Text Size

In search of felt-making roots: our journey to Mongolia

By James Jacenich

ULAANBAATAR - The sheep and goats stirred from their slumber in the middle of a snow-covered pasture. The sky to the east turned deep blue as the star-speckled night faded into sunrise. Deep in the Khangai Mountains of Mongolia, Lisa and I awoke to the sound of a goat nibbling on our temporary residence, a newly constructed woolen house.

Between us and the paved runway of Ghengis Khan Airport near the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, were three days and three hundred mile of rough roads and breathtaking vistas. Paved roads quickly gave way to potholes, gravel and endless parallel ribbons of wheel ruts in the sandy soil of the high desert plains. We left behind plumbing and potable water, fast food restaurants and billboards. We found a family who welcomed us with open arms, gave us food to eat and milk to drink, and a place to sleep.

Lisa and I were honored guests who had arrived in camp the night before a wedding. We slept in the soon-to-be newlyweds’ ger (Khalka for woolen tent dwelling), feasted on fresh goat cheese and fermented mare’s milk, and devoured Mongolian barbecue (more goat, this time steamed). The next day we would leave camp, after many fond farewells and gift exchanges, and the sprinkling of mare’s milk vodka in the air behind us for good luck, to maneuver eight hours through a maze of rocky mountain valleys and across rain-swollen rivers to our destination, the provincial capital, Buyant.

Mongolia is a nation on the move. It is one of the last nomadic countries in the world. It is also a nation of rapid economic growth and the changes that brings. In the three weeks we spent in Mongolia, half of our time was in the countryside, and half in Ulaanbaatar where 1.2 million of the nation of three million live. We saw extremes of wealth and poverty, hope and despair, unyielding tradition and unstoppable change.

We arrived in Mongolia on Thursday, Aug. 17, after 24 hours of flying and a brief layover and change of airlines in Beijing. We went to Mongolia to help rural women set up small felt-making businesses. During this trip we would assess the need for products and services. Initially, our plan was to set up at least five felt studios employing up to 25 people. Those plans changed when the Mongolian government decided not to finance the acquisition of American-made felt-making equipment.

Our Mongolian National Business Incubator Federation contact and travel companion in Mongolia, MNBIF vice president Tsend Enkhtuya, had proposed the purchase of studio-sized felt carding and rolling machinery, plus money to have us conduct training on the new equipment. Lisa had been working with her on the project for at least a year before we made the trip. We had hoped to at least get travel money for Lisa to lay the groundwork to set up the studio businesses. Enkhtuya helped us with some lodging, food and travel arrangements in Mongolia, but the rest was left to us to figure out. We had raised enough money on our own through private donations, Kickstarter.com, and our own savings to go to Mongolia for three weeks.

We arrived at midnight, noon Eastern Daylight Savings Time, at Genghis Khan International Airport. Enkhtuya met us and dropped us off at a hostel. We stayed two nights at the Lotus Guesthouse, an apartment in a 1950s Soviet-era housing complex. The walls were thin as paper and the bed stiff as a board. We shared a single shower and two toilets with a dozen mostly 20-somethings from Israel and Europe. Outside, the rain gently drizzled. Coincidentally, we chose to visit normally dry Mongolia during its rainy season.

With very little sleep and much anticipation, our first visit in Ulaanbaatar was at noon with the chairman of the Mongolian Sheep and Wool Association, Ganbat Berenbaral. We met him in his office above the felt-making factory he managed. The machinery was silent this time of year, but our host had pictures and brochures of the products he manufactured, from ger covers and insulation to thin mattresses, and showed us around the production site. He told us felt handicraft was a small part of his business.

Saturday morning we packed our bags and loaded up a Toyota Land Rover owned by Enkhtuya’s son for the drive to Arkhangai aimag (province). In addition to us were Enkhtuya and her 22-year-old nephew and recent veterinary school graduate, and her 10-year-old niece. Her nephew drove. At the beginning of our journey, the road was wide, well-maintained and crowded. About an hour outside of the city we encountered massive potholes the size of a truck. The road narrowed from four lanes to two. Vehicles dodged potholes, livestock and each other along the busy highway.

Eventually, the road became totally impassible and we navigated one of the many dirt trails on our westward journey to Arkhangai. We stopped once for gas and once to eat at a roadside restaurant. We also stopped at an unusual sand dune formation, unusual because it was miles from the Gobi desert, and Lisa hopped a camel for a ride around the parking lot. We didn’t need a translator to understand that the young boys managing the camels wanted us to pick theirs over their companions’ camels, and that they expected a certain reasonable payment for the joy ride.

Enkhtuya dropped us off that night at a small hotel (ten rooms above a restaurant) in Buyant. At least the room we rented had a Western-style toilet and sink. We slept fitfully through the night to the sound of falling rain and the incessant barking of neighborhood dogs.

