Tag Archives: nature

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.




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.



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.

pearl of africa to-do list: part one

A few days ago I booked my tickets to Indonesia! I’m arriving in Bali on April 21, and my impending departure has kicked my planning into overdrive for my last few days in Uganda (the Pearl of Africa indeed). I made a to-do list of things I’m hoping to accomplish before I go and am determined to check them all off. Successes so far:

1. Visit the natural dye center at Rubona Basket Weavers Association

Rubona is a little town in western Uganda, on the road between Fort Portal and Kasese. I arrived there on a drizzly Friday morning after spending a night in Fort Portal in the blue shadows of the Rwenzori Mountains.

The women at the Rubona Basket Weavers Association are well-known for their distinctive, beautiful naturally dyed baskets, made with raffia, millet straw, and banana fiber. I’d seen their baskets for sale in Kampala and I finally managed to arrange a visit to learn more about their weaving techniques and the natural dyes.

The amazing variety of brightly dyed raffia, all colored with natural materials.

The project began in 2005, when an Austrian man trained local women in natural dye techniques—reviving some dye practices that women had been using for years. It’s grown to employ over 200 local women. The managers, Kellen and Nnalongo, walked me through the dye process step by step.  First we boiled the raffia to soften it:

Then we prepared the ingredients:

Omfoka leaves (fresh; used for making green or black)

Akalamata root (fresh or dried; used for making red)

Amarwa gempunu roots (fresh; used for making maroon and yellow)

Pounding the amarwa gempunu in a big mortar:

Chop chop

Cosmos flower (fresh or dried; used for making orange and red)

Kellen mixing in wood ash:

Raffia drying:

As a business, Rubona is doing really well; their main market is the chain of Banana Boat stores, an upscale Kampala craft outlet (I was lucky enough to have an interesting conversation with BB’s co-owner, and hopefully I’ll give you a report on that and other craft-related interviews soon). One aspect of Rubona’s business model that especially impressed me is their approach to design innovation. Many craft producers get ideas for new product designs from their marketers (Ten Thousand Villages, for example, sends new designs to many of its producers each season). The Rubona basket designs, however, come directly from the women.

Each month Rubona holds a design contest for all the basketweavers—this month’s challenge is millet baskets, a distinctive basket shape with a tight-fitting conical lid that has a little handle at the top. (On the day that I visited, the eleven zone leaders were attending a workshop at the center to learn how to refine their technique for weaving the millet basket shape. They’re responsible for passing on that skill to the weavers in their zone.) Creators of the top designs win prizes, which are generally practical home and kitchen items. In this way, Rubona encourages design innovation and creativity and actively avoids the problem of product stagnation.

And the results are stunning:


2. See Animals!

After leaving Rubona, I hopped on a matatu south, heading for Queen Elizabeth National Park. It was dusk by the time my matatu crossed the park boundary. Almost as soon as we were inside the park, the wildlife sightings began! First, a herd of more than a hundred graceful golden-brown Uganda kob, with their beautiful spirally horns. Later, the car slowed wayyy down for a family of five elephants (including a little one!!). From the village of Katunguru, just outside the park gates, I paid for a special hire taxi to drive me to a hostel inside the park. On the way, we saw three enormous lumbering hippos who had ventured out of the water to do their nocturnal grazing.

At the hostel I met three young Dutch women, nursing students doing an internship in a hospital here, and we agreed to share the cost of a game drive the next morning. We left at 6:30 am, and the sky was too dark for me to get any pictures of our first game sighting—more elephants!!! We headed into the savannah area where the Uganda kob have their mating grounds.

As promised… animals!!



Uganda kob!


Not pictured: buffalo, waterbuck, elephants. All spectacular!

Unfortunately my pictures really didn’t turn out very well—something about the cloudy just-after-dawn light didn’t agree with my camera. These images don’t capture the beauty of the golden savannah, the distinctively shaped trees, and the towering, misty blue mountains across the border in the DRC that formed the backdrop to every view.

After the game drive, I got lucky and hitched a free ride back to Katunguru in a park pickup truck packed with about twenty other passengers. In Katunguru, I spent a little while walking along the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lake Edward and Lake George. I watched a family of hippos hanging out near the shore, and got serenaded by the many bright-yellow weavers that make their hanging nests in the reeds along the banks.


I got a little picture-happy with the hippo family (you would too!!)

Look at the baby hippo in this one!!!

CHECK. To be continued!

27,000 words’ worth of pictures

two posts in one day!! unheard of.

the féria in panajachel

shredded beef tacos/fajitas with black corn tortillas, homemade refried beans and fresh tomatoes. YUM:

a trip to the parque monterrico-hawaii on the coast:

baby sea turtles!

kids in xeabaj ii:

lucia and her family put up decorations for me and made me a special birthday lunch!

the OB staff dressed me up as “a guatemalan woman”… later a broom and a baby were added. lucia (right) is laughing at me:

at a rug hooking workshop:

some of the pictures i drew for my final presentation in xeabaj ii, depicting the group’s skills:

festival de barriletes gigantes (giant kite festival) in sumpango! it’s a día de los santos tradition. neither pictures nor words do these kites justice:

getting ready to raise one of the kites:

detail: weaver

in flight!

festivities at the sumpango cemetery, día de los santos:

my brocada weaving! i’m proud:

church in chichicastenango, on market day:

stand where i bought palitos for my loom:

in quiejel, making a special atol (corn porridge) for día de los santos:

looking (as usual) like a gringa giant with my host family in quiejel: yolanda and her 2 kids, mariela and byron: