Khovsgol Province: Shamanism

Shamanism is a an ancient spiritual tradition practiced throughout Mongolia. People who follow shamanism believe that nature and humans are connected in a deeply spiritual way. The shaman is the link between those worlds and acts as a conduit for people to reach beyond. According to the Lonely Planet, “two of a shaman’s main functions are to cure sickness caused by the soul straying, and to accompany souls of the dead to the other world.”

While witnessing a shaman ceremony is a special event, signs of the spiritual tradition are throughout Mongolia. Ovoos (sacred piles of stones) are scattered across the countryside as indicators of respect for nature. They are typically built at noteworthy locations as a sign of respect to the natural realm. When one passes an ovoo, he or she  must circle it three times and toss a stone onto the pile as an offering. Others might offer horse skulls, vodka bottles, or even tires.

Recently, Mongolia has seen a resurgence of Shamanism as many young people are becoming shamans. However, some believe a number of these new converts are “tourist shamans”, people who will perform the ceremony as a show for a fee.

Last August, I traveled to Khovsgol Province with the Vanishing Cultures Project to meet one of the country’s most well-respected shamans. She was kind enough to invite us to a ceremony, which she also allowed me to film.

This is the second in a series of three videos from Khovsgol Province. They were produced in partnership with the Vanishing Cultures Project.

Watch more videos from Khovsgol:

Khovsgol Province: Herding Life

Khovsgol Province: Herding Life

Last August, I spent a week with the Vanishing Cultures Project co-leaders Taylor Weidman and Nina Wegner in Mongolia’s northern province of Khovsgol. We were documenting the herding lifestyle for their upcoming book, “Mongolia’s Nomads: Life on the Steppe”. I had the privilege to tag along on their research journey as a filmmaker.

Over the course of the week, we stayed with two different herding families, visited with one of the country’s most powerful shamans, and I filmed a behind-the-scenes look at the work Taylor and Nina do with Vanishing Cultures Project. Two months later, I’ve finally been able to sit down and finish these short films!

Here’s the first of the three, a profile of two different herders living in Khovsgol Province:

 

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What Herders Do Best

Last February, I spent a day with some herders just 2 hours outside of Ulaanbaatar. I was accompanying a friend of mine and her aunt as they went to buy two fresh sheep for the upcoming Tsagaan Sar celebration.

We arrived at the first family’s ger (home) around 10:00 am. They served us milk tea and some freshly made buuz. Then the husband and wife and their young son hopped in my friend’s small Toyota and we headed off to another herder family’s home about 10 km away. We were lucky to be on a paved road for about half of the way, but relied on the little hatchback to do her best as we off-roaded it over the snowy terrain to the second¬†ger.

Amgalan's son runs to Amgalan and Batbayar as they examine a sheep

Upon arrival, we were again greeted and served milk tea, a standard sign of Mongolian hospitality. With the horses gone off to get water, we had to drive the Toyota through the snow to where the sheep were grazing – another several kilometers away.

I’ve never seen the herding process before, and I didn’t really know what to expect. Perhaps it might be different if the men were on horseback, but I was surprised at just how time intensive and exhausting it was to round up so many sheep. I was also surprised to see the method of catching the sheep: basically spotting the one you want, running into the herd, and tackling it. It’s quite entertaining to observe.

Over the course of the next hour, the two herders caught four or five sheep. They would compare their legs and tails to judge which one would be the best for eating at such a high holiday. They were very concerned with finding the two best sheep, which, to be honest, all looked the same to me.

After they chose the two winners, they tied them up, and lobbed them into the trunk of my friend’s hatchback, and we returned to the ger.

Watch a Video of the Herding Process:

The next 4 hours were spent killing, skinning, and cleaning the sheep – not for the faint of heart.

Batbayar skins one of the sheep

The traditional Mongolian method for killing sheep might be surprising. They cut the sheep’s belly lengthwise, stick their hand into the chest cavity and stop the heart by pinching the aorta. It takes no more than 5 minutes and the sheep don’t make a sound.

A woman sorts through the organs of a sheep as she cleans them

After, the two herders each skinned one sheep – ripping the skin from the fat and muscle. The pair made the skinning process look rather easy – using the fat to grease their hands and separating the skin from the muscle. The young boy climbed all over his father as he was exerting himself, but he didn’t seem to mind much. After about 15 minutes, the sheep were fully skinned. They would sell the pelts and feet later.

Once the sheep were skinned, the women took over. They spent the next several hours methodically cleaning the innards inside the ger. Each wife was in charge of one sheep’s o

rgans. First they cleaned the small and large intestines, squeezing out feces and running water through them until they were clear. Then they mixed blood with onion and garlic, which they poured into the intestines. This would later be cooked to make a tasty sausage-like treat.

After all the organs and intestines were properly cleaned, they stuffed them into the sheep’s stomach. They stretchy tissue served as an extremely efficient sack.

