So we get to Mongolia.
I had to admit that the capital, Ulaanbaataar, wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind — a kind of depressed, post-Soviet slum stretching some twenty miles of broken concrete, smokestacks, and old apartment buildings, down a long narrow valley between high mountains.
But the following morning Tulga, our guide, had organised nine shamans to come heal Rowan at the foot of a sacred mountain called the Bogd Khan. Some had travelled hundreds of miles to come do the healing. We drove out to meet them — the city stopping abruptly at the mountain wall, and wild nature taking over with no suburban, farming, or transitional zone.
And at first I thought I'd made a huge mistake. The shamans' drumming, whirling, chanting were all too much for Rowan at the beginning. As for Kristin and I — we got whipped with rawhide. Kristin was made to wash her vagina out with vodka (!) — I thought she was going to divorce me! Vodka and milk were spat in our faces. The day grew hot and humid. Had I grossly misjudged this whole thing? Was I going to have to pack up and go home?
Then something shifted. Rowan became suddenly comfortable, happy. Started laughing, giggling, playing with the shamans, trying to grab their feathered headresses, drum sticks, and round drums, even as they whirled and danced, deep in trance.
And right at the end of the ceremony, Rowan turned to this little Mongolian boy who had been standing with the rest of the crowd, watching, opened his arms and said, "Mongolian brother."
He'd never done anything like that before.
The little boy was called Tommoo — the six-year-old son of our guide, Tulga.
Seeing the boys' interaction, Tulga decided to bring him along on the trip.
Rowan — right there in the ceremony — had made his first-ever friend.
So...out into the vast interior we went. At first in 4x4 vans — Rowan laughing delightedly as we were tossed about, hour after hour, as if in a cement mixer, as the van lumbered over rough terrain.
We switched to horses, and Rowan at first worried me hugely by rejecting the animals, not wanting to get on, then relenting, enjoying himself again, then rejecting them again as he went through the inevitable mood swings of the first few days. It was stressful — imagine taking an incontinent kid, who soils his pants three times per day, to a place with no washing machines, and little surface water. But Rowan loved the open Steppe, playing with his new friend out there in the great vastness.
There were hazards, alarms, falls from horses, wolves coming round at night and causing the horses to break their lead ropes and flee, having to be tracked down next morning. Our cameraman, Michel, got sick (not Rowan, luckily — I was very anal about making sure all his water was ultra-violet cleansed before he drank it). But eventually we found ourselves at the edge of Siberia — into whose mountains we had to climb on horseback in order to try and find a shaman of the reindeer people. A man called Ghoste. A man who, it was said, was the most effective healer in all Mongolia.
So, up into the wilderness we climbed, fording rivers, crossing great meadows of white edelweiss and blue mountain lupins, entering and leaving the great stands of Siberian pine, until we crested the high pass, 12,000 feet up, that heralded the start of the summer pastures of the reindeer herders.
Would the shaman be there? Would he heal my son? Would he even know how?
I nudged my horse down the slope, into the high vastness of mountain tundra, ravens cawing madly on the wind above us.
We would see...