MONGOLIA TOWNS, HOMES AND SETTLEMENTS
A typical Mongolia settlement that serves as home base for 1,500 nomads scattered over 1,000 square miles consists of rows of drab, one-story building facing an unpaved road with a co-op headquarters, boarding school, clinic, bakery, boot and tailor shop, library and theater in the buildings and an outhouse in the middle of the square. In the Communist era, a fleet of trucks and jeeps was used to transport gers to grazing areas picked out by central planners.
The towns in Mongolia are often quite ugly and dreary but are surrounded by spectacular and lovely scenery. A typical town is a cluster of concrete buildings—a school, government headquarters, a town hall, some houses—surrounded by hundreds even thousands of gers scattered around the countryside. The rooms in the buildings often have plywood wall, wooden floors painted red and bare electric light bulbs hanging from the ceiling.
Settled Mongolians live in permanent houses. The poor live in homes made from mud brick. More well off Mongolians live in brick houses. There are few wooden houses except in forested areas. Some people have used railroad ties to build permanent homes. Because of the fierce northern and northwesterly winds, dwelling have traditionally been built facing south or southeast. Herders sometimes erect temporary grass shelters. Some herders use camel dung bricks to make pens for their animals. In the winter the bricks can be burned for warmth and cooking.
Describing a typical a typical Mongolian steppe settlement, Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “Züünbayan-Ulaan is nothing more than a small cluster of concrete buildings—a school, a government center, a town hall, some houses—and most of its five thousand four hundred and thirty-one residents live in felt tents, called gers, in the surrounding countryside. More than three hundred people stood...in a pasture just north of town. Some of them had arrived on motorcycles, and others had come on horseback; most were dressed in their best dels—traditional woollen cloaks...“The town hall had plywood walls and an old wooden floor that had been painted red. Bare electric bulbs hung from the ceiling. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, July 16, 2001 ~~]
“None of the roads into Züünbayan-Ulaan are paved. There’s a grass track that comes in from Arvaykheer, the provincial capital, and that was how I had travelled the day before...We had driven southwest from Ulaanbaatar—a trip of eleven hours. On the way, we had passed through half a dozen permanent settlements. Occasionally, I could see a ger tucked into the crease of a valley, but mostly the land was empty. There were virtually no trees; huge hawks and kites perched heavily on the grass. Sometimes my driver had to honk to get them off the road. In the vast landscape, with its endless backdrop of green mountains, the only changing element was the weather. It rushed past us in waves, as if the sun and the wind and the rain were trying to fill all that emptiness. ~~
Orientation and Surroundings 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). Members of the ger household sleep with their heads toward the altar and their feet toward the door. There was no prescribed positioning for different tents in camp, except that the ger head of the family is situated in the place of honor to the right front of the camp and facing south.
Water sources for livestock is the chief concern when choosing a place to get up camp. The best sources are natural sources such as rivers, streams and lakes. When these are not available wells can be dug. Wells and the pastures around them are generally the property of the household, clan or community that dug them.
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.
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.
Possessions in Mongolia
A typical Mongolian home or ger has a small altar with family portraits, incense and ceramic or carved Buddhas on top. In the 1990s, many modern families dispensed with the altar and placed these items on top of the television. With the advent of flat screen televisions, the items are now placed on a bookcase or cabinet.
In the 1990s, a typical family of six (with a per capita income close the nation average of $1,820) in Ulaanbaatar lived in 200 square foot one room ger and spent 68 percent of its income on food and 4 percent on vodka and cigarettes. The father's most valued possession was the TV and the mother's most prized possession was a statue of Buddha inherited from her grandmother. In the future the family hoped to have enough money to afford a permanent house with fenced in garden. [Source: Peter Menzel, "Material World," Sierra Club Books, 1994]
Among the possessions the family squeezed into the ger were two china cabinets, a dresser with a vanity mirror, three twin beds, dining table, electric hot plate, coal-burning heating stove, fluorescent lighting, three teapots, television, wash basin, jars and bowls, knives for slaughtering sheep, lumber, clothing, and photographs. The cabinets, beds and dressers were placed near the walls of the ger and the heater and dining table were placed at the center.
Carpets have traditionally been prized by nomads because they were easy to transport, they provided warm and the could be used as furniture and decorative wall and floor coverings.
In the winter many people sleep two to a bed in sleep-bag like quilts that have openings at both ends. One person sleeps with his head at one end and the other person sleeps with his head at the other end. Each person has the other person’s feet near his or her head. The winter in Mongolia is so cold that people often all sleep together on a kang (a huge bed over an oven).
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 gers are often decorated with wall coverings, rugs, embroidered tapestries or quilts. In places around the ger are racks for metal utensils, boxes for clothing, storage bin for boots and shoes. Many have gers have a large cow skin of a cow, which was used to store a variety of milks from yaks, sheep, or horses. The amount of decorations is often an indication of status.
