The Next Steppe


NOYA Fibers is back in school after spending the summer in Mongolia. While we were there, Andy Kelly of LookAlive Productions ( and Daniel Ainsworth filmed a documentary on parts of our research. The video focuses mainly on the challenges the herders face, and utilizing cooperatives as a possible solution. Check it out!

For those of you that were following our wordpress blog, please note that we will no longer be maintaining this site. Greg and Brenda will continue to chronicle the work of NOYA Fibers at (if it’s not live yet, it will be very soon!). I’ll be taking a different path this semester, exploring the possibility of ecotourism in Mongolia and how it could improve herder livelihoods and environmental conditions.

Thanks for your interest in our project!

Lost in Translation

Here are some thoughts from Steph on communication in a foreign country- enjoy!

Who said language is a barrier to communication?“- Brenda…

Brenda made friends with this young girl who was learning English. She said that one day she would like to travel the world and work with foreign people like us. Here’s hoping she does!

At the beginning of the semester, we had the best intentions of trying to learn a new Mongolian phrase every time we met. With twice weekly meetings we should have had at least 30 things we knew how to say before setting foot in the country. But of course we got busy, or forgot, and arrived in UB not really knowing much at all. In UB most folks we interacted with spoke enough English for us to communicate the main idea of the interaction. Calculators also helped in most restaurants and stores, as we could put our purchases on the counter and the clerk would show us an amount the device.

Maybe they meant “sandwich”?

In many ways, Brenda is right about the language barrier. Body language has been huge in our communications with herders, as well as with our translator, Ariunaa, and driver, Dondug. By the time this experience ends we’ll be experts in charades. And Pictionary- we’ve had to draw some pictures to communicate as well. Facial expressions are also quite universal. We were able to get the vibe of what herders thought of some of our ideas before Ariunaa ever translated a word. Play has been another great way to communicate, particularly with kids. All you need is a ball or a stick that can be used to draw in the sand; the next thing you know you’re playing volleyball or tic tac toe.

Teaching Ariunaa and Dondug how to play “Go Fish!”

Body language was key in translating what these foods were: stomach, heart, intestines… don’t forget the ketchup.

Greg can draw better planes than Steph.

Surprisingly to me, the biggest communication challenge has been with our translator, the one English speaking person we’ve had access to during our trip. Ariunaa is 21, and this is her second job as a translator. She is great at summarizing what someone says (many of the answers in my interview notes read “of course”, even if the person spoke for 3 minutes without taking a breath.) When we explained that we really wanted the detail, even if it took her time to take notes and look up words in a dictionary, she still didn’t quite get the importance of direct quotes. While we feel we have decent information from our interviews, there could be some key details that have been lost in translation.

Brenda, Greg, and Ariunaa during an interview

Steph showing two girls how to use her computer

In the end, whether our notes are perfect or leave something to be desired, we learned that the most important thing we can do to communicate with non-English speakers is smile, and help them smile as well. As you have seen from many of our photos, the normal herder facial expression is stoic. But any time we commented on someone’s adorable baby, or something beautiful in their ger, or asked questions about their animals, the people’s faces lit up with pride, their demeanor became more relaxed, and they were more interested in us because we showed interest in them.

Everyone knows their role in this pose

No translation needed. This puppy is adorable and is likely causing you to smile :)

Photo Bomb!

Here are a couple funny ones from the trip:

Tuugii and Steph make an appearance in the cool eagle pic

in his defense, it was an awfully hot day

we really didn’t know that guy was there when Brenda took the picture


Herder Portraits

Greetings, world! NOYA Fibers is back from the grasslands. Greg, Andy, and Dan (the film crew) are back in UB getting ready for more interviews and filming. Brenda and Steph are chilling in Choibalsan until they flight back to UB later tonight. That means it’s time to update the blog!

To date we have visited with more than 45 herding families- some we have visited more than once. At each gehr, Greg has taken photos of  individual herders and family members. Here are some of our favorites:



















































Brenda camps!

Brenda: world traveler. From Uganda, went to school in Norway, getting her MBA in Colorado, now spending 6 weeks in Mongolia. Can you believe she has never slept in a tent before this trip?! Below are some pictures of one of our nights in the grasslands to prove it.

Gorgeous evening outside of Kholonbuir

Dinner time

Brenda beginning to put up the REI quarter dome

She’s got this one pole thing down!

… and her tent is up before Steph or Greg!

Greg and Dondug hanging out

The cows think Steph’s tent is one of their own kind…


Ger Raising

Brenda is working on a blog post about hospitality in Mongolia, which should be posted some time after July 4. Part of her post will talk about the generosity of our driver, Dondug. When we found out it was customary to pay the driver even on their days off, to ensure that they don’t take a job with someone else, we were a bit worried about our budget for this trip. We had planned on spending the 80,000 tugrugs on our own accommodations on his days off. We asked if there was a place we could camp outside the city to save money. Dondug offered that we could set up tents on his property, or even stay in the simple structure behind his ger.

To show our thanks, we offered to help with any chores around the property. Below are some pictures of us playing with Dondug’s kids and helping him construct a second ger on his property.

Dondug’s oldest daughter, 18, holding up the center posts

Dondug’s youngest daughter, 2, holding up the wall

The youngest helping to carry the poles that will become the roof

Dondug setting the poles

Greg holding up the center piece

The youngest “helping” with the door

Brenda with Dondug’s third daughter, 5 years old

Water proofing the ger

Dondug’s second daughter, 11, helping fit the canvas cover of the ger

The plumber showed up to help put the finishing touches on the ger


Finished product


Hot Choibalsan Nights

Below is a great update from Greg about our down time between trips to the grasslands- enjoy!


