Can Felt­mak­ing Help Save Mon­go­lia’s Snow Leop­ards?

Wild Fibers - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Sharon Costello

I nter­na­tion­ally renowned f elt­maker Sharon Costello trav­els to the Gobi Deser t with Snow Leop­ard Trust help­ing Mon­gol i a n women cre­ate f elted prod­ucts. But wait, aren’t the Mon­gol i a n s

sup­pos­edly the ex­per t s ?

My first ques­tion for Gina Robert­son, prod­uct devel­op­ment and sales co­or­di­na­tor for the Snow Leop­ard Trust (SLT), was this: “What can an Amer­i­can fel­ter pos­si­bly teach a Mon­go­lian shep­herdess about felt­mak­ing?” I have al­ways re­garded Mon­go­lia as the felt­maker’s mecca, the place where it all be­gan more than 4000 years ago. A place where there are far more sheep than peo­ple, where the no­madic pop­u­la­tion still live in felt houses ( gers) and where, I as­sumed, ev­ery­one was born know­ing how to ride a horse and make felt.

I was wrong. Al­most seventy years of Soviet dom­i­na­tion and im­posed col­lec­tivism have all but dev­as­tated tra­di­tional fiber crafts. The no­madic way of life, which has been the heart­beat of Mon­go­lian peo­ple for cen­turies, has been sim­i­larly shat­tered. Ap­prox­i­mately 50 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion has per­ma­nently re­lo­cated to cities; the re­main­der still try to make their liv­ing on the steppe with their herds of sheep, cash­mere goats, cat­tle, camels, yaks and horses. Gina said it was the no­madic herdswomen in the re­mote north­west corner of the coun­try who wanted my help.

My next ques­tion: “What could felt­mak­ing pos­si­bly have to do with snow leop­ards?”

As Gina ex­plained the SLT’s projects and strate­gies, I be­gan to un­der­stand how my role as a pro­fes­sional ofes­sional fel­ter and de­signer igner fit in. Gina a needed some­one one to work with ith the herdswomen to help de­sign and pro­duce prod­ucts ap­pro­pri­ate for the Amer­i­can mar­ket. These prod­ucts are then sold through SLT as part of a multi-tiered ap­proach to sav­ing the snow leop­ard.

At pre­sent, the en­dan­gered snow leop­ard is threat­ened by poach­ing and habi­tat re­duc­tion. As herders have ex­panded their flocks to gen­er­ate more in­come, they have ex­panded their an­i­mals’ graz­ing area, thus en­croach­ing on the snow leop­ards’ back­yard. What was once a vast “buf­fer” zone be­tween the two has been nearly squeezed out of ex­is­tence.

SLT has suc­cess­fully im­ple­mented eco­nomic devel­op­ment pro­grams, lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion, re­search and a live­stock in­surance plan to help re­duce pres­sure on herders to ex­pand their flocks. The abil­ity to take one of the most an­cient no­madic skills and mod­ify it for mod­ern times was at the heart of sav­ing the herders’ habi­tat as well as the snow leop­ards.

It took nearly six months of Skype dis­cus­sions be­tween me in New York, Gina at SLT in Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton, and the project co­or­di­na­tor in Ulaan­baatar (the cap­i­tal of Mon­go­lia) to de­velop the work­shop. Even when our In­ter­net con­nec­tions worked per­fectly, co­or­di­nat­ing time zones meant that in­evitably some­one ei­ther had to stay up very late or get up very early.

As we dis­cussed pre­lim­i­nary de­sign ideas, train­ing needs and long-term goals, one of the big­gest chal­lenges was fig­ur­ing out how to bring six dif­fer­ent no­madic com­mu­ni­ties to a sin­gle lo­ca­tion in a re­gion where dis­tances are vast and trans­porta­tion doesn’t al­ways run on gas.

Unurzul, prod­uct co­or­di­na­tor for the Snow Leop­ard Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion (SLCF)—an af­fil­i­ate of the Snow Leop­ard Trust in Mon­go­lia—was un­daunted by the task and in­valu­able in bring­ing ev­ery­one to­gether.

Fi­nally, dates were set, de­signs se­lected, and plane tick­ets pur­chased. My hus­band, John Ar­righi (who served as of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­pher), and I left on Ju­ly15th with plans to add some pri­vate travel at ei­ther end of the project so we could see more of Mon­go­lia’s in­fi­nite land­scape. We flew non-stop from New York to Bei­jing and then had an easy con­nec­tion to Ulan Ba­tor (UB). It was a pleas­antly un­event­ful 19-hour jour­ney.

