Breaking Bread in Kanas


Breaking Bread in Kanas
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

In far Northwestern China, where a shark fin outline on a map punches Russia in the belly and divides Kazakhstan from Mongolia, invisible spirits and deities prowl the land.

Mongolia travel

Kanas is one of China's newest national parks and bears a striking similarity to Yosemite. For tourists used to Chinas' giant smog choked cities, Kanas is refreshingly green wilderness. It is also an ancient bastion of shamanism, tengrism, and animism. Of those three, perhaps tengrism bears explaining as a religion indigenous to central Asia involving ancestor worship and polytheism, usually through the use of totems. Mysticism lies upon Kanas like a blanket and its most famous resident, Genghis Khan (Mongol name Borjigin Temujin), was a self- proclaimed shaman. Eight centuries after his death, he remains a constant presence.

Many reasons called me to Kanas, one of which was to witness a total solar eclipse, and that single event presented me with the most defining image of how deeply enmeshed the people there are with the spirit world. As the shadow began to pass over the land I watched men in business suits and women in heels scream and run into buildings to hide. I watched people cowering inside their cars, and some, caught unawares in the open, simply fell to the ground, whimpering and covering their faces.

A few of the ever present soldiers stood their ground but most pulled their hats over their faces, shaking at their posts. People that moments before had appeared quite urbane and sophisticated proved that in that land of mysticism, everyone was subject to its power.

Mongols and Loggers Shape the Land

In the rolling, boulder-strewn hillsides, traditional felt yurts of Mongolian nomads sprout like summer mushrooms. The mountain people begin to ride as soon as they can walk and to watch them in the saddle is to understand how an army of their ancestors conquered the ancient world from the backs of horses. Legend holds that it was from Kanas that the Mongol hordes descended on Eastern Europe. High above, in the treeless valleys, dozens of stone monoliths stand from those days. Many are carved in the shape of men and locals will tell you they were erected during religious ceremonies presided over by the Khan himself as a lasting call to the reining deities to protect his army abroad and his family at home.

Log Cabin

Some of the more modern residents occupy the village of Hemu that masquerades as a town with its rough-hewn log cabins and sod roofs, left behind nearly a century ago by Russian loggers. In housing of either style, a visitor will always find a portrait of and a shrine to the mighty Khan. They are as common as chopsticks, along with animal bone talismans and sacred fetishes to combat any lurking evil.

The cabin of the ruling Lama is identified by an armada of white prayer flags tied to his fence by passing mendicants and a stroll up most hillsides will reveal stone prayer cairns that launch pilgrims' entreaties into the wind. Tuvan throat singers can be heard in Hemu, enchanting the stones or talking to spirits under a full moon, and in the hills, oracles cast bones to read future events. The people of Kanas occupy dual realities, merged into single time, the material and spiritual; the ying and yang of an ancient life in a modern world.

There are few cars about and the ones that are identify their owners as the suited bureaucrats from Beijing that stick out like brown shoes with a tuxedo. They are ubiquitous government watchdogs, terrified that the outside world might learn that China has cultures more ancient than, and equal to, that of the Han rulers. As an outsider, I quickly grew used to their harassment as the price of traveling in a police state. I might also add that those hard-nosed suits from the capital cowered from the eclipse with the best of them.

Now, I am large, even for a westerner, and the people of Kanas might be called diminutive. My physical size has often drawn small crowds during various travels through Asia and I was more than prepared for locals that might think me an incarnation of one of the endless cavalcade of local spirits or demons. I am quite used to bug eyed stares and open mouths that seem to be an integral part of remote Asian cultures when encountering an outsider. While I was quite a local attraction I can report that I never encountered thrown stones or an exorcism during my stay, but at I am sure that after my soiree through town I had at least made the evenings' dinner conversation.

The Giant Guest From Afar

Hostess in Kanas

My arrival in Hemu was apparently coordinated by the serendipity that often finds those of us who wander afar. I have always believed that the best experiences come to those who are open to the ambush and so was only mildly surprised when a young boy approached me in town as I was browsing in a pharmacy, examining the sun dried animal parts, potions, and fetishes that are the tools of a shaman.

An elder lady named Mai Pin heard there was an American about, and sent the young lad to find me as my kind are few and far between in her land, and with him came an invitation for lunch. Never one to turn down a free meal I followed him like a loyal pet, up a muddy hill, past the reindeer pens that hold those enormous creatures, not for meat or as work animals, but for their antlers that are shorn annually and shipped to Chinese markets where they demand exorbitant prices as aphrodisiacs. At the crest of the hill I turned in time to see my government shadow jump behind a fence post half his girth in size and could not help laughing at the absurdity of the moment. I waved at him and pointed to where I was going.

Outside my hostess's cabin I found home sewn bags filled with mares' milk, left to ferment. Large flat bamboo trays filled with square blobs of the thickly curdled milk hung nearby, that when dried by the sun, became a jaw breaking hard staple of the local diet. I heard my hostess calling from inside the cabin and as I stepped under the bone talisman nailed over the portal I was relieved to find that I had enough good joss not to be struck down as an evil spirit.

Now, as in town, such a rare visitor demands an audience and I was no exception. Three generations crowded into the tiny room to inspect the strange invader, the baby of which took one look at me and tore into an aria of bellowing. To him I was most assuredly a demon spirit.

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