Mongolia Monday- 6 Cool Souvenirs To Bring Back From Mongolia

Mongolia is probably terra incognita for what comes from there that would be of interest to western visitors. The Lonely Planet guide has a section on souvenirs, but until you’ve walked through the 5th floor of the State Department Store in Ulaanbaatar, you can’t appreciate the possibilities or the variety. Plus, in general, the good stuff is still inexpensive and eminently packable. Here’s my list of six favorite momentos of Mongolia.

1. Cashmere

The good news- the world’s finest cashmere comes from the cashmere goats of Mongolia. The bad news- goats are really hard on the land because they pull plants out by the roots when they graze, unlike sheep, cattle and horses. But…cashmere is currently the best source of income for many, if not most, of the herder families. (Land sustainability issues in Mongolia is a subject for a future post.) Unfortunately, most of the cashmere they, or rather their goats, produce, goes to China which is where it is turned into finished products.

However, you can get cashmere products that are produced in Mongolia. There are a number of factories, Gobi Cashmere being the best known. The point is to make sure that you are buying Mongolian-made cashmere. Our Earthwatch team got to visit the factory store of Gobi Cashmere in 2005. At the time, a lot of the clothing had kind of a dated look and the colors were, let’s just say bright and cheerful. That’s all changed and the downtown stores stock very stylish fashions. I came home with a long scarf (see above) woven in three natural colors. It’s fabulous.

2. Clothes

Not everyone is into ethnic clothing, but I’ve loved the look since the 1960s. Mongolia is a dream come true for me. There are vests (see above) and jackets to choose from in different colors, both in wool and cotton. What I’ve really fallen in love with are del, the national garment. I wear one in the morning as a robe and always have one with me when I travel. They’re perfect for staying in ger camps when you need to get to and from the toilet and the shower. They’re practical and packable. I wear my vests all the time; out to dinner and to art openings. A cotton jacket is perfect for wearing into town.

3. Felt

There’s been an explosion in the production of felt products, especially, it seems, slippers. The trick here is to learn the difference between the items that are factory-made with machine-made felt and the ones that are hand-crafted out of hand-made felt. As you can imagine, cost is one giveaway, plus the former are almost too perfect and lack that quality of being made by a human hand. These are hand-made. Not sure what was used for the color. It turns out that footwear with upturned toes originates in the traditional Mongol land ethic, which is to not damage the land that supports you, even if it’s just scuffing it with the front of a regular boot.  As regular readers of this blog know, I’m involved in supporting a women’s felt crafts cooperative “Ikh Nart Is Our Future”. More felt craft pics here.

4. Art

For me, one of the greatest discoveries about Mongolia has been how artistic the culture is. Bali gets a lot, if not most, of the attention, but Mongolia deserves a spot in the sun, too. A BIG spot.

The lively art scene is still unknown to most of the world. On any nice day at Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar, one is likely to encounter art students carrying around portfolios of their work for sale. And, in one case, I bought two pieces from a woman who was selling work by her husband. When I go to Mongolia now, I try to find one new artist per trip. That hasn’t been hard as I usually find at least two. The above small painting is from my last trip. It’s a 3×6″ original watercolor and it cost all of about $3.00 USD. I try to find two or three by the same person so I can hang them as a group. It is very typical of what you find in the souvenir stores; charming little “slice of life” scenes with all the traditional elements. One of the others by this artist had camels, too.

The second painting is watercolor on canvas and is one of six my husband and I bought when we were in Mongolia in 2008. It’s 13.5×18″ and was about $35 USD. I don’t know who he is (Can anyone translate the signature, which is in the old Mongol classical script?), but he’s phenomenal!

Both of these pieces came from the State Department Store, which has, by far, the best selection of art for sale.

