Mongolia: We witness the annual Ceremony of Mare’s Milk early in our journey — and finally, on our last evening together, drink some!

Note: This series on Mongolia/Siberia is archived here.

First, let me say that I didn’t take pictures of our group’s final circle while we were passing the cup around, drinking the fermented mare’s milk — but I should have! Personally, I loved the frizzzy, slightly alcoholic drink. Some, including J.K., while not liking it at first, acquired a taste for it as the cup, refilled, kept coming by. Others, according to Scorpio J.K. — my Sagittarian self didn’t even notice! — didn’t like the milk at all, while pretending to, for the sake of group solidarity.

I mentioned the Ceremony of Mare’s Milk in my very first post on Mongolia, but my focus was mostly on the setting — the vast scenery, yurts, the amassing of shamans, and their horse culture in general. Now I go over that magical 24 hours again, plus the day leading up to it,  this time with J.K.’s indented and italicized narrative, plus more photos.

The ceremony was to be held at Lake Guun Galuut Nur (Deep Goose Lake), about a three hour van ride east from Ulan Batur. Of course, none of us knew what to expect. We were still going through jet lag, and I was the only one who had ever even stayed in a yurt, much less lived in one. What is the Ceremony of Mare’s Milk? We were about to find out. But first, let’s back up further, to the flight over, first to Beijing, from Chicago. J.K.:

We fly over the ice caps, there are beautiful ominous blue and black cracks below, night never comes, we are in the land of the midnight sun. And now – Asia!!!!

Tuesday 6/27 (suddenly the world leapt ahead, and made it Tuesday)

Beijing airport 6 hours . . . It’s 3:30 a.m. here, and we cannot leave this sterile area to go down for food; we may not be able to return. Mixed signals from the officials. We don’t dare cross that portal. This is China, after all, and things can happen.

Now it’s 6:30 a.m. (we are surfing the top of the world where time oscillates, the sun broke the sky at 3:30 this morning somewhere in the polar sky). We are in Mongolia at last, at the J Hotel [in Ulan Bator — A.K.]. Sleep, lunch in the hotel, sumptuous food

The room is so damn hot! Ann and I lie panting and try to sleep.

As I recall (that first day was definitely fuzzy), J.K. and I finally woke up around noon. And here’s when I got a first taste of what I was in for with my new roommate and friend, a full-on bohemian New Yorker. She sat on her bed, scribbling furiously — then looked up, and read what she had just composed, on the spot, out loud:

God and the Devil went to sea

On a ship they named Eternity;

They cruised along the quantum foam

And traveled very far from Home.

They hit a terrible storm of particles,

They clung to the mast – like barnacles.

God said “Brother, go down below!”

Devil said “God, but don’t you know –

If you should send me down to Hell

My numbers will swell and swell and swell;

So thoroughly entangled are we

That ‘twill happen to you what happens to me.”

So they slipped into the plasma stream

And shook themselves from this awful dream.

So remember ere the setting sun

That what seems so separate

Is truly One.

Ye gods! This poem, she said, “is for YOU.” What? Who IS this woman? J.K.:

In the evening we’re whisked off to the Mongolian culture hall, there’s a program of the history of music and war and triumphal song and shamanic dance. Look at those shamans! The first hint of what’s to come.

Stop for Italian food before we go home. Bill asks for a circle and we move to the hotel, claim an empty hotel room, have our opening circle. What are we each doing here? What’s up? We try to share ourselves with these new people in our lives. We’ll be traveling together, we want to be known. At least some of us do, somewhat.

We’re now told to go upstairs, “charge your phones; we’ll be away for a few days”

My phone charges, it’s 11:30 p.m., I put it on the nightstand between our beds. Am so tired – I conk out for a bit, now it’s 1 a.m. and Ann’s is now charged – so I take hers out of the wall and put it next to, ummm, where’s mine? Oh it’s got to be here, go to sleep.

Wednesday 6/28

In the morning, phone and black toiletries bag gone; only much later do I realize my house key was in that bag

Bill [who lost his phone at the airport in Chicago, and found it again when the pilot of the plane we were on searched “Where’s my phone” — it was found and sent back home to Vermont — A.K.] and I are now fully committed to the present moment and we will remain so for the duration and even beyond

The phone vanished into interstitial space between the worlds

Nothing on the hotel cameras

Though others assumed that her phone had been misplaced, despite our scouring the room several times over — or that someone had stolen into the room while we slept and taken it! highly unlikely! — I, who am more accustomed than most to the fine line that separates visible from invisible worlds — naturally assumed that her phone DID “vanish into interstitial space.”

At some point – maybe today? – we stop at a Buddhist temple [The Gandan Monastery — A.K.]. 

