STEPPE HORSEMAN HOMES AND POSSESSIONS
Most steppe horsemen lived in yurts which are made of animal skins or felt and have a wooden frame that can be easily taken apart and reassembled and loaded onto wagons or sledges.
Steppe nomads were constantly on the move. Marco Polo was dumbfounded by the fact they carried almost no baggage. A group of riders traveled with tents, floor coverings, cooking-vessels, clothing, furniture, chests and kettles, all of which were placed on the backs of pack animals.
The possessions of steppe nomads were designed so that everything they owned could be bound together in a couple of minutes and carried off quickly. Even musical instruments could be quickly packed and carried. The drums used by the Turks, for example, were nothing but kettles with animal skin stretched over them.
Steppe horsemen introduced buckled belts to China. Belts were used by horsemen as military symbols. In China, they were fashion statements. Steppe horsemen also introduced wheeled transport, chariots, chairs, mirrors, plaques, lost-wax casting and metalworking techniques used in making wire and chains.
Gers and Yurts
A ger is weather-resistant, collapsible dwelling consisting of a wooden frame surrounded by felt Used by the armies of Genghis Khan and found throughout Central Asia, they have a distinctive circular shape and broad dome-like conical roof and are 150 centimeters to 180 centimeters high. Their precursors have been used since 3000 B.C. Gers are known as yurts in Russia and Central Asia. Yurt is a Turkic word more familiar to Westerners than ger but one Mongolians may take offense to.
Gers are warm in the winter, cool in the summer and resist the fiercest winds. The walls are made of felt pads covered with white canvas which provides insulation and wind protection. In some places, the felt is still made the traditional way by dousing fluffed wool with water and rolling it around a pole inside a freshly killed yak skin and then dragging all that around behind a horse.
Nomads in Mongolia, Central Asia, Turkey and Western China still use them. Most yurts are fairly uniform in size. But sometimes some really huge ones are made. The Mongol had enormous ceremonial ones they used in court function. A three story one was built in Kyrgyzstan for a ceremony honoring a famous epic poem.
Gers in Mongolia
Even today about half of all Mongolians live in gers, including 35 percent of the residents of Ulaan Baatar and 90 percent of the people who live outside the capital. They make sense for nomads that live on the steppe, where stones and timber and other building materials are in short supply but animal skins and wool and other materials needed to make felt, rope and tent parts are in relatively abundant supply.
Gers also make sense because they can easily be picked up and moved to the most favorable conditions. Even though gers are resistant to winds they are often set in valleys, next to hills of cliffs for protection from the wind. Even though most Mongolian are no longer nomads, they still like gers. When asked why she prefers her ger to a permanent house, one Mongolian woman told Mike Edwards of National Geographic, "You can't move a house" and gesturing with her hands, "You can't take it here and here and here."
“Breaking the slumber of the earth” in the form of digging the soil or ploughing is considered bad luck. This is offered by some as one reason why Mongolian nomads are reluctant to building permanent houses or practice agriculture.
Many Kazakhs and members other ethnic groups in Mongolia also live in gers. The Kazakh ones tend to be larger and darker. The Kazahks are famous for decorating the interior with brightly-colored carpets and wall hangings.
Parts of a Ger
The walls of a ger are supported by a collapsible frame that is often made of five to eight sliding, trellised birch or willow sections held together by leather strips. These walls resemble the accordion-like fences used for vines in gardens and fold up when collapsed. The lattice sections, known as khana, are usually 230 centimeters long. The larger the number of the lattices, the larger the ger. The average ger has six to eight khana, with the door frame as a separate unit, but can have many more.
The door frame is placed in a break between the lattices. The door fold is almost always painted bright blue or another bright color. The door is the only opening to the ger. It can be a single wooden door that opens outward or a double door that opens inward. Sometimes in poor weather it is covered by a flap. There are no windows.
When assembled, the frame is tied together to form a circular base that is about 16 feet in diameter. The roof is supported by long, curved poles, called uni, that run like the spokes of a wheel from the top of the lattice to a single pole that rises from the ground in the middle of the ger. A typical roof is supported by 10 to 15 uni.