My first hint of what was to come oc­curred dur­ing our taxi drive from the air­port to our ho­tel. Less than a mile from the air­port exit the pave­ment dis­ap­peared, and we were vi­o­lently bump­ing along a rut­ted path that served as the main road into the cap­i­tal city.

No street lights. No street signs. In fact, no street, and then sud­denly we were in the heart of UB: a patch­work of old and new Mon­go­lia. Tra­di­tional gers stood next to crum­bling Soviet-style apart­ment houses, still caked with decades of coal-in­fused soot and pol­lu­tion. Soar­ing glass­faced sky­scrapers over­looked an­cient Bud­dhist monas­ter­ies, as wary pedes­tri­ans nav­i­gated through bumper-to­bumper traf­fic—no horses al­lowed.

Our ho­tel was sur­pris­ingly mod­ern, but the el­e­va­tor didn’t work and nei­ther did the hot wa­ter.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing I was anx­ious to ex­plore the city. It’s not dif­fi­cult to find your way around, but walk­ing can be fa­tal. Driv­ers don’t slow down for pedes­tri­ans, who must be on con­stant alert—steal­ing man­hole cov­ers to sell for scrap is a pop­u­lar petty crime.

De­spite the mot­tled pave­ment and the ab­sence of ba­sic sig­nage, UB is a bustling cos­mopoli­tan city that is grow­ing fre­net­i­cally. Con­struc­tion cranes are ev­ery­where. John and I went to the enor­mous State Depart­ment Store (an­other Soviet-era car­ry­over), which sells ev­ery­thing from mod­ern cloth­ing to tourist sou­venirs. The new govern­ment cen­ter, the fo­cal point of the main city square, pays homage to Ching­gus Khan and his sons, the larger-than-life his­toric fig­ures who have been re­dis­cov­ered (and rein­vented) since the end of Soviet dom­i­na­tion in 1990. Not sur­pris­ingly, our first tourist stop out­side the city was to a huge steel sculp­ture, Khan on Horse­back (Mon­go­lia’s an­swer to Mount Rush­more).

In the midst of mush­room­ing moder­nity, we hap­pened upon a tiny Shaman­ist cen­ter, a rem­nant of an­cient na­ture wor­ship that has been in­te­grated with Ti­betan Bud­dhism in every­day prac­tice. We also vis­ited the Gan­dan Monastery, a

ma­jor cen­ter of Mon­go­lian Bud­dhism that had been largely de­stroyed dur­ing the Com­mu­nist purges of the 1930s.

Want­ing to hear some tra­di­tional mu­sic, we headed away from these at­trac­tions to find a rec­om­mended the­ater.

Af­ter walk­ing sev­eral min­utes, we sus­pected we had taken a wrong turn as we en­tered what looked like an aban­doned 1950s amuse­ment park. John and I cau­tiously walked around the build­ing sev­eral times, but there didn’t seem to be a main en­trance. Even­tu­ally, we found a way in­side and soon were treated to an ex­tra­or­di­nary show of throat singing (hoomii), horse­head fid­dle ( morin khuur) play­ing and other tra­di­tional mu­sic. Re­gard­less of whether a song is cen­turies old or a re­cent ad­di­tion to pop cul­ture, Mon­go­lians sing about their horses. Tales of ro­man­tic ad­ven­ture and bro­ken hearts are a dis­tant sec­ond—an in­di­ca­tion of what they think about a man’s pri­or­i­ties.

The mu­si­cal ex­trav­a­ganza con­cluded with a con­tor­tion­ist act, an­other Mon­go­lian spe­cialty—and quite a spec­ta­cle at that. As John and I walked back to our ho­tel we felt well-re­warded for hav­ing strayed off the beaten path.

John and I had ar­ranged to fly to cen­tral Mon­go­lia for a few more days of tour­ing be­fore we needed to be back in UB to meet with the SLT staff and train­ers. The team would then fly to­gether to Ulaan­gom, cap­i­tal of Uvs Prov­ince in west­ern Mon­go­lia, less than a hun­dred miles from the Rus­sian bor­der.

As with many as­pects of this trip, I had to learn to go with the flow. Our flight to Ulaan­gom was can­celled, forc­ing the en­tire group to de­part two days ahead of sched­ule. (There are only two flights a week to Ulaan­gom.) Once we man­aged to get the en­tire train­ing staff and sup­port team, plus all of our be­long­ings in­clud­ing fiber and felt­ing sup­plies ac­tu­ally on the plane, it was quite a pleas­ant jour­ney.

