My first trip to Mongolia was an abrupt one. With only two weeks to plan and prepare, I had no time to contemplate what I was getting into. Cascading events eventually deposited me near the Chinese border and gave new meaning to the phrase “in the middle of nowhere”. I was not in the middle of nowhere… I left there the week before.
Monday, May 24, 1999 marks the beginning of the saga. I returned to Virginia Dale, Colorado from a days work at our cattle and cashmere goat ranch in Wyoming and found a voice message asking if I would be interested in submitting a resume for a consulting job in Mongolia. Resume! I hadn’t done one of those since 1976. Mongolia! I knew where it was. I knew about it’s being the second largest cashmere producing country in the world. But Mongolia and me…. it just didn’t jibe immediately. I returned the call to Land O’Lakes International Development Division and was informed that the powers that be in Mongolia were concerned about an unacceptable increase in the diameter of Mongolian cashmere and were launching an American aid agency funded project to reverse the trend. They knew I had been involved in a research project at the University of Wyoming intended to manipulate cashmere characteristics and that I was the President of the Cashmere Producers of America. I patiently explained that since it was summer, the goats would not have fiber on them, ipso facto this was not the time to go and consult. Not to be deterred, LOL patiently replied that Mercy Corps, the in country contractor to USAID, wanted a consultant now and would I be interested? Could I teach fiber classing skills? Did I have access to cooperative extension type materials? Was my passport current? Yes, yes, yes and yes were the answers. But actually saying, “yes, I will go” was very difficult; for at heart, I am a chicken. I detest leaving home, especially alone. I detest flying. But this was an unparalleled professional opportunity. My family and I decided that I should rise to the challenge and go. I quaked in my boots.
I didn’t have to get any shots, thank heavens. I did have to submit instructional materials that would be translated by the time I arrived to be shared with the herders I was scheduled to meet. Luckily, most were already written and needed only to be customized to fit the Mongolian situation. My itinerary read like a list of who’s who in the Mongolian cashmere industry. I wondered what I would ask them. My flight left Laramie, Wyoming at 8 am on Wednesday
June 16. Two and a half days later, I arrived in Ulaanbataar (UB), the capital of Mongolia, relatively unscathed. I even had all my luggage, which included a sleeping bag, 16 fleeces generously donated by the Cashmere America Coop to support my classing clinic, ear taggers, castrating tools, research materials, plastic bags, and two pairs of jeans for the local French restaurateur. Food in UB was pretty good, if you like mutton; even excellent, if you didn’t know it was mutton. I instituted my strict dietary rules that govern eating out (as in out of the country). No water, no ice, no juice, no fresh washed fruits or vegetables. Since I don’t drink Coke, I had to settle for a Tiger, a Korean beer that was pretty good. UB is a sprawling city of 630,000 persons located in a river valley at the foot of forested rolling mountains. It was very green and dominated by familiar plants; willow, pines, cottonwood trees, even the weeds looked friendly. Two huge coal fired plants dominate the skyline and each pours unscrubbed effluents freely into the still air. Blocks and blocks of concrete slab, high rise apartments march up the valley. My hotel, the Bayangol, was located near the city center and was quite luxurious, with all the amenities.
The first working day was Saturday. I went to the Mercy Corps offices at 9am and met with what was to be “the team”. The team consisted of myself; Altansetseg (Alta), a New Zealand educated land use specialist; Gambat, a shy, professional fiber classer; Altansuk (Aka), a personable, motivated research assistant specializing in tracking the market perturbations for fiber and food stuffs; and Munkhtsetseg (Moogie), a student intern. Susan, a former Peace Corp volunteer and a professional economist on sabbatical from the Kellogg’s corporate ladder was the in-country American program director. The last team member was Beyer, our translator, also New Zealand educated.
That afternoon, Alta and I met with Dr Zagsduren, Professor at the Research Institute of Animal Husbandry (RIAH), the leading cashmere goat researcher in Mongolia. The project planned on buying several breeding bucks from his privately owned breeding buck farm located 200 km from UB. It is his research that documented the coarsening of Mongolian cashmere (from 14.5 microns up to 17.9 microns). This increase has alarmed the UB cashmere processors because they have predicated their business plans on the availability of quantities of very fine fiber. Historically, Mongolian cashmere is among the finest, both quality-wise and physically. Cashmere is an important export for Mongolia, contributing about 10% of its total export market, and is an important source of cash commerce. The five major cashmere processors (as well as the ten minor ones) turned to the international aid community beseeching them to help reverse this trend. The need to increase income to the 42% of rural Mongolians living in poverty with few choices sparked the international aid aimed at resolving the problem. I wondered if the fact that Mongolia is wedged between Russia and China made any difference. I was there to review existing breeding programs and to make recommendations that would lead to increased income from cashmere to the herders. Sure, I could do that… no problem!
