A shaman gets born once in one hundred years with a cleft thumb

“Depart Olkhon Island. Today your guide will take you to meet with a Buryat Shaman en route to Irkutsk.”

There was one more thing to do. We were making for a dirt town called Yelantsy, about 160 miles northeast of Irkutsk, to meet Leonid’s cousin, a shaman.

“These powers he obtains through a special gift, Alina told me. “Valentin is famous throughout the region."

The word “shaman” means “one who knows”. A true shaman is either born with a defect such as a cleft thumb (see above) or, more commonly, a congenital illness. If the sign appears at birth, his destiny is announced to his parents. If the signs appear later in life, he or she is often a highly nervous person, or an alcoholic who must accept his or her fate and surrender to their illness. Shamans of this latter variety will have undergone a near-death experience that leads to this acceptance and the erasure of the worldly self. This erasure of the self in the face of a power greater than oneself seemed to be the common theme of my journey.

There is no room for egotism in shamanistic circles. The shaman must acknowledge that his or her power is not his or her own, but that of their descent line. Power is sought in the cure of the shaman’s illness. The self that emerges is ready to interpret the word of rocks, caves, rivers, lakes, the steppe, taiga and mountains and the spirits who inhabit them.

In Valentin Khagdaer, I saw a shaman whose line had survived despite having spent centuries under czarist and then Soviet rule. Valentin is one of the few Buryats who actually speaks the Buryat language. He can even read it. 

He greeted us at the gate of his enclosure and led us past his family home, a concrete bungalow, through his windswept garden with the largest cabbages I’ve ever seen and into his yurt. Valentin is a large man in the mould of Santa Claus and he has an open and generous nature. But no laughter. He showed me the cleft thumb on his right hand, a kind of sixth finger that is his sign of the shaman spirit. As a boy, he had been sent to live in near seclusion with some elders. He grew up learning the shaman ways. Despite stints in the Communist youth league and the Soviet army, he held to his beliefs.

The floor of Valentin’s yurt was wooden and raised above the ground. In the centre was a stove. We sat round the stove on the edge of the raised floor with our feet on the earth. I asked Valentin whether Buryat children were taught their customs at school.

“The constitution states that all ethnicities are equal but these are just words,” Valentin said through Alina. “Our schools don’t teach Buryat culture or language or music. When the government donates money to preserving Buryat traditions it’s really for the tourists.”

Valentin’s own children were swimming in the sea of Russian language, he said. Russian TV and consumer goods. Valentin’s father was born of a family of blacksmiths in Yelantsy. He fought in the Soviet army. He was injured and captured by the Nazis. He escaped from a concentration camp in Austria. He’d lost all his papers. He was on the run when he met with some Russians. They sent him to a gulag because he had no papers. Eight years in all he was gone. He wrote to different government offices trying to restore his documents. Finally he succeeded. He was almost home – 700m before this yurt , when he collapsed. Blood was trickling out of his ears. The woman who would become Valentin’s mother saw this crumpled heap of a man and brought him in. When he got better he worked as an accountant for the collective farm. He married Valentin’s mother and their son was born with a cleft thumb.

“A shaman gets born once in one hundred years with a cleft thumb.”

He began the ceremony, intoning and tapping his tambour. He wore a long blue gown of Chinese cotton cloth, with a wide belt. On his head he wore a pointed cap with large red crystals shining like a lighthouse.

There are five time zones in this journey across an endless biome.

I don’t know what time it was when I met the Shaman.

I had entered the world of his yurt and ceremonial fire. In the old days he would have sacrificed a white horse to the god of thunder.

After praying on the sacrifical spot, he removed the horse’s bridle and let the animal run away.

We fed the stove milk, butter, vodka, cigarettes, tea, thyme and tinned meat.

From that moment on, the horse was free and untouchable. It could not be used by anyone. Before he let it go, he put a bowl of milk on its back. At the same time he sprinkled milk twoards the four cardinal points of the compass.