[The three story high Buddha inside this building] was destroyed and melted down by the Soviets [for bullets! — A.K.]. Only his hand remained. He has been recently reconstructed —and this is a sign that Mongolia will be alright again. There are deities on both sides of him. Fierce, demonic. My kind of guys. Bill noticed and loved, especially, the one to the far right, the one who belongs to this place, holding a small delicate female figure sitting on the right arm and facing the god. I loved it too.

Don’t have a pic of the fierce deity on the Buddha’s far right, but do have a pic of that giant statue (and the fierce deity on his left), the largest I have ever been in the presence of (and I stood in front of lots of them in Thailand and India).

What really caught my attention in this temple was the three, floor-to–ceiling walls of not quite identical statues that surround the main Buddha. I sensed that each one represents some now deceased Buddhist personage.

Okay, okay! On to the much anticipated ceremony! J.K.:

We drive and drive and skim over the soft hills, passing Coca Cola shacks, the newly anointed national beverage, and mechanic shops, and the last traces of Ulan Bataar, and now we are in brown grassland, gently climbing from 4000 feet to 5000. These hills lie there, dreaming us up. We stop. It is Standing Rock country. It is North Dakota all over again. It is Lakota land. There are tepees and yurts everywhere. There’s even a lake, as with Lake Oahe back in the States, the place we all fought for. Here are the faces of the water protectors. Erjen is greeted and embraced by an older man, lined face, strong and kind.

His gray-white hair is shorn close except for a tail, right in the center of the back of his head, about 2 inches wide and 4-5 inches long, straight. He is Oyunbataar, our host. His name means Great Hero. Ulan Bataar, Red Hero. And in Siberia Ulan Ude, Red Gate. The Russians did this, gave these names.

Look off to the horizon – horses, Mongolian horses, tarnished silver, stocky bodies made by the steppes. Shy and frightened, what is this being coming over to them and what does she want to do to us? – tied together and trying to hide behind each other. I sidle up to one, scratch his cheek, he can’t help but close his eyes and let go. He smells good. Nice clean horsey smell.

First I claimed a bed, 4 to a yurt.

Ann lived in a yurt for what, 16 years? This round house is comfortable and welcoming, ahh, much better than a hotel room, the light is filtering down and we are being brought in to something that loves us. This country is an embrace. Despite the loving and mischievous tricksters who vanished my phone. This is the Festival of the Mare’s Milk. Eagles in the sky. Not turkey vultures, but the real thing. The highest of all the birds, soaring and riding the updrafts and then pinnacling down, what a hunter!

The black shamans forming an upside-down V with a tepee at the apex, a burning smoke cauldron inside, a shaman keeps going in there.

The men at the left, the 22 women on the right. 22 is two times 11. (How many men? 8, 10, 12?) One of the women arrives late. She is a beauty. A yellow shaman — in other words, also a Buddhist. And a law student, we learn later. Her name is Bayoma. She works to protect 2500 union workers in the (notorious, to me and other environmentalists throughout the world) Rio Tinto copper mines and make sure they have insurance in place. She lives three worlds, at least. It is the way things are in Mongolia, the shamans are lawyers, veterinarians, bank managers. Unless they can no longer work in any way but with the Spirits (see later).

The man at the top of the line is chanting, singing between the drumbeats. Mongolian is a softly rolling tongue like the hills, but then there’s a whip, a slap, a guttural eruption at the end of the next word. Wake up. It’s a very very old language, isn’t it? There are Swedes next to me, wearing shorts. Very very blond people. The young man says those stripes across the lake, shooting down the side of the hill, the ones some of us were admiring, they are coal slag. Oh no, that can’t be. But yes, that’s later confirmed.

He sings and I want to capture this rhythm of his, this melody. It is the only way to sing with these drums. They measure my heartbeat and the song plays with my blood as it courses between pulses. I will never forget this song.

Then the head woman shaman sings sweetly and clearly and I have forgotten this man’s song forever. They go back and forth, they are clearly telling a story together.

The drumming goes on and on. The shamans are masked in black with white dots for eyes, nose, suggestion of a mouth, and in thick wigs, eagle feathered hats, fur, silken robes, moccasins, they are solidly planted on this ground, they are keeping the beat, the sun stands still in the sky, the aura is throbbing, we are at 40 degrees Centigrade, that’s 104⁰F to you and me.

A.K.: Hate to break the spell, but during this entire first part of the ceremony, I am running back and forth to the very primitive — an oblong hole in the ground — (and somewhat far away!) loo, crippled by hot diarrhea. J.K. again:

Take a break! Time to eat! (Meat soup, meat dumplings.)

The ankle bone game! The horse knuckle!