Dr Zagsduren is an affable man and during our first interview, he told me of the tens of thousands of fiber samples he has catalogued and the dramatic results of his breeding program. His photos showed sleek red bucks with huge horns and were accompanied by histograms measuring fiber that was 14 or 15 microns. I was impressed. He was working with another aid agency and had sold 40 yearling bucks to them for distribution to herders in central Mongolia. I really wanted to see these bucks so we made plans to meet later before the bucks were shipped.
The following day, the team left for our 12-hour journey to Loess soum (about 400 kilometers, as the crow flies) to meet with the local governor and agricultural experts. Mongolia is politically divided into eighteen municipalities called aimags. Each aimag is sub-divided into four or five soums and each soum into three bags. Loess soum, which is part of Dundgovi aimag, is located south of UB on the main “road” leading to the Gobi Desert aimags. When we left UB, we left the only paved roads in the country. Although this is the route to all points south, the road consists of multiple two-tracks weaving their way across the otherwise unbroken steppe. Where the road washed out, more two-tracks appeared skirting the now dried mud hole. The dusty track is deeply rutted and luckily relatively untraveled. When we did meet oncoming traffic, it was invariably traveling on the same two-track as we were. Our Mongolian drivers seemed to relish in playing their version of chicken… both drivers would stick to their two-track, swerving ever so slightly at the last moment to allow the two vehicles to pass without colliding. The team rode in two vans; one a regular street van (mine) and the other a 4WD Japanese model with right hand drive. Both drivers were really in a hurry to get where we were going. The 4WD van with its high center negotiated the roads well and usually led the way. My driver had to drive as fast as he could to keep up; straddling the ruts, hitting bumps and becoming airborne, and ruthlessly scraping the underside of the vehicle against the rocky soil. I felt I needed to wear my seatbelt in case a sudden blowout caused the van to roll. After the first day, I also wore a foam neck brace to prevent whiplash. We were loaded with not only luggage, but with large bags of foodstuffs intended as gifts for the herders we were to see; rice, sugar, blocks of green tea, fruit and candy for the children. Amazingly enough,we suffered only one flat tire, a holed oil pan (twice) and we only got stuck once. Considering there were no road signs what so ever and that we had no maps, no shovel, and no towrope, the fact that we returned was amazing.
The countryside is filled with small herds of goats and sheep, horses, cattle and camels and near UB, the grass was plentiful. Each herd is attended by a mounted herdsman, some carrying a long, slender pole with a rope loop on the end; the Mongolian equivalent to the lasso. The herds always range close to a small ger, a Mongolian round hut. Historically, the Mongols were true nomads, driving their small herds from water source to water source. The right to use the best land is “owned” by the richest and most senior herder in the area and his heirs forever. When the Russians took over in the 1930s, they imposed strict political boundaries and required the payment of levies if a herder crossed from his home bag into the neighboring bag. This tended to limit the historic range of the herders. The land is not privately owned, but each herder has a specific area through which he might travel each season. In summer, he lives in small gers that are highly portable by camelback. It takes about 20 minutes to completely disassemble a small summer ger and pack it and all its contents onto three camels. Depending upon the available grass, he moves every 10 days to four weeks. In the event of drought, herders must move farther afield to find grass and in that case, negotiations take place and exceptions are made. In this way, Mongolians are very generous; they know drought might strike them next year, reversing their positions. Water comes from shallow, hand-dug wells with a short trough made of concrete, wood or an old tire next to them. Herders must lower a small usually leaky bucket down 15 feet or so into the brackish water and haul up a few gallons of water at a time to dump into the trough. In this way, they water 250 to 500 animals twice each day. They say it is easier in the winter because the work keeps them warm and the animals are not as thirsty. Many water sources in the Gobi do not freeze solid because they are so alkaline.
