I landed in Ulaanbaatar and eventually met up with Arunaa, who is a social worker in Mongolia as well as a traditional felt teacher. Arunna has been involved in a number of felting projects.
The felt making co-operative
She took me to meet a woman’s co-operative. These woman worked together to produce some fantastic felted pieces. The woman were all single mothers working together to produce pieces for a co-operative shop in the city. The workshop was at the bottom of a block of flats just out of town, it was hot and dingy but the women were in good spirits and there was a really good atmosphere.
Although none of them spoke any English, we managed to communicate as they showed me some of their techniques. They made traditional Mongolian slippers, wall hangings, mats and larger floor and wall coverings. I spent a couple of days in the city and then we hired a jeep and headed out to country side to stay with Arunaa’s cousin and her family. Arunaa’s cousin lived in a ger with her husband baggie and their two sons. They had over 200 horses, sheep, goats and cattle.
Mongolians, who are traditional nomadic herders, keep sheep, goats, cattle, camels and horses. All five of these animals play a very important part in a herder’s life style. Horses for milk and transport (horse’s milk is fermented and turned into a popular mildly alcoholic drink called Arak), cattle for milk, goats and sheep for meat and wool. I learnt very quickly how essential all these animals are to Mongolian herders.
Erecting the Ger
After a night in the guest ger we headed out to help Baggie’s brother who was moving home, from his winter to his summer grazing. We turned up and the family had put all their belongings and their packed up ger on the back of a lovely old truck. Everyone had turned up from around the area to help set up the ger. It was amazing how quickly it started to take shape. Everyone helped to put up the wooden frame.
First the trellis went up and then the poles slotted in and went to the middle. The frame was secured and then the layers were added. The men worked on the outside and the woman on the inside. A cotton layer was added to the outside and on top of that a layer of felt. (In the winter two or three layers of felt might be added). On top of the felt layer came a canvas layer and then this was all secured with handmade ropes. The top square was then added. The furniture was then all placed inside. It was interesting to see that the insides of most gers look the same- the same painted furniture is added and put in the same places. One side of the ger is for the wife and the other for the husband and then the wood burner is placed in the middle. When I visited the black market in the city a week later- it became apparent pretty quickly why they all looked the same, as I looked over a sea of identical chests, doors, sideboards and burners.
Alex and I are pretty good at moving house (well Alex is) but less than three hours is definitely a record!
Milking the horses
I was lucky enough to be in the countryside at a very special time, it was the first milking of the horses that year. All the families in the area gathered. The men and boys on horseback while the women prepared a feast. Baggie had over 200 horses and many of them had had foals. The idea was to catch the foals, which would then attract the mares and the mares could then be lassoed and milked. The horses (except those kept for riding) are pretty wild and have a life grazing on the steppe, both summer and winter, they are only brought in to be milked, to make the much liked Arak. It was so impressive to see these horsemen work; they had great respect for the animals they were catching. Once they had caught about 10 foals the mares started approaching and they were then lassoed and brought to the fence. The woman then brought over their milking buckets. The foal was brought to feed on the mare for a couple of minutes, then taken off and the women milked the horse, only for about one minute and then the mare and foal were reunited. This process only produced a little milk at a time. The horses remained tethered and were then milked again two hours later and then released the next morning. The milk is then left to ferment slightly.
Arak is drunk on every occasion possible and if you don’t like it- tough you still need to drink it! It tastes of sour fermented milk. It often has an extra kick when vodka is added to it.
Mongolians cover their gers with large pieces of felt. The felt pieces are made in family groups. The wool is laid out on a large piece of canvas, separating it as it is done; the wool is put down in layers, and then sprinkled with warm water. The whole thing is then rolled up and secured. This role of wool is then tethered to a horse and rider who then ride off for a couple of hours with the roll of wool bumping along the ground behind them. When horse and rider return the roll of wool is unwrapped and the friction from its bumpy ride has caused it to felt.