On Olkhon Island

in Sibirien Shamanen
Meeting of the shamans on the island of Olkhon

Choy Ka Fai

We are on Lake Baikal, a huge lake in Siberia, and the deepest one in the world. To the West, Irkutsk some thirty hours travel from Berlin. Tourists flock here from everywhere, from Siberia as well as from the rest of the world, at least in summer. And, it’s only a mere hop to Phuket in Thailand, or Bali, and ideal for Siberians to escape winter.

On the eastern side of the lake is the city of Ulan-Ude with Ashan Temple temple on its outskirts.

Landkarte Baikalsee

In its gift-shop can be found a guidebook featuring Lake Baikal, on the top of which is a shaman rock, called Cape Burkhan. On its western banks is Olkhon Island, where every summer some fifty shamans gather to partake in rituals and enter into a trance. The Mongolian border lies further South. While the guidebook’s map appears geographically exact, it also depicts in a less accurate way the various holy sites, the seats of the gods around this sacred lake.

Landkarte Balkansee

On its western banks is Olkhon Island, where every summer some fifty shamans gather to partake in rituals and enter into a trance. Our first visit was to Osa, north of Lake Baikal, a village with few residents where a shamanic art expo and dialogue is taking place. Lacking a place to stay, we eventually found accommodation at a place reserved for bus drivers.

The village has only two hostels, with a cheesy nightclub opposite one of them. Artists and craftsmen, doctors practicing western medicine, including a western student of oriental medicine, were all invited to this arts and science shaman congress held beside the lake. We were introduced to a shaman association called the Palace of Heaven.

The Ashlan Temple is located in the suburbs of Ulan-Ude, a kind of Siberian version of Detroit, replete with dirty garages and burning tires.

In the company of a composer for the National Dance Company of Siberia, academic researchers and a female shaman, we were all invited to congregate at the temple the following morning in order to watch a local ritual, as part of a traditional arts festival featuring song and dance, in which participants recount their myths in front of guest shamans from other regions.

A lamb was to be sacrificed. The shamans were planning to sign a memorandum with the chief of the Tuva Shaman Association, a region southwest of Lake Baikal. They signed a cooperation agreement, as two nation- states would, and performed a ritual so as to strengthen ties between their clans. Also in attendance was the head of the Buryat shamans, who mentors shamans.

The shamanic ritual followed a certain methodology created by Bair Zhambalovich Tsyrendorzhiev, founder and organizer of the conference, which has been relocated from its original sacred site in the mountains to the outskirts of the city for convenience’s sake, for the participants all have their businesses there.

They discussed how to treat the various yin and yang ailments, for which a westerner doctor would proscribe antibiotics. If you suffer from an ailment that western medicine cannot heal, you can ask a shaman for help. There are so many myths about diseases in Siberia. For instance, if your hair is full of knots and cannot be untied, then something is wrong with your life’s trajectory and you need to consult a shaman.


Valentine is the shaman elder on Olkhon Island. A vigorous man of over sixty, he has six fingers on one hand on account of an additional thumb. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

When did you become a shaman?

Thirty years ago, after I moved back home from the city. The elders gathered and initiated me into shamanism. Ever since I have been performing rituals here and in Ulan-Ude. I am a traditional clan shaman and practice this religion, a religion which was not invented somewhere and forcibly imposed upon my people. It arose from within us. We worship nature and our ancestors.

Did you suffer the so-called shaman illness?

I can’t say exactly. I don’t think I was seriously ill. Maybe I had some visions. Let’s put it this way: my shoulder was dislocated. I was taken to hospital where my spiritual body or soul saw itself lying on the operating table. And took flight. Spirits and some other entities were washing me and kept asking: “What good and the bad things happened to you ?” They pulled out my bones and cleaned my flesh before putting everything back together. Then I re-entered my body. That was my first initiation.

The second was performed by the elders after I “died” on earth and was later to return alive. A yurt was erected to accommodate two hundred people. A lamb and vodka were bought to feed all my people. That’s our tradition.

Was it a clinical death?

