Photos and translations by B. Solongo
Published April 9 in the UB Post
I now lay in Ulaanbaatar on a bed at the Setgeshgui Clinic, a traditional medical center nestled in the center of a bustling apartment complex near Strings, the infamous Mongolian nightclub. The flesh on my back is being sucked up into glass bulbs like inverted droplets of rain onto the surface of a shallow puddle. Next to me is an older Mongolian man, his face ripe with age and his skin leathery with wisdom. Two weeks ago I began getting a traditional Mongolian medical treatment called bumba, and am proud to say that it is working.
I close my eyes and tuck my hands under the blanket that is partially covering my back. The smell of seared newspaper enters my nostrils with every inhale. Exhales are met with a tightness stemming from the glass bulbs on my back. The sound from a boxy television nearby playing a Mongolian opera fills my skull with the low hum of euphonious grandiosity and jittery static.
A note on my condition: one year ago, I arrived in Delhi, India late at night with an unexpected passenger. My sciatic nerve, the longest single nerve in the human body running from the lower back through the buttocks and down to each foot, throbbed with every step I took. I arrived an hour later in Majnukatilla, a Tibetan refugee community on the outside of Delhi, and limped to the nearest hotel.
Instead of resting or visiting a hospital in Majnukatilla like any sane person would have done (although this begs the question on who in their right mind would travel through India anyhow, a question answerable only by those who have embarked), I decided to continue my journey to Dharamsala, seat of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Looking back, this was likely the worst choice to be made considering my condition.
Foolishly (or tenegly in Monglish), I boarded a bus aimed at Dharamsala, a 12 hour headache inducing ride atop crumbling Indian roads hastily laid through the rolling hills of the Punjab. Naturally, the bus got in a wreck, which left me hitchhiking across northern Indian for the next day. As one can image, all this activity only worsened my sciatic nerve injury.
A year has passed since the India injury and about once a week, I’ll wake up with my right leg tingling in pain. On these days, I usually gimp around as if I were suffering from a leg length discrepancy. Two weeks ago, on one of the reoccurring leg injury days, I broke down and asked my students if there was a traditional way to fix my nerve problem.
One or my students, let’s call her Sunny because that’s what she likes to be called, suggested I visit the Setgeshgui Clinic, the first private clinic to be established in democratic Mongolia. Two day later, I found myself in a waiting room with Soko, another student who would act as my translator.
After a little confusion on my part (making the tough decision between plastic bags to cover one’s feet and sandals six sizes too small) I met with Dr. Khurelbaatar, who quickly surmised after feeling the pulse on both my wrists that something was wrong with my neck (which was affecting my back, which was in turn affecting my leg). He explained through Soko that I needed bumba treatment (known in the West as fire cupping), and would likely need to visit the clinic between five and ten times.
Opening the Setgeshgui Clinic 21 years ago, Dr. Khurelbaatar has successfully treated countless ailments including but not limited to: migraines, hypertension, head trauma, epilepsy, slipped disks, liver and kidney disease, tachycardia, rheumatism, bronchitis, concussions and bladder disorders.
Dr. Khurelbaatar has published a book in Germany about Mongolian hypnosis, Hypnose in Der Mongolei (he’s currently searching for someone to perform a German to English translation), a book of poetry, is a former member of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and is a recipient of the Chingis Khaan Academy Award for his contributions in developing the Mongolian medical sector. As his clinic practices tradition medicine, he receives no funding whatsoever from the Mongolian government. He believes that Western medicine is too quick to resort to medicine and surgery, a belief I too hold after seeing my father suffer after taking the medicine prescribed to him by Western doctors.
Dr. Khurelbaatar sits behind me before the bumba treatment is set to begin. Each treatment is preceded by a chiropractic massage by either Dr. Khurelbaatar or Dr. Davaahuu, a lively man who claims to speak sixteen languages and is instantly recognizable by his crimson nurse’s smock.
As Dr. Khurelbaatar massages the back of my neck, I begin to cringe. He presses his fingers into the apex where my neck meets my back and holds them there, pushing deeper and slightly curving his fingers inward.
“Yooooooooi…” I lament, trying to sound as Mongolian as possible.
A Mongolian woman wearing a threadbare pink deel adorned with bright yellow flowers looks up at me curiously. Next to her, a teenager wearing a New York Yankees hat texts rapidly on his cell phone. Beside the teenager is a man in a white tank top, his eyes caramel and his right shoulder showing the outline of a faded tattoo.
“Pain?” the doctor asks, pressing harder into my neck.
“yes…tii…yoooiii…” I answer.
“Sain (good). Pain sain…” the doctor replies, smiling at the group of now laughing Mongolians flanking the massage area. I laugh with them while wincing.
After the massage, I’m instructed to take off my shirt and lie down on one of the beds. Sometimes I’m assigned to a single bed and others, a double bed which puts me elbow to elbow with another patient. A nurse comes around with something that looks like a deodorant stick but is actually filled with oil. All around me, candles slowly flicker and clients in the adjoined waiting room chat with Dr. Davaahuu, as he gives massages to patients waiting in what strikingly resembles an assembly line.
The nurse applies the oil to my back in two long strips that run parallel. She swiftly lights a piece of newspaper, stuffs it into a glass bulb, screwing it onto my back like a bottle cap. I can feel the skin on my back quickly suck into the bulb as the smoke whittles away, consuming all the oxygen in the glass bulb. The end result feels similar to suction cups, and while it might look painful, it’s absolutely painless.
Bumba, or fire cupping, is a form of traditional medicine practiced that has been practiced from the steppe of Asia to the Pyramids of Egypt. The first record of cupping can be found in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical document that dates to 1550 BC. The ancient document contains information on everything from contraception to dentistry, and is considered one of the earliest medical texts. Cupping is thought to circulate blood flow to ultimately foster healing in the location in which the cups are placed.
There are three methods of cupping, including dry cupping, in which a glass bulb is used to suction the skin through various methods to create low pressure, fire cupping, which I’ve previous described, and wet cupping or hijama, a Middle Eastern practice in which a laceration is made with a scalpel on the skin before the cup is sunk into place. With the New Age movements of the West, cupping has featured somewhat of a resurgence in people seeking alternative treatments and new silicon cupping has become available.
My bumba session finishes with the hissing sound of the glass bulbs beings pried off my back. The nurse twists one cup at a time, wiping up any excess oil with a tissue as she makes her way down my spine. I am instructed to lie under a red heat lamp for four minutes to facilitate an even distribution of heat. Afterwards I dress and head to Dr. Khurelbaatar’s office, where he does a short hypnosis to finish the practice.
In the two weeks since I began treatment, I have noticed an astounding change in my condition and have felt new energy levels when after leaving the clinic. Bumba is definitely an unconventional treatment, yet so is having a team of doctors slice into my spine to fix the problem manually. Sometimes, there is a reason people have continued to do something for thousands of years, bumba falls into this category.
The Setgeshgui Clinic is located in Byanagol District, 4th micro region, building no 37. The clinic can also be reached by e-mail, email@example.com or by phone, 361491, 91912599.