The ae­rial views were mag­nif­i­cent: the vast steppe, miles and miles of moun­tain range, huge turquoise blue lakes and only the oc­ca­sional sign of hu­man set­tle­ment in the form of tiny white dots: our bird’s eye view of the ger en­camp­ments.

As pre­vi­ously noted, road travel in Mon­go­lia is an­other story: It took two hours of rough driv­ing (and a flat tire) to get from the re­gional air­port to our train­ing site. It re­mains a mys­tery to me how any­one finds their way in Mon­go­lia, as we could not have trav­eled out of UB with­out an ex­pe­ri­enced lo­cal driver. There is not a road sign (or, for that mat­ter, a de­fin­i­tive road) to lead you to a des­ti­na­tion, but I sup­pose a great sense of di­rec­tion goes along with grow­ing up on the steppe. Per­haps it’s ge­net­i­cally en­coded!

Along the way we passed many im­promptu mon­u­ments called Ovoos: Part Bud­dhist and part Shaman­ist, they des­ig­nate sa­cred places in na­ture. Piles of rocks with a tall post in the cen­ter are adorned with mul­ti­ple blue scarves (the sym­bol of the eter­nal heav­ens). Visi­tors stop and leave var­i­ous to­kens, most of­ten stones, but also old tires, crutches, money, cig­a­rettes, and empty vodka bot­tles. They cir­cle the mound three times clock­wise and wish for health and hap­pi­ness—a form of prayer much in keep­ing with their rev­er­ence for na­ture.

Given that roads through­out most of the coun­try are like rough cow paths, the ve­hi­cle of choice seems to be an old­style Rus­sian van that makes up in sim­plic­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity what it lacks in ba­sic crea­ture com­fort. In­deed, crea­ture comforts would be lack­ing for most of the trip.

Given that roads through­out most of the coun­try are like rough cow paths, the ve­hi­cle of choice seems to be an old-style Rus­sian van that makes up in sim­plic­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity what it lacks in

ba­sic crea­ture com­fort.

When we ar­rived at the train­ing site, which strongly re­sem­bled an old Soviet-era Pi­o­neer Camp, we dis­cov­ered there was no run­ning wa­ter—just a creek about a quar­ter-mile down the hill. There was no elec­tric­ity apart from a gen­er­a­tor that ran for a few hours each night. Nor were there bath­rooms—at least none you would want to use. I be­came an ex­pert in bathing out of a bag­gie.

But af­ter a day or two, none of this seemed to mat­ter. We learned to work with (and be grate­ful for) what we had. The camp was high in the moun­tains, and in the dis­tance we could see the Rus­sian bor­der just be­yond Lake Uvs. Each day a lo­cal boy would bring his goats and cat­tle to graze in the camp. The goats were es­pe­cially fond of com­ing into our class­room to see what we were up to. The trees were full of black-eared kites scav­eng­ing for any food scraps they could find. A lo­cal dog did the same. The lo­cals con­sid­ered the kites pests, but as the birds were new to me I en­joyed watch­ing them soar on the moun­tain ther­mals. Soon we be­gan throw­ing bread scraps into the air and watch­ing them swoop down to catch them mid­flight.

The set­ting was al­most over­whelm­ingly pic­turesque. It re­minded me in some ways of the Swiss Alps: snow on the moun­tain­tops above, a rush­ing stream be­low, and pine forests and alpine mead­ows all around. Yet I was com­pletely un­pre­pared for the amount of garbage and dis­re­pair that tar­nished an oth­er­wise idyl­lic venue. Ev­ery­where around the com­pound there was bro­ken glass, plas­tic bags and empty soda and vodka bot­tles: the non-degrad­able byprod­ucts of a mod­ern society su­per­im­posed on a no­madic land­scape that has no in­fra­struc­ture to deal with them. It was heart­break­ing to see young chil­dren run­ning bare­foot through the trash, and I was glad my te­tanus shot was up to date.

For the du­ra­tion of our stay at this sim­ple out­post, we were of­fered a never-end­ing as­sort­ment of milk tea, cheese curd, hearty soups and dumplings from the ger kitchen next to our lodge. The creek served as a re­frig­er­a­tor and dou­bled nicely as a cooler for our stash of beer and vodka, which we drank at night while play­ing Farkle, a sim­ple dice game that helped us over­come lan­guage bar­ri­ers and so­lid­ify new friend­ships.

