The start of a journey with yak wool
As with any great adventure, travelling across the Mongolian wilderness was not how I had imagined.
Impressions of Genghis Khan riding across the Steppe had long inspired a deep sense of wanderlust and compelled me to visit these landscapes which evoked pictures of traders, soldiers and caravans pursuing their great leader across a great expanse. The Gobi desert, the Altai mountains, the Siberian Taiga — I wanted to see it all.
I wondered had I bitten off more than I could chew. It was the very first day riding a horse in the Altai Mountains, and I was miserable.
ARRIVING IN ULAAN BATAAR
Curiosity turned to real excitement arriving in the Mongolian Capital and as the plane neared the runway, all those tiny white dots I had noticed in the distance were now transforming into a series of Yurts. It was fascinating to watch these modest traditional homes in such a beautiful rural setting but their charm, along with the rusted Russian pick-up trucks, overworked motorbikes and scattered farm equipment, was soon overshadowed by the oncoming city of Ulaan Bataar, a city complete with old Soviet factories, power plants and high rise apartment blocks.
Warm weather and clear skies coincided with my arrival in Ulaan Bataar and although the next five days would be largely uneventful, they were also very enjoyable as I soon learnt to live in much the same way as the locals by making the best out of what the city had to offer, rather than want for what the place was missing.
In many ways I had not wanted to stay in a busy city at all, but actually, it ended up being my first real insight into what seemed like such a mysterious part of the world. From the Nike sneakers, iPhones, Coca Cola, and latest trends, to the gourmet restaurants, quaint cafe’s, high street shops and modern hotels — it was clear that even the locals of Ulaan Bataar wanted to live in comfort, rather than the lacklustre Yurts they are so famous for calling their home.
In hindsight, those five days spent in the city may have been uneventful but they did bring an unexpected reminder, that no matter where you go, people will always have the same ideas, the same needs and the same desires.
OLGII — THE LAST FRONTIER
The town of Olgii was not only a 3 hour internal flight away from the Capital, but it also felt like the last frontier and an entirely different world to the big city. An ethnically Kazakh population meant the people looked different in the western corner of Mongolia and it was here, when I first found myself immersed in a true wilderness and an incredibly large horizon of blue. It was a land where the horse was a ready made replacement for a car.
A yurt, which I have mentioned several times, is actually referred to as a “Ger” in Mongolia and these are small tent-like accommodation with thick felt lining the roof. When I first arrived, there were two of these modest houses set up in the clearing of a wood with a frozen Khoton Nuur lake to one side, and the Altai Mountains towering overhead on the other. It was a remote place and there were only a couple of Kazakh families living in the area. I first met Lester, my guide, that evening and after a simple meal and even more simple conversation, I fell asleep to the sound of many yaks and goat, who were now grazing around my tent.
Early next morning, we began riding along the lake and the plan was to ride up toward a pass that was still currently deep in snow. I wish there were more words to describe this first day, other than relentless rain and icy cold winds, but it really was such a miserable day during which I thought about little more than the warmth of a cosy yurt and the hot milk tea they were sure to have inside.
It was awful, I was surrounded by the wilderness I had always wanted, yet in reality we were now stood over a fast river crossing in the midst of a bitter cold and miserable existence. Luckily, before we had any more time to contemplate how to cross, Lester leaped forward and began traversing the river leaving me with no other option than to also submerge my poor horse in the cold water.
After a long cold day, it was difficult to appreciate the surroundings of the yurt we slept in that night, the owners were another lovely family but in my mind, I was already growing tired of the same bland meals and Kazakh conversation to which I could not join in.
Thankfully these feelings were non-existent the next day as the horses galloped across the long grass of an endless steppe. It was here, where we passed the many nomadic herders living by simple means, in a life that must have been hardly different to the time of Genghis Khan. I wondered how it was possible for them to last the cold, long winters in this part of the world and with some afterthought, it made me appreciate the people I had come across during those few days, how tough and strong they must have been to survive all this time.
Another evening, I stared into the darkness surrounding my little campfire and reminisced at how perfect and simple everything seemed to be in that moment. No television, no schedule, no arguments, no distractions — just the simple surroundings of nature, and an appreciation for the small things in life.
In the morning I woke up to a perfectly blue sky with a few clouds hanging over the mountains in the distance. Today I was off the horse and walking, as we had agreed that Lester would ride back to his yurts after two days. Wherever I went, the locals seemed pleased by my presence and made every effort to offer a welcome of some sort, even if it were only a brief exchange of hand signals.
On the final day, the harsh rain and cold winds had returned so I spent the morning in a small wooden hut drinking tea with a local, until Lester and his friend showed up unexpectedly. They motioned me to jump on the bike with them and then off we rode, all three of us on the motorbike cruising across open fields and barren landscapes, stopping only briefly to down some chocolate and a bottle of vodka.
We finally arrived at Lester’s yurt, where I would spend the next 3 days living with his family and helping them carry out their daily chores. I spent the days rounding up the yaks, collecting the cashmere from goats and carrying out repairs on the yurt.
Once more, I realized the importance of simple living as my trip came to an end with Lester’s family but ironically, it was also here when another entirely unexpected adventure would begin.
Having witnessed the importance of cashmere and the money Lester’s family were earning from this precious source, a question entered my mind as to how might his family be able to use their other animals boost their income? Why aren’t they collecting the yak wool? I had seen a few hand knitted yak beanies and scarfs in the shops in Ulaan Bataar and Olgii, and surely it has a warm coat of wool to keep it warm in the frigid winters.
This was when I first started thinking about yak wool and using it for outdoor clothing.