Category Archives: Mongolia

finale

“At each moment, in every instant, I am in search of myself,
I search the grasses, twisting around my fingers, and the clear tent of the sky. 
I gallop the untamed winds of my own wild steppe,
and sit with crossed legs upon the vagrant white clouds. 
…I exist in unnumbered places, I go everywhere,
wandering and withering away in my search for embodiment. 
I am formed in the stars’ different watches, 
and find myself in the world’s different people.”
-from “In Search of Myself,” G. Mend-Ooyo, Mongolian poet
 
To my faithful blog readers:

For now, I think this is the last entry in my online Watson journal. Thank you for following me across continents and through the ups and downs of the past year. It truly meant so much just to know that I had a network of interested friends listening from afar. Even though I’m finished with my year, I will always welcome questions or further interest in discussing any aspect of my experience— the organizations I worked with, the countries I went to, my challenges and triumphs, the Watson, and my thoughts on why crafts and women’s craft organizations are important. Feel free to contact me anytime. I’m still more than eager to have good conversations about these topics, with friends old and new.

The next step for me is moving back east at the beginning of October, where I will start a job with the Fair Trade Federation in Wilmington, DE. I’m so excited for this opportunity to extend the interests that fueled my Watson exploration in a new context. In some ways, this will be a return to familiarity, living in the same area where I went to college; in other ways, of course, I’m entering uncharted territory. I hope to remember the Watson spirit of constant adventure even as I start the 9-to-5.

Without further ado, here’s my final report.

Dear Watson Headquarters,

It’s strange and nice to be writing to you for the first time with a picture of you in my mind that’s based on actually encountering you in person. Having spoken face-to-face, however, doesn’t make it easier to sum up my experiences in this final Watson report. I often feel like I learned too many things last year and haven’t learned how to express them yet.

Maybe I can start with numbers: during the 365 days of my Watson journey, I traveled on 27 ½ flights (the midair u-turn and emergency landing fiasco in Ethiopia counts as half a flight), passing through 11 countries outside of the U.S. I enjoyed the hospitality of 20 homes where I slept on beds and couches and floors. I learned words in 10 languages: Spanish, K’iche, Arabic, Siwi, Luganda, Bahasa Indonesia, Javanese, Balinese, Mongolian and Kazakh. I went through 4 cameras and 4 journals. I got parasites/food poisoning 0 times (Triumph! I have the best stomach ever.) I spent $5,682.60 on plane tickets and will give $3,874 back unspent.

The world’s too small for walls.” -Berlin Wall graffiti

“People are just people/They shouldn’t make you nervous.” – Regina Spektor

In the past month I’ve been struggling to develop a pithy message that I can deliver to people who ask me how my year was. I don’t think that saying I discovered a new faith in humanity quite sums it up. It’s more like I discovered that I can connect meaningfully with people who are different from me in nearly every regard. Along with that recognition, which struck me over and over and delighted me each time, I let go of a fear of people that is all too often built into our understanding of the world and our place in it.

In summary

My Watson adventures started in Guatemala, where I first began to understand the enormous role that serendipity would play in my life this year. I stumbled across Oxlajuj B’atz’, an educational organization that embraced me as a member of their equipo, listening to my voice at staff meetings and incorporating my interests and skills into their education projects with Mayan women’s artisan groups. I spent time fighting to understand the shackles of dependency and fear– made worse by aid attempts– that hold women down in the blustery village of Xeabaj II. I found hope in the passion and buoyant resolve of my co-workers at OB. I loved the colors of Guatemalan textiles and the fierce pride and love that inspires women to wear huipiles that take months to make by hand.

