After over a half an hour of driving around aimlessly in a large valley, hopping from ger to ger, we finally find the first of four host families with whom we Fulbrighters will stay for the next three days. I suppose that’s one problem with arranging home visits with nomads in advance, they pack everything and move at a moment’s notice!
Our drivers help the first two Fulbrighters unload their gear and move it into their host family’s home. “Let’s walk from here,” our student coordinator, Erdene, suggests. “Sure, it doesn’t look too far,” I reply, nodding in agreement. We haul our backpacks and sleeping bags out of the back of the truck and begin to walk across the pasture.
Ten minutes later, we approach the next camp. Two gers stand side by side. “I think this is the right one, but I don’t remember! It’s in a different place this time.” Of course it is.
No one answers the doors when we knock. Peaking our heads inside, they’re empty. More worrisome, there were no livestock anywhere in sight. No sheep, goats, or horses. “Are they out moving the herd?” “No idea!” He looks as confused as I do.
Circling the back side of the gers, we find a baby goat tied to a broken down truck. This is a good sign! “Think that’s our dinner?” I ask Erdene, only half-joking. “No! We don’t eat baby animals here. You Americans are so weird – you eat baby sheep!” “Yeah, lamb is delicious! So tender and flavorful.” “Ew!” There’s no point in arguing, he’s just gonna have to come visit me sometime.
We sit patiently waiting until we remember the Frisbee Erdene brought. After a few minutes tossing around the disk, a rusty old Japanese truck pulls up and a teenager wearing sweatpants , a leather jacket, and Nike high-tops jumps out. “He says his family is having a mountain ritual today on the other side of the valley. Do we want to go?” Erdene interprets. “Of course we do!”
After hopping into the cab of the sputtering old truck we barrel along for a few minutes of silence. I try to ask a couple of questions through Erdene, but the kid doesn’t have too much to say. “We don’t have the idea of awkward silence that you Americans have. It’s normal here. He’s just very masculine.” And apparently I’m being a girl right now by trying to be friendly…
Eventually, we come across two men walking across the valley a few hundred yards apart. Our driver stops to speak with each and motions for them to jump in the back. After the second one hops in, we turn back towards the gers. “He’s going to give them airag. The family we’re staying with is famous for it.” Airag is fermented mare’s milk, a staple beverage among herders. As an airag fan, this is a very good sign.
After the young host entertains the neighbors back at the ger, it’s our turn to hop into the back of the truck.
After dropping off the neighbors at the biggest intersection around, the crossing of a dirt cattle path and a stream bed, we continue to the base of a large grassy hill. After parking by a cluster of tents and a ger, we climb halfway up the slope to where a group of people have gathered around a circular pile of rocks. A slender metal pole juts upwards from the middle of the heap. Colorful prayer scarves tied to the beam flap wildly in the wind. Getting closer, I spot cheese, cigarettes, and vodka bottles resting on West side of the shrine. Offerings.
Through my host brother and Erdene I’m introduced to our host mother and father. We shake hands and they smile a bit inquisitively. (Later I learn that I’m the first American they’ve met and the first white person some of their relatives had ever seen in person.) After introducing myself by my explaining where I’m from and telling them about my family, we eventually turning back to the proceedings.
The presiding spiritual authority is the family’s Shaman, a woman dressed in a traditional black “deel.” She sports a black mask and a headdress decorated with eagle feathers. [See photos below. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures at the sacred site on the hill.] With drum and rattle in hand, she greets us kindly and nods approvingly as we patiently observe. As I look on, each family member walks around the shrine three times, throwing a small pebble onto it during each pass. One man generously sprinkles vodka onto the rocks as he walks around it.
“We’re really lucky. I had no idea this was happening. I’ve never seen this sort of ceremony,” Erdene says. “Me neither!” This doesn’t exactly happen regularly in Boston or Seattle. As the last family members finish the rite, our hosts motion for us to pay our respects. I circumambulate the shrine, doing my best to imitate the family members. Then, kneeling before the altar, I bow low three times, accidentally placing my forehead into the pool of sticky, cheesy vodka. I doubt Smirnoff makes this flavor… probably for a reason! Thankfully, no one seems to notice the droplets rolling down my face. I carefully brush it off my cheeks and forehead and into my hair. Makes a good hair gel!
Satisfied with our efforts to honor the spirit of the mountain, the group marches down the hill to their day camp. The children in the family run around and play tag and the general demeanor changes from reverence to revelry.
“We just happened to show up for the biggest family celebration of the year, didn’t we?” I exclaim. “Yeah! This is amazing.”