That’s right. I’m twice born. You see these six fingers. In ancient times, it was said that once every century a shaman is born with an extra bone. They call me a sarysandryl shaman. Having this extra bone means that heaven recognizes me.

What kind of rituals do you perform?

We have rituals for almost every life event: birth, maturity, and marriage. But, above all, we have protective rituals. We have a ritual for whatever might happen over the course of a person’s life. We celebrate pastoral rituals every year. These are addressed to the Mongol Burkhan [Buddha]. They have to do with the survival of cattle, calves and lambs. We also perform rituals for the crops, we call for rain. We also have rituals to protect our relatives.

But, we never impose these practices upon others. We only perform such rituals when asked to summon the spirits mainly of our ancestors and relatives. We also make requests to the Tengri deities. I often invoke the Father of Olkhon because I am from Olkhon. He is the patron saint of shamans.

Could you tell more about the Father of Olkhon?

Legend has it that the Father of Olkhon, Khan Khotae-Baabae, is a son of the celestial deity Khan Gudzjir-Tengri. Whenever disease spread across the land, Heaven sent his thirteen sons to Earth. They came to vanquish the evil demons that had been spreading the disease. They stayed in various localities, including on the shores of Lake Baikal. The Father of Olkhon chose a twin-peaked rock, on the top of which eagles were nesting.

The Father was the younger brother and the earthly deputy of Aarlin Khan, who rules over the Otherworld. On Earth he had three hundred messengers who move as swiftly as a thought. He could read‚ people’s thoughts and actions and knew what lay ahead. He chose Cape Burkhan as his residence. Khan Khotae-Baabae is recognized in other religions as well. Buddhists refer to him as Jamsaran, keeper of the faith and protector of warriors.

How do you realize that you are in contact with the Father of Olkhon?

A long time ago, when I was praying, I saw his messenger: an eagle. I was alone on the prairie when I felt something or someone looking at me. Turning around I saw a huge bald eagle about twenty yards away. It flew away. It was the same eagle I had seen as a five-year-old. After I left Ulan-Ude and went to visit Cape Burkhan in order to pay my respects to it, I saw how it was dwelling in a spiritual palace on Shamanka Rock. It is not an experience of this material world. You have to be able to feel it through meditation or some other practice.

Do you also practice healing?

I don’t practice healing, but whenever people ask me, I consult the Great Encyclopaedia of Traditional Medicine. It contains information on how to cure a thousand ailments, as well as the acupuncture points that can be used to cure diseases, everything from a runny nose to a toothache or a cough …

Do you enter a trance when you perform a ritual?

No,  I don’t see the need for that. Well before our time, shamans only entered into trance in order to find better hunting grounds for mammoths and to protect their tribe. But nowadays, it’s for public entertainment …. No, I don’t enter into trance and there’s no reason to do so. I have experienced states close to a trance, but they happened spontaneously. I don’t do it regularly or for show. That’s what the shamanic associations in the cities do, they stage something like a trance.


The movements in the rituals are very dance-like. What role does dance play?

I wouldn’t say I really dance, but I need to move in order to address the deities. Whenever I feel goose bumps on my back, it means the spirits are present. I spin around, wearing this crown and a long dress called an Orvy. I wear them when thousands of people are present.

Do you have disciples?

Yes, I do. And not only Buryats. Russians come here, too. They respect me and consider themselves my disciples, so it’s okay. But I tell the Russians: “Learn the Buryat language!” because all the spells are in Buryat.

How do they learn them?

They just repeat the words and learn them. I tell them, “For the fire spirits, do this. For the ancestral spirits, you have to make these sacrifices.” I explain the rituals and show them once or twice how to perform them. We don’t have a university. I just explain what offerings have to be made in the different circumstances and how to make them.

How much do people need the shamans nowadays?

Demand creates supply. I’m not going to comment on that, but there are more shamans today than ever. Just look at all those urban shamans. I’m a traditional shaman. Traditional shamans are rural shamans who live among their peoples. Neo-shamans have emerged recently, those urban shamans who are not initiated into shamanism by their clan, but instead by the shamanic associations in the cities, who are constantly producing new shamans. Today, there are about twenty to thirty neo-shamans for every traditional shaman. They do not perform rituals for crops or livestock. Nor do they perform hunting rituals. They only care for citizens’ needs.