Well, everything is set for our documentary to start shooting tomorrow morning.  The families that we are shooting are all prepped and waiting for our arrival, provisions and transport are squarely packed for the next 5 days of wandering the eastern Mongolian Steppes, and we have an incredible script that should really tell the inspiring life challenges of the nomadic herder.

A picture of one of the herders we will be filming in the documentary

Only one problem remains; our video team is stuck in Ulaanbaatar.  Somehow, someway, Eznis Airlines overbooked flights and ran out of planes to fly to Choibalsan.  Instead of taking off tomorrow morning, we are hoping that we are able to get them on a flight that leaves tomorrow afternoon.  All things considered, our timing is only slightly off, and we should be back on schedule to finish filming on time. That’s Mongolia for you.  In the famous words from the Beetles, “Ohblahdee.”

Brenda in UB- where the film crew is currently stuck. We just spoke with them on the phone and it sounds like they should arrive tonight!

Alright, well, considering that we are only able to show you limited pictures from our trip, we thought that we would, to the best of our ability, paint you all a picture of the cultural experience that is Choibalsan, Mongolia. Picture if you will, a vast sea of rolling, yellow grasses that rise and fall with near sculpted magnificence, while a endless expanse of radiant blue sky stretches from horizon to horizon speckled with weightless, picturesque clouds that appear as if plucked from a dream.

A small group out of the thousands of gazelles we have seen while in Toson Khulstai- it’s calving season, and the grasslands are a great place for this process to occur.

Raising like a giant from this wonderland of grasses sits the concrete and metallic jungle of man known as Choibalsan. Choibalsan is a large (in Mongolia’s standards) city of approximately 50,000 inhabitants that sits on the verge of simultaneous economic collapse and boom.  While the city is actually quite small, driving through its streets, one is almost instantly lost amongst the constant rush of traffic, lack of adequate (let alone any) traffic signs, and mindless meandering of highways and side roads.  It almost appears that as Choibalsan’s infrastructure was being developed, the city planner let his 2 year old child take a crayon and scribble lines on a piece of paper, upon which, sometime in the 1960’s the roads were developed according to said plans and never again maintained.

Downtown Choibalsan

We are currently residing in our driver’s back house, which for lack of a better term is less of a house and more three and a half walls of nailed together 2 x 4s with a plastic tarp over the top.  The “house” is located walking distance to town, and every night, we have a spectacular front row seat to the Choibalsan symphony: a cacophony of endless and repetitive dogs barking, car horns blaring, and people stammering in a tongue alien to our ears that really takes off around 2 AM.  Overall, we can’t complain because the lodging is free.

Brenda climbed up the structure behind our host’s ger to snap a few pictures of the city from a higher vantage point

A room with a view

Another shot from above

Our walk to town is even more of a cultural experience.  As I leave my front gate, we are struck with the a glimmering street of radiant colors that dance and sparkle in the noon day sun.  While a spectacle to see, the perpetual crunch and crackle under our feet remind us that we are not in a wonderland, but instead strolling amongst the shattered remains of beer bottles and the broken skeletal remains of empty vodka containers.  Taking off down the street, the familiar squeak and scrape of rusted metal reaches our ears as every “fence” is really just a hodgepodge of tattered scraps of metal that have suffered from the exposure of too many harsh Mongolian winters.  Wooden shanties and weathered gers appear through tiny cracks in the fencing, but one must be cautious to not wander too closely to the fencing as each house is armed with seasoned guard dogs that have the appearance to have been spawned from the underworld.

A beautiful day in the neighborhood

Shall we talk about the smell.  As the afternoon approaches, a northern breeze picks up that carries with it the unique experience that is Choibalsan.  While plumbing has yet to be established within the city, each family has a outhouse standing over an open pit upon which to dispose human waste.  In the afternoon breeze, a concoction of human waste, contributed in part from multiple families, permeates the air with a kicker of rotting animal flesh from stray dogs and butchered animals.  The evidence of such loss of life is also prevalent in the smattering of various animal bones strewn throughout the city.

Alright, so while this message may appear to be a harbinger of disease and dysfunction, we shall finish with the people. Choibalsan is a budding city, caught in the middle of its storied past and bright future with its people proving as the linchpin to the entire city.  While the city may be in disarray, each land owner’s personal dwellings are utterly spotless; completely devoid of clutter and unsavory attractions.  Our own host, spends about 20 minutes each morning and night removing aesthetically displeasing, toothpick sized wood and discolored rocks from his half acre yard.  The rest of the city is filled with fashion minded mid-20 and 30 year olds that stroll around pot hole ridden streets in 4 inch high heels and fancy, American style clothing.

One of Greg’s new friends

Greg is just so darn friendly

Further, vehicle and beast alike share the roads as sputtering, beaten down cars merge effortlessly amongst horseback riding herders returning to town for needed supplies.  Additionally, the faces and personalities of the Mongolian people are so beautiful and accommodating that it is easy to forget the inequities of this society while we stop to shake the endless hands of Mongolians who want to come by just to say hello, and on occasion, take their picture in front of various structures around the city.  Brenda has been having one of the most interesting times as, according to her research, there are approximately 30 Africans within the entire country.  As such, every time she walks down the street, people stop and stare at her.  She has personally been asked to take multiple pictures with various inhabitants throughout Mongolia, and while she has been somewhat perturbed at times, her entrepreneurial brain is attempting to find a way to start charging for people to take her picture.

Brenda exchanging numbers with her new friends from the internet cafe

All in all, we are quite well, and we are all looking forward to our last three weeks in Mongolia.