People, East Asian, Museums
Presented as a slide show at the Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto on 21 May 2007
Copyright and photographs by Ruth Lor Malloy. All rights reserved
For the last couple of summers, I’ve been scouring Mongolia for traditional, old handmade boots for the Bata Shoe Museum and I’m going again this summer. It is one of the few countries where we can still find a lot of museum quality antique boots for sale. This summer we are going to the western part.
Now how does one go about finding traditional boots in a strange country? First of all, you need a good guide. I don’t speak Mongolian and I can’t read Cyrillic. A travel agency provided an excellent guide.
We first went to museums in the capital to be educated and found that the country has many ethnic minorities, each with a different costume and even different boots.
We discovered that almost all of the traditional ethnic Mongolians boots had upturned toes. The curator and our guide gave several explanations for this toe. It’s easier to walk in the grassland and ride horses, they said. The toe makes ambiguous foot prints and no one can tell what direction anyone is going—as if everybody in Mongolia needed to move around clandestinely. Besides, they all rode horses.
Then there’s the Buddhist reason. Mongolians are Buddhist and because this type of boot covers less ground, fewer sentient beings, fewer bugs and worms, could be accidentally killed with each step. Mongolians follow the Tibetan variety of Buddhism.
Mongolians insist that the upturned toe is comfortable with less chance of tripping over a long gown. It keeps a rider from getting his foot caught in a stirrup as well. And as you might know, there are just about as many horses as people in Mongolia.
We learned that there were many varieties of Mongol ethnic boots, and many varieties of boots worn by other indigenous groups. One could do a PhD on boots worn in Mongolia. And did you know that there is no left and no right foot? They said they tend to wear the same boot on the same foot so it adjusts to the shape, after a while.
Picture of felt sock. In winter, Mongolians wear a thick layer of felt in their boots. Their boots are comfortable and warm no matter which one they have on which foot.
Some of these felt socks can have very fancy embroidered tops. And these tops all seem to be different.
Not all Mongol people wear the upturned toe. This was taken at the annual Naadam Festival. Two of these three pairs are Russian style.
I learned also that ornaments are put in places that get easily worn. The maximum number is 64 and the more ornaments, the higher the status of the wearer and the more expensive the boot.
The Museum had some extra footwear to sell. This felt pair with the leather overshoe on the left is typical of the Torguud people and is now in our Museum.
This is the child who might have worn them, at least 20 years ago.
This fancy Torguud costume was on display in one of the museums. Wealthy Mongolians wear silk and it seems that most of the silk is imported from China.
There were some boots with a completely flat sole, typical of the Buriyad people. These ceremonial boots belonged to a khan—Khan as in Chinghis Khan and Kubilai Khan—it means king. These boots were about a hundred years old but I knew the moment that I saw them that this is what I wanted to get for the Bata Shoe Museum. And I came close.
An American friend working with an aid agency in Ulaan Baatar arranged for us to meet a local boot maker. Langaa Shura and her husband showed us how they made their boots.
They demonstrated the making of the ornaments with metal moulds, how they glued them on, and then stitched them.
They showed how they added the coloured cloth behind the cut-outs.
Shura said that she knew how to make boots by hand like this one in the old traditional way and in fact, had some old-style black leather available. Boot fanciers can tell the age of the boot from the leather, the colour and the style.
I asked Shura to make us a pair, repeating several times that they must be completely hand made, be devoid of any plastic, and done in an old traditional style—with as many ornaments as possible. A couple of months later the boots arrived in Toronto and you can see them today on display. These only have 48 ornaments, 24 on each boot. There just isn’t room for 64 ornaments on women’s boots.
Langaa and her husband make 10 to 15 pairs of boots a month by machine. She learned her craft in a boot-making school in Ulaan Baatar and then taught her husband. She has been making boots since 1976.
Their daughter expects to be a boot maker too, though all of their three children know how to make boots. All wore Mongolian-style boots when they were small, but none of the younger generation wants to wear them now, they said.
They live in a community of gers, circular white tents, and small cottages in the suburbs of Ulaan Baatar and only make about C$300 a month.
We also found old boots in Ulan Baatar’s wonderful flea market. The Narantuul market sells everything from old Mongolian bows to saddles, solar panels, clothes, fancy chandeliers and food. Unfortunately, it’s full of pickpockets so I’ve only taken a camera there once.