You mean the dance at the Tailagan ritual?

Yes. The city shamans from Ulan-Ude and Irkutsk jump around, shaking themselves and foaming at the mouth in a very demonstrative way. A shaman should be a keeper of spiritual knowledge, as well as of our customs and traditions. A keeper of stories and legends. But urban shamans think a shaman should fall to the ground, foaming at the mouth, and utter gloomy prophecies. They threaten, “If you don’t hand over 100,000 roubles, things will turn really bad for you!” This is wrong. This is perverse and disrespectful. Shamanism should inspire our spirits and minds, and strengthen the bodies of the sick. It is not meant to scare others, and certainly not for money. That is … wrong.

What do you think about tourists who are interested in shamanism?

I have no problem with that. I live here and get along well with everyone. If tourists enquire about shamanism, we perform both rituals and take excursions. That’s fine. We all live in one world. To be honest: In the past, our elders instructed us not to do so. But people still come here. They respect us and believe in shamanism. We only perform rituals if they ask for it. If they didn’t make a request, we would never perform it. I inform the tourists about our people, our customs, so there is both a cultural and spiritual exchange.

How many shamans are there in Olkhon district?

I don’t know the exact figure given that many shamans originally from Olkhon now live in cities. Still, I think there are perhaps thirty or forty because there are those traditional shamans whose ancestors and relatives were shamans, as well as the neo-shamans. And I’m supposed to work for them. A shaman in Huzhir called me and asked me to perform a ritual. I answered, “Aren’t you shaman yourself?” For him, it is easier to earn money by driving a car than to perform rituals as a shaman. That’s why they try to force work on me and I agree to do it. This morning I was up at 5am for a ritual. I performed a second ritual at 6am, and another one at 7am. And then I have guests waiting for me! That’s a lot of work. I was a shaman ever before it became a trend as it is now. They all think of themselves as shamans, but they don’t know the spells and avoid complex cases because they haven’t studied the rituals. They pay a given sum to the unions of shamans after having been initiated for 70,000 or 100,000 roubles (1200 euros) in order to be considered a shaman.

Are you a full-time shaman?

My day job is a tourist guide. I work in the mornings as a shaman, and then afterwards I go to the mountains as a guide. I finish all the rituals by 10 o’clock.

What happens whenever you come together with  shamans from other cultures, for example, those from South America and Southeast Asia?

We exchange gifts and pray together. We find common ground to understand each other. The shamans from Indonesia brought me gifts, and I gave them something in return because I don’t wish to owe them anything. That’s how it is here. I have watched other shamans perform their rituals. I have seen how shamans in Indonesia wrap themselves in bed sheets. They all have developed their own way of performing rituals in accordance with their natural environment. We respect their cultures and they respect mine.

What is the future of traditional shamanism?

For sure, traditional shamanism will continue to exist side by side with neo-shamanism. Nevertheless, we are on the verge of extinction. Elderly shamans like me are already in our sixties. The new shamans are young and ambitious. They want to displace us. They say, “You are behind the times. Go away!” We have refused to do so and are holding our ground. There should be mutual respect. But I still feel insecure because they do their show and dance, jumping around like goats all the time.

Together with the director of the Buryat State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre in Ulan-Ude, Bayarto Tsyrendorzhievich Dambaev, we drove to the suburbs to attend the Tailagan ritual. By inviting artists to this gathering, shamans can forge a connection to the arts in terms of song and dance. You can see certain lineages in the dance movements, which you won’t see at the National Theatre, where more propaganda-like dances from the communist era are performed, a kind of dance with a folkloric and rustic touch.

Four shamans of different clans meet for a ritual in the country – without the participation of tourist guests.

I had wanted to travel further to Manchuria, to the border region between China and North Korea. Not to South Korea where I think shamanism has been over-exposed and commercialized. In Manchuria, North Korea and China share a border at Paektu Mountain, the holiest site for North Koreans, where Kim Jong Il once stood on the mountaintop. The Chinese call it Changbai. Just next to the border, they have erected a shaman village. Manchurian shamans are actually a mix of  Buryatis, Mongolians, and North Koreans. My plan was to visit the province adjoining the border on the Chinese side called Jilin on the 8th of March 2021, but Covid put a stop to that.

