Tag Archives: Ulaanbaatar

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.


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.


cielos azules


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.