Bayan-Olgii is Mongolia’s westernmost province, an isolated and mountainous region where most people speak Kazakh and feel as much allegiance to Kazakhstan as to Mongolia. The majority of the population is Muslim, instead of Tibetan Buddhist, and Bayan-Olgii is a stronghold of Kazakh culture, including the art of traditional Kazakh embroidery. I spent the last week in Olgii town, learning embroidery and staying with Ina and Kaderbek and their family. Ina is a master embroiderer– I got in touch with her through the owner of the first fair trade certified company in Mongolia.
One of Olgii’s mosques at sundown.
For some, embroidery business is booming. I visited the workshop of an embroidery company owned by Mr. Narbek, a local designer who employs 52 women to create bags, wall hangings, and other items. He exports 70% of the products to Kazakhstan, where demand for traditional products is high but few craftswomen remain who can produce the old designs. In Kazakhstan, the art of embroidery nearly disappeared with the Soviet crackdown on folk art, but it survived in Bayan-Olgii where most of the population lived as nomadic herders, their lives in the countryside far from Soviet influence. The recent influx of herding families moving to town seeking opportunity means there are plenty of women skilled at embroidery and looking for employment.
While I was chatting with him in his shop, a woman came in with a bag of old wall hangings to sell. She spread the masterpieces on the floor, and Mr. Narbek purchased three of the highest-quality wall hangings. He will resell them to tourists (marked up 5x the amount he paid), or cut them up to make recycled bags.
The woman had collected these old masterpieces from countryside gers. She probably brought a little cash income to herding families, but something about the sale of these wall hangings made me sad. (Which is also hypocritical, because I bought one in the Olgii market.)
The door to Kaderbek and Ina’s ger. Their living situation represents a blend of nomadic and urban life: they sleep and eat in this ger, which is decorated in the traditional style, but also have a permanent concrete building with a kitchen and a few more rooms.
Inside… what may now be my favorite room in the world. Every one of the wall hangings and cushion covers is hand-embroidered.
From my journal, July 21:
“Today has been quite the culinary adventure! For lunch we went to Ina’s sister’s house, where I found out that the whole family is gathered because of a memorial for the family patriarch, one of the town’s founders and a pioneer of democracy in Mongolia. A cousin also told me that Ina is famous for here embroidery in Bayan-Ulgii. Anyway, the memorial is the reason that so many relatives are in town– gathered from UB, Kazakhstan, and the countryside. Lunch was a big family affair which included… sheep’s head!
It was served on a big platter piled with other sheep parts including liver, intestines, legs, and mounds of fat. Those mounds filled me with great trepidation… One guy (I have not worked out people’s names or relations, really) carved each of us a small piece of face-meat to start (I was relieved not to get a chunk of lip, which was very recognizable as a lip). Then there came a flurry of carving. Luckily for me, the platter full of sheep quickly being cut into manageable-sized chunks stayed in the middle, so I could serve myself pieces of meat and artfully avoid the large chunks of fat that everyone else was slurping down with relish. Note 1: Eating in Mongolia involves a lot of slurping. Note 2: I have seen numerous people take spoonfuls of butter from the dish and lick it straight off the spoon. Low fat dieting is unheard of in Mongolia.
“The meat was delicious, tender and juicy. I tried a slice of liver, which was fine. After we demolished the sheep’s head and other parts, the leg bones were cracked in half and two lucky people got to slurp out the marrow. Then, our plates were cleared away and we each got a bowl of strongly flavored broth… except I’m pretty sure this broth was just the drippings from the sheep, which means I’m pretty sure I drank an entire bowl of melted sheep fat. Ahh, adventure.
“Next up (with a round of bowl-washing in between) we were each served up a bowl of fermented horse milk– airag! Finally I get to try this drink I’ve heard so much about! It was good- Ina served it, first lifting up a ladle’s worth and tipping the milk back into the pot. Cold, refreshing, bubbly, sour like yogurt but creamy. It was strange, but nice.
“And now- we just finished dinner, which was the best and greasiest buuz (meat dumplings) I’ve ever eaten. Homemade, nicely seasoned, you bite in and immediately have to start slurping to catch all the juices and keep them from dribbling all over you. Inevitably, a lot of that juice ended up on my plate, where it very quickly congealed and revealed its true nature: yup, more pure fat. AYY. I hope I don’t die of clogged arteries.”
The family gathered around the tea table in a relative’s ger.
My embroidery in progress:
After staying with Ina and Kaderbek and co. for a couple days, I ventured out into Altai Tavan Bogd National Park for a few days of camping and hiking. Getting into the park meant a seven-hour drive in a Russian van, crossing wooden bridges like this one:
On the way we stopped to check out this ancient stone marker.
And see the hunting eagles that are also famous in this region!! The actual hunting is done in the wintertime, when foxes and wolves are easier to spot.
Sagsai village– built with clay bricks and logs.
The park’s beautiful snow-capped mountains:
I stayed near a lakeshore, just below these two gers.
The weather was tempestuous and unpredictable, with persistent winds and clouds spilling quickly over the mountain ridgeline. (Luckily my new tent is awesome!) Rain in the marshy fields above the lake.
I went for a hike and made it to the top of the first ridge, but I didn’t attempt the high ridge because of hail. The view over the lake valley was pretty spectacular, but you can’t see much in my photos because of the hail.
Another yak, in sunshinier times.