This flea market also sells new boots, like the kind Shura makes. This is the current style. They sell for about C$75 a pair. We also found a merchant here who had a set of old boot-making tools so these too are now in the Museum.
I found these old boots in the antiques section of the market. There were about six dealers and all of them claimed their boots were 100 years old or belonged to a famous person. I almost bought these boots for about $170 but I left the room to check out other merchants. When I returned to buy them, the seller said a neighbouring merchant told her not to sell them so cheaply and the price had increased to $220, a difference of $50. I was so angry so I refused to buy them.
The following year I went back to the same dealer and found the same boots. The dealer remembered me, and without question brought them down from the shelf, dusted them off and quoted $170. She was back to her first asking price. I don’t think there are many buyers of old boots in Mongolia. These boots are on display today too.
We found other boots in the countryside. My travelling companion, Caroline Walker, wanted to visit an archaeological dig led by Francis Allard of the University of Pennsylvania. It was about 150 kilometres west of Ulaan Baatar in the middle of nowhere. You can see a group of gers in the background—at least two kilometres away—the closest other humans to us. The students were working on a 2,000-year-old Xiongnu chieftain’s grave and an older bronze age site with buried horse heads all pointing towards the rising sun.
On the way there, our guide said we could stop at any group of gers we wanted where we could ask about old boots. So we knocked at the gate of one group and in the Mongolian way, our guide asked the family to tie up its dog. A young man invited us in. He and his father worked on the roads and they still had the boots worn by the son when he was a child.
The boots were not fancy, but the Museum here likes to get a wide range of footwear for research and educational purposes so I bought them. And then Munkhuum and his son Munkhuugiin posed for a couple of pictures. The father wanted one taken of himself handing over the boots to the young man . . .
These boots are also on display today. Snuff also symbolizes the passing on of the family heritage, an acknowledgment of manhood. I felt it was a privilege to record this rite of passage.
Snuff bottles and snuff envelopes are an art form in Mongolia. This wonderful one is in the Museum in Ulaan Baatar. Of course Munkhuugiin’s is not as fancy.
I also saw these ornate boots in the Museum in Mongolia. My Mongolian friends in Toronto think are Buryiat.
But I couldn’t find any more information about them so I’ll ask about them this summer.
These are from the Museum in Hohhot in China’s Inner Mongolia, are obviously women’s boots and don’t seem to be known in Outer Mongolia. They also might be southern Buryiat.
The soles of both of these were quilted by hand like many old traditional Chinese shoes.
We also went to the Museum and antique market in Hohhot in Inner Mongolia in China. But the only pair of traditional ethnic shoes that I found for sale were these, made by a sister of a retired staff member of the Museum. She said these were made in the 1960s in Xilinhot, about 600 kilometres northeast of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. I brought them back, of course. Mrs Bata said that she would have preferred a more muted, a more traditional colour, but we had no choice.
I’ve brought other interesting boots from Mongolia but they are not on display today.
Collecting in Mongolia is wonderful. I bought these reindeer fur boots from a Tsaatan woman near Lake Khosovol who said she was a shaman. She had 15 reindeer and she had made these boots herself.
We were at another set of gers for several hours watching the pastoralists milking the mares and sheering the sheep and goats. They believe mares’ milk is especially healthy and along with cheese, yogurt and bread, it seems to be all they eat in the summer unless they slaughter an animal.
The children played nearby and didn’t have far to go for a snack.
They sold us this wooden mould that they used for making the decorations on the boots and promptly started to carve another one freehand.
That evening the matriarch of the family, all dressed up, brought a pair of her grandson’s boots to our camp. Of course I bought them. She had made them herself and they were so cute.
We even bought footwear from a famous throat singer, Tumurbaatar Khasbaatar, who performed one night at our ger camp. That’s him in red standing up. Throat singing is one of the arts in this country and our guide knew he was a collector so she asked him.
He delivered this pair of boots wearing a western suit to our hotel on his way to a wedding. He is also a business man living in Ulaan Baatar.
And finally, almost on my last day in Mongolia, I managed to acquire a pair of boots worn by the consort of the last ruler of Mongolia who died in 1925. I bought them in an antique store in Ulaan Baatar and they look much like the ceremonial boot in the Museum in Ulaan Baatar. They are now upstairs in the Treasures of the Bata Shoe Museum.