In Egypt, I split my time between the chaos of the metropolis and the relative peace of the desert oases. I was overwhelmed by gratitude (and sometimes just overwhelmed) at being welcomed into homes in Siwa where I could interact with women in the indoor environments where they shed their full-body coverings and come into their own. I danced at weddings and joked in Siwi about embroidering my own wedding gown. I discovered, during the fledgling days of the revolution, a sense of solidarity with the Egyptian people that defined global citizenship for me in a new and exciting way. People most often ask about my experiences during the revolution, but the quieter moments made just as much of an impression on me: hiking to the top of windswept dunes, drinking tea, smoking hookah and reading at a cafe in Cairo, scuba-diving among the proliferation of underwater life in the Red Sea, or hunting for perfect basket-making palm fronds in the date gardens outside Siwa.

In Uganda, I studied baskets and barkcloth and natural dyes, enjoying the creation of crafts that are essentially harvested from the land. I delighted in the bold colors of Kampala and the feeling of my bare toes wriggling in the dark earth of the garden. I spent a lot of time riding minibus-taxis around the city and getting stuck in traffic jams. I danced and played ultimate and finished a triathlon and made amazing friends. I met with artists, activists, children, single mothers, businesspeople and academics, all of whom believed that crafts could be a key to their own empowerment and to solving Uganda’s development challenges.

Fair trade in the archipelago: Indonesia

World Fair Trade Day celebration in Bali

Helping out with Forum Fair Trade Indonesia’s project of documenting artisan stories allowed me to visit batik artists and plant-fiber weavers in Java, cashew growers and backstrap-loom weavers in Sulawesi, potters in Lombok and woodcarvers in Bali. Rather than growing roots in Indonesia, I traveled extensively, met many people, and listened to many stories. Even going to seven islands and seeing places that few tourists see, though, I experienced only a tiny portion of the many worlds encompassed by the vast Indonesian archipelago.

Despite the short period of time I spent in each location, I met people who are etched indelibly in my memory. Tia, the amazingly dynamic leader of a village on Makassar Island in Buton, Sulawesi, was one such unforgettable individual.  “Before, women didn’t go to trainings outside our homes– or if we did go, we followed the 4 d’s: datang (come), duduk (sit), denar (listen), diam (silence).” Tia helped the women of her village, who are skilled weavers, to organize a successful cooperative and community education projects, and emerged as a forceful leader whose ideas are changing the way women contribute to and participate in their community.

The seaweed harvest in Buton, Sulawesi

One place where I did feel a sense of rootedness and of home was in the house of Nani Lestari, the 24-year-old leader of the Berkah Lestari cooperative in the Javanese villageof Imogiri. Nani, despite her youth, is a master batik artist who can reproduce traditional masterpieces as well as designs of her own imagination. Nani taught me that to be a fine batik artist, you must find a quiet place that will allow you to make lines that are straight and true. At the cooperative I made a batik piece with a combination of motifs: traditional sido asih and a contemporary take on parang, the motif of kings.

My time with the Berkah Lestari cooperative included many hours spent listening to giggling and gossip and tinny American pop music playing from cell-phone speakers with the young apprentices. There were other hours, though, in which we were quiet with our tjantings (wax pens), in which I found the inner and outer peace to draw straight, even wax lines and rows of evenly spaced tiny dots. Like moments I experienced earlier in Guatemala, Egypt, and Uganda, I found the practice of batik meditative. The patience and attention needed for crafting, for me, provide the space for creative expression.

A key-maker's painted cart in Jogja.

Working with successful, well-developed fair trade companies like Apikri and Mitra Bali gave me the chance to reflect on best practices that truly help to overturn exploitative dynamics within trade. Thinking critically about the interviews that I conducted with artisans along with my own observation of fair trade in practice, I developed a set of best practices. These included: building networks for communication and material transactions; recognizing that sometimes craft production is not enough; institutionalizing systems of ensuring accountability to one’s principles. Working with larger companies in Indonesia allowed me the chance to zoom out from individual craftswomen’s experiences and think about systems that would support economic security for many individuals.

