Ever since I started my brand in 2002, I have been coming home to Mongolia to visit and spend time with the nomads who take care of the goats that give us cashmere yarns. Much has changed over the years, but one thing has remained the same, something that has been the same for centuries, is our nomads’ lifestyle and values. We worship and respect the land, sky, mountains and rivers through spoken words, Tibetan Buddhism, songs and dances.
My annual trips have now started to focus on nomadic communities who are working towards full sustainability and who are enrolled in programmes, such as the Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA), which have a long-term strategy of establishing full sustainability in the cashmere industry. Currently, the sustainability situation in Mongolia is not too bad, but it could deteriorate if we don’t act on it. It is important for me to support it, stay up to date with the challenges it faces and share our nomads’ inspiring stories.
On this trip, the temperature was -6C by day and -16C at night when I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, but the sky was clear blue, the air crisp and uplifting. We headed with my photographer Davaanyam, and videographer Khurlee, to Western Mongolia in a Jeep, armed with a gas cooker, enough coffee and snacks. Due to Covid, we heard rumours that most petrol stations might be shut in the remote areas, so we also brought extra petrol. Our plan was to travel from the capital to the far western areas of Mongolia, travelling 1,500km along the southern route and making our way back along the northern route, meeting nomadic communities on the way, experiencing the beauty of our country, travelling a total of 3,000km in seven days.
In Mongolia, you can visit any nomadic family on the road; their welcome and hospitality are legendary. The concept within the nomadic community is that humans face nature, so humans are allies. In nomadic culture, and not just among Mongolian nomads, people are very hospitable and spending time with them becomes an organic process.
This was the first time that I interviewed nomads on camera and took professional photographs of them. I asked them what earth and land means to them; what the most difficult thing and the most beautiful thing about being a nomad was; and what they felt was precious. Their answers ranged from family to land, to mountains and personal values.
We also asked them if they would like to ask something of our audience in the UK and worldwide in reverse, because I’m passionate about connecting people between the two ends of the cashmere production chain; the start being the nomads who are the most important part as they take care of these goats and the end being people who use cashmere products. We really want to connect them on a human level.
Depending on the season, nomads generally wake with the sun, which in the summer can be around 4am. The women usually wake first, light the fire, and warm up the ger so that it’s warm when the kids wake up. You can imagine in -30C it gets very cold. (The little girl, Nominsuvd, we were staying with was sitting in a T-shirt while we were there in cashmere jumpers and jackets – they are very tough.)
A ger, meaning ‘home’ in Mongolian, is a yurt and is made from wooden lattices forming a wall and thin wooden poles branching out toward the round crown at the top, that is suspended by two columns. This wooden base is covered in thick handmade wool-felt and cotton canvas and it’s all held together with hand-spun wool ropes. Nowadays many families have solar panels to charge their televisions and phones and so one sleeps in a totally EMF and electric pollution free home.
A ger is one of the most natural dwellings on earth, keeping in warmth in winter and maintaining coolness in the summer. It is portable, assembled or disassembled easily, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity of design and mobility. The Mongolian ger is registered by Unesco as an object of the world cultural heritage of mankind.
After a breakfast of milk tea with clarified butter and boortsog, Mongolian cookies (they are known as bawirsaq in the Middle East), the day starts by tending to the animals and milking the cows; depending on how many animals they have, it could take two hours in the morning. Then they let the livestock go out to pasture.
After a day out in the pastures, nomadic families feast on their own produce. Their diet consists predominantly of meat and homemade dairy products and for the last 200 years or so there has also been rice and root vegetables. There isn’t lots of it in their diet, but it is available from the province or village centres. From the beef to the mutton, the quality is amazing. It’s not just organic, but wild-roaming, herb-fed and the taste is so different. Just simply cooked meat with a bone broth, boiled potatoes, carrots and onions is absolutely delicious.
While modern nomads are online and mainly stay in touch via Facebook, their evening entertainment remains more physical interactive: chess, archery, musical instruments, and a game called shagai, which involves the small astragali bones of a sheep or goat, representing their five prized animals, Tavan Khoshuu Mal: sheep, horses, camels, cows and goat. And, of course, sharing riddles and poems and singing – the nomadic oral culture is very strong, and they speak beautifully.
Bedtime tends to be quite early, around 8pm, as they rise with the sun, which is the healthiest way. In the west, there is a rising awareness about circadian rhythms as a trend, but in Mongolia it is the way of life.
Nomadic kids start helping the family at an early age. When they are just four or five years old they are already riding horses and can help out when rounding up the herd. Around 35% of the population, or 1 million Mongolians, are nomads and it’s quite usual in a nomadic family for it to be passed on. My father was a nomad when he was born, but then he moved to a city.
It is not easy to be a nomad. When there is a tough winter with strong snowstorms or a dry summer with little rain, it can be very challenging. As a result, young nomads are attracted more to cities, but in cities it is tough for them because they have no education or specific professions applicable to an urban environment and can fall into poverty. They need support from the country, various organisations, and the entire cashmere consuming using people in the world. It’s sad if young nomads start giving up on nomadic culture because Mongolia, as one of the last remaining nomadic cultures, will change as we know it.
Being a nomad should not remain in the traditional way that it has worked for centuries. There are ways to support, inspire and learn from the modern nomads of Mongolia. Education and entrepreneurship can be part of being a nomad and could help young nomads being proud of who they are, like many generations of strong and proud nomads before them. That can help preserve this amazing nomadic culture and values, that the world could benefit from learning.
One special evening on this trip, we were welcomed into the home of Lkhaisuren and Uyanga – a young nomad couple – in Khovd Province, where we stayed overnight in their ger.
Going to sleep looking at the stars through their ger’s roof, with the sound and delicious smell of softly burning wood in a fireplace and waking up to the sweeping view of the valley was the most amazing experience of this trip. For nomads, the valley is their living room, a land with no fences and blue skies. Now, who would not want to experience that, and let the future generations to experience that too?
As told to Scarlett Conlon