A cartwheel-like hoop with two three-ply struts supports the roof. The sharper ends of the poles are placed in the hoops. Long woven wool strips secure the walls to the poles. Bags that hang down from these are used for storage. A flap of felt is folded back at the apex of the roof to form an opening. The roof slopes down towards the wall frame. The hole, the toon, allows smoke to escape and lets in fresh air and sunlight. The supporting poles are often painted orange to symbolize the sun. Many gers have a pipe-like chimney from a stove at the apex of the roof.
Orientation of a Ger
Gers are usually set up so the door faces south or southeast. This is in accordance with feng shui laws and meteorology (bad luck and fierce winds usually come from the north or northwest).
Outside the ger is an outhouse, barrel, water containers and a tethered sheep or some other animals. The family relieves themselves outside the ger in the open or in an outhouse. A typical suburban outhouse has wooden walls and roof. The toilet is usually a hole in the ground surrounded by concrete. People squat instead of sit.
Gers often look white when they are new ad turn a yellowish, brown when they get older. Inside they often blackish, the result of smoke from the stove fires. The outer most layer of felt is waterproofed with a layer sheep fat. The inner most layers are lined with mats woven from grass to block the wind. The bottom of the felt is arranged so that it be raised about 30 centimeters from the ground to allow more ventilation. During the winter wood is stacked against the ger to prevent cold air, snow or rain from entering.
Felt and Gers
The open weave of wool tents allows sunlight to come in and smoke to pass out, the loose fibers repel rain. It estimated that the air in a ger is changed 100 times in one hour, In a stone house the air is only changed two or there times an hour. In the summer the gers are covered with a light material and a waterproof covering. In the winter they are covered with layers of felt. The layers of felt block the wind and keep the inside warm.
The walls of a ger are made of felt pads lashed over an inner layer of cloth and covered with white canvas which provides insulation and wind protection. The pieces of felt come in various shapes and sizes and are placed o the walls and roof. The coverings have traditionally been fastened to the frame with ropes made of braided horsehair. During he summer one layer of felt in sufficient. In the winter two or three layers is necessary. Felt is so common in Central Asia that Chinese in the 4th century called it the land of felt. Warriors carried felt shields and wore felt boots. Standard headgear for Persian soldiers was "felt in the shape of a tower."
The felt used to make the ger walls is made from fluffed wool, which is doused with water, rolled around a pole and then wrapped with a freshly killed yak skin. This bundle, which looks sort of like a rolled up carpet, is dragged around behind a horse for hours until the wool fibers compress enough to become felt. If the wools is not washed properly felt smells like cattle dung. [Source: Nina Hyde, National Geographic, May 1988]
Nomads sometimes make the fluffed wool by twisting armfuls of loose wool onto a wooden a spindle using a technique known since the Stone Age, or simply beating it with a couple of sticks. It takes about two week to make enough felt for an entire ger. Felt is an ideal building material in the grasslands because they are no trees.
Gers often look pretty permanent and sometimes they are joined together into a multi-room dwellings. Usually each one is a self contained unit. The interior of a ger is usually organized in accordance with strict traditions. Opposite the door at the back of the ger is the zuk, a place where trunks filled with household items are stacked. During the day bedding os often piled up here. The area in front of the zhuk is regarded as the most honored place ( tor or khoimor) in the ger. Esteemed guest are seated here. When no guests are present the leader of the household is seated here.
Gers are divided into a woman’s side (left side of the tor), protected by the sun, and a man’s side (right side of the tor) projected by the sky god Tengger. Traditionally the men kept their saddles, harnesses, riding gear and tools on the their side of the ger while the women kept family chests, cooking utensils, food supplies and skin bags used for making koumiss on the their side.
The “master bedroom” is in the back on the men’s side. Harnesses and saddles are stored near the entrance. Lambs, calves, children, younger family members, which sometimes include married sons are expected to stay near the door. Men and women sections are sometimes divided by a temporary hanging felt partition. Usually the whole area is open.
The hearth or stove has traditionally been placed at the center of the ger for practical reasons so that smoke can escape out the hole at the center of the ger. The hearth is usually slightly close to the door than to the back of the ger. The floor is usually covered by fleece carpets or rolls of tile flooring. Sometimes fur bedding is placed over the usual felt coverings.
