Never Mind the Boloks

Back out to the park in ten degrees below, to film the shamanic procession and dancing from yesterday. Yes, we already filmed it, but today we have to do it again for the benefit of the drone to get some picturesque aerial photography. That isn’t as easy as it sounds, because the drone batteries go flat within ten minutes of hitting the cold air, and it often takes ten minutes to calibrate them, because his phone is the interface with the controller for the flying camera, and it refuses to operate unless it is cuddled and cosseted within a pile of camping heater-packs.

Our drone pilot must also operate the phone using its touch-screen, which means he can’t wear gloves in the freezing temperature, and can’t actually feel where his finger ends and where the screen begins. The shamans are also complaining, because they never realised that they would be standing around in the snow.

“We don’t do this in winter,” says one tubby lady, whose name is Yufang. “And some of us are in our sixties. And what’s with all this ‘OKAY’ business? That director woman is always shouting ‘OKAY’ all the time. She says it when it’s time to start, she says it when it’s time to finish.” Her fellow shamans all titter and giggle, and start chanting “OKAY” while banging their drums and shaking their hips to ring the bells on the end of the long ribbons.

A man walking his dog stares at me like I am somehow responsible for the dancing wizards in gold crowns and rainbow ribbons, banging drums on a Tuesday morning in the park.

I explain what okay means, and ask Yufang what it is in Mongol.

“Bolok,” she replies, which is too good to be true.

The drone barely manages two ten-minute runs in the cold air, while the shamans shiver and wait for their cue. The locals don’t help by insisting on treating a public park like a public park, so that at least a couple of shamanic rituals are interrupted by a hatchet-faced woman in a purple tracksuit, power-walking along the path. The usual crop of men with giant telephoto lenses are in evidence, but we don’t think they are spies. Everybody and his dog seems to own a massive telephoto lens in Songyuan – maybe this is where they make them.

The afternoon is spent in an embroidery workshop run by the twins, Black Silver and Coral Red. Their grandfather was the scriptwriter on a Genghis Khan movie and they are plainly posh literati, whose workshop specialises in the Planet Mongo fashions of the Mongols, all Vulcan shoulders, and hats that seemingly have dildos sticking out of the top. Black Silver and Coral Red fuss around their guests with a pot of tea, and I interview two of the shamans, including Furong, the witch-woman from last night.

Furong isn’t drooling bogies and ash any more, nor is she spitting firewater at the camera. Instead she has transformed back into a well-turned-out forty-something in a fluffy fur coat, with the occasional habit of rolling her eyes to commune with unseen spirits. She is only 42, but I can see from the light behind her hair that she dyes it, and wonder if she is hiding bolts of grey witchy hair. But if she had it, why would a shaman hide it?

Her hands are amazingly warm and soft. Furong starts stroking my hands, peering underneath my eyelids, examining my stuck-out tongue, and pulling out one of my hairs.

“You must be careful with your heart,” she says, after conducting this odd examination. “You have an odd heartbeat, and stomach problems, too. Maybe your kidneys. But these are all signs of a haunting.” Sickness of some sort, particularly in the heart or stomach, is one of the signs of a shamanic disciple in waiting. “Your fingers are cold, but your hands are warm,” she continues. “This is because of the bad circulation from your heart.”

“There are spirits watching over you,” she says. “And you have great power within you, to be a black shaman, the most powerful kind of all. Your dreams already see the future. You cried when I danced. You must be exorcised to banish the sickness, and then you can begin your training, assuming you find a suitable mistress.” Her eyes flash.

In the mirror behind her, I see the crew exchanging quizzical glances. Nobody was expecting this, least of all the other Mongols in the room, who are wide-eyed with excitement. The sound man doesn’t help by humming the theme from Bewitched while he fiddles with the sound dials.

“Been a while since we found a black shaman!” beams Mrs Bao.

“Bit of a turn-up,” agrees Mr Bao. “Bolok!”

A black shaman apparently something of an untouchable in East Asia, who mediates with the lower and more terrifying spirits, as opposed to the white shaman who consorts with the nobility and the nicey-nicey spirits. It doesn’t sound like a particularly appealing career to me, particularly if I have to eat ashes and spin in circles while talking to the evil dead. But, you know, if writing doesn’t work out, it’s nice to have exorcism to fall back on.

Furong already has a disciple (some shamans have dozens), a soft-spoken man called Ping who was the subject of last night’s exorcism. While Furong sips daintily at some red tea with her long-suffering husband, Ping tells me about his damascene moment.

“I was in an accident,” he says, “and I couldn’t do sports any more. For three years my limbs were stiff like there was something squeezing my bones. But then I saw Her, and I realised I had seen Her before. I felt like I already knew Her, and we talked as if we were long acquaintances. And then I remembered, I had seen her in my dreams. You see your teacher in your dreams, and your dreams lead you to Her. She agreed to teach me. They chased out the ghosts and welcomed in the good spirits, and I felt such happiness. I was so happy… I, I…. can’t say in Mandarin.” He switches into Mongol, and we have to wait until we get home to get it subtitled.

Michelle the assistant producer is getting on with her usual tasks, scribbling the next shot title onto the clapperboard.

Furong suddenly seizes Michelle’s hands.

“You are a shaman,” she tells her. “You are from a family of shamans. I see your ancestors in you.” Michelle recoils in horror and scurries out to the toilets.

Furong doesn’t seem to be bothered by this.

“She knows,” she shrugs. She looks at me again, her eyes hypnotic. “Your dreams come true, don’t they? You have seen the future in dreams, but you only know it when it occurs. That is the first sign.”

The director is getting increasingly annoyed by all this hocus-pocus, and starts shooing people out of the room to the next location. The cameraman is similarly unmoved, claiming that Ping the Possessed only shook and wobbled at the exorcism last night when he saw that the camera was on him.

“It’s all bollocks,” he mutters.

“OKAY!” chorus the grinning shamans.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events appeared in Route Awakening S03E03 (2017).

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