In winter, herders retire to a permanent winter camp which consists of a large, rough, three sided barn for the animals, and perhaps a wooden, one room structure that is used for storage. During the winter, larger gers are erected nearby and lined with two extra layers of felt to keep out the driving cold. A central, dung-fired stove provides heat and cooking. The stovepipe pokes out the circular opening in the roof. The floor is covered with carpets or linoleum. Furniture is limited to low beds with ticking mattresses and two large, colorfully painted boxes that serve as bureaus and packing boxes. There is always a battery-powered clock, a dog-eared farmer’s almanac, photos of relatives, and sometimes a rusty saw tucked into the rafters above the door for luck. The toothbrushes and/or small sink are usually located immediately to the left as the ger is entered. Clockwise, next is the woman’s bed, then her bureau, then his bureau, then his bed, then the food larder to the right of the door. Guests enter unannounced, even if they are strangers, stepping over the threshold with the right foot first and should move around the ger in a clockwise direction. Rank is very important in Mongolian society. The highest-ranking member of a group should enter the ger first and sit opposite the doorway with the host seated to his left. Small stools are available, but the floor is more comfortable. Preliminary discussions always concern the weather and the grass. During this time, the host routinely produces a small, ornately sewn, triple folded pouch, from which he extracts a small, beautifully carved snuff bottle. He will open the snuff bottle, check its contents, and offer it to the guest whom he perceives to be the highest ranking. Normally, gender does not enter into the decision, although age does. The snuff bottle is offered in a cupped right hand, using the left to support his outstretched elbow. The recipient should then accept the offered bottle in the exact same pose. This formalized gesture dates back to the era when the host and guest were expected to prove they were unarmed. The guest examines the fine carving and partakes of the snuff. A cursory sniff is acceptable. Then, the recipient must hand the bottle back to the host so he can determine who is of next highest rank and therefore the next offered. This continues until all guests and family members, except children, are served.
During this time, the woman of the house will produce small, fine china bowls and fill them with “tea” from a large, ubiquitous thermos. Mongolian tea is really hot skim milk from whatever species is being milked at the time with scant few green tea leaves in the bottom. In some areas, salt is added to the tea. If there is a shortage of bowls, guest are served tea, again according to rank, and the bowl returned to the central stove (or in summer, table). It is then washed out with a teaspoonful of precious water, wiped with cheesecloth, refilled and reoffered. Nothing is ever passed through the center of the ger, in between the wooden roof supports. A bowl of milk products fixed a thousand ways mixed with small, hard baked bread sticks is uncovered on the central table or floor and guests are expected to help themselves. To at least taste the fare is mandatory. The milk products range from soft, gooey masses to hard, crunchy nuggets. Milk is served dried, curdled, as yogurt, as tea, and as a fermented drink called airag (from mare’s milk) or horaak (from goat’s milk), but never as cheese. All have to be sampled by each guest as a matter of course. In a land where brucellosis is endemic and Bang’s disease in animals and Undulant Fever in humans commonplace, it is impossible to avoid unpasteurized milk. Furthermore, in a land where sudden sandstorms descend upon camps regularly, milk products are often offered with the flotsam and jetsam of the outdoor world floating on the surface. When this happens, the polite thing to do is gently blow the floating particles to the far side of the bowl before taking a sip. No problem!
After the tea bowls are refilled and the food sampled, business can then be conducted. After several hours seated on the floor or on tiny stools, the host might break out a bottle of vodka, even though it’s only 11 o’clock in the morning. Again, the serving of the vodka is highly ritualized and based upon rank. Some herders have small shot glasses while others use a small silver or china bowl. The highest ranking are served first and they are expected to drink all or most of what is offered. To not do so is considered impolite. The empty glass is returned to the host, refilled and offered to the next guest or family member until the bottle is empty. Then, lunch is served. All meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) in Mongolia consist of mutton (fresh or dried) served in a soup with either thick noodles, heavy dumplings or rice flavored with a few potatoes and carrots. It’s really quite good. But Mongolians especially savor animal fat and those of the highest rank are sure to be served the largest, clear lump of fat. I didn’t know what it was at first and had to apologize to my hostess when I was unable to eat it. It is not unusual for a guest to suddenly stand up and leave the ger without a word. Sometimes, it means he has to go “water the horses”. Latrines in the summer camp consist of the nearest bush, which could be quite a ways away. In towns, the latrine is a hole in the ground with appropriately spaced planks laid over the top, with or without a surrounding structure. Our team traveled with lots of wet wipes in large cans. Showers are non-existent and bathing is done under the cold stream of a hand pump. I’ve heard that is good for the soul. Mongolians remind me of Asian-Americans; they are tall and stocky with good, white teeth, flattened faces, almond eyes and lightly tanned skin. They are quick to smile. Their eyes flash and miss little. The language is totally unintelligible to my western ear. It consists of guttural sounds, toothy clicks and linguistic trills. I wondered why the Japanese war effort in WWII didn’t come to a Mongol to interpret the Navajo code talkers, so similar do the languages sound. I had a fistful of two-sided business cards to pass around; English on the front, Mongolian on the back. My name in Mongolian, which uses the Russian alphabet looks like this: KpHC MaKTyaHp, sort of. The “T” is really an upside down and backward “L”. Although the Russians tried to eradicate religion by destroying all the 13th century monasteries, many Mongols are followers of the Dali Lama and routinely worship. A middle fingertip wetted with vodka is flicked towards the sky, the earth and over the shoulder for the Mongolian people before the beverage is drunk. Bright blue silk scarves are everywhere; accompanying the giving of gifts, decorating the worship cairns that mark the entrance to all places, identifying winning horses. Some destroyed monasteries have been rebuilt and monks in saffron robes intone long hours before celebrations can begin. Milk, the gift of life is offered to the gods by flinging wooden spoonfuls skyward at the beginning of each day in front of the ger door.