I don’t regret my approach to getting to know Indonesia, but I learned that traveling to many places is sometimes not as meaningful as working to understand and feel a part of one community. Leaving Indonesia for Mongolia felt significantly less painful than other uprootings, and in some ways I missed that sweet sorrow of parting.

Every hour is adventure hour: Mongolia

My 31 days in Mongolialeft me no time to do anything except seize the day. I wanted Mongolia to be a culmination, like a final exam testing my ability to make connections and go adventuring and live a big bold life. Sometimes, especially in the first days while I was trying to make sense of the Cyrillic alphabet and the border between actual tradition and tradition manufactured for tourists, I felt a certain panic that I wouldn’t be able to live up to my lofty expectations. By this point in my year, however, I was good at talking myself down from these panic moments and coaching myself into excitement and patience. My mantra became Every hour is adventure hour. Adventure came in all shapes and sizes: petting a roaming yak, hiking along a precipitous slope, paying for a taxi in chocolate, learning Mongolian vodka toasts around a campfire, drinking a bowl of melted sheep fat.

I decided to approach Mongolia with a different strategy for connecting with craftswomen, too: instead of attempting to explain my interest in grassroots development and women’s cooperatives, I introduced myself as an artist interested in textile traditions. This approach worked surprisingly well, and I was thrilled with how many craft techniques I was able to learn and how many goals I accomplished in a short time.

That is not to say my time in Mongolia was without challenges; I spent much of the first week dealing with the shattering of my pre-conceived notions. I arrived in Ulaanbaatar with a fantasy in my mind about women’s cooperatives among nomadic families. I imagined women making traditional felt slippers in a fire-warmed ger during the hours before going to sleep, supplementing their families’ income as herders and bringing financial stability while supporting the survival of the nomadic lifestyle itself. In reality, nomad craft cooperatives do not exist (as far as I know, anyway) and slippers are not traditional inMongolia. Traditional felt is for utilitarian purposes like making the walls and floors of a ger, and therefore is not particularly well suited for making trendy hair clips for foreign tourists. Craft cooperatives sprang up in newly sedentary communities when nomadic families gave up their herding and moved to urban areas in pursuit of opportunity and a respite from living constantly at the mercy of the harsh Mongolian seasons. Seeking a better and easier life, many instead find vast ger districts on the fringes of the city, where jobs, social services, and infrastructure are hard to come by. Even as Mongolians continue to flock to towns and cities, they often lament the loss of their deep connection to the land.

Mongolian horses on the steppe

With funding and training from Scandinavian NGOs and artists, Mongolia started to develop contemporary feltcraft in the last twenty-five years. My instructor in the art of contemporary feltmaking was a woman named Bayanduuren, whose studio is a cozy basement space in a Soviet apartment block that has ceilings so low I kept banging my head on the water pipes. Working with sheep wool, my first experience with animal fibers, was rewarding in an unexpected way. Bayanduuren told me that the wool of a dead sheep is useless. To make felt you need energy, she said; you need to connect with the life inside the fibers. Bayanduuren believes that in order to be a good felt maker, you have to give something of yourself: the heat of your hands and the will of your heart. After I finished my first felt piece, a scarf, she paid me this compliment: “Because you love it, because your heart loves it and your hands love it, you are a good felt maker.”

Switching gears after my contemporary felt lessons, I left the capital and ventured into the countryside, to a little town called Altanbulag where I worked side by side with women (and two men!) learning felt quilting and eating mutton noodle soup every day for every meal. Last, I flew on an exorbitantly expensive plane to Bayan-Ulgii, the far western aimag of Mongolia, which is a stronghold of Kazakh culture. Embroiderers in Bayan-Ulgii export many of their finished products back toKazakhstan, where demand for traditional products is high but few craftswomen remain who can produce the old designs. Like in Ulaanbaatar, the recent influx of herding families moving to town seeking opportunity means there are plenty of women skilled at embroidery and looking for employment.

