Bao wants to be a shaman — for weeks in a row he’ll dream of flying, which he takes as a cosmic sign. Yet his father, like so many in China, is a pragmatist. “He thinks it’d be best if I find my own career,” said Bao. “Even if I don’t become a shaman, I’ll still be a shaman’s son, and I’ll dedicate myself to researching shamanism, developing the field. I think this is my life’s mission.”
Erdemt himself knew nothing of shamanism as a child. He spent his formative years in a felt-lined tent on the grasslands, frequently skipping school to help his parents herd. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the religion was dubbed “feudal superstition” and banned. One of his neighbors was beaten for practicing it openly, and decades of silence followed suit.
The shaman grew to middle age. He married and had two children, both of whom learned to rear sheep before they were packed off to university. The coal boom came suddenly, and in 2007, his pastures began to wilt; a summer hailstorm decimated his livestock. Newly destitute, he considered his options and moved to Xi Wuqi, where he found a part-time job unloading trucks.
His wife bought buckets of sheep’s milk and processed it into dried yogurt, a traditional Mongolian snack, which she sold to local markets. They were desperate to return to the grasslands.
Around that time, Erdemt began to have strange dreams, he says. Some involved tigers; in one, snakes writhed around his body. He discovered within himself an extraordinary aptitude for prediction, allowing him to foretell chance encounters with old friends.
One day in 2009, he quit his job and took a bus to Ordos, a gleaming new city in the area’s arid west which, like Xi Wuqi, was built to accommodate the coal boom. There, amid empty skyscrapers and vast, dusty boulevards, he met a friend whose brother owned a brick factory in Mongolia; the brother knew a master shaman in the country’s capital, Ulan Bator.
Erdemt applied for a passport, hopped on a cross-border train, and showed up at the shaman’s house carrying his suitcases. For 27 days, he memorized ancient texts and fine-tuned elaborate rituals; he returned to Xi Wuqi carrying a sheepskin drum, confident about his future.