5. Music

Besides art, another aspect of Mongol culture that deserves to be better known is the contemporary music scene. If you went by what was on Amazon, you’d think that Mongols still only do traditional forms like khoomii (throat singing), long song and play the morin khuur, but you would be wrong. Once again, regular readers know how much I like current Mongol music. The CDs are impossible to buy over here, but there are a lot of videos on YouTube. I posted some of my favorites here, here and here. The Hi-Fi shop on Seoul St. in Ulaanbaatar has a good selection and is where I’ve gotten the ones I’ve brought home.

6. Poetry Books

Finally, the literature of Mongolia is also not well-known in the West. Only recently has any amount of it been translated into English. I came across an old book of poetry at the Chojin Lama Museum, then found the one above and some others in the gift shop at the Bayangol Hotel. The translator, Simon Wickham-Smith, is working with the Mongolian Ministry of Poetry and Culture (Wouldn’t it be nice if the USA valued those things enough to have a government agency devoted to them?) to bring Mongol poetry and literature to the world. Simon was nice enough to contribute two guests posts to this blog here and here.

I’ve come to believe that a non-Mongol really needs to read some of the poetry to start to understand the Mongol’s relationship with the land, the seasons and, of course, their horses.

Mongolia Monday: The Five Snouts, Part 3

I’ll have to be honest and say that currently I don’t know much about Mongolian sheep. I hope to learn more on the next trip.

I did find a United Nations FAO report that included the following information;
Sheep in Mongolia may be grouped into five types. The common native sheep are multipurpose and low in productivity. The other four are used more specifically for their meat (mutton), carpet wool, milk and good-quality lambskins. Grazing is on year-round pastures with no supplementary feeding, even under severe winter and spring conditions. The sheep are well adapted to the unfavourable ecological conditions of steep mountains and poor vegetation.

One distinctive feature of the native coarse wool fat-tailed sheep is noticeable when new grass grows on the pasture: at this time they grow rapidly, are easy to fatten and have a remarkable ability to store 4 to 6 kg of fat around the kidneys, mesentery and the tail bone. This fat is drawn on in winter and spring.

Sheep are reared according to the natural and economic conditions of the different regions in the country. Improvement achieved by crossing exotic, fine and semifine wool sheep breeds has been rapid in Mongolia and the results reasonably good. The average fleece weight of improved (cross-bred) fine and semi-fine wool sheep is two or three times higher than that of the native coarse wool of fat-tailed sheep. Wool quality has also improved.

There are five distinct sheep breeding zones:

· the northern mountain and grassland zone;
· the central steppe zone;
· the southern semi-arid zone;
· the southernmost, semi-desert zone of the Gobi;
· the Altay Mountains in the west.

The northern mountain grassland zone and the central steppe zone are given over to the breeding of fine and semi-fine wool sheep. In the southern semi-arid zone and the northern enclave, Mongolian fat-tailed sheep are purebred. Selection of breeding stock increases the quantity and improves the quality of the carpet wool.

In the extreme south, the semi-desert area of the Gobi has been allocated to Karakul breeding for lambskins. The production of mutton, fat and carpet wool takes place in the western part of the country and includes the Altay Mountains.

Here are some photos that I’ve taken of sheep.

A small flock at the market in Hovd, western Mongolia

“King of the Mountain” at Khar Us Nuur, also western Mongolia. Goats in the foreground, but that’s for next week.

Part of a large group of domestic livestock coming down to the stream to drink at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, south of Ulaanbaatar

Finally, for comparison, a wild argali, the world’s largest mountain sheep. This old ram with the amazing horns let me follow him around for almost 20 minutes. As you can see, he is very thin. It was late April and a lot of the animals, wild and domestic were in rough shape from the winter.

One of the main uses of the wool is to make the big pieces of felt which cover the gers. Depending on the weather, there can be one to three layers. I’ve slept in a ger in cold weather with one layer and the next night, one with two layers and the difference was quite noticeable.

One of my most useful souvenirs from Mongolia are my felt slippers. I also got a pair of felt boots. Both are amazingly warm and comfy. I would recommend them to anyone who gets cold feet!