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Vast beyond compare: Khangai region

Click, click, click. We weren't sure what we were hearing. Lisa discovered it was mating dragonflies. The clicking filled the air, like the sound of tapping typewriter keys fill an office. At a small roadside restaurant we had stopped for lunch. The clicking was our first introduction to the sounds of the wildlife we would hear in rural Mongolia.

Lisa and I had left Ulaanbaatar at approximately 11 a.m. that rainy Saturday morning in a Toyota Landcruiser, owned by the brother of our travel companion and hostess, Enkhtuya Tsend, vice president of the Mongolian National Business Incubator Federation. Traveling with us were her nephew, 22-year-old Munksutai Suukbaatar and her niece, 10-year-old Amina. Munksutai, or Sutai for short, is a recent veterinarian school graduate. He will start work in the fall, but he would be our driver for the week in the country. Amina is a precocious, sociable young lady with an interest in almost everything and a limitless supply of patience.

We were on our way to Arkhangai aimag (province), 500 kilometers (300 miles) from Ulaanbaatar. While listening to American Pop music, from Hip-hop to '80s classic rock and roll, we traveled through the magical vastness of the Mongolian steppes. This is a ruggedly beautiful land of rolling hills, semi-arid grasslands, snow-covered mountain peaks with soft-needle pine trees strewn about higher-elevation slopes. At best we would have maybe 200 kilometers of unevenly paved road, at worst 300 kilometers of muddy or dusty dirt trails through rocky terrain.

To reach the town of Iktamir, government center of Arkhangai province, would take us at least six grueling hours of dodging potholes, yaks, cows, horses, sheep and goats, not to mention avoiding head-on collisions with oncoming traffic. We bounced our way across the countryside, but had no fear. Sutai was a capable driver and we were pacified by the endless green hills, the light-blue skies and the fresh, crisp mountain air.

In Iktamir, we stayed in a small motel. It had indoor plumbing, which we would soon discover was a rare luxury in rural Mongolia.

Sunday we traveled 75 kilometers deeper into the narrow river valleys of the Khangai mountains. We crossed the river at least 20 times with water up to the chassis. Several times our guides got out of the vehicle, rolled up their pants legs and entered the water not only to assess the depth, but to move rocks to make passage possible. Late in the afternoon, with the temperature dropping and snow falling, we arrived at our destination: a herder family's three ger (round, felt tent) camp. Our hostess at the camp, Dulmaa, had nine children, one of whom was getting married the next day. She and her husband had earlier that day put up a new ger for their son and new daughter-in-law to be. It was a time of celebration, but also a time of hard work. They had many guests arriving the next day and had a lot of food to prepare. Sheep, goats and horses provide most of the food, from milk to meat, and sheep wool is used to cover the gers. The herders laughingly call their diet naturally organic and attribute to it many health benefits. Chewing the meat off bones strengthens teeth, we were told. Bone marrow has many vitamins and minerals. Drinking fermented mare's milk aided digestion and helped one sleep and is good for lung ailments. A little oily butter in the morning provided enough energy to work all day.

Dulmaa is a rural feltmaker. She makes the covers for her gers the traditional way from the wool of her own sheep, laid out on the mother felt from an old ger, and rolled up and dragged behind a horse for many hours.

The life of a nomadic herder is simple and natural, and they have little room for luxuries. Dulmaa has moved five times so far this year in search of fresh pastures for her family's livestock, and would move one more time further up the valley to winter camp. Besides a motorcycle or two, and the occasional car or truck, herders also have portable solar panels to provide enough electricity to light their homes. In several locations, ger families had televisions, and at one relatively well-to-do horse trainer's camp, there was even a battery-powered freezer.
In winter the herders heat their gers with coal, but in summer they burn wood. They use chain saws to cut their wood, a time-saving convenience made possible through the little money they earn selling wool or meat, and the availability of relatively inexpensive fuel (a gallon of regular fuel costs roughly four dollars).