I learned traditional Kazakh embroidery from a woman named Ina, who also hosted me in her family’s beautifully decorated ger– which might now be my favorite room in the world. Living with Ina, her husband Kaderbek, and their family for a week gave me the opportunity to try delicacies like sheep’s head, slurp my way through many a greasy meal of buuz (meat dumplings), drink bowls of airag (the cold, creamy, refreshing, bubbly, sour fermented horse milk that is a Mongolian specialty), bathe in a Kazakh sauna, and see golden hunting eagles in the yards of gers, as commonplace as dogs.

Taking a fishing break.

Before arriving in Mongolia, I heard horror stories about the public transit that, of course, made me eager to test my mettle on a long-haul bus trip. The bus ride to Khuvsgul (billed at 20 to 24 hours) was as harrowing/exciting as promised. It started out comfortably, actually: with individual seats, a functional AC/heating system, and  a TV playing kung fu movies. Just after dark, the TV started playing Mongolian karaoke. Unlike the karaoke that I’m accustomed to, in which one person screeches out a pop ballad, there was no microphone and no stage. Everyone sang together, blending their voices to create a sound more like hymn-singing than karaoke. Every Mongolian on the bus seemed to know these songs, from my seatmate, a superfashionable teenager, to the grandfather across the aisle.

Our first flat tire came on a bathroom break in the middle of the midnight steppe, when we heard the loud pop of a blown-out tire. After a few confused minutes of milling around in the darkness, we were ushered into a tiny roadside cafe. The cafe was built of logs, with artificial flower bouquets planted in not-artificial wall sconces made of bracket fungus, two little sets of antlers on either side of the quilt-insulated door… the lightbulb on its electric cord was strung through the snarling mouth of a taxidermied boar’s head mounted above the door. We drank cups of salty milk tea dipped from a vat heating on the wood stove, and tried to sleep with our heads on the tables. The next day, after the third flat tire, the bus just gave up and quit functioning altogether. 48 hours after departing UB, we finally arrived at our destination by the lake. I enjoyed my five days of hiking at Khuvsgul Nuur all the more for the many hours I spent waiting to arrive.

Drinking airag upon the wild steppe.

I spent most of my year in places renowned for their hospitality, but Mongolia set a new bar for generosity and graciousness. In the Mongolian countryside, personal possession is sometimes nearly irrelevant. If a traveler stops at a ger, he or she is offered food and tea without question. Sharing is understood not just as a courtesy but as a means of survival, the glue holding a nomadic society together. I was fascinated by this totally different approach to community, ownership, and survival. Mongolia is becoming influenced more and more by capitalism and westernization, but I’m still intrigued by the ramifications of this hospitality for the country’s future development.

Mongoliaand its nomads felt like the perfect place and way to finish this year: footloose and independent, with food and shelter in my pack and a whole lot of open horizon before me; hiking along a sparsely populated path with only the meh-eh-eh-ing goats for company. I also fell in love with the Mongolian landscape. The clarity of the air after months in steamy Indonesia was a blessing, and like Mongolians, I tried to develop my own sense of connection to the land. I felt nomadic, and I felt at home in that feeling.

Crafting community

I came into this year unsure what I was going to learn about crafts and community and the women who connect these two ideas through their everyday livelihoods. I wanted to learn  muscle memory and technical dexterity and best practices and hope. I wanted to learn what kind of contributions I could make to women’s craft initiatives, and what kind of belonging I would feel as a outsider wanting to learn skills associated with a specific place and tradition. Looking back, I am still amazed and gratified at the generosity of craftswomen in every country I visited, and their willingness to patiently instruct me. Their grace in accepting my hesitant communication, my uneven stitches, and my botched formalities has touched me deeply.

Some friendships are born of conversation, but some are born of silence, of hours of amiable companionship with busy hands. I also love the hours I spent in silent uncomprehension, content to occupy the space of community without having the language skills to enter into community’s conversation. I discovered that I am pretty good at hanging out with mothers and grandmothers, women much older than I who hold the dying secrets of craft tradition in their minds. I am less good (despite much practice) at sitting endlessly on hard floors, a task that women around the world seem to have mastered effortlessly.

In imagining my project, I saw craft production as a vehicle for other kinds of connection. I discovered the truth in that idea: with busy hands, women are still free to use their minds and their voices, often in collective, sharing stories, gossip, advice, and dreams. The hours of sitting on hard floors working with my hands created a space in which I got to be part of that sharing.

Lessons

At Khuvsgul Nuur

Every time I wrote a quarterly report, I also wrote a letter to myself and mailed it to the US. Opening those letters when I got home brought back a flood of memory and uncertainty, the thrilling and daunting promise of the unknown that characterized my thoughts about the future during much of my fellowship. They also include some truths that I hope I am able to hold on to as I leave the extraordinarily nourishing context of my Watson year. Including:

The next adventure is as close as I will it to be.

Live up to my opportunities.

Every place has its own beauty.

My tendency to smile a lot is one of my best attributes.

It was wonderful to discover that my interest in craftswomen, and the contexts in which they work, could in fact span a year of exploration and grow constantly over the course of that year. I was thrilled by finding answers to my questions and by the steady stream of new questions and desire for greater understanding that filled my mind. At one point I wrote in my journal, “It’s a great feeling to know that I was right to dream in that direction… It makes me want to keep thinking up crazy dreams and finding ways to happen them. It makes me believe in passion, not only in its existence but in the necessity of it, its integral part of this life I’m living and the life I truly want.” Days that, individually, sometimes seemed mundane, useless, frustrating, and wrong-headed, took on meaning because they were strung together by passion.

Home

SFO --> MSP. The home stretch.

I came back to the place I call home after a year in which I felt at home in many different places. Over the course of the year I felt a complicated relationship with the United States and my role as a representative. My experience in disadvantaged communities made me so grateful for the opportunities I have been granted, especially as a woman. Yet I was often uncomfortable with the culture associated with the idea of America. I confronted bizarre ideas about my home country, from the imaginations of people who know Americafrom TV: Your country is completely paved and skyscrapered, right? A place where there are no dirt roads, a place without poverty. Your bodies are all soft and white. You would never have potholes like this in America. Do you have rivers in your country? Do you have farms?

Answering these questions made me think hard about the places I inhabited this year and their relation to the place that I call home. I realize now that most of us in the US are so disconnected from the actual processes and struggles that ensure our survival: we are cushioned by our affluence to such an extent that we are removed from the realities of producing our basic needs. To be free of the fear of not having enough to survive is a wonderful thing. To be free of the knowledge that our survival costs something, that our existence comes only by the work of human hands and the use of finite resources, is a very dangerous thing. Humility is more important than I ever imagined– a value that we often devalue, unwisely.

Somehow, my education in crafts also taught me that a banana or a t-shirt or a gas-powered flame should not be assumed and are not guaranteed. Perhaps the value of my education in basketry and weaving and batik, these slow, tedious, humble, painstaking processes, is the recognition that enormous effort goes into my sustenance and survival. Even when I do buy shirts off the rack at Target and plastic-wrapped food at a supersized grocery store, I want to carry the knowledge of that effort and make decisions informed by knowing.

“Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding.” – Dear Sugar

Meeting the other Watson fellows, talking with them into the early morning hours and dancing exuberantly with them in conga lines helped me piece together bits of the what-the-past-year-means puzzle. It helps me to know that my Watson experiences will continue to pay dividends and will continue to unfold. I’m sure that there are some experiences and lessons from this year that I won’t understand for many years to come. It helps to know that the spirit of the Watson will come to me in moments of future deliberation.

Most of all, I am so grateful for this experience and feel so lucky to have lived this dream for twelve months of my life.

Gracias. Shukran. Weebale nyo. Terima kasih. Bayarlaa. Thank you. 

go west, young woman

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.