Gers often have tables, a stove and even pictures on the walls. People sleep in cots or beds organized around the walls. People sit on foot-high four-legged stools. The floor is covered by carpets or vinyl flooring, which sits on layers of older felt, which in turn sits on hides placed over the ground. Buckets, tin milk cans and plastic bottles that hold milk and other staples hang from the walls and sit on the floor. Sometimes there are small cabinets or chests used for storing utensils, clothes and other items. The chest are often topped by family pictures and painted with traditional blue-and-red designs.
The interiors of often decorated with wall coverings, rugs, embroidered tapestries or quilts,. The amount of decorations is often an indication of status. A typical Mongolian ger has a small altar with family portraits, incense and ceramic or carved Buddhas on top. The altar has traditionally been placed across from the ger’s entrance. Many modern families have gotten rid of their altar and now place these items on top of the television. Light is provided by candles, gas lamps or electric- or battery-powered lights.
There is often a cast iron stove is the middle used for heat, cooking and warming up tea. The stove is fueled with firewood, wood scarps, animal dung or coal. A black stovepipe carries smoke outside the ger. Gers can be cold and damp but fires from an animal-dung stove usually keep the interior quite comfortable to the point where people usually sit around in shirt sleeves about six feet away from the stove. A shack outside serves as an open air refrigerator in which milk, cheese and meat are stored. For toilets there is either a makeshift outhouse or the open steppe. Bathes are taken with a bucket or in a river. In the winter nomads have traditionally gone without bathing.
The ger I visited had beds, with children still sleeping in some of them, organized around the walls; carpets hanging from the walls and vinyl flooring on the ground. I sat with an elderly woman on a foot-high, four-legged stool around a table set near a Tibetan Buddhist altar. On a dresser was a television connected to a car battery.
Assembling and Transporting a Ger
Gers are relatively light and portable. The felt, canvas, poles, and lattices typically weigh about 250 kilograms. That may sound like a lot but it is much lighter than a house. Depending on how good the grazing is, nomads move their gers once a month or every few months to new pastures for their animals. In the old days gers were carried by camels, ox-carts or horse carts. These days they are carried mostly by trucks and tractors. People in the cities live year round in ger suburbs.
To completely set up a ger takes about three or four hours. Before the ger itself is set up the floor is laid down and the stove and often much of the heavy furniture is put in place. It is often much easier to do this than try to get the furniture through the door.
When assembling the ger itself, first the latices are set up, then the roof poles are placed into position, forming the basic frame. Then pieces of felt are placed on the frame and secured. Taking a ger down is quicker and easier than setting one up. The felt coverings and lattice walls of a ger can be taken down, folded and loaded onto a camel in less than an hour. Load the possessions, especially heavy chests takes longer.
A customary greeting when approaching a ger is Nokhoi Khor (“ Hold the dog”) because fierce dogs are often the first to appear when one approaches a ger. Knocking on the door is considered rude. There is a taboo about stepping on the threshold of the ger, which is viewed as the equivalent of stepping on its owners neck. When entering a ger Mongolians open the door flap with their right hand, from the right side. Doing otherwise invites bad luck. Tall people should watch their head; the door opening are usually very low.
When entering a ger, visitors are supposed to head to the left and sit on the ground, a stool, or a bed. The host family sits on the right. The back wall is reserved for the Buddhist altar. Inside the ger you are expected to relax and make yourself at home. It is fine to take a nap if you want. That is preferable to acting nervous and bring in bad vibes. If you spend the night sleep with you feet pointing towards the door.
Don’t touch the central pole, whistle, take food with your left hand, throw any trash in a fire, walk in front of an older person, turn your back to the altar or touch anyone’s hat. These things are considered disrespectful and are thought to bring bad luck. Don’t roll up your sleeves in a ger. It implies you want to fight. If you have short sleeves try not to expose your wrists.
Eating Customs in a Ger
After entering a ger you will be offered tea with milk and salt in a bowl, and a plate with various cheeses and/or bread or cookies. Accept what is offered to you with your right hand, with your left hand offering support at the elbow; pick up things with an open hand and a palm facing upwards; and hold you cup at the bottom rather than the top.
Visitors are expect to take at least one small piece or a sip of what is offered to them. To do otherwise is considered very rude. At the same time don’t gobble down everything in sight. An empty bowl or en empty plate is an invitation for more. If you don’t want more simple leave a little in your bowl or plate. Kazakhs indicate they don’t want more by placing a hand over their bowl or plate.
Steppe Horsemen Food and Drink
The steppe horseman diet consisted almost exclusively of meat and dairy products from the animals they took with them. Mostly they ate mutton and milk from the sheep they herded. They only slaughtered horses in emergencies or special occasions. Horsemen on the move only ate horses when they died. At weddings and large feasts horsemen slaughtered fat mares and served horse heads and horsemeat sausages to honored guests. They relied on horses for food in the summer months when ewes and cows stopped giving milk.
Steppe nomads on the move, ate and drank when they could, and often subsisting for weeks at a time on nothing but horse blood and mare's milk. Marco Polo wrote a Mongol horseman could sustain himself by drinking his mount's blood and "ride quite ten days' march with eating cooked food and without lighting a fire."
Some steppe horsemen ate meat raw but tenderized by placing it under their saddle during long rides. Friction warmed the meat and the sweat seasoned it.
Describing the eating and drinking habits of nomads on a 1,700 mile journey across China in the 1920s, American anthropologist Owen Lattimore wrote: "We began at dawn by making tea...of the coarsest grade of twigs, leaves and tea sweepings...In this tea we used to mix either roasted oaten flour or roasted millet---looking like canary seed....About noon we had the one real feed of the day. This would be made of half-cooked dough."
"The reason we drank so much tea was because of the bad water. Water alone, unboiled, is never drunk...Our water everywhere was from wells, all of them more or less heavily tainted with salt, soda...At times it was almost too salty to drink, at other times very bitter. The worst water...is thick, almost sticky and incredibly bitter and nasty." [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]
Mongolians and other Central Asians like to drink koumiss, an alcoholic drink made from fermented mare's milk with salt added. Koumiss is a sour, bitter-tasting milky drink, with bits of brown horse-milk fat floating it in it, made by adding yeast cultures to a mare's milk mixture. Ordinary koumiss has an alcoholic content of 3 percent, roughly equivalent to wine. Koumiss is often called airag in Mongolia and is regarded as the Mongolian national drink. The word koumiss is of Turkic origin. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, July 19, 2002]
The taste of koumiss has been described as "across between buttermilk and champagne" with a “tang reminiscent of good pickle brine” or a strong smoked gouda and is said to be high in vitamin C. Hillary Clinton tried some when she visited Central Asia . She said it tasted like yoghurt. Other have said it tastes like “stomach bile.” Its white color is equated with purity.
Koumiss has been around for thousands of years and is a fixture of daily life and big celebrations in Mongolia. During Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian New Year, koumiss is presented to all guests and is part of the welcoming ritual for the White Month. In the old days servants who were late reportedly had to down five to 10 liters of koumiss as a punishment. Mongolians insist that its healthy because it made of milk.
William Rubrick wrote in the 13th century: “At the taste of it, I broke out in a sweat with horror and surprise...It makes the inner man most joyful, intoxicates weak head and greatly provokes urine.” The Mongolian provinces of Arkhangai, Bulgan , Overkhangai are said to produce the best airag.
Making and Drinking Koumiss
Mare’s milk is much thicker than cow’s milk and is so sweet that it seems like it has sugar added. It is the sugar content that allows it be fermented and made into an alcoholic drink. Koumiss is generally only available in the spring and summer, when mares are foaling. The milk is drawn from a mare by allowing a foal to start nursing and then pulling the young animal away but keeping the foal beside the mother. Milking a mare is a difficult and even dangerous procedure. A herd of 600 horses produces about 25 gallons of milk a day.
The milk is the collected in a bucket and poured into rawhide bags. Some starter is added from the last batch to churn along with 2½ gallons of mare’s milk, half gallon of water and some cow butter to keep the leather flexible. The churn is a barrel-size bag with a stick sticking out the top. The mare’s milk mixture is churned 500 times a day, or churned fewer times every few hours, during the three or four days it takes to ferment. On the last evening it is churned 5,000 times until it curdles. Bags of fermenting koumiss hang in leather bags inside gers to left of the door, It is customary for visitors to a ger to stir the koumiss to assist fermentation.
