Cashmere is a word that has a magical significance when spoken. It's an amazing fiber that conjures sophistication, elegance and warmth at the same time. Yet it has such a humble beginning that I find it enthralling.
Many of you probably know that my grandparents (father's side) were herders. I and my siblings used to spend our summers with them, but we never visited them during the cashmere goat combing season (April) in the Spring - school in Mongolia runs from the first of September through the end of May. Since I started NOOS SHOP last November, I've been longing to visit a herding family, who would be willing to share their lifestyle. My original plan to travel to Hovsgol, in the western part of Mongolia, was cancelled due to bad weather and road conditions.
Luckily, Monkhor (my uncle) had contact with some of our relatives in the east of the country. They are still at their winter site, near Malakh Steppes. Our itinerary included a day stop at Baruun-Urt (about 311 miles from Ulaanbaatar), the capital of Sukhbaatar aimag (similar to a state in the US) where my aunt lives with her family. Then we planned to head off to the Malakh Steppes. So, we began our journey on April 22nd from Ulaanbaatar, at 6am. The highway had some snow patches. I was told that there was a snow storm three days before - a reminder that spring can be unpredictable on the steppes.
Unlike the US, there is no highway clean up – nature takes care of it on it’s own time. All highways in the countryside are two-way, which scares the heck out of me, but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else much.
We arrived at Baruun-Urt around 3pm and had a delicious noodle soup with dried beef. It tastes very much like the Mexican machaca but with lots of fat on it. We had an exclusive evening tour of the town with my cousin Naraa. The town has many beautiful monuments and the most important is for “Niigmiin Khongor” – a very famous racing horse.
The morning after we hopped in to my uncle’s car and head off to the Malakh Steppe to meet my relatives (Purvee’s family - Nanzgaa, his wife, is my grandmother’s niece) that I’ve never met before.
We drove 136 miles on paved roads till Chinggis town, capital of Hentii aimag. Then we got on a dirt road (for another 100 miles), which is not the worst in the country but it’s a bumpy ride with no road signs. We ended up asking everyone we could find for directions.
Finally, we made it to Purvee’s winter site, our destination, around 4pm. It’s a relatively small winter site, and we were greeted with curious baby goats first (they are too young to pasture with their mothers). We were invited into the ger (their round-shaped felt dwelling, it’s also called yurt), and offered brown tea with butter (no milk tea – must leave the milk for the young goats at this time of the year) and home-made fried cookies, highly appreciated after 9 hours of driving. The living standard in the ger is not the most luxurious, but I was surprised to see a modern TV, freezer, a Gmobile phone (intended for rural areas, it works much better than our mobile phones, which were useless - no network coverage at all) and a cat – the opposite of the complete remoteness that I had expected.
It says "The Herders's Yellow."
Cat on a leash!
Combing the Goats
Even though it’s already spring, I could feel the signs of the cold, windy, dry winter: my eyes keep watering and skin got added layers of dirt as I watched Erhee (my cousin) and Monkhor comb the cashmere goats.
Erhee said they have mostly black goats and few white and red ones. Their goats are from a small village called “Dorvoljin,” meaning square, in the western part of Mongolia where they grew up. They moved to GobiSumber aimag to the east almost ten years ago when the pasture land in the west dried out. She said their goats are smaller in size compared to other goats in this area, but they are resilient and hardy. They have over 250 goats and she knows them all, even which baby goats belongs to which mothers. To me all the black goats looked alike – there is no way I can differentiate them from each other.
Erhee is the expert in combing: first she held the goat on its back, facing up, and combed its chest. Then she tied down the goat’s three legs (I was told it’s more comfortable for the goat) and laid it down on its side. She started combing with a multi-tooth metal comb about 6” wide, from the goat’s backbone across the ribs and then onto the belly (this is the highly valued fiber). The fiber from the neck, chest, and behind the ears is shorter and coarser. A smaller comb is used for those areas.
Erhee handed me the big comb after she did few serious of passes working up the side. The comb was heavier than I expected, at least ½ pound. The goat’s guard hair has tangles, which create resistance for the comb, but the raw cashmere underneath was loose and came off easily while most of the guard hair stayed on the goat. It took almost an hour by the time Erhee wrapped up the combing. Normally, it takes her about half an hour to comb one goat.
Erhee's tips: it’s important to know when to comb the goat: if you comb the goat too early in the season, it may not have enough protection if the weather turns bad. It is best to avoid combing any goats before they deliver their babies, and you can always tell when to comb by the loose cashmere near the ear and top of the goat’s neck.
After spending a day and half with Purvee’s family, it was time to head back to Ulaanbaatar. We said goodbye to Purvee and his family, and the baby goat that I got close to during our stay. Special thanks to my uncle Monkhor and Purvee’s family - without their help and kindness, this trip wouldn’t have happened.
Next up: Learning to make cashmere clothing on a hand machine with my sister’s family. Stay tuned!