The Bonesetters of Mongolia

Aleah Goldin (University of Richmond) studied on SIT’s Mongolia: Geopolitics and the Environment program in spring 2012. Below, she writes about some of her experiences while conducting research for her Independent Study Project. Parts of this blog post have been adapted from Aleah’s nonfiction essay “The Bonesetters of Mongolia” published in volume 15 of the literary journal South Loop Review: Creative Nonfiction + Art in 2013.

By Aleah Sterman Goldin

“You see this string?” It is white and thin between Ulizach’s fingers. “It measures the skull. It helps me heal.” Ulizach has copper bracelets on each wrist, and they slide down the length of his arms as he holds the string out to me. The skin on his fingers sags, and his left pinky, scarred with frostbite, crooks forward.

“Show me how to measure a skull.”

Ulizach scans my upswept bun and cowlicked eyebrow with his crystal eyes. His skin is spotted with coffee spills, and his hair is silver and cropped. His lips are chapped from the winds that sweep the ger districts, the impoverished outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. He moved to the capital city decades ago when the socialists were still in charge, and residents had to apply to move. In all those years, he never had a foreigner ask him about baria zasal, the art of bonesetting. He shakes his head and turns to the windowpane in silence.

Outside, two guard dogs with dreadlocked manes bark at their chains. A wooden fence surrounds Ulizach’s land, and I can hear the engines roar in spurts down iced lanes on its other side. We are on the top of a rolling hill, and below us, through the large gaps in the fence, we can see the backdrop of Soviet-era houses with lime, purple, and pink roofs. In the distance, behind the permanent structures are the new arrivals. White felt gers, the traditional domed house of Mongolia, have been added to the landscape. More come every day. Back in the countryside, aargal, yak dung, was collected in large sacks and used for fuel. Now there is no choice but to search for used tires and burn strips of them in stoves.

* * *

Aleah at an ovoo. She explains, "Ovoos are piles of rocks, tea, scarves, and rice that mark important locations. Often they are on the highest peak of Mongolian mountains or spiritual places. When you pass one, you are supposed to walk clockwise around it three times."

Aleah at an ovoo. She explains, “Ovoos are piles of rocks, tea, scarves, and rice that mark important locations. Often they are on the highest peak of Mongolian mountains or spiritual places. When you pass one, you are supposed to walk clockwise around it three times.”

Although this landlocked country has the smallest population density in the world, it has the fastest growing GDP, and both its neighbors are in the “powerful eight club.” What this means and the effects of it are of global concern. Through lectures, field trips, and site visits, my classmates and I explored the complicated nature of the social-economic factors that influence nomadic and urban dwellers’ life decisions.

We used this knowledge to develop our one-month research projects at the conclusion of the SIT Mongolia program. Some students on my program chose this time to explore the questions they gathered during our nomadic homestays. What do nomads consume on a daily basis from the global market? How does the road network affect the price of a Coca-Cola bottle? As a global health major, I debated many ideas. I wanted to study everything. But the topic that interested me the most, the topic that kept me tossing and turning at night, was how indigenous medicine survived the 70 years of communist rule. How did the healers, who were killed and imprisoned, maintain their dignity? How did the healing practices change in all those years underground?

* * *

When a child’s head burns to touch, his father will wrap him in his arms. Cheek to cheek, they will lie on a floor mat with blankets draped across them. The father, with all his strength, will take the disease from his child. The next morning, the child will be crisp and alert, searching for cookies in the cabinet or meat from the metal bowl under the bed. The father will be huddled under the covers, and sweat will drip down his feverish brow.

So too when the bariach heal, they exchange their positive energy for their patients’ negative ones. The patients will walk away refreshed, and bariach will sink lower in-to their chairs. Each time the copper prevents another ailment, their skin will turn a deeper gray. Ulizach’s copper bracelets have turned his skin a grayish green, and I wonder what illness they protected him from acquiring. “Sometimes though, it is not enough,” Ulizach admits. Nor is washing his hands in ice water or rubbing the wood of a nar tree. That is when it becomes a burden.

I once meet a bariach who didn’t know that she was taking on her patients’ diseases. Her bonesetter relatives had been killed in the Great Terror of 1937, and she was the only bariach left in her family. There was no one to teach her. No one to guide her. Now she stumbles. She stumbles on stones too small to notice and trips on steps too shallow to trip on. She remembers the days before the illnesses took over her feet, when she could climb the rocky hills after nibbling lambs. Now she stays at home in an apartment with a Soviet dial radio from the 1980s. She stays at home and dreams.

In these dreams, the authorities crowd a carpeted room and fidget with their green caps. They tap the microphone once, then twice. “We were wrong,” they apologize. “You heal. You make people well. You do not brainwash the children.” They hold their arms out for forgiveness, and in those moments, she can walk.

* * *

It is these dreams that I, as a researcher, record.  My junior semester abroad in Mongolia changed many aspects of my life, but one of my favorite changes has been how my role has shifted. I am now a researcher … a storyteller.

Learn more about SIT’s program in Mongolia.

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