Horseman

because your heart loves it

I love making stuff. This must be apparent by now, 11.5 months into my 12-month craft-making odyssey. Here’s the Mongolia update: first, I learned how to make felt with a contemporary felt artist, Bayanduuren. Here’s a couple of her beautiful creations, on display at the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts in Ulaanbaatar:

I covet this coat.

Wool-painting

Bayanduuren’s studio is a cozy basement space in a Soviet-style apartment block with ceilings so low I kept banging my head on the water pipes. Here’s the carding machine for preparing the wool (wool from hybrid sheep, not pure native sheep).

You can’t make felt (or spin yarn) from wool that comes from a dead sheep. Wool has to come from a living, breathing animal, and Bayanduuren told me that to be a good felt artist, you must feel the energy of the felt and work with that energy.

“Congratulations!” she told me, when I finished my scarf. “How did it feel?”

“I loved it,” I told her. I do love it. Working with the wool is like working with something alive; I love that I need the heat generated by my hands and the friction of my movements to join the fibers.

“Because you love it, because your heart loves it and your hands love it, you are a good felt maker,” Bayanduuren told me.

Here are my creations! First the scarf, which is thin and soft and has a Mongolian cloud motif. Then the knot-topped traditional hat. The scarf took a bit more than three hours; the hat took five hours to complete.

Ready to join the Mongol horde, right?

After learning contemporary felt art with Bayanduuren, I ventured out into the countryside again to learn traditional Mongolian felt quilting. I spent the weekend in Altanbulag, with a woman named Tsendsuren who is in charge of two different traditional felt-quilting groups. Altanbulag is a little town in Tov Aimag, just an hour and a half south of Ulaanbaatar, but it already feels worlds away from the polluted, traffic-laden streets of the capital. The horizon is nothing but blue mountains, and cows wander around the dusty tracks between wood-fenced homes.

Tsendsuren is a powerful woman with imposingly excellent posture, who is always impeccably dressed in a printed dress, black patterned stockings, and black heels. Here she is at left, with quilters in the workshop:

They were hard at work on a carpet commissioned by the government, which will cover the floor of an enormous ger. Laying out the finished pieces:

To draw the quilted pattern on the felt, the quilters use a paper template with tiny pinholes marking the lines. They dust a red chalky powder over the template, leaving faint dotted lines that are then traced over in pencil, and finally stitched with wool yarn. The stitching is both decorative and functional; the quilting process strengthens the felt and helps the carpet last longer.

My stitches:

My little quilted square! It’s about 12 in. x 12 in.

And here’s my bed in her house!! Talk about a beautiful place to sleep.

Tonight I’m sleeping in Ulaanbaatar (in a not-as-lovely though perfectly comfortable hostel bed) and waking early tomorrow to board a little plane bound for Bayan-Ulgii, western Mongolia, where I will stay with a Kazakh family and learn traditional embroidery.

I’ll be back in the USA in 12 days. Here’s to 12 days of beauty and discovery and mutton noodle soup (ugh) and adventure and more Mongolian fun! I’m feeling bittersweet about the impending end already.

dude.

My pack-every-experience-possible-into-one-month plan is proceeding very successfully! Last week, that meant a fantastic camping trip at Lake Khuvsgul in northern Mongolia.

The bus ride to Khuvsgul was pretty much as harrowing/exciting as promised. It started out comfortable and pleasant, actually: the coach bus had individual seats, a functional heating/AC system, and a TV playing kung fu movies. The best part was just after dark, when the second kung fu movie ended and the TV started playing Mongolian karaoke. Unlike the karaoke that I’m accustomed to, in which one person screeches out the lyrics to a pop ballad, there was no microphone and no stage. Everyone sang together, blending their voices to create a sound more like church hymn-singing than like karaoke. Every Mongolian on the bus seemed to know these songs– from the super-fashionable teenager sitting next to me to the grandfather across the aisle. It was wonderful.