The gers themselves are marvelous. The walls are made of several 5-foot by 10-foot sections of willow poles laced together like a folding trellis and lashed end to end in a circle. A short, stout door completes the wall. The roof consists of dozens of slender pine pole rafters radiating out from a carved wooden circle supported by two stout wooden beams. These are all colorfully painted with blue, yellow, red and green typical Mongolian designs on a field of bright orange. The furniture is similarly painted. The walls and roof are covered with an inch thick layer of felt, a layer that is tripled in the winter, and topped off with a cotton canvas cover sewn like a tent. Felt is made by spreading a thick layer of washed wool on a stout canvas and rolling it up like a jelly roll. A central pole is harnessed to a horse and the roll is pulled behind the galloping horse until the heat of friction felts the wet wool. Sections of felt are neatly cut and bound to fit exactly. There is always a yak hair braided rope hanging from the center of every ger, the end of which is neatly coiled and tucked up into the rafters. I wondered about its function until one day, a sudden sandstorm swept across the steppe. I was conducting a fiber classing clinic in Tomor’s ger, just outside of Dalanzalbad, the Gobi Desert area’s main city. About 20 people were participating and I had stepped outside for a breath of air while they examined each of ten different shorn, American goat fleeces assessing color, yield, micron diameter and style. I noticed a fast moving cloud of dust on the horizon and after I stepped back inside to continue with the next lesson, the storm arrived. Quickly and with little fuss, the door, the roof flap and the floor level air vents at the base of the ger were shut and the tallest, strongest men stepped up to the center of the ger to grasp the yak hair rope and wooden uprights until the violent storm passed. The ger was left filled with fine sand, but was otherwise intact.
Mongolia is a huge country covering over 600,000 square miles. If placed in the American West, it would cover most of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. It ranges in elevation from 3000 to 5000 feet and is located between 42° and 50° North latitude. The desert area in the south and east receive an average annual rainfall of 5 inches. The more mountainous north and west receive only 15 inches of annual precipitation on average. Truth be told, it looks a lot like Wyoming, only with no large rivers or steep mountainsides. Mongolia was the first land mass to emerge from the primordial soup and its mountains are worse for the wear. Wildlife niches are amazingly similar to the American West. There are Mongolian versions of marmots, pika, kangaroo rats, jackrabbits, fox-like carnivores called haiirs, wolves, bats, plover, lark buntings, horned larks, eagles, hawks and little kestrels, ravens, vultures, graceful Chinese cranes, shy herds of impala (similar to pronghorn antelope), big horn sheep, ibex, wild (modern) horses, camels and yak, wild ass and some endangered species such as the Gobi bear and Prezwalski’s horse. I felt real at home with the wildlife. The Mongolian people are fairly homogenous with 75% of the population being Kahlka Mongols. The population is 58% urban although many city dwellers depend upon their rural extended families to supply them meat for the winter months. Urban Mongols can simply hang frozen sheep carcasses on their apartment balconies to keep all winter long. In the countryside, gers dot the landscape, especially along the roads that connect the towns. Each bag has a single town that serves as its center. These centers of commerce have a diesel-fired generator that runs sporadically, a coal-fired heating plant for the main buildings which consist of a school and a government house, and a collection of gers arranged in long fenced-in blocks. Petty vandalism is commonplace and everything is locked behind solid walls every night. There may be a small store at which warm beer, vodka and candy can be purchased, but most commerce is in the form of barter or trade. Only the aimag centers have a hotel, a restaurant, a bank and a post office. All centers are connected by telephone, although phone line theft leaves some areas isolated for weeks at a time. Banks do exist but in the Gobi region, they have not made any loans for two years. Banks in UB do make small loans, but their interest rate is 12% per month. All commodities must be trucked in from UB at a cost of $0.50 per kilometer per ton or carried in from China by camel train. The local currency is called the tugrick and 1000 tugricks = $1 USD.
