sight of her placenta, still dangling from the womb. The baby collapsed again, and we hid behind trees, to give them a moment of privacy. I hate to say, but it was pure, awful, incredible Disney. I didn't need any cartoon sparrows twittering around me: this was magic enough.

Bairaa called to me, from inside the dark tent. "анди!" I crawled inside, joined him on a dirty, stained blanket, and accepted a cigarette. Boldo stuck his head in, and conferred with the grinning old man. "The Shaman is not here," Boldo explained. "She has gone to town. She will be back. We will wait."

A fire burned in the furnace, cutting the chill, and cups of salty butter tea were passed around. We dipped our ring fingers in, and flicked a drop to the gods. Then we drank, and sat silently in the smoke-filled tent. The scowling reindeer's keeper would step into the tent for tea, or a smoke, would glare in our direction, and would leave. His young son ignored us, as best he could. And I accepted another cigarette, and another.

And we waited. And waited. And, of course, she never showed up.

It took hours for the shift, which was dramatic. "We should leave," Boldo said, unexpectedly. "The Shaman is not coming."

"Can we keep waiting, a little longer?," I asked, unsure.

"No. We must leave." Bairaa was already in the car, starting the engine.

"But we can come back tomorrow?"

"No."

"But we've come so far!"

"We must leave."

Boldo never explained. How he knew she wasn't returning, or why he wouldn't take us back. But both he and Bairaa refused to speak another word about it.

Later, as we climbed on horseback, and spent two days riding through an unbelievably gorgeous landscapes, I felt a sense of closure. We came to see the Shaman, and we waited, and she didn't want to see us. We tried, and failed. And it was okay.

Instead, I had a lake of ice before me. A field of pine needles. A herd of yak. We stayed in a ger so cold that we slept in shifts, one of us waking every hour to add wood to the fire. When we ran out of kindling, we drank vodka and started burning my journal. I bought a dell, and wore it until I smelled like a rural Mongolian, of horse and smoke and vodka and dirt.


I was at peace with not seeing a Shaman. Lollion wasn't. So I found another lead, an Israeli in UB named Ron, who'd helped a friend of mine find a Shaman. But Ron, too, was of no help. He knew two Shamen, that he regularly talked to, and offered to connect us to. But, suddenly, they disappeared. "They still haven't called me back," he said, every time we called. He was sure they'd get back in touch soon. Of course, they never did.

Back in Moron, we ordered a round of Borgio, the only beer anyone drank up north. "Sorry," I offered, Lollion. "Maybe next time, we'll find her."

"That's okay," she sighed. Loll had suffered through the miserable drive, throwing up daily, with not a complaint. As a vegan, she'd survived almost entirely on ramen noodles, without a word of woe. But now, she was depressed. We'd come all this way, and failed at every step to find the Shaman we'd set out for. I remembered Bobby's words, back in the capital. "If they want to see you, they will see you. And if they don't want to see you… they will disappear." I wondered why she'd said this, how she'd known this would happen.

Lollion, sad, sipped at her Turkish wine.

Sitting on the table were four shagai, or sheep's ankle bones. "These are used for telling the future," a Mongol cowboy explained, as he joined us. He showed us how to whisper to the bones, then roll them with your right hand. We took turns, and, without the Shaman, told our own fortunes.

I don't remember what I rolled, but Bairaa later claimed it was one goat, one sheep, one camel, and one horse. The best fortune is on you. "This is the second best," the cowboy exclaimed, while his girlfriend whooped. I smiled, and ordered another beer. "Tell me about my love life," I whispered, and rolled again. Some obstacles will come. Hmmm… not so hot.

Back in UB, after a miserable fifteen hour drive, we said tearful goodbyes to Lollion, who was headed north to Siberia. Despite our failing to find a Shaman, it had been a remarkable trip. Incredible.

And as her train pulled out of the station, I reached into my back pocket. "I think I have a list of things to do in UB," I told Amanda. Months earlier, I'd made notes from Lonely Planet, and recommendations from friends. We started working through the list. The Political Persecution museum, shoved within the glitz of a Toyota dealership, was a heart-wrenching record of the Mongolian struggle. The bootleg DVD shop didn't have Poultrygeist, but downloaded (and loved) the trailer, and promised to stock it the week after. And we couldn't find the General Intelligence Agency museum, which, given the secrecy of their secret police, seemed fitting.