Coming from the United States, where the commercial slaughtering process is less than ideal, it was refreshing to observe how intimate the herders are with their livestock. Not part of the animal was wasted – nothing is taken for granted.

Batbayar tells me about his life as a herder in Central Mongolia

After all was said and done, I sat down with Batbayar, the older and more experienced of the two herders. He was extremely proud of his profession, saying that there was nothing difficult about it at all. ‘With the fresh air in the countryside, herding is a really nice lifestyle,’ he told me.

Batbayar comes from a long line of herders out west in Zavkhan Province. He moved to this region just outside of Ulaanbaatar with his family and 400 goats and sheep just 5 years ago.

Batbayar told me that his family was quite busy recently, selling and preparing sheep for out-of-town customers almost everyday ahead of Tsagaan Sar.

He said his daily life is simple: wake up, take the herds out to pasture, look after them as they graze, and bring them home in the evening. There are additional chores like tending to the cows and cleaning out the pens. But, for the most part it’s the same everyday. “We never change our work, we just have one job,” he explained.

MORE PHOTOS

Mongolian children often learn to ride horses when they are as young as 3 or 4 years old

The two herders spent over an hour picking, catching and scrutinizing the sheep

Zaya holds down a sheep while the herders search for a second one

Batbayar examines one of his sheep

Amgalan leaves the ger to slaughter the sheep

Amgalan kills a sheep the traditional Mongolian way - by pinching the aorta

Amgalan's son climbs on him as he skins a sheep

The herders will sell the ankle bones of the sheep for pieces in a popular game similar to jacks or dice.

After the sheep are skinned, the women clean the innards inside the ger

Woman clean sheep intestines together

Blood is mixed with onion and later boiled inside the intestine

Zaya pours blood mixed with onion into an intestine

Women sit near the door to their ger cleaning sheep innards

Once all of the intestines have been cleaned, they are stuffed into the stomach, which also operates as a sack

Three days later the cooked sheep was featured on a table along with other food for Tsagaan Sar

Camel Festival in the Gobi Desert

For the past ten years, camel herders have been meeting annually in the sleepy town of Sainshand to celebrate their animal of choice. The Temenee Nadaam (Camel Festival) is held in provinces around southern Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, where camel herding is most popular. The festival began about a decade ago in an effort to bolster support for the unique Mongolian Bactrian camel (two humps, not one), and the camel herding lifestyle.

Herders from across the province brought their livestock to Sainshand to compete in a variety of games. There were over 100 camels present, and about 400 people.

Camels surrounded the festival area, most of them tied up, but there were always a few who managed to get loose

Festival Activities:

  • Parade
  • Camel Race
  • Fashion Show for Beautiful Couples: Husband-Wife couples dressed up in matching traditional costumes and decked out their camels for this one
  • Camel Reign Braiding Race: One line of men whittled a piece of wood for the piece that goes through the nose, while a row of women braided camel hair into rope
  • Relay Race: My favorite event, involved Husband-Wife teams. The men first rode the camels around a series of posts, then dismounted, the women took the reins and led the camels through a field of dried dung, which they had to collect and put in their baskets, then the men remounted, rode the camels to an area where they had to throw three darts, and finally raced back to the starting line. Endless fun.
  • Camel Polo Tournament: this is exactly what it sounds like.

Camels lined up outside of the Sainshand arena

The main event was the Camel Polo Tournament. Each sum (county) entered a team in the competition to represent them. Thesums also each set up a ger with their flag out front for their festival participants. Anyone was welcome to come in and warm up with some hot milk tea or soup. While we sat in one particular ger, the county’s government official presented each polo team member with special medals, acknowledging their participation. It seemed like a big deal.

Overall, the festival was a real joy. It was a bit cold (but then again, it is in Mongolia). I was able to try camel for the first (and hopefully only) time in my life. And everyone there was truly excited to be participating. It was an event that many people look forward to for months to come.

Now, without further adieu, camel polo:

PHOTOS:

Sainshand is near a coal coking mine, making it one of southern Mongolia's industrial hotspots

A group of festival-goers pose near the stadium

A newly invented game of camel polo was the main attraction

Two young boys wrestle outside their county's ger

A polo player after finishing a match

Players wave their polo mallets in the air amidst a match

One of about twenty gers erected by the attending county representatives

Participants in the 'Beautiful Couples' fashion competition

Camels on Parade

A band played as camels paraded through the streets of Sainshand

A polo player races his camel through the streets during the parade

The beginning of my favorite event: the camel relay

A competitor throws a dart during the camel relay

A women collects strategically placed dung as part of the relay

These baskets are traditionally used by herders to collect dung, which they use as fuel

A crowd watches the relay competition

Women race to see who can braid a camel hair rope the fastest

Polo players in the central stadium

Players hit each others' mallets after each polo match