Since decollectivization in 1990, many un- or under-employed Mongols have taken to the herding life. Not only do they not know how to herd, they have nowhere to herd. Because of the recent increase in the number of herders, we saw many winter camps surrounded by grazing herbivores in the summertime. But the urge to move is there. Urban Mongols love to go camping. They use large white tents emblazoned with a blue Mongolian design and travel to the mountains almost every summer weekend in large groups. Family is very important and I must say that every Mongolian child I observed was very well behaved and respectful of the family harmony. Rural families live together in extended groups of at least three generations; sometimes with multiple sons, their wives and children living with the parents. The chores are divided up; the older children tend the stock; the grandmothers cook, sew and look after the younger children. The male adults do the heavy outside work and tend the farther afield herds on horseback. The mothers do the milking and the heavy inside work with whole families pitching in when necessary. Their diet is made up entirely of meat, milk and starch. Rarely in the summertime are there onions or carrots to balance the diet. Fruit is an almost unknown treat. The incidence of rickets and other nutritional disease, successfully controlled under the Russians, is now very high. I saw at least two babies with soft bowlegs. The incidence of eye problems such as cataracts, crossed eyes, and bulging eyes is alarming. But they all live together harmoniously. I observed an interesting superstition related to close living. Every once in a while, in a group of folks that were seated or standing together, two would suddenly shake hands for no apparent reason. I puzzled over this for some time. But then, while shifting my uncomfortable position on the floor of a crowded ger, I accidentally touched my foot to the toe of my translator’s boot. He immediately stuck out his hand, explaining that Mongols believe touching feet breaks the friendship and that the two must shake and make up.
When the Russians pulled out of Mongolia in 1990, they left so suddenly their half-built construction projects in the capital look like they are still underway. Huge cranes arch over the skeleton of a sports stadium, their cables dangling expectantly. Mongolia was to say the least, unprepared to be an independent country after so many years of Russian domination and aid money. Our translator, Beyer told me that there are three possible reasons for the abject poverty that grips most of the Mongolian rural population: Dictatorship, Civil War or Corruption. Mongolia is a multi-party republic with a unicameral legislature and an elected Prime Minister. It is not at war with itself or with any of its neighbors, although they eye the Chinese warily as China once claimed Mongolia. Corruption, the legacy of the Russian system, remains. Meantime, the country’s infrastructure, which was sorely underdeveloped under the Russians, crumbles into oblivion. The rural people, who expect a socialized system to support them as it once did, wait… but no support comes. Wells dry up, untended windmills self-destruct, buildings decay, vandalized pump engines rust. People congregate near the towns and cities, dependent upon what few services are available and hoping for more. They bring with them their ever-increasing herds of camels, horses, cattle, sheep and goats. The land around the towns is becoming overgrazed to the point of desertification. Lush grasslands exist farther afield, but they go unused and yet the herds grow.
Historically, goats made up a small percentage of the total herd, maybe 30%. Now, some herds are more than 50% goats. This is bad because smaller numbers of goats as a percentage of the herd allowed for a more balanced use of available forage. With increasing goat percentages, the range is being over-utilized. Sheep are the primary unit of barter; everyone knows how many sheep equal a kilo of flour. Only sheep meat is eaten regularly. Wool is used to make warm felt to line ger walls, winter clothing and footwear. It is also sold by the camel train-full to China. Sheep are given as prizes in wrestling competitions. All range forage requirements are in terms of sheep units. They are not usually milked for some reason. Horses on the other hand, are a status symbol. Mongols are horseracing fanatics and the more horses you have, the richer you are. Mares milk is fermented into a beer-like beverage called airag, the national drink, beginning in late June after the colts are weaned. Camels are primarily beasts of burden although their shedding wool is collected and sold. Occasionally, they are milked. A few cows are kept to supply milk during the winter and spring months. Goats, once the least preferable species to a Mongol herder, are milked during the summer and fall and a lot of it is dried and stored for use during the winter. They also supply the only potential source of cash income: cashmere.
