This story starts seemingly simple — a solo backpacking trip to Kyrgyzstan. With its wildlife, mountains, and welcoming nomadic people that will offer yurt refuge for the night, I considered the Kyrgyz backcountry a paradise and wanted to indulge in pockets of it without interference from the outside world.
On the way to the mountains, my contact with the cardinal Kyrgyz people was frequent. But as soon as I hit the wilderness, I instinctually started sneaking around. From some boyhood instinct, I considered invisibility the correct manner in which to engage with the wild. I followed deep sheep trails cut through the spring-snow cornices in the afternoons, where my tracks would melt away in hours. During midday, I’d watch wild horses, search lynx tracks and look for springs to soak in.
While backpacking, I seldom had a plan for sleeping (or carrying the tent), and this time was no different. When dark clouds covered the valley below me, I knew that is time to descend and start looking for shelter. Making my way down, I came across sheep shepherd telling me in broken Russian — нет времени идти вниз пойдем со мной (no-time-go-down-come-with-me). I knew nothing about Kyrgyz storms, so I went. We came to his small yurt settlement, and his wife and daughter greeted me and offered me to stay until the storm was over.
Fast forward. I was eating kumys (horse cheese), counting sheep and learning how to open a yurt. But there was a question on my mind ever since I started hiking in this valley — what do they do with the sheep wool. Their answer — "Nothing; sheep are for milk and meat. We used to sell our wool, but now factories closed and industry is long gone.”
Wait, what industry? Factories? Where? Why?
After two days of learning the nomadic way-of-living, I left with many questions unanswered; the language barrier was too high. It was another day to hike down, and I could not stop thinking about what had happened to the Kyrgyz wool industry. I guess vacation was over at that point; I had to get back to the capital city of Bishkek to find out.
Back in the city, I tried everything, embassies, local markets, even the ministry of agriculture, but nothing, no single lead (truth to be told, I found one critical contact for organic cotton farming in the south, but more on than in a different story). I left the country with mixed feelings, but word got out — something along the lines of there is a western looking for wool.
Back home, some weeks passed, and I received a call from the Honorary Consul of Kyrgyzstan in the Czech Republic — “Can you make it back to Kyrgyzstan in one week? You will meet the farmers. We will show you what's left of our wool industry.” Indeed short notice, but curiosity was stronger. This time I brought with me my friend and co-founder Robin. Our objectives were simple: meet as many farmers as possible and visit closed factories. In the back of our heads, we knew Kyrgyz merino wool is a remarkable material that could be processed into tops, spun into yarn, and knitted into fabric.
Those factories, which we had to unseal and use headlamps to navigate in, hold tremendous stock of old post-soviet wool, unsuitable for yarn spinning and, therefore, not usable for clothing fabric. But this wool can be processed into felt by matting, condensing and pressing fibers together. Making soft yet robust natural material for a wallet.
It took months, but we found a Kyrgyz family-run workshop that will felt and organically dye our newly discovered material. We ended up saving 5 tons of post-soviet wool that would have otherwise been thrown away.