That night, after feasting on authentic Mongolian barbecue, goat steamed outside in a pan of hot rocks and river water, seasoned with green onions, and the unusual treat of vegetables only because they were having a wedding the next day, we were the first to sleep in the newlywed's ger, We would be safe and warm, surrounded outside by livestock, and watched over by Mongolian dogs, ever alert to the threat of wolves.

At 4 a.m. Lisa peaked through the covers to see the groom's mother helping him dress in his finest peacock blue and silver deel (Mongolian national multi-purpose head-to-foot foot outer garment). He and his wedding party would travel at least three hours each way that day to fetch his bride from a neighboring valley.

Monday morning we awoke to a blanket of snow covering the ground.

The night spent with rural herders was the highlight of the trip, a life-changing experience we will always cherish. The remainder of our week in Arkhangai province would be beautiful and productive, but different. We would stay at tourist ger camps closer to town, still a rugged outdoor experience, but one lacking the intimacy of being part of a herder family. We stayed two nights in a national park, climbed an extinct volcano, explored a couple of caves, and swam in a frigid mountain lake (Tsagaan Nuur, or white lake). At the park we met a local felt-producer in a ger and happily purchased some of her expertly handmade artisan felt work. She said she needs a drum-carder to comb the fibers of wool for the felting process.

Lisa also spoke to two groups of men and women entrepreneurs, and showed samples of her handmade felt during our 10 days in the countryside. She was very flattered by the excitement and interest the business people and felters showed in her work and the techniques she used.
size: 10pt;"Enkhtuya introduced us to local government leaders who were very interested in what Lisa made and were grateful we were there to share our experiences running a small business. One town council president said how pleased he was with our visit and asked us to come back to train his people. Enkhtuya commented on how helpful our visit has been, showed us an office we can use, and asked us to come back next year to do more training.

In Tusgalt soum (town, also means temple or church), we met a family operating a small felt-making business. They make felt ger coverings to sell to local herders, but their wool-carding machinery was very old, had broken down and could not be repaired. That effectively put them out of business (felt making provides seasonal work for three people). They need a new large carding machine. They showed us the table where they lay out the wool, similar in size to our own tables in our 1,200 sq. ft. Artful Gifts studio in Monterey, and the large wooden drum roller in which they roll the six ft. wide, three-inch thick wet felt, which accomplishes the same purpose as the rolling machine that first brought Lisa to the attention of the Mongolians. (The wool shrinks roughly 40 percent when it is rolled.) They work from May through September, taking days off only if it rains. They get 30,000 Turik (a little more than  $20) per panel and make 10 panels a day. They are paid a fixed rate per panel of 1,600 Turik. That's $10 a day per person. They will lose at least 37 days of income this year because of the broken machinery, with no solution for replacement in sight.

On the way to an overnight stay at a hot spring we stopped in Tsenker soum where Lisa gave her second group presentation. In this group, we met two felters,12 and 13 years old, who were studiously attentive in the business workshop. These two young women are part of a felt-making group consisting of five families. Inaddition to felters and herders, there was a baker, a hairdresser, a mini-market operator, and a vegetable grower and food-storage business owner.
>It was a real pleasure to swim in the 78 degree Fahrenheit water at the hot spring that night. The ger camp also had hot water and real toilets for us to use. At the camp, Lisa met an artisan selling her handmade felt clothing, jewelry and decorations and made some more purchases of her fine-quality felted handcrafts. She is a member of a felt cooperative.

Sunday was our last day in the rural countryside and we spent it at the 12th century capital of Mongolia, Kharokorum, which is in the adjoining province of Uverkhangai. The capital burned down centuries ago, and a Buddhist temple was built in the ruins. Today stands not only an active Buddhist monastery, but also several 17th century buildings open to the public housing ornate and enormous statues of the various manifestations of Buddha.

That night through heavy rain and lightning we made our way back to Ulaanbaatar.

We are staying at a small hostel called Gobi 2, a few blocks from Peace Avenue and the State Department Store, a huge multi-level shopping center in private hands since the 1990s.

We have another week to spend in the city before coming home and many interesting people to meet and sights to see, but nothing will ever compare with the wonders we saw and the warm and loving herders, artists and small-business operators  we got to know in Arkhangai province.

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