A typical goatherd consists primarily of large, coarser, wethers (castrated males), hence the noted increase in cashmere micron diameter. But to increase that much when the environment is doing its best to encourage fine fiber is amazing. Thin goats will grow finer fiber than fat goats, but there is no such thing as a fat goat in the Gobi. The availability of summer forage is dependent upon summer rain and drought is common. In the higher elevations, grasses are more plentiful and in better condition, sprouting seed heads and lots of forage. The Mongolian range is covered by short, hard grasses and when it becomes overgrazed, noxious weeds and unpalatable brush species similar to snakeweed move in. In the Gobi, vegetation becomes sparse; sometimes more than sparse as in non-existent. In the winter, there is no fodder available… none. Herds depend upon what is left over after the summer grazing. In especially bad winters, herders sometimes grind up summer horse manure to feed starving kid goats. The Russians used to require able-bodied women to hand-harvest the plentiful hay and they did bring in some mechanized haying equipment. But now, all the tractors and rakes have broken down and there are no replacement parts available. For some reason that is beyond me, no one cuts and stacks the available hay as insurance against starvation. In Mongolia, the winters are long and cold. The most feared weather event, a fierce ice storm is called dzud. When dzud strikes, it brings high winds and freezing snow and all available forage becomes buried under a layer of ice. Herders must move their herds out of the dzud area until the condition passes because they have no fodder. How the animals eat enough during the winter to survive remains a mystery.
The Mongolian cashmere industry is also a mystery. Obviously, Mongol herders have been growing cashmere goats for centuries so you’d expect them to be experts. But they do not know how to assess fiber diameter or style. They look at length and yield alone. Their goats are walking skeletons, except in the Fall I am told. And they produce amazing amounts of fiber, up to 500 grams per head (over one pound), averaging 300 grams. But the fiber, once hunger-fine, is now becoming coarser. It is contaminated by scurf (dandruff) to a greater degree due to a total lack of nutrition. It is adulterated by unethical traders who add camel hair, wool, moisture and dirt to the bags of combed cashmere. According to the UB processors, Mongolian fiber has coarsened to an unacceptable level. UB processors have based their industry on an unlimited supply of fine, light colored fiber that is less than 16 microns. In the 40s, the Russians introduced Angora cross breeding stock called the Don Goat and crossbred them with the pure Mongolian cashmeres. The resulting breed was called Gobi Gurvahn Saikahn or GGS. These GGS bucks were very large and black with lots of very coarse fiber. By the 1980s, the Russians figured out what using such crosses was doing to their fiber, but by that time, it was too late. When they pulled out in 1990, the herders in the Gobi region were left with few choices for breeding stock. Conditions in the Gobi are so bad that herders wether every kid buck because they know it will die if left intact. The extra energy expended by young kid bucks exceeds that taken in and the bucks die. Herders are left with few choices and many still use ancient GGS bucks as their primary breeding stock. They might run one buck with up to 120 does. Their productivity is 80% (twinning is unknown) with a 10% mortality rate over all age-classes every winter. Goats lose up to 40% of their bodyweight over the winter months. The fact that they survive at all is a tribute to the goats’ hardiness. Does kid in March, are combed in April, and are milked from June through November. They have precious little time to recover their resources before being bred again in October. The number of goats and the percentage of goats among the herds as a whole are growing alarmingly. This is due to the fact that there is no market for goat meat or culled animals… none whatsoever. The wethers grow into very large animals that produce very coarse cashmere and they out-compete the more fragile and needy does for limited resources. Only the most established and knowledgeable herders realize the benefits of and can manage the task of maintaining separate herds by age-class. New herders have but a single herd and perhaps one or two children to tend them daily and haul the water. The most pathetic herders never move from their winter camp, depending upon the exhausted land to feed them through one more winter.