Our first flat tire came on a bathroom break in the middle of the midnight steppe: the passengers were stretching our legs when we heard the loud pop of a blown-out tire. We spent the night in a tiny roadside cafe, drinking salty milk tea and trying to sleep with our heads on the tables, under a single light bulb that dangled from the teeth of a taxidermied boar’s head mounted on the wall.

The next day, after the third flat tire, the bus just gave up and quit functioning altogether. Who needs a jack when you have a tree stump? This was flat tire #3.

We waited for a replacement bus. Finally, 48 hours later, we made it to Murun, the aimag capital. Then another wait and another 4 hours in a van to Khatgal, on the shores of the lake.

I was all prepared to have a solo backpacking adventure, but when I finally made it to Khatgal  and the start of the trail, I met two French guys who were hiking the same way as me, for the same number of days. We decided to walk together, at least for the first afternoon. I found out that they were both 22 (!! a coincidence that wouldn’t seem significant except that I have spent the vast majority of this year hanging out with people who are not my age), from Paris, and that they travel a lot, camping/trekking everywhere they go. By the end of the first day, we were getting along excellently. And so it was that I went camping with the Frenchmen.

The cast of characters:

C’est moi.

Brice

Victor

My new tent!

Khuvsgul Nuur!

It was a very cold lake (and biiiigggg! It made me excited for Lake Superior).

But who can resist swimming with yaks?

Yakkity yak (don’t talk back)

I taught them essential English words like belly, flip-flops, dude, puke, brand, and trashcan. They fed me soup, imported French sausages, pate de foie gras (not kidding), and chocolate. We made fun of each other a lot. We hiked a lot.

We camped inside two half-built buildings to escape the cold. We learned how to do Mongolian vodka toasts from two men who came to share our campfire one night. We were fed fruit, candy, meat and vodka by the generous Mongolian tourists we passed along the way. We lost the trail at one point and bushwhacked along a hillside so steep and high above the rocky shoreline that we would have died if we slipped.

My shoe became a casualty when we got a little overenthusiastic about stoking our campfire. Hiking 25 km the next day in a shrunken-melted shoe was a challenge, and I have the blisters to show for it.

A sacred pile of sticks, bones, silk scarves, and (inevitably, in Mongolia) vodka bottles.

Nearing the end (two beautiful dogs adopted us and followed us for the last two days.)

We saw all five animals essential to a Mongolian herder’s livelihood: yaks, horses, goats, sheep, and… camels!!

We made it back to Murun, and in the public bathhouse there I had the best shower since the one in the Dubai airport hotel (yes, I keep track of these things). After several long days of hiking and eating camping food, we decided to eat at a restaurant. We wandered and wandered around Murun; all the restaurants were closed for the annual Naadam festivities. Finally, we found one that was open! It had real tablecloths and cloth napkins and they brought us hot towels to wash our hands– serious luxury. Ordering was comical: the menu was in Cyrillic and none of the staff spoke any English, so they called their friend, who stayed on the line as an interpreter while the phone was passed around between us all. They put on French music for us and served us three huge, delicious plates of stir fried meat and vegetables.

After we finished our food, however, Brice announced that he was still hungry. To avoid a repeat of the phone-interpreter situation, he asked for “the best thing you have.” One of the waiters ran to the supermarket to get more supplies, at which point we knew we were in for a feast. A few minutes later, they delivered about half a sheep, cooked with hot stones with carrots and potatoes. Then came a huge salad plate of vegetables. Then individual fruit salads for dessert.  Somehow we managed to finish the entire feast (and it was amazing).

Murun sunset

I’ve met tons of people during this year, and many of them have been amazing individuals who I will remember and keep in touch with for the rest of my life. It’s really rare, though, to find new friends who I relate to as easily and comfortably as I do with my friends from home. Thanks for that, Victor and Brice.

cielos azules

Mongolia!

