Meeting Halmira – Olgii, Western Mongolia
This was a chance encounter. Bashakhan – one of the Mongol Kazakh eagle hunters we work in long-term local community partnership with in Bayan Olgii, Mongolia’s westernmost province – told us to get in touch with Halmira. So we did.
Halmira is a Mongol Kazakh and was widowed when her youngest child was just two. A mother of five, Halmira survived financially by creating traditional Kazakh embroidery. However, apart from local sales, she has never really had an outlet for her remarkable skill. So we decided we would try to create experiences that enabled us to help support her.
Embroidery is a traditional element of Kazakh folk art and reflects the rich cultural heritage of the Kazakhs. It is believed that embroidery was used
‘to “endow” clothing and household items with beauty, recognition, status, also protective function.’
Keste: Kazakhstan embroidery that celebrates nature, Garland Magazine
This intricate art form involves the skilled use of multi-coloured threads to create geometric patterns, floral and zoomorphic motifs, and symbolic designs on various textiles, such as clothing and bags. Many of the Kazakh needlework patterns are also imbued with cosmogonic and astral symbolism. As with most embroidery patterns around the world, there is a deep meaning and symbolism behind every design and each embroidered piece tells a story, often passed down through generations, and holds deep cultural significance. Kazakh embroidery is not only a source of pride but also a means of preserving the country’s unique identity and celebrating its nomadic history.
The high points of Kazakh embroidery are considered the wall hangings (tuskiiz) which are the talismans of a person’s home; the unique patterns of the felt carpets (shyrdak) and ceremonial men’s and women’s clothing (such as the robes known as shapan).
With Halmira, her home is her workshop. Self-taught, Halmira uses her own motifs as well as more traditional designs to produce high-quality hand-made Kazakh embroidery products such as bags, cushions and wall hangings. She is a very creative free-form embroiderer but also uses hand-made stencils using flour for the outline. She also takes old wall hangings (see below for an introduction) she has created previously and recycles them into purses and bags.
Halmira makes tuskiiz – the traditional Kazakh wall hangings – each one being a unique creation. Cotton fabric is divided into sections and each section is filled in with a pattern drawn using the stencil (often with flour). A section of the fabric is then stretched taut, sewn onto a metal (or wooden) frame, and embroidered (using a chain stitch) with a hooked needle. The patterns are often arranged to mirror one another.
What you cannot see in this image is every single stitch …
She also makes stitched, colourful felt carpets (shyrdak) as well as decorated reed panels (chii) although she does also use wheat straw as well as the reeds.
Step inside Halmira’s home and one of your first impressions will be the warmth and colour of the woven carpets, textiles, and embroidery work that decorate the interior. But it will also be the genuine warmth and kindness of Halmira that will leave a lasting impression.
We’re more than just a standard tour company focusing on profit or being number one on Tripadvisor. Outside of the free training and development programme we run for Mongolian women who go on to become our guides, we look to make sure our work benefits the local people and communities of Mongolia as much as it benefits our guests and us as a business. We focus on creating local community partnerships that offer long-term support to the people we work with countrywide and that also allow us to showcase the diversity of skills and knowledge of Mongols in the 21st Century.
Our friendships with the local people of Mongolia are genuine friendships – forged over time (no point in rushing!), mainly with tea and sometimes with vodka. We go out and meet people. We get to know them – to learn about their lives and their needs – without being invasive. These are real people with real lives to lead.
We don’t ask them to change their daily schedule or to put on an ‘act’. We know the stresses and the strains they face. We know their strengths and weakness. We know their likes and dislikes. They are much as part of our team and the EL family as we are. And having shared the tea we look at ways we can incorporate their skills and knowledge into our experiences, encouraging their own sense of enterprise, as well as local Mongolian customs and culture. And this is the philosophy behind us creating a partnership with Halmira who now offers embroidery lessons to our guests in her home in Olgii, Western Mongolia.
We typically have 8-10 EL guests attending the autumn eagle festivals held in western Mongolia and we decided to provide our guests with a base and created our EL festival ger. It means there’s somewhere to come and warm up if the day is cold as there are always hot drinks available. What’s lovely is that the Kazakh eagle hunters we work in long-term local community partnership with like to come and spend the day in the ger – it feels like home to them. All the embroidery that decorates the ger has been hand-made by Halmira. We also rent the ger from her so that she benefits financially from our use.