“Oh My God” he says, the third one in line. They are at the mouth of a tepee-like tent, and inside are 4 judges sitting next to a backdrop with a hole in it. Like at the carnival, throw the ball and hit the bowling pin into the hole and you win a giant turquoise rabbit. But instead there are two very small die sitting on a little platform. The players go one at a time and flick their middle finger – shooting the ankle bone at the die. Each time, the ankle bone is tossed back. Hard to get a hit. Each player massages his middle finger with his thumb just before a toss. Rather, a flick. Each has his own special bone. When “Oh My God” shoots, I’m already rooting for him. Funny young guy. He wins! We slap hands. We’re both overjoyed and laughing hard.

We wander along. Now the serious tent, with the national ankle bone champion among the judges. What pressure! Wow! These guys are good but still, the game is a killer. Then here come the other guys, the youngsters. “Oh My God” tries, misses. Ah well.

We’re being called to the main arena. Over the hills comes the cloud of mares and their very wild colts.

The horses that were tied up, my friends, are now being ridden by the cowboys who lasso the babies and wrestle them to a short rope tied to a long line of rope. There are maybe 10 or 12 places on this line. Each colt is forced into a spot. One is despondent and exhausted – he lies on his side and just goes inside himself. Or herself. The others struggle and some are panicked, others maybe just not showing the same level of distress that they probably all share. There are penguins who were thought to be blasé and indifferent to the presence of humans. They moved at the same deliberate speed as always, they waddled cutely past. But when their vitals were taken, the heart and the lungs were going wild. This may be what we’re watching. These babies may think they will be murdered. One mare comes over and frees her little one. YES MAMA! But he’s caught once again.

Finally – after hours and hours – or so it felt to me – in the burning heat of the day, at last the mares are milked. At least one of them, and we watch as the cluster of men surround and make a sign, success – milk! The most sacred food in the land, the milk of the signal, the emblem, the holy horse. Now the milk is offered as libation, to the North first, then clockwise. A man wants all of us to do it right. North East South West.

J.K. does it “right,” flicking the milk clockwise — north, east, south, west.

One of us calls him a control freak. I think he’s just like me, only he does it out loud.

North East South West guy, he wants his picture taken with me. I stand next to him. He stares steadily and sternly ahead. I think this is like the pictures of the pioneers, the father in the center and his wife standing next to him and it’s all very very serious business. But I can’t help but smile. Shot after shot ’til he’s satisfied. Wonder what he will say about these photos.

The horses are standing in Deep Goose Lake. It’s barely up to their knees, way out in the middle. Cows too. The edges of the lake are lined with salt, lots of it, and the lake is drying up. And hot tho it was, the water was too warm and too filled with donations from all the animals. No relief. Some xi gong and then back to the action. Thank you, Ann, for the xi gong! It was my energy source throughout this endless adventure.

Here’s a little kid with his father. He is shaven bald. They do this to the little boys at 2 and 4, the little girls at 1 and 3. Or did I reverse that? He’s 4, so I got it right. He’s so cute and he and I play the slap the hand game. He tries to catch me, I pull away, he chortles. Then I try to catch him. Now we bless our gifts, our money. But I’ve already given him my dollar. Erjen says it’s ok, because we are not supposed to give anything away at this time, we are blessing our own valued items, but as I’d already given it to him it’s the right thing to do. We eat again. Hang out in the yurt. No, I need to be outside. I languidly slide over with Erjen and Masha (her daughter Maria) and Alkhan, Erzhen’s friend (these two have known one another since school days). We talk about men, divorces present and impending, astrological signs and birthdays. Just hanging out.

I hear “Hit The Road Jack” playing over there where the tent had been. Perfectly appropriate to the conversation. Gotta go see. There’s a big [humongous! 10 feet high! — A.K.] pile of branches for a bonfire. Music powered by a solar array, now it’s Sinatra, Louis Prima (“Just a Gigolo”), Unforgettable, When Sunny Gets Blue. I am totally turned around, all my senses are full, this is my music and I am on the other side of the world and there are magicians and sorcerers filling me with the utmost bliss, imagine, Louis Prima! A woman shaman is standing here and she clearly wants to dance with me, so off we go, waltzing, I twirl her, she is delighted, everyone is watching, we dance and dance. Foxtrot, tango, circle dance, Mongolian house music, rap, then a slightly drunk guy dances with me, and Marc and I get into a deep conversation with Bayoma, the yellow shaman. Earlier, when we had received the blessing of our money, she asked me if I am a shaman. I said “Oh no, YOU are the shaman.” Now she introduces me to her friend, a poet. But I am so into her conversation, her perfect English, I never get to hear the poems. What an oversight. So no, I’m not a shaman. Maybe a witch. A young man comes over. He is pulling another by the arm. A beautiful, tall, young Mongol. “He wants to dance with you.” So we do, and it’s the 1960’s all over again. He moves his arm from my shoulder to my waist. I lay my head on his shoulder and close my eyes.