The Amer­i­can team in­cluded Jen­nifer Snell Rull­man from SLT and Terry Blumer, a mar­ket­ing ex­pert from Wood­side Zoo in Seat­tle, in ad­di­tion to John, Gina and me. Our six Mon­go­lian coun­ter­parts were two rep­re­sen­ta­tives from SLCF, Unurzul and Naran­gerel, two women from the Wool Craft Train­ing Cen­ter, Nasan­jar­gal and Tsend-Ayush, Bat­saikhan from the Mon­go­lian Univer­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy, and Nyam­bayer, our trans­la­tor. (Sin­gle names are com­mon in Mon­go­lia as full names are typ­i­cally quite long.)

We spent three days eat­ing, drink­ing, fi­nal­iz­ing the work­shop pro­gram, and in­struct­ing the oth­ers how to nee­dle felt.

Then the herdswomen ar­rived. All thirty-six of them were crammed into two Rus­sian vans, plus all of their sup­plies. We had planned for about forty-five women, but at the last minute one group was quar­an­tined as a re­sult of an an­i­mal dis­ease out­break. The re­main­ing women were di­vided into four groups fo­cus­ing on spe­cific prod­ucts: nest­ing bowls, slip­pers, pet toys and small pet rugs. Each par­tic­i­pant would re­ceive train­ing on sort­ing, grad­ing and prep­ping wool for ba­sic felt­ing tech­niques. For­tu­nately, they all had ac­cess to drum carders for pro­cess­ing as the re­sult of a mi­cro-loan pro­gram of­fered through the SLT.

I couldn’t have done my job with­out the help of the Mon­go­lian train­ers. They were able to trans­late the new de­signs in a man­ner that made sense to the herdswomen, given their ex­ist­ing knowl­edge about wool qual­ity and felt­ing skills. I am cer­tain the train­ers’ pa­tience and ex­per­tise helped us to avoid many po­ten­tial pit­falls.

Although we were all work­ing hard, there was plenty of laugh­ter to soften the cul­tural bar­ri­ers. One woman, San­durin, pro­vided a stream of good-hu­mored an­tics and play­ful clowning while ef­fort­lessly mas­ter­ing the most dif­fi­cult felt­ing tech­niques. Many morn­ings the two of us would walk arm in arm to the work­shops, just smiling and laugh­ing to­gether.

Sain­bi­leg, who had per­haps the long­est-stand­ing rela- tion­ship with SLT, clearly had the re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion of the other women, suc­cess­fully con­vinc­ing the younger gen­er­a­tion of the benefits of the SLT pro­gram. One younger group mem­ber ar­rived with her baby, de­ter­mined to learn all she could. The other women took turns mind­ing the baby so she could ben­e­fit from all the train­ing.

Orig­i­nally, we had planned to train only one group in each main prod­uct, but it soon be­came clear they all wanted to learn ev­ery tech­nique we of­fered. Soon they were teach­ing each other, work­ing at night as long as the light held out and wash­ing more and more wool in the stream for the next day’s projects.

In a cul­ture where dis­pos­able in­come is min­i­mal at best, it took some thought­ful ex­pla­na­tion to con­vince the women that Amer­i­cans re­ally would pay a good price for prod­ucts de­signed for their cats and dogs. It also took some time to per­suade them that bird or­na­ments did not have to be brown and white de­spite what they ob­served in na­ture. It was great hav­ing Terry at the ready as our U.S. mar­ket­ing ex­pert, ex­plain­ing the na­ture of pet mar­kets and the use of color.

While we strug­gled with the lan­guage bar­rier, the herdswomen never let it get in the way. One evening as I was pass­ing one of the bed­rooms, I was pulled in to join an im­promptu party. Soon, this tiny room—about 10 feet by

20 feet—was crammed with thirty peo­ple. Ev­ery­one brought out their stash of snacks and bev­er­ages to share, and be­fore long the herdswomen were mak­ing toasts and singing songs, and more songs and more songs.

De­spite be­ing in the mecca of felt­ing, I was able to in­tro­duce sev­eral new tech­niques to the group, in­clud­ing nee­dle felt­ing, which they used to ap­ply de­signs on the sur­face of their felted items. Tsend-Asush showed me a book about nee­dle felt­ing that had just come out in Mon­go­lian and, as I skimmed through it, I was sur­prised to see my own projects and in­struc­tions in the “how-to” pho­tos chap­ter! Ap­par­ently, copy­right stan­dards are a bit lax in Mon­go­lia.