And then, next on the list, was something called Center of Shaman Eternal Heavenly Sophistication. I had no idea. "Maybe it's a museum?," I offered, as we set off looking for it. Up and down main streets, down alleyways, finally arriving at a rubble-filled building site. Workmen trudged by us, loaded down with bricks and concrete. A security guard dozed in a small booth. And, behind it all, in the middle of a field, sat two incongruous gers.

The first was locked, so we ducked into the second. Inside was a world of unique. Most of the ger was empty, but one corner was crammed full of suitcases, gowns, stuffed animals, holy figurines, rugs made from bears, and a wig on a stand, wearing a helmet with a dagger sticking out the top. In the middle of the ger was furnace with a boiling pot, and a desk. At the desk sat a workman, listening to a woman, whispering. The woman wore tight jeans, a glittery purple top, and a rhinestone headband. And I knew. She was The Shaman.

No-one acknowledged us, so we sat down quietly, on a bench beside another workman and a man in a suit, and waited.

The workmen each spoke with The Shaman for five or ten minutes, and then left. The man in the suit spoke with her for an hour. I listened to their whispers, and to the wind outside, and to the boiling pot. A massive Mongolian warrior strutted into the tent, pulled open the pot, and yanked out an entire sheep's head. He dropped it to a plate, and, with a pocket knife, worked chunks of flesh off the bone, eating them one-by-one. I watched, entranced, averting my gaze whenever he looked up. Amanda, never having bought into the Shamanic cult, just paced.

After an hour had passed, the man in the well-cut suit left his seat, and I took his place.

"San ban oh," I offered in Mongolian.

"I don't speak English," the Shaman whispered, in her perfect accent, "but I can understand. What is your question?"

"Tell me," I asked, "About my heart."

She looked at me, and consulted in Mongolian with the hungry warrior. He grunted and returned to his food. She thought, and picked up a post-it note from a pile, and began to pen in cyrillic. Every few words, she'd contemplate, consider, and study me again.

"I am sorry," she wrote, in what I'd later have translated, "I say it straight. In your case, you want to arrange your life now. Three times, you've had girlfriends, but your love will bring you dreams and happiness. Now you want to travel again, but after that, you will settle. You like to help others. Because you like to help others, God sends you happiness. Sometimes you have backaches, but you have nothing else serious. Another test, or exam, is waiting for you. You will have two children. And please make more time, and effort, if you want to make business."

She smiled, and handed me the paper. I smiled, and handed her 5000 tugrik, a few dollars. The warrior grunted, and pulled another piece of flesh from the sheep's skull.

As Bobby translated it, line by line, my mouth was hanging open. I wiped tears from my eyes. In retrospect, it's not all that thrilling, or deep-reaching. But at the time, I was sold. Hook, line, kitchen sink, the works.

"In your case, you want to arrange your life now." True, but I'm 36. Not so surprising.

"Three times, you've had girlfriends." No more, and no less. It was an odd number to for her to grab hold of.

"But your love will bring you dreams and happiness. Now you want to travel again, but after that, you will settle." I was a backpacker in Mongolia — that's kind of a freebie.

"You like to help others." Yep. But everyone claims this. I'm sure even my most solipsistic friends would embrace this in a fortune. So, maybe, another freebie.

"Because you like to help others, God sends you happiness." So far, yes. A lot.

"Sometimes you have backaches, but you have nothing else serious." Backaches are my primary physical concern, but could she tell that from the way I sit? And she didn't mention the Chinese parasite, which was ominously silent while she watched me…

"Another test, or exam, is waiting for you." Daunting.

"You will have two children." After the New Yorker article about the perils of three children, and my own middle-child crises, I've always proclaimed this to be the magic number. But, then again, I have to find a girlfriend first…

"And please make more time, and effort, if you want to make business." I think this is my dad's favorite. The LA Times even wrote a front-page article around this quote…. But right now? Right now, I'm having way too much fun….

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