Arriving at the ceremonial ger erected for the day’s activities, I sit next to the eldest relatives out of respect. A plump man doles out airag into a single bowl from a bright orange five-gallon gasoline container. After downing half of it and passing it to my friend, I pass the empty bowl back to my hosts, who seem quite pleased. Refreshing!
Taking stock of their strange white guest, the men motion for me to flex my bicep muscle and then point towards a younger relative my age. The oldest man makes the universal gesture for arm wrestling! Oh, it’s on! Seizing the chance to bond with my hosts, I roll up my sleeve and quickly approach the small stool.
While, surprisingly, I beat the first man quite a bit bigger than me, my arm is tired. I haven’t been training enough for this… His cousin, a full-time herder jumps right up and challenges me next.
After the arm wrestling match, I’m invited over to a large tarp where hundreds of sheep ankle bones are spread out. Relatives of all ages gather on the edges, kneeling or propping themselves up with their arms or elbows. I’ve seen ankle bones before but have never learned how to play. “There are many different types of games,” Erdene informs me. I kneel next to my host dad and quickly become engrossed in learning the rules.
[How the game worked: First, all players selected an equal number of ankle bones from the massive communal pile. It could be any number. In the first round I watched everyone took twelve. Naturally, when I was invited to play during the next round I took the same number but my host quickly added more to my pile. Like most things here, the rules are flexible.
Every player then contributed the same number of bones (generally 2 or 4) to the middle of the playing surface. One by one, players took all of the donated bones and, using both hands, cast them down onto the tarp. The ankle bones rolled and landed with one of four distinct sides facing up. The player who tossed the bones must then, using his thumb or forefinger, flick all the ankle bones into one another that have matching sides facing up. While this was quite obvious to herders who butcher sheep routinely, I struggled at first to identify the matching sides.
Once the player knocks two bones together, he adds both to his personal pile, thus winning them from his opponents. If he is skilled and is able to flick all of the matching bones into one another without missing or hitting any incorrect bones, then all players must again contribute to the pile. He then tosses them again and flicks matches together until he makes a mistake. Once he messes up, then the player to his left gets a chance to roll the bones and try his luck flicking the matching bones. The game continues until one player wins all of the bones from the other players. This can take a long time depending on how many bones each player starts with and how many players there are!]
During the middle of our match, gasps rise unexpectedly from the relatives. The shaman, who had left the game and disappeared into the ger, suddenly begins to beat her drum and dance rhythmically outside the main ceremonial ger. “She’s being possessed!” Erdene explains in a quick, very serious tone.
Family members quickly surround her with outstretched arms as she spins violently, rattle in hand. Then, as she careens out of control, they catch her before she falls and bring her gently down to a cross-legged position. Shortly, the eldest male in the family appears from the ger with a large platter of cheese, cigarettes, and vodka to offer to the ancestral spirit.
The shaman cackles and chants in an ancient Mongolian dialect. “No one knows what she’s saying,” Erdene comments. “How can that be?” “Only the shaman’s sister can comprehend the language she speaks,” he clarifies.
After receiving the offerings, the shaman invites the relatives, one by one, to approach. With heads bowed they kneel low before her. Some light cigarettes and insert them into the end of her long pipe. Others pour vodka into a small metal bowl for her. One woman sings a traditional folk song that prompts the possessed shaman to giggle in a very high-pitched tone and convulse violently with laughter.
Strangely, most of the men with whom I’d been playing continue their game, completely uninterested in the spectacle. Happens every year I suppose!
At one point, the wife of one player calls him up and, reluctantly, he walks over to the shaman and pays his respects.
“Peter, they want you to go up!” Erdene tells me. Doing my best to copy what I’ve just witnessed, I kneel low before the shaman. She whispers to me in a forceful, wheezy tone. Her sister, who also speaks some English, serves as an interpreter.
I’m told to bow before her. As I do the shaman places her hand on my back. Then, she has me sit up and place my hands in front of her open-faced so she can study my palms.
After a few nervous moments, she begins to tell me things about my past. Things she had no way of knowing! Then, seamlessly, she changes gears and advises me about my future. A shiver runs down my spine. I almost began to tear up. I’m still perplexed by the brief encounter and am not sure what to make of it.
Following local superstition, I will not share what the shaman has disclosed for fear of negatively influencing my fate. Let’s just say it was uncanny how much she seemed to know about me. I had not had a single conversation with the shaman beforehand, who spoke no English, and very little interaction with her sister.
(To be continued. Next I’ll focus on the food and drink during my outing!)