This fascinating mixture between Siberian and North Korean is actually Manchurian; it’s no wonder because the Buryats are nomadic tribes from Siberia who have passed down their culture to the Mongolians and subsequently to the Koreans. While now split by national boundaries, these peoples nevertheless share similar practices. In Northern China, in Heilongjiang, they shamans mix freely with Taoists, who wear similar clothing to the Siberians. The only difference is that instead of sacrificing a lamb they sacrifice a black pig and drink its blood, although both sacrifices involve a similar kind of vibrating dance. While it’s related to traditional dance, their dance is yet innovative and constantly evolving in order to stay relevant and so that it can be transmitted from generation to generation.

It is interesting how they dance. While a modern-day dance ritual must differ from one that dates back a hundred years, its essence should remain the same.

In Siberia, they use trance mainly to cleanse the body. Some shamans even use notation for their choreographies, depending on which God they want to allow enter their body in order to be cleansed and emptied. Drums are used to reach this state, more so, in fact, than in China, Taiwan, or Vietnam, where the Taoist mantra, the singing is what leads them into a trance to let their mind experience an altered state. The drum used in Siberia gives off a sort of vibration, which, I think, is purer in the sense that Shamanism originated here in Siberia.

Conferences, feasts, and rituals all take place between mid-July and mid-August when  Olkhon Island is especially flooded with tourists. It was, however, a special experience for me to tour the mountains, including for that ritual performed by a real shaman who blesses everyone on a sacred site in the middle of the vastness of this beautiful land. Russian tourists travelling to Siberia buy a tour package and takes photos of everything. As well as having a huge impact on religious sites, just like elsewhere in the world, tourism also influences local culture, dance and music. A rough guess is that Russian tourists make up about 25 percent of visitors, while the Chinese make up about 75 percent, all of them arriving on tour buses. And for some time now, they’re been buying up land on Olkhon Island in order to build more and more hostels and hotels.

If you wake up at 6:00 a.m. to catch the sunrise, you will see the magnificence of the Shamanka Rock. People are all over it, the air is filled with noise of tourists, and their drones flying overhead. It’s no secret: Some Chinese tourists behave quite loudly here, as they do elsewhere. Olkhon Island has been losing its magic ever since that folk and pop singer sang about Lake Baikal. This song has inspired wealthy Chinese tourists to visit, because it’s all about how beautiful it is to be at the lake. And indeed, it used to be like that, but nowadays the area around Shamanka Rock is full of Chinese and Russian tourists. Some people live like yogis on the far end of the island. You can see them at 6 a.m. doing yoga or meditating during sunrise. The Russians erected a sign “Please do not enter,” indicating it is a holy site. And yet, the Russian tourists who understand this notice ignore its sacredness.

Anyway, I have nothing against tourists. That’s how the locals survive. Some shamans, who work as a kind of Eastern doctor, offer their help to rich foreigners. Of course you will find exceptions like that shaman who sacrificed five camels for the Siberian economy.

Schamanka Rock

But back to the shamanic conference. They attract not only different experts, but also artists, even though not many artists are linked to shamanism. I suggested that they should send a shaman in residence to the tanzhaus in Düsseldorf, Germany, because I know a German shaman living in Overath close to Cologne. Her name is Mara Ohm. She trained in Ulan-Ude in the same shaman academy I visited. She now has her own place in a German village. Though not Siberian, she still can speak Buryat, the language of the Siberian region where she trained. She uses Shamanism as a means to help people in an urban Western context. At her summer camps she offers a variety of courses such as  drumming and trance dance. In Mara Ohm’s case, she came to Shamanism because she wants to help people to optimize their full potential.

Instagram post: In the West, shamanism is being promoted as a healing method

If you are overwhelmed in a mental sense and living in a city, you tend to be open to alternative healing methods or practices that will expand your soul. Honestly, I’m still quite sceptical about this yearning to be different, even though simple things such as singing using a singing bowl, or burning lemongrass incense will induce positive vibrations inside your body.