In the five days we had to­gether, we made tremen­dous progress: seven new prod­uct de­signs im­ple­mented, many new tech­niques learned, ba­sic felt­ing skills im­proved and prob­lems re­lated to prod­uct con­sis­tency, pricing and dis­tri­bu­tion re­solved with SLT staff. I left the women with gifts of felt­ing nee­dles and small to­kens for their chil­dren. I re­ally be­gan to un­der­stand how lit­tle they had when I of­fered up my old felt­ing tow­els that I did not want to take home and al­most caused a stam­pede.

To cel­e­brate our suc­cess, the train­ing team set off on yet an­other non-ex­is­tent road to spend a day at the beach on Lake Uvs, one of Mon­go­lia’s “great lakes.” Shal­low and salty, the lake is a fa­vorite for out­ings. We parked next to a large fam­ily, whose grandma was cooking up a big pot of noo­dles over an open fire. We marked our ar­rival with what we were told was “the tra­di­tional bless­ing of the lake:” sprin­kling a bit of vodka in the wa­ter, mak­ing a wish, and then pass­ing out the glasses to con­sume the rest of the bot­tle. Well-warmed, we took the plunge but found we had to wade out about a quar­ter-mile be­fore we reached wa­ter deep enough to ac­tu­ally swim. When it was time to leave, it was no small effort to pry our driver away from the bowl of hot noo­dles and vodka he was shar­ing with our neigh­bors.

My hus­band and I had so many mem­o­rable ad­ven­tures trav­el­ing around cen­tral and southern Mon­go­lia as tourists: riding camels in the Gobi, spot­ting ibex in the

moun­tains, stay­ing in re­mote ger camps, watch­ing im­promptu lo­cal horse races, and shar­ing swigs of ku­mis (the na­tional drink of fer­mented mare’s milk—an ac­quired taste!) with a lo­cal fam­ily.

Our eyes were daz­zled by the in­fi­nite beauty of the land­scape, the sur­prise dis­play of hot air balloons fly­ing over the Flam­ing Cliffs at sun­set, the rip­ple of light and shadow on the dunes of the Gobi, and rain­storms trav­el­ing across the end­less green steppe. John and I were equally struck by the rev­er­ence for na­ture demon­strated by the way a no­madic woman had put up a tiny ham­mock to pro­tect a bird that had cho­sen to make a nest in­side her ger—and by men so con­nected to their horses that they seemed to merge as one as they rode.

We pon­dered the con­flict­ing choices faced by the next gen­er­a­tion of no­madic chil­dren as we talked with a young boy who, like other stu­dents, now at­tends board­ing school in the city for most of the year.

From our first bumpy ride un­til our last, John and I were en­rap­tured by Mon­go­lia. But our time work­ing with SLT and the ex­tra­or­di­nary herdswomen made the deep­est im­pres­sion of all. Felt­ing was the com­mon lan­guage, al­low­ing me to mo­men­tar­ily share an ex­pe­ri­ence and pas­sion with women whose lives are so vastly dif­fer­ent from my own. Although I had been hired to share my skills, I walked away hav­ing learned so much more. Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing un­re­strained gen­eros­ity from those with lit­tle ma­te­rial wealth and shar­ing in the laugh­ter and joy amidst lives of great phys­i­cal hard­ship—un­der­scored

wF by a deep con­nec­tion to the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, are the last­ing lessons of Mon­go­lia.


Mon­go­lian coun­try­side with plenty of sheep, goats, and gers. Photo cour­tesy of Snow Leop­ard Trust.

Unurzul (Unu­ruu), Gina Robert­son, Nasan­jar­gal (Nasa), Naran­gerel (Nara), Tsend-Ayush (Aya), Jen­nifer Snell Rull­man, Terry Blumer, Sharon Costello. Photo by John Ar­righi.

Mon­go­lian shep­herdess work­ing in the field. Photo by Teri Akin.

Left: Women creat­ing new de­signs and learn­ing tech­niques at the felt­ing work­shop. Pho­tos by John Ar­righi.

Moun­tain re­sort where the felt­ing work­shop was con­ducted. Photo by John Ar­righi.

Felted Mon­go­lian hand­i­crafts from the work­shop. Photo by Unu­ruu.

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