Can Feltmaking Help Save Mongolia’s Snow Leopards?
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.