THE GLOBE AND MAIL                                                                                                                                    MONGOLIA | TRAVEL . T5
Saturday, July 22, 2006

Walking a mile
in Mongolian shoes


It may not be the most obvious
place to go shoe-shopping, but
last summer I picked up 23
pairs of footwear from China
and Mongolia. They weren't for me
I was buying them for Toronto's
Bata Shoe Museum but the
shoes did offer me something spe-
cial: a unique way to travel.

Boot-making is still an art in Out-
er Mongolia, so you can find fancy
new boots, with upturned toes in
the flea market in Ulan Bator, for
example, for $50 less if you hag-
gle; Mongolian winters are as cold
as Northern Canada's, and these
boots have thick detachable lin-
ings. Unlike ours, Mongolian boots
have no unique right and left feet.
So until they are worn a lot, they

Canadians might opt for decorat-
ing a fireplace with them.

You can find great antique pieces
in excellent condition there, as well
as in Tibetan areas of China such as
Qinghai province. We went to mon-
asteries where our guides asked
monks if anyone had any old boots
to sell. Curators in museums sold
us specimens they didn't need. We
found some in antique stores and
markets. We also knocked on the
doors ofgers out in the Mongolian
countryside. Gers are portable, ele-
gant, felt-and-canvas tents where
herders live in summer. After our
guide asked these semi-nomads to
"tie up your dog," we entered their
brightly coloured dwellings to find
friendly people happy to let us take
photographs and to sell us their old
boots when they stopped laugh-
ing at us. Some people thought we
we were crazt. They usually throw
boots away.

Most of the herders were in the
business of making cheese and yo-
gurt from the milk of their own
goats and horses yes, horses. We
watched them take a colt up to its
mother's nipples, and after the
baby sucked enough to get the milk
flowingr they, pulled- the unhappy
animal away. -

Though they lived in the middle
of rolling, treeless hills, with the
closest neighbours at least five kilo-
metres away, these people were not
isolated. They had televisions pow-
ered by solar panels, and they also
had trucks. They not only sold us
boots they had made themselves,
they showed us how they sewed
them. Children's boots worn only a
year were excellent specimens.

In the Tibetan areas of China, I
bought boots from monks who
were happy to sell us their cast-offs

for the same price as the cost of
new ones. Many were made of felt
and yak leather. One young ap-
prentice had a pair of rare 60-year-
old boots coloured with vegetable
dyes that he had inherited from his
monk roaster who had been a
monk policeman. I paid $600 for
them and the museum loved them.
The young monk wainted money to
continue his studies of Western
philosophy. He was living in one of
the comfortable courtyard houses
at the Labuleng Monastery in the
tiny town of Xiahe.

Buying directly from the owners
in their homes is better than buy-
ing from stores: It's a chance to in-
teract with local people. It gives
you a deeper feeling for them and
their country. I was lucky because
the Bata Museum wanted informa-
tion about the owners, what they do and how many children they have. It also wanted to know about the boots, how they were made and what they were made of. I had to ask a lot of questions and take notes.

At one house far from any town,
we met a Mongolian family. The
father, a road worker, sold us the
boots his 23-year old son had worn as a child. The father wanted a photo taken with a silk envelope
that held a bottle of snuff.

Our guide explained that sharing
snuff was a significant social cus-
tom for male adults, similar to
handing out cigarettes to friends
over beers. She said the father, in
passing the container to his son,
was symbolically giving the young
man his cultural heritage. It was a
rite of passage I felt privileged to

Another memorable experience
was buying a pair of socks with em-
broidery on the foot. Young Salar
maidens in China's Qinghai prov-
ince used to make 10 pairs of these
to prove to marriage 'brokers and
prospective husbands that they
could sew well. This was one of the
essential skills for marriage. Anoth-
er prerequisite was cooking.

The socks were designed to be
worn by women during Muslin
prayers, apparently so the person
behind could see the fancy decora-
tions. Women explained that they
rarely wore them because such
socks are no longer in style. As a
result, some of these fine decade-
old embroideries have survived

A lot of people crowded around
our car in the small town where the
Salar people now live after migrat-
ing to China from Central Asia 800
years ago. They were trying to sell
similar socks for $12 a pair. I pre-

Pack your shoehorn

You can fly to Ulan Bator via Beijing, Seoul, or Moscow.  Trains go between Beijing or Moscow and Ulan Bator.  We booked our Mongolian tour through Monkey Business Infocentre: Room 35, Red House Hotel. 10 Chun Xui Lu, Dongzhimenwai, Chaoyang District, Beijing; 86 (100 6591; .  We booked our Quinghai tour through a Xing-based travel agent: Quinghai CCT (

Bayangol Hotel: Ulan Bator; 976(11) 312255,
Elsewhere, we camped in tents or stayed in comfortable "ger camps" or modest small-town hotels.


Buying directly from the owners in their home is better than buying from stores: It's a chance to interact with local people

Mongolians say their boots are comfortable, but
Canadians might opt for decorating a fireplace with

ferred to pay $30 a pair and quietly take images and collect personal
stories in the owners' own houses.

In one of these, we ate at a table in the garden while the wife, the
maker of the socks, cheerfully sat about five metres away. Her hus-
band explained that their son was not allowed at the master's table,
either. Theirs was a very conservative Muslim family. When I asked
about her head covering, her husband said something that made ev-
eryone laugh. Reluctantly, my male guide translated: "Women are like
donkeys. We have to put something on their heads to control them."

I also bought a pair of Tibetan boots from a woman who said she
was a relative of the Dalai Lama's mother. We met her in a monastery
where she Overheard our guide talking with the abbot. She had
been wondering what to do with the boots that her grandmother
had made for her wedding in 1949, She feared her own granddaughter
would not appreciate them and she was happy to sell them to a muse-
um. Later, she took us to her apartment and modelled the robe she
would wear when she died.

How did we know any of these boots were genuine antiques? You
have to study examples in museums before buying, and Ulan Bator
has an especially splendid museum. Curators can tell from the sym-
bols, material and work approximately how old they are. One deal-
er in Inner Mongolia said his boots were 300 years old and belonged to |
an imperial eunuch. It was a fascinating story, but his boots were
machine-stitched. They could not have been more than 85 years old
because sewing machines weren't in use in China until the 1920's.

If you look at the feet of people in Mongolia and Tibet, you will prob-
ably find few, if any wearing these colourful, traditional, handmade
boots, except for performers in festivals. Fancy boots are disappear-
ing because people prefer factory-made variety. What a shame.
Having collected so many, I almost felt as if I was helping save an en-
dangered species.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Searching for shoes

You can go to museums, but the best place to find Mongolian footwear and local colour is in gers and dwellings of locals.

Ruth Lor Malloy is a freelance writer based in Toronto.



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