Now we all fly apart and dance in a big circle, a wild dance, and another, and another, and I have to escape and sit down. They finish and now it’s over. Everyone has to go to work tomorrow.

Don’t go, magic people. Marc and I are left alone on the dance floor by the dying fire. Cars start up and head off into the Mongolian night.

Back to the yurts.

Thursday 6/29

A big rainstorm at 4 a.m. Some valiant stalwarts (like Maria/Masha) quickly cover the openings in the roofs. Later we all arise, have breakfast into lunch in the dining yurt. Oyunbataar joins us and is accompanied by two women and two men. Some of us greet him outside. I give him mugwort from El Jardin del Paraiso, Loisaida, East Village, NYC garden, and tell him it is for dreaming. He asks if he will dream away or what did he say exactly? And I give him the rock from the Arizona desert, white and pearl and sunset colors. Not my bioregion, just something I love.

He tells us the history of this ceremony and of his family. He is the son of the 11th degree shaman who survived the murders of shamans by the Soviets; he was fortunate enough to be away from that slaughter. His father formed this Magistic Society of Shamans. He thanks me for leaving my mark in Deep Goose Lake. He gives Bill a crystal ball! Actually in one of the airports there is a sign telling us what is forbidden to take on the plane, and that is one of those illicit items.

We ask what the others do in their “everyday” lives. One woman is a veterinarian; the other is the President or CEO of the Society. We exchange gifts with Oyunbataar. He presents us with small silken sacks each containing the knuckle bones of cow, horse, goat, sheep, and a divination chart. And blue silken scarves, not to be worn casually. One of the men [who is also a shaman, and as I recall, mentored by Oyunbataar’s shaman father — A.K.] looks like he stepped out of a movie. He is likely the singer whom we heard yesterday. Long gray braids, a big cowboy hat, a rangy body, a beautiful face. He tells us that he comes from a family of atheists and was one himself until he nearly died and came to this world of nature spirits which saved his life. (Again, this is what my ears heard, and I can’t trust that.) [J.K. is having trouble with her hearing on this entire trip. — A.K.]

Marc offers something, quite humbly. Lois offers rattles. Other gifts as well. [I offer a bundle of dried elderflower, from our Green Acres Village Garden — A.K.]  Erjen explaining so much history and culture. I wish I could hear better. There’s a world of story and interpretation here. Oyunbataar tells us that we have broken the drought, that because we came from so far away, we brought the wonderful rain last night. Bayoma did say that when she was last here, two years ago, the grass was all green, not brown. We take photos, say goodbye, bayer-te, bayer-te. The last glimpse we have on driving off is Oyunbataar clowning a drunken or exhausted goodbye, his eyes crossed, his body weaving. Deep, funny, loving warrior. Bayer-te.

On the way back to the city. . .

. . . we stop briefly at the monument of Gingghis Khan. J.K.:

One large eagle, one smaller one, tied by the neck next to posts. The exhibitor has a leather sleeve, and for a sum you can get your picture taken with these lords of the sky who live too long and in the sun too hot and they want to die but they cannot. Tourists are served and so is the guy who keeps them captive. The smaller one is trying to disappear. Hunched over, despondent. I cannot stand this. Do not take their picture. Please see them in so much pain. Yes, I can speak for them. You, you shut up. I can only sit at a distance – they are already freaked out by the closeness of humans, an abomination to their kind – sit next to them not staring just being near enough to send them compassion. I will be back to visit you when I get home. I hope I can free you in your dreams. [J.K.’s intense identification with the misery of the hostage eagles will, three days later,  be addressed by a shaman in ceremony . . . — A.K.]

Gingghis is alive and well. His name, his image, he’s on the lips of people here and the airport bears his name and he is present and part of daily life, these many centuries on.

Back to the city. We go to a Korean spa [an inspired, luxurious way to decompress before airplane to Siberia late that same evening! Thank you Erjen and Maria!— A.K]. It’s just like the one in Queens. I know my way around this place, alright. It’s like where we Coney Island Polar Bears go after we jump in the ocean on New Year’s Day, all thousands of us crazies. We all get nekked and wet and refreshed, but no mingling of the sexes ’til you put the shorts and teeshirts back on and go upstairs. Oh, right. I’m talking about Mongolia now, but it’s the same in Brooklyn.




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1 Response to Mongolia: We witness the annual Ceremony of Mare’s Milk early in our journey — and finally, on our last evening together, drink some!

  1. Janice Berndt says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these stories of your journey. I had never considered traveling to Siberia/Mongolia, but it is clear these places are special.

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