If you take all this shamanic knowledge from Siberia to the West or to the First World, you’ll still have to deal with technological dependant beings. The rise of individualism in the West, with its notions of liberal democracy as opposed to religion has been creating self-important individuals who believe that life is all about optimizing the self. Shamanism is used for that purpose in the West, in the same way that Eastern medicine is used as a form of alternative treatment: ideally, it is meant to help you optimize your potential because you have a problem. But, the real problem is the self.

The self needs to be coached, the self needs to be optimized. Your life coach simply tells you to be positive in your everyday life when you wake up and to decide what you need to achieve today. Inevitably, this growing interest in shamanism as a healing practice has been surfacing across the world.

I have availed of all my research in Siberia, the different shamans, the various shamanic practices and cultures, and packaged them in a fictional Academy, which some people might believe to be the real thing. Of course, I could hire two or three assistants for this purpose, to run chat bots and become Instagram managers, a kind of TikTok editor for a pop star to interact with their public and to defend the artist.

Shamans who heal through communication can easily navigate this field of interactive media – not so much to fight any prejudice against Shamanism. What drives people is curiosity, a longing to escape, similar to what can be seen on the Blue Sky Escapes website. Krystal Tan, the founder and director of this travel and lifestyle company, is a Singaporean. The former corporate lawyer got tired of commercial wars and started up her own business. Her website offers journeys to inner and outer worlds, for example, for hiking treks in the sacred mountains of Peru or Mexico, or to spend some time with a shaman.

There is so much curiosity, especially in the First World countries. People are getting wealthier, they have more time and money on their hands, they’re getting tired of the commonplace and want a more off -the-beaten-track experience. Basically, Blue Sky Escapes is selling, crafting, or tailoring such extraordinary experiences, as long as it stays only little bit challenging and a little bit unknown, thus creating a different vibration for their clients in order to let them become recalibrated. The idea partly derives from the Burning Man festival, for example, from Silicon Valley south of Los Angeles, from people having had enough of the corporate world and the troubled times it inflicts upon them. It’s a shift, a movement toward the yogis, to permaculture, to a return to ancient technologies and ancient beliefs.

At least in contemporary society, Shamanism is less and less confronted with prejudice and doubts. In Mongolia, folk tradition is viewed differently to Shamanism. It is not necessarily shamanic, but certain shamanic elements may have evolved from it. Against such a background, tourism is said to have been a positive thing because it keeps those traditions and folk arts alive.

Excursions with a shaman are part of the regular program for summer tourists from all over the world.

I think the first time my eyes experienced spirituality was when I received Christ at the age of thirteen in an Evangelist church in Singapore. My parents were Buddhists. Thereafter, I felt that was the moment I needed help and that Jesus could help me. But, thinking about shamanism, I feel it’s more than spirituality.

It’s similar to dance, though you’ll find many other elements aside from dance in it. That’s why we have culture, a tradition for hundreds and thousands of years. People have a relationship with the Gods because they need spirituality. A God, I believe, could be represented also by a smell, or as in case of Shamanism, by a beautiful mountain, which, over time is represented as a human being with individual symbols. A God with a beard stands for wisdom, a God with an axe stands for war, as such representing different aspects of humanity. Traditionally, this also happened in Taoism and in Ancient Greece and only less characteristically in Christianity or the Muslim world. In reality, it naturally remains a mountain or a greater spiritual or sacred space on that mountain. But in a sense, God is represented as an almost human version of himself, somebody you can more easily speak to. Interestingly in animalistic cultures, they pray to the sun, the moon and the sea, yet they mix it and shake it with other discoveries from invading religions or traditions. Culture is a form of noble prodigality. Thanks to crowdfunding, huge sculptures are being erected all across Asia. For example, in Taiwan, they have been building a statue of a god from wood. This month, they will have collected five thousand euros to complete its right arm. At a later stage, when there’s money again, the left arm will be done. The underlying shamanism can be found even in the most distant parts of East Asia.

That’s a story for another day.

Gottheit Shamanen