On Sunday our driver took us another eight hours across rocks, pastureland and rain-swollen rivers to visit a herding family in a remote valley of the Khangai mountains. It was August 19 and it was snowing.

We came to a small encampment of four gers.

Gers are small, round, tent-like structures with up to five beds, a stove, a small table and one or two small storage cabinets. One of the cabinets is for dishes, pots, pans, and other cooking and eating utensils. Food was stored in one of the other gers a few feet away. The herders had roughly 100 sheep, goats, horses, and yaks. We tasted mare’s milk tea that night, which is made of a lot of milk with a little tea and salt, and sampled some of the mild alcoholic beverage, mare’s milk vodka, or airag. We ate homemade cheese and later took part in the Mongolian barbecue of steamed goat. Ceremonially, several men offered us snuff from their prized stone snuff canisters, their right hand extended with the jar, their left hand supporting the right elbow.

Our hostess, Dulmaa, was a felt maker and had made the wool coverings for her son’s ger. We learned that not everyone makes their own felt. Ger coverings are manufactured in the town or city. While Mongolia was communist (from 1923-1992), wool was sent to factories for processing, thus ending most of the family production of this housing material. Though communist rule ended 20 years ago, modern industrial-style processing of wool remains. With democracy and a free-market economy, many people are looking for ways to make money. Some want to revive Mongolia’s ancient felt arts, but they face many challenges.

During our weeklong visit to Arkhangai aimag, we visited a small felt-making business that needs a carding machine to replace one that was no longer serviceable, but lacks the money to buy one. Without it, their business has ground to a halt. A provincial felt maker needs a hand operated drum carder to make processing the wool for felting more efficient and easier.

We slept on the ground that night of the snow in the new ger. At 4 a.m. Lisa awoke to a single light bulb burning in the ger and saw the mother of the groom helping her son get dressed in his finest dheel, or traditional all-purpose robe. He would travel many hours that day to pick up his bride from a distant ger camp. The light was provided by a battery charged by the ger family’s solar panel. Solar panels were a promise fulfilled and supported by the government, in exchange for support during an election.

That morning Lisa watched as two of the men of the family butchered a goat for the wedding feast. The herders make use of almost every part of their animals. The women took over the task of preparing the goat to eat. Dulmaa deftly tied up an intestine she couldn’t process that day to be sent to a neighboring ger camp for that family to process as sausage. The rest ended up in her cooking pot.

The herder family used firewood for their cooking and heat, though the guidebooks spoke of herders using dried dung. During winter, the family would switch to coal.

The family had moved five times so far this year and had one more move, a trip further up the valley to winter camp. We learned that herders typically migrate within a forty-mile radius, pulling up stakes when grass became scarce or the weather became intolerable.

Mongolia is known as “Blue Sky Country.” There is very little rain and few cloudy days, making solar power a practical solution for the nomadic herder. Our family had a solar panel charging a 12-volt battery. It provided enough power to run a light bulb. In another camp, we would see a small battery-powered freezer, and in a third camp a television set.

Cell-phones are everywhere, even in the ger camps. Cell-phones didn’t work at Dulmaa’s remote location far up a mountain valley, but a few days later we would be on top of an extinct volcano in a national park amidst happy tourists talking on their cell phones. Enkhtuya explained that the Japanese brought cell-phone towers to Mongolia and placed them all over the country.

We left Dulmaa’s ger camp before the wedding party returned. We had lost a day on our schedule because the camp was much further away from the main settlement than we expected. By the time we left, the fresh snow that covered the ground was melting and the clouds began to clear. But a strong wind took its place.

The days ahead would be nothing like that magical night spent with our herder family in the remote mountain valley. “I could have stayed there the rest of my life,” Lisa says.

We went back to the Buyant and Lisa participated in a training exercise with a class of 20 local business entrepreneurs at the local government headquarter, one of several demonstrations she would give during our stay in Mongolia. She showed them her handmade felted clothing and accessories. The Mongolians praised her work for its varied colors and the thinness of the material. Mongolian felt is typically a half-inch thick or more and has a natural wool color. The Mongolians seemed eager to learn new techniques and methods of felt-production, but we would learn that finding a suitable market for handmade felted items would be difficult. There was a small tourist trade employing perhaps 200 people nationally, we were told. Finding a way to increase the value of their products and finding markets outside the country were high on the list of things the Mongolians wanted to do. But so was building roads and sewers, and providing basic health care for the country’s citizens, and getting a fair share of the riches being mined in the Gobi desert by foreign investors and speculators.

We saw simple wood and brick buildings in various stages of disrepair. Crews were painting tin roofs red or blue. Wherever we went, people were busy, working on vehicles, tending livestock, cooking, painting, building, selling and buying. Every town had a number of small stores selling a few essentials, such as toiletries, water, canned goods, and ice cream and candy. Candy is a luxury offered to guests upon arrival at a rural home, in addition to cheese and hot mare’s milk tea.

