Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Helicopters And Shamans

As I've mentioned before meeting different people, from all walks of life, backgrounds and cultures is one of the most enriching aspects of travelling. A while back my mother sent me the contact details of a nephew of one of her friends who she said lives in Mongolia. It turns out that Hamid doesn't just simply live in Mongolia (actually only part-time, during the summer), but he has studied their culture extensively and films documentaries about Mongolia and its people and even runs a camp out in the far north of the country. Here was an encounter I really didn't want to pass up.

Gers, forests and mountains in the evening light.

His camp is located up in the Darkhad valley, where Mongolia pokes into Siberia. The region is home to the Tsaatan ethnic group, one of the last true nomads, who herd reindeer and move camp every few weeks; and the dominant religion is shamanism (although the people themselves refer to it as Boo). Getting there is, even by Mongolian standards, not a straightforward trip and takes a fair while (from the aimag capital of Moron to Ulaan Uul, the nearest sizeable town it is only 200km, but is a bumpy, bone-jarring, 10-hour drive away. But it was all worth it. The camp is set amongst the lazy meanders of the Shishget river with the mountains separating the valley from Hovsgol lake forming a dramatic backdrop for the dozen or so well-appointed gers - I was pampered by having one all to myself, with a bed no less (I hadn't slept in a bed for over 3 weeks). The steppe of western Mongolia was giving way to the larch forests of the taiga that continue all the way through Siberia until it becomes frozen tundra. The region may be famous for its reindeer (which I unfortunately didn't get to see, as during the summer they move to high elevations to escape the relative heat) but in this small patch of land you can find pretty much every type of animal that can be herded: sheep, goats, cows, horses and even, surprisingly, camels!

Transport in this part of Mongolia may require a ride on rickety, single-vehicle ferries, like the one above. Whilst you wait your turn you have time to sit back, admire the view, and breathe in the clear, crisp air.

Hamid was busy with a group of Kiwi tourists who had come for an adventure in the far north, to ride horses and catch some big fish in the wild rivers that few people reach. Despite not being spring chickens (the ages ranged from 50 to 68) they approached the whole expedition with gusto and didn't pull any punches. So much so, that on their first day they went for a horse ride, galloping round the local environs, and one of their party fell off, breaking a few of his ribs. This necessitated the scrambling of a helicopter from Ulaan Baatar to airlift the patient out. Luckily he was insured (the cost of the medevac was greater than my entire budget for the 3+ years I hope to travel, which is a good lesson on the importance of having adequate travel insurance)! The others didn't let this phase them, and although they were sad about the early departure of their friend, and hoped the injuries were not too serious, they got on with the adventuring task at hand. I was very impressed with their enthusiasm and determination to carry on regardless that is very typical of Aussies and Kiwis. Although I didn't get to spend much time with Hamid, it was a rewarding experience to see such a remote corner of, what is already a remote country, and also to have someone to explain the nuances of culture and custom to me. Unfortunately, for the first time on this trip, I've had real communication difficulties. For a country with such a small population language skills are sparse. Educated Mongolians might speak English or Russian, but they are few and far between, but the majority just speak Mongolian.

Ron's holiday ended prematurely with a stretcher in a helicopter.

Although shamanism is the belief of choice in the area, it's not that visible to the casual observer. Ritual cairns, called ovoos, garlanded with blue prayer scarves litter the countryside, but they are also common in more Buddhist areas of the country, where various pagan customs have survived. Hamid's deputy, who helped give me a ride back to Moron as I was leaving, is married to Ulaan Uul's local shaman, but if you were to meet her on the street you would never guess: a stout, no nonsense, matronly lady in her early 60's she has a penchant for leggings and patterned shirts. The ritual paraphernalia are only unpacked for ceremonies, and for most of the time she is the local doctor, pharmacist and full-time grandmother.

Not a shaman, but a local guy in the Darkhad who had a fantastic array of medals pinned to his deel. A few moments after taking this pic he also whipped out a bottle of vodka that was secreted amongst the folds and offered me a shot.

For those of you interested in learning more about the unique Tsaatan and their fast-disappearing way of life you can check out Hamid's documentary about them.

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