Herders who live far from the city centers are dependent upon itinerant Chinese traders to buy cashmere, their only cash crop. Unfortunately, by the time April rolls around, many herders are practically destitute. They are willing to trade their cashmere for foodstuffs at any price. There is a market for cashmere with a price that is supposed to vary as to quality, but it just doesn’t seem to work that way. For example, UB processors claim to pay a premium for fine cashmere, a price of $17 per kilo. They define fine cashmere as less than 16 microns in diameter and greater than 80% yield (ratio of fiber to waste guard hair). They say they will buy lesser quality cashmere for $11 a kilo, but none is offered at that price. The UB processors expect the herders to deliver cashmere to their door or at least to the aimag center cashmere warehouse. This is out of the question for the majority of herders who have no transportation or who do not live near a road. The Chinese traders, however, bring their wares to the ger door; no matter how isolated and offer a price of $15 per kilo for any type of hair that a goat grows. Of course the herders trade there, even though the price of sugar from the trader may be many times the current market price. To make things worse, there is a national holiday in mid-February that involves the giving of gifts and feasting. Many herders have no money in February to fulfill these family obligations and end up selling futures contracts at very low prices to these same Chinese traders. Any way you cut it, the Mongol herders come out on the short end of the stick. The UB processors are complaining loudly that they can’t buy enough fine cashmere. The herders are not incentivized to grow finer cashmere because of the Chinese market. The government can’t seem to control the illegal export of raw cashmere. The General Manager of Mon-Fortè, John Napoleoni recommends that all goats in the five aimags of the Gobi be shot due to the fact that they grow bad fiber. Then he says that Mon-Fortè will be forced to shut down its operation in December due to a shortage of supply. He explains that he can’t afford to pay more than $17 a kilo for fiber.due to his manufacturing costs and the current world price for dehaired batt, which is Mon-Fortè’s main product. But if the herders can get $15 per kilo at their ger door for any type of fiber, they would be unwise to begin blindly selecting for fine fiber, risking the associated reduction in production and bodyweight. Australian researches Bill Pattie and Barrie Restall have documented these genetic correlations.
But, that is what I was there to do… design a breeding program to decrease micron diameter, maintain production and increase bodyweight. A pretty tall order in my book. The project team started by interviewing the herders themselves. We had identified the most respected and influential herders in four Gobi soums and asked them what they wanted to do with their fiber. Three of the four emphatically stated they wanted to grow finer fiber and they needed select breeding bucks to do it. We never did find the fourth to ask him. They were very interested in learning fiber classing so we conducted fiber-classing clinics. Since my departure, Gambat has continued this instruction effort and at last count, over 180 herders have participated. I suggested that it might be possible to immediately increase income to the herders by sorting the fiber as it is combed by first separating the goats by age-class and bagging the fiber separately. Generally speaking, younger goats and female goats grow finer fiber than the older wethers. This technique will be tried next season but it remains to be seen if a bag of finer fiber will actually bring more than an unsorted one.
It seems as if a nucleus herd group breeding scheme has the best chance to succeed. Tomor, a respected herder in Omnogovi aimag, controls over 4000 does spread over 11 family members. He and the local agricultural expert, Lkhagvasuren have already assessed the does and intend to place the best in an elite herd this Fall. Breeding bucks will be supplied by the Mercy Corp project and perhaps from isolated local breeders. We left Tomor in search of Mr. Doo, a renowned breeder living in the Gurvahn Saikahn Mountains to the south. It took us over 10 hours to find his ger over non-existent roads and camel tracks. Luckily, we were all in the 4WD van as the other had a hole in its oil pan. When we did find Mr. Doo’s teenaged girls herding goats, they took off running in fear. But Aka and Gambat managed to talk them down out of the mountaintop and they showed us the way to their ger and the road back. Mr. Doo was not home, unfortunately. His camel had wandered off and he was gone looking for it in the rugged mountains. His kid bucks were there though and they were really nice. They even had some condition to them, although only God knows what they ate. The dominant vegetative species is Ephedra spp, one of the oldest plant species alive and a source of epinephrine. It is said to be poisonous to livestock. I had never seen a living specimen. The mountains also support herds of ibex and big horn sheep. On the dusty plains that surround the mountain range, herds of wild ass and Prezewalski’s horse abound. They are protected species although if the current drought continues, herders may start moving into the Strictly Protected Areas.