Koumiss is usually ladled out of a large container and served in pint-size bowls. It is often handed around in a communal bowl. One must drink a lot of it to get high. It is sometimes poured from glass to glass several times to make it thick like whipped cream. Before drinking it Mongolians dip their ring finger in it and smear some of their forehead and flick it in the four compass directions as a sign of respect to airag itself.
Some Mongolians drink ten liters of the stuff a day. Describing a herder drinking koumiss, Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “He lifts a bowl to his mouth, drinks deeply and practically belches an emphatic, ‘Ahhhh!’ He licks his lips...Then he does it all over again.”
History of Koumiss
Adrienne Mayor wrote in Wonder & Marvels: “Amazons, those fabled women warriors of the steppes, were working mothers too busy to breastfeed. According to the ancient Greeks, they nourished their infants with mare’s milk. Since Homer, nomadic tribes from the Black Sea to Mongolia were known as “mare-milking Scythians.” That notion was exotic enough, but the Greeks would have been surprised to learn that the babies’ milk contained alcohol. [Source: Adrienne Mayor,Wonder & Marvels. Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. She is the author of “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World” (2104), and “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award. ^^]
“Milk from horses is nutritious but because of its high lactose content raw mare’s milk is a strong laxative. It requires fermentation to be a viable source of nutrition, even for babies. During fermentation the milk is agitated or churned like butter. The lactobacilli bacteria acidify the milk and yeasts create carbonated ethanol. The result is mildly alcoholic koumiss high in calories and vitamins. (Koumiss is similar to kefir, a fermented, less alcoholic milk drink of the Caucasus.) Scythian men and women preferred a stronger alcoholic punch than the drink given to babies. (One ancient Amazon’s name translates as “Drunkard.”) The nomads discovered how to enrich fermented milk by the process now known as “freeze distillation.” No strangers to snow, the nomads would allow the fermented milk to freeze, thaw it, remove the ice crystals, refreeze, and repeat until the desired alcoholic level was reached. ^^
“The Greek historian Herodotus (ca 450 BC) observed mare milk churning on a large scale among the settled Scythians on the Black Sea. They poured the milk into deep wooden casks, then stirred vigorously as it fermented. What rose to the top was drawn off and drunk. The early European traveler William of Rubruck, who trekked across the steppes ca AD 1250, watched the same process: “As the nomads churn the milk it begins to ferment and bubble up like new wine.” He sampled the effervescent beverage and found it pungent and intoxicating. “Koumiss makes the inner man most joyful!” Smaller batches of koumiss were fermented in leather bags by families on the move. In Inner Asia, the custom was to hang the sack where passersby could periodically punch the bag to agitate the koumiss. Koumiss is a favorite drink from the Black Sea to western China. ^^
“How ancient is koumiss? Historical linguistics and archaeology provide clues. The three most ancient alcoholic beverages are mead (fermented honey), kvass (beer), and koumiss. Kvass and mead have cognates in Proto-Indo-European languages, while koumiss derives from the ancient Central Asian Turkic language family. So koumiss originated along with the domestication of the horse on the steppes more than 5,000 years ago. ^^
“Lipids from horse milk can be identified on artifacts in ancient burials. Bowls containing residue of mare’s milk have been discovered in Botai culture dwellings of about 3500 BC in Kazakhstan. These people were among the first to tame wild horses. Evidence for fermented mare’s milk is also found in the graves of Scythian men and women. Special utensils for beating koumiss and drinking vessels with traces of horse milk are common grave goods. The famous Golden Warrior of Issyk (Kazakhstan) was accompanied by koumiss beaters and bowls that held traces of mare’s milk. In the grave of the tattooed “Ice Princess” (Ukok, Russia) archaeologists discovered a wooden stirring stick in a cup decorated with snow leopards. Inside the cup was the residue of koumiss that would sustain her in the Afterlife.” ^^
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin; History of Arab People by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000); and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated September 2016