AFAR chose a destination at random and sent writer Marisa Meltzer with 24 hours’ notice to a land of cashmere goats, yak slippers, and near-naked wrestlers.
DURING A LAYOVER of Edward Snowden proportions in the Moscow airport, I emailed the concierge at my hotel in Ulaanbaatar and asked if he could track down a shaman. I knew only this much about Mongolia: there were nomads, horses, and shamans. Half an hour later I got a call on my cell phone. He had found me a shaman, but I would have to visit him soon after I got off the plane, as he was most powerful between the hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
I arrived in Mongolia 24 hours after I left my apartment in Brooklyn. It was dawn in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, and my first disoriented question to the driver was why all the storefronts and signs seemed to be in Russian. He gently explained to me that the Mongolian language, Khalkha Mongol, uses the Cyrillic alphabet. From the car window, the city looked like a mix of Soviet-era concrete buildings and a few gleaming towers. The air outside smelled like smoked tea.
I’m not sure if severe jet lag was the best or worst head space in which to see a shaman. Without even unpacking, fortified with a bit of oatmeal and an herbal tea billed as “rich in vitamins,” I headed for the outskirts of the city with a driver who would also serve as my translator. We passed the brand-new-looking Louis Vuitton store and drove into neighborhoods of yurts and one-room houses on the northern side of Ulaanbaatar. We made a pit stop at a mini market—my year of college Russian came back and I sounded out the Cyrillic letters spelling out meenee markyet but little else—to buy what the concierge informed me were the offerings the shaman would expect, along with an enve- lope full of cash: vodka and milk.
At the shaman’s yurt, I was surprised to find that he was young, in his mid-20s. He was wearing a robe and a spectacular hat: flat in the middle with points curling up on the left and right sides, a pair of eyes embroidered on the front, black vulture feathers decorating the top, talons dangling from the sides, and long fringe covering his face. The shaman began to sing, and the driver explained that he was going into a trance and channeling a 400-year-old spirit called Grandfather. The spirit spoke through the shaman in an ancient Mongolian dialect, which was translated by his assistant into modern Mongolian. The driver translated that into English for me. It was an elaborate game of telephone.
The shaman drank many cups of strong, rice-based, vodka-like soju, laughed slightly maniacally, and chain-smoked cigarettes from a silver holder. Over the course of two hours, I was given a bowl of sweet yak milk to drink, anointed with oil, and fed curd candy, and the smoke from burned herbs was blown across my body. I tossed vodka mixed with local salt to the four corners of the earth, and I knelt with my head in the shaman’s lap while he prayed for me. He told me I would marry and have a daughter. He was also concerned that food I ate abroad three years ago had poisoned me.
I had expected my shaman experience to be akin to a tarot card reading—I’d pose questions about the future, and he’d answer them—but it was more akin to an esoteric religious ceremony. With vodka.
The next day, my head was still in a fog from my session with the shaman and the 12-hour time difference between New York and Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar’s dizzying pollution (you can’t see the stars at night) only made it worse. I headed to Hustai National Park, about two hours southwest of the city, with a guide named Manaljav.
Ulaanbaatar is home to more than a million people, but the metropolis is surrounded by massive, rolling hills. We had driven only a few miles when I spotted a nomad on a motorcycle, riding next to a small herd of galloping horses. Eventually, we took a sharp left on an unmarked dirt road and drove past a series of nomads’ yurts and into the park. With its brown hills devoid of trees, Hustai looked inhospitable to wildlife, but a few miles into the park we spotted marmots running from hole to hole, vultures looking ominous while doing nothing, and shaggy yaks chewing grass. We also saw 100 or so takhi—the small, furry, never domesticated horses patriotically revered as symbols of national identity—drinking from a stream and napping in the sun.
That night I slept in a tiny bed in one of the park’s yurts. It had a wood-burning stove in the center, and the coziness rekindled my childhood fantasies of sleeping in a Hobbit house or a Smurf mushroom home. Indeed, in some ways, I had reverted to a childlike state in Mongolia, where I was functionally illiterate, had to be driven everywhere, and often didn’t understand what was going on. At one point, I woke up and stumbled outside to find the bathroom. I was startled, almost scared, by the number of stars in the sky.
The next morning, Manaljav said we had been invited to visit a nomad family who lived in the park. I think it was part of his standard itinerary, but did I ask? No, I just got in the car and breathed my way through car sick- ness as we snaked up a rocky hill. As soon as we arrived, two cherubic girls, about 3 and 4 years old, grabbed my hands and led me to a large pen where dozens of lambs and baby cashmere goats frolicked. They batted my legs with their tiny front hooves, inviting me to pick them up. I felt like I’d been dropped into a viral cute-animals video. I took countless selfies cradling the little critters. Cashmere goats would have real potential as urban pets: they love to eat garbage, and you could comb their fur and make your own homegrown cashmere sweaters. I briefly pondered the practicalities of running an Etsy shop from a yurt in Mongolia.
Manaljav and I returned to the city, and the next day we set out for another national park. Gorkhi-Terelj, an hour and a half east of Ulaanbaatar, is something like Mongolia’s ver- sion of Yosemite. The valley is stunning, with streams and soaring rock formations, plus blue scarves woven between birch trees as altars to local spirits. The park is also tourist ridden. The Terelj Hotel, where I stayed, was reminiscent of the Overlook in The Shining, beautiful and creepy. Its rooms and restaurants were strangely almost all vacant, and the halls were dark and empty. I fully expected blood to start seeping from under a closed door.
But the excursion was made most memorable by another animal encounter. We spotted a man at a rest stop outside the park, sitting with a few camels, a vulture, and an eagle. As I approached the birds, he gestured, clearly asking me if I wanted to hold the eagle. I screamed yes! and nodded with great enthusiasm. He helped strap a heavy leather gauntlet around my right arm, and the golden eagle immediately hopped onto it. All I could do was gasp and laugh as it flapped its enormous wings. I realize, looking back, that in my euphoria, I forgot to tip him.
I wanted to spend my last day in Mongolia exploring Ulaanbaatar, so I enlisted Hishgee, a friend of a friend and a native of the city, to take me around. She is in her 20s and works for a mining company; she showed up wearing a motorcycle jacket, cutoff shorts, and a nose ring. We shopped for yak slippers and fur hats, and hit up a few of the winter-closeout cash- mere sales before heading to the Wrestling Palace to catch a glimpse of the national sport, one of the three “manly skills”—along with archery and horsemanship—praised by Genghis Khan.
When we arrived, several matches were taking place at once, and something like 260 more men were waiting their turns in the ring. Mongolian wrestling is done in the near nude, the garb nothing more than briefs, shrug- like sleeves, and boots. The air was hot and thick and smelled like sweat, and the stadium’s energy was fueled by testosterone. Even though Hishgee told me pretty much every- one watches wrestling on TV, she and I were the only women in sight in a palace full of men chugging sodas, shouting to the athletes, and trying to catch candies the victors threw out to the audience. We watched until I had a vague understanding of the rules, learned to cheer at the right places, and started getting bored.
I said goodbye to Hishgee and walked back to my hotel, feeling proud that I could navigate my way through Ulaanbaatar. I was beginning to acclimate to Mongolian city life, but it was time for me to head back to my New York City life. In my room, I started packing for a 4 a.m. wake-up call. As I was reluctantly folding my clothes to put them back into my suitcase, I noticed everything smelled like campfire and farm animals. I closed my eyes and buried my face in a sweater and inhaled.