We spent two nights at a national park in Arkhangai province. The park had several small tourist ger camps consisting of 10-20 gers lined up side by side. We stayed at one close to Tsagaan Nuur, or White Lake. There was no running water at the camp, however, and electricity came from a camp generator operated for a few hours every night.

We met a small felt-producer just before she packed up her ger felt shop for the winter and bought a few of her handmade items.

In our travels in central Mongolia, we noticed piles of rocks covered in strips of blue cloth. Our driver reverentially honked his horn three times as we passed the rock piles, called ovoos in Mongolian. We were told these were sacred places. People often stop at the ovoos to pray, and leave an offering of money or alcohol, throwing a stone on the pile as they walk three times around it.

Few people spoke English, fewer still spoke it well. We spoke no Mongolian. Enkhtuya tried to fill us in on what was happening, but most of the time we were on our own.

We spent the next Saturday night at a hot spring and took in the waters in a small cement pool. The tourist ger camp we stayed at also had showers, hot water and modern toilets and plumbing, though they were not in the ger, but centrally located in a modern bath house.

We met a felt artist at the hot springs selling her wares from her ger. She was part of a cooperative established in the last twenty years by Norwegian Lutheran missionaries to provide employment and income to rural women.

On our way back to Ulaanbaatar, we stopped in Karakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia. The capital was destroyed centuries ago and a Buddhist monastery built in its place. We took a tour of the temple and the historical treasures they held. We also learned that during the political and social purges of the 1930s, many Buddhist monks were killed or imprisoned.

During our last week in Ulaanbaatar, we visited felt stores and the executive director of the Wool Craft Support Center, Tsend-Ayush Tseleejav. In the city, most of the felted items were of a tourist nature, small felted camels, sheep and goats, a miniature felted ger, felted hats and house slippers. Felted clothing was in very few stores. One store, however, stood out for its inventory and quality of felted clothing., Tsagaan Alt, or White Gold, sold dresses, vests, scarves and even had a dheel made of felt. The store, affiliated with the Wool Craft Support Center, was started by a Norwegian Lutheran group of missionaries in 2004.

We visited Mary and Martha’s hand crafted gifts in Ulaanbaatar, a Fair Trade store specializing in handmade felted items from the westernmost Khazakh region of Mongolia. There were slippers and cell-phone holders and purses and tapestries.

Ulaanbaatar, or UB as the locals sometimes call it, is a city of many contrasts. In the center of town are modern government buildings, hotels, and high rises. We went to several department stores, chief among them the State Department Store, which had multiple levels and a huge variety of consumer goods.

Cashmere sweaters cost from $100-$200 each. A cashmere blanket sold for $300. We were told many herders have increased their goat herds to take advantage of the premium placed on cashmere.

Near the end of our stay in Mongolia, we noticed a sudden rush to buy flowers at local florists. We asked and were told that the first of September is a day Mongolians celebrate school teachers. Parents buy flowers for their children to give to their teachers. On Sept. 1, the children dress in their finest outfits and go to school. It’s not the first day of class, but a day of teacher appreciation.

On our last night in UB, we dined with L. Batchuluun, a retired art historian, professor and author of “Felt Art of the Mongols.” He closely examined Lisa’s felted jackets and scarves, praising the blend of colors, the skill of workmanship, and the modern design of the clothing and accessories. He asked her to “come back and teach us how to do this.”

The MNBIF also asked Lisa to come back to teach Western-style felt making to business entrepreneurs in the provinces. Enkhtuya is planning next year’s project. Ayush of the Wool Craft Support Center also asked Lisa to come back to teach. An Australian youth ambassador and videographer working with the National Museum of Mongolia also wants to set up a teaching program at the museum with Lisa focusing on felt making.

Our few weeks in Mongolia taught us that while traditions are honored, innovation is essential to remain competitive in a global marketplace. The Mongolians we met want to be a part of this modern, global marketplace. Money is not always available for the arts, and many of the people we met don’t have the means to buy equipment or start a new business. There’s a need for assistance, financially and technically, for rural Mongolian women in particular, for they are the most disadvantaged when it comes to access to money, education, and opportunity. Our basic mission to Mongolia remains unchanged. We want to help rural women establish profitable felt-making businesses.

We are holding an open house at our home on Clover Lane in The Meadows of Monterey on Wednesday, Oct. 24 from 4-7 p.m. We will show pictures of our trip to Mongolia and display felted items we purchased there. The event will be catered by Deborah Lambert. We are still seeking donations to help offset the cost of our venture to Mongolia, though the event is free and open to the public and no donation is required.

Blog Archive