The fire in Valentin’s stove was roaring. Each of us made a procession around it in turn, scattering milk which dampened the flames, then butter that made it spark. The vodka caused blue spurts to leap out and attack us. The tea and thyme enveloped us in aromas while Valentin’s song grew more intent as did the beating of his drum.

Then he enveloped the horse in the fumes of Oriental spruce. He tied some ribbons to its mane, the ribbons that Leonid had untied from the totem at the end of each season. Finally the horse was sent into freedom. Nobody can sell it. Nobody can buy it. Nobody can touch it. At the place where the bowl of milk fell from the horse’s back, he prayed for health and prosperity. This is the ceremony the Buryats perform in the taiga when the tourists have gone home.

When the white horse dies, its mane and tail are cut off and tied to another horse. This is the horse they sacrifice. This horse wears the same ribbons in its mane and tail, but for this horse the hands that come together around its neck are joined in the act of strangling not in the act of undoing the bridle.

“They don’t understand our customs,” Leonid said. They don’t know they are playing with fire.

One horse goes free. The other dies. The bowl of milk falls to the ground, and according to the way it lies, divine favour or disfavour is communicated.

In an area of central Asia still retaining vestiges of shamanism, white horses are consecrated to thunder. According to Roberto Calasso, author of The Ruin of Kasch:

“The next step has never been taken. No man has ever felt another man’s hand undoing the invisible bridle that is around his neck. Nobody has ever been totally freed from being used by other men. And the practice of being ‘used to serve humankind’ is steeped in the venom of exchange, which slowly – or sometimes abruptly – kills.”

Like the steppe that holds folded green things from the taiga,

Valentin holds his people’s language.

His eyes are deep brown maybe black yes more likely black and over-burdened.

When he took a call on his mobile during the prayer for success, I wondered if this would affect our chances of achieving it.

When he looked at my palm, he said, you have a happy destiny.

Valentin surprised me. When I asked him what he thought the future held for Buryats, I had thought he would answer as a Buryat. He answered as a Russian. He was as Russian as the first Russian I had met at Sheretyevo Airport. Alina translated:

“Sanctions from the West will only make us stronger.”

Anatoly, the Cossack, had joined us from his car. He nodded in agreement.

“We Russians come together to face the enemy,” continued Valentin, working up his patriotic fervour.

The Buryats have been nigh on wiped out in their assimilation. Even the name Buryat  is a Soviet creation, applied during the 1930s to separate them from their brethren in Mongolia. Feeling outnumbered I asked Alina what she thought about Putin’s relationship with the West.

“I’m too young to have an opinion,” she simpered.

It’s easier to retreat into a dream world where the strong man saves us all.

 It was only when I left that Valentin revealed the fissures in his assimilation. He said in a weary tone: “Whoever the politicians are, they’re in the hands of businessmen.” He clasped his hands together in an unbreakable bond. “It’s about the money.”

Valentin, a true seer, told me I was goal-oriented and professional. I can reach my goal by using my intelligence, talent and dedication. I wasn’t close to my parents. I had chosen my own path. He asked me where my children were.

“You should have two children. Their lines are on your palm.”

You’re right. I told him. I should have two children.


In unfelled woods Valentin received his fifth Level of initiation. He was given the tambour by shamans superior to him. This was a long time ago and there are now no shamans at a higher level than Valentin.

“At the ninth level shamans receive the gift of levitation. Not since the end of the 19th century have shamans been able to reach this level.”

The 20th century stamped out the capacity for belief.

His eyes were so sad. If Leonid was sad for Nature, Valentin was sad for his people.

We got back into the car. My phone pinged. It was an update on my news channel. Two Russian citizens had been identified by Scotland Yard as suspects in the attempted assassination of the Skripals. I tried to conceal the cruel streak of mockery that runs in my veins and read the headline to Alina anyway.

No comment.

I watched a young man ahead of us heading for Irkutsk on a motorbike. He was racing at the highest speed and seemed to have an overwhelming impetus to reach his goal. I thought of the time when Chinghis Khan had a horde of one hundred thousand men just like this one and more than two hundred thousand horses, all with that overwhelming impetus to reach their goal.