I’m in Ulaanbaatar and I can’t stop smiling. For some reason when I was in Guatemala I had the crazy idea of coming here, and ever since I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. I can’t believe I’m here. I love it.

Mongolians (at least here in the capital) dress very fashionably. Their chic outfits are a funny contrast to the drab concrete buildings and dusty streets. Also, they dress like Minnesotans do in April: like, “It’s supposed to be warm, right? So I’m gonna wear my sundress and cute sandals, dangit.” No matter what the mercury says, summer is an attitude. (Note: on sunny days, it actually is really warm.)

The city’s avenues are laid out in the luxuriously expansive way of human settlements that are surrounded by vast unpopulated space, sort of like a scaled-up version of a town in the American West.

The air here feels so crisp and light. Like the air on a fall day on Lake Superior. Maybe it’s the altitude, or the fact that I’m not wading through humidity like in Indonesia. I know that it’s far more polluted here than it will be when I make it out to the countryside, but my lungs are still delighting.

Nights in UB are bleak. I don’t like being startled by drunk men lurching out of stillness from the bars. But my cheeks glow from the nighttime chill and the stars are breathtaking.

English-Russian-Mongolian wrestling dictionary, anyone?

A couple months ago I read a travel blog about Mongolia; the author had traveled extensively in Central America and Africa, but advised his readers that public transit in Mongolia is by far the most grueling and uncomfortable ride that he’s experienced. Of course I took that as a challenge rather than a warning, so tomorrow I leave for Murun, a 20 to 27 hour bus ride away, in Khovsgol aimag in the north. There’s a cooperative there that I hope I’ll be able to find and communicate with.

If not, I’ve decided not to stress about it. During my first few days here I spent a significant amount of time stressing out about my contacts not working out and knowing neither the language nor Cyrillic script and not being sure about how to find/choose the “right” craftswomen to hang out with and about having some of my fantasyland preconceived notions shattered. So much energy spent stressing! I spent plenty of energy enjoying myself, too, but still. I have had an incredible 11 months. I am in a country of enormous natural beauty, and I want to go explore the countryside. I miss wilderness and camping and feeling tested by the outdoors! I’ll do my best to find craftswomen out there, but if it doesn’t go as planned, I am determined to have an amazing time nonetheless. My new mantra (I’m really into mantras) is “Every hour is adventure hour.”**

The shattering-of-preconceived-notions has actually been really interesting. Here are a couple significant things I’ve learned:

  • About 1/3 of Mongolia’s population lives here in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. This is a huge increase over the course of a few years; a couple especially harsh winters devastated livestock populations and forced many people who lived as nomads for hundreds of years into urban areas, seeking jobs and opportunities. Unfortunately, Ulaanbaatar doesn’t have enough jobs, housing, or services to accommodate these former herders, which leads to ger districts around the city’s periphery where crime is high and opportunities are scarce (ger is the Mongolian word for yurt.)
  • Consequently, most women’s craft groups are formed in urban areas to provide employment for the masses of people who have left their herding livelihoods in the countryside. (Unfortunately, urban Mongolia is not really where I hoped to spend most of my time.)
  • Most felt crafts here have been developed over the last 20 years with the help of Scandinavian NGOs. Very few of the felt souvenirs are traditional. Foreign NGOs even introduced new breeds of sheep which give wool that’s better suited to felting…but the sheep can’t live outside in Mongolian winters.

——Ahhhh… So the glory and the trouble of the Watson year is that one two-hour meeting can turn all your plans upside down. A few hours after writing most of this post, I met an awesome felt artist and am now calling into question a lot of the things I decided on over the last couple days of stressin. I think I’m going to attempt to cram every conflicting thing I want to do (which is about five distinct goals) into less than four weeks. I just bought a tent. I’m excited.

Happy Independence Day, friends.

**Maybe somewhere in the Mongolian steppes I’ll even find a tray of DC cookies. Or the key to the bell tower door. Who knows.