On our way back to UB, we were fortunate enough to be invited to a mini-Nadaam celebration held at the intersecting corners of three bags. Nadaam is the Mongolian National Day, held on July 11, their independence day. Everyone in the region attended and we were the guests of the organizer, Djrembledorj. Susan and I were the only foreigners there and from the looks on the Mongols’ faces, we were the only American women they had ever seen. I was entranced with the swirl of color and activity, all taking place in one of the most remote places in the world. Every Mongol was carefully dressed in his or her dell, the national dress with wonderful hats called malgai. Malgai are smooth, colorful domes with four semicircular flaps on each side that don’t turn down. Malgai for men peak in a four inch long spike; malgai for women end in a Chinese knot about two inches long. Dells are made from either cotton or elaborate Chinese brocade; men usually wear darker, less colorful dells made of cotton with sleeves that hang down to their knees. I think that’s to keep their hands warm while riding. Dells have high Nehru collars and are like long coats that wrap around the wearer. They are clasped with pairs of Chinese knots at the neck, armpit and waist and the wearer is bound with yards and yards of silk scarf at the waist. Most Mongols at the Nadaam celebration were either riding horses or holding horses. Mongolian horses are short, stocky animals that slope noticeably down from wither to rump. Their saddle is cinched high on the wither and has a stiff, high cantle and swells. They resemble small chairs with stirrups. The simple snaffle bridles are made from braided yak hair and are decorated with lots of silver and turquoise. Mongolian horses have two speeds, stop and a dead run. The riders stand up in the saddle, undoubtedly to preserve their teeth, and race full speed across the sharp rocky terrain even if they are just going over there. The ponies’ hooves are unshod and I noted only one lame horse… amazing! Morning events were the horseraces. Older horses and their youthful jockeys raced 30 kilometers beginning at 9 am. We arrived in time to see the juvenile horse race and their even younger jockeys (both boys and girls) finish their 14-kilometer race. We got the whole tour and the best seats to watch the wrestling, meaning we were allowed to sit on the hood of the truck parked next to the official’s tent. In the afternoon, the wrestling was fascinating. Scantily clad giants bend double, head to head, grasping at any handhold. There are fewrules but lots of judges. The first man to go down loses. Every bout is preceded and followed by a highly ritualized dance as the huge wrestlers gracefully impersonate butterflies circling in slow motion. The winner took home a very handsome sheep and some cash as well as the respect of the entire community. The Nadaam celebration in the capital city UB is a giant version of what we had witnessed. In addition to horseracing and wrestling, it includes archery competitions, where both men and women compete against each other. Hundreds of gers and tents are erected outside the city to house the most famous horseracers who travel for weeks to participate. The winning wrestler was awarded a brand new Jeep Galloper, a full size sport utility vehicle.
We left the mini-Nadaam and drove to UB to assess the situation and complete my itinerary. I talked and listened to everyone connected with the Mongolian cashmere industry but the best information came from Djrembledorj, one of the project’s herders. He has generations of experience and provided valuable insights into how to approach the problem. What the herders really need is fresh genetics. Due to the harsh climate and conditions, inbreeding in the Gobi desert is a problem with both animal and human populations. Herders are acutely aware of the consequences of a limited gene pool. Many women remain unmarried due to the lack of suitable mates. Goat populations are not left unmated however and the incidence of bad teeth, cow hocks, slight bodies can be traced to using the same bucks over and over until they drop dead. It is obvious that the herders in the Mercy Corp program are most interested in getting fresh blood in the form of select bucks. But not withstanding, they seem to understand and appreciate the genetic correlations between cashmere goat characteristics and they are willing to collect the type of data necessary to benefit from Pattie and Restall’s research results. Amazingly enough, the agricultural experts located in the soum and bag centers do have access to computers with Microsoft Excel, even if they do have to work between 9 pm and midnight on Saturdays and Sundays only. I hope they save their files often. These guys are university educated and are really interested in using the Cashmere Wyoming database that I brought to sort things out.
They want me to come back during the winter to help collect the data from each individual doe. I’m not sure I want to go back, but I feel an allegiance to the herders who showed me such genuine respect and hospitality when I was there. These folks have it pretty tough and there aren’t many solutions to their problems. I feel fortunate that I could be involved in the effort to better their lot in life. But I see so many obstacles. The infrastructure just isn’t there to bring goods to market. There is no market in many cases. But the will is there. Mongolians are proud people. Chiggis Kahn, the great conqueror (aka Ghengis Kahn) is everywhere… on billboards, on currency, as statuary. Mongols once ruled most of the known world from Indonesia to Poland. Their strength came from the vast acreages of grasslands that supported horses and highly mobile populations. They still have that… and precious little else. I don’t know how this will all work out. Breeding programs are notoriously slow and the herders’ needs are so great. But all we can do is keep trying. Why is that ever so?