A typical Mongolian ger has a small altar with family portraits, incense, lama statues, a variety of offering trays, and ceramic or carved Buddhas on top. The altar, or shrine box, is often nothing more than a high wooden box or table. 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.
Inside the ger, there are places in the middle for cooking, drinking and keeping warm. A cowhide, a woolen felt or a carpet is usually spread round the cooking area. The wooden cupboards, cabinets, trunks and desks, which are generally characterized by smallness, lowness, durability and convenience. They are designed to take up as little space as possible and with stand rough journeys in trucks or on camel back. Although gers look relatively small from the outside they can be surprisingly spacious on the inside. To aid the circulation of air, the layer of felt spread at the bottom of the plaiting-wall can be lifted up for ventilation in summer and in the middle of the day when it os relatively warm. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
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 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. 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. Each lattice (hana or khana) is lashed in an upright position to other wall sections when the yurt is being assembled. When the dwelling was being packed and transported, the pieces of each hana were pushed together and stored on the back of a camel. Taking a ger down is quicker and easier than setting one up.
Steps for setting up a ger: 1) select a flat area and clear away stones of other impediments; 2) set up the gate, door or door frame of the yurt; 3) prop up the plaiting-walls (hanas) and tie up the inside waistband; 4) prop up the round wooden rooftop hole or wooden centerpiece; 5) insert the roof pole; 6) enclose the plaiting-walls and cover the roof poles with carpet-like pieces and keep these in place with ropes tied securely outside of the yurt; 7) hang up the curtain of the skylight, enclose the felt at the bottom; and 8) lastly tighten firmly the whole structure with a hair-rope. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
Transporting a Ger
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.
An entire ger can be carried away by two camels or a light wooden cart. After the wall pieces (hanas) are disassembled the hanas are often together so they serve as platforms to tie the felt pieces and other stuff to. The felt coverings and lattice walls of a ger can be taken down, folded and loaded onto a camel in less than an hour. Loading possessions, especially heavy chests takes longer. In some places herders still made pack bags themselves out of leather and rope out of horsehair and felt out of wool.
Bactrian camels were traditionally used to move possessions. Everything was loaded on their backs: ger parts, carpets, pots and pans, shelves, stoves. Bactrian camels are capable of carrying 270 kilograms and stand six feet at the hump, can weigh half a ton and seem no worse for wear when temperatures drop to -20 degrees F. These animals can go a week without water and a month without food. A thirsty camel can drink 25 to 30 gallons of water at one go. For protections against sandstorms, Bactrian camels have two sets of eyelids and eyelashes. The extra eyelids can wipe sand like windshield wipers. Their nostrils that can shrink to a narrow slit to keep out blowing sand. The fact they can endure extreme hot and cold and travel long periods of time without water makes ideal caravan animals and beasts of burden in harsh places such as Mongolia and Central Asia.
Camels move at about five kilometer per hour. In the winter they sometimes die when because they are unable to scrape away snow from the grass and plants they eat. The humps store energy in the form of fat and can reach a height of 18 inches and individually hold as much as 100 pounds. A camel can survive for weeks without food by drawing on the fat from the humps for energy. The humps shrink, go flaccid and droop when a camel doesn’t get enough to eat and it loses the fat in the humps that keeps them erect.
In the early 2000s, there were around 650,000 Bactrian camels in Mongolia and more per capita than anywhere else in the world. About two third of the camels live in the Gobi Desert. Sometimes camels are left unattended for months a time and allowed to wander as far as 50 kilometers away. There are fewer camels than there used to be. Sometimes they are eaten for meat. Mostly they are too expensive too keep and not as useful as they once were as trucks carry gers instead of camels.
In recent years, the structures and materials of the yurt have been modernized. Steel frameworks are now available. Some modern gers are made from white canvas with plastic sheathing and aluminum poles. You can also get windows that open both in the front and the back that improve the lighting in the otherwise dark yurt. These days you can find many yurts with bed, televisions, stereos, satellite dishes, satellite phones and personal computers. Suburban gers often have a painted door and a yard surrounded by fences to protect them from the fierce winds and provide some privacy among people who are used to having dozens of miles between them and their nearest neighbors. Residents are often charged electricity but no rent.
Len Charney wrote: “Oftentimes the large crown at the top of the yurt no longer serves as a smoke hole. Instead, electric cables are lowered into the yurt, bringing power for stoves, radios, and televisions. Whereas before, rows of dried yak-dung and sheep-dung bricks would surround the yurt, awaiting their turn to provide heat in the central fire; now perhaps the only thing that waits outside to be used is a small motorscooter.” [Source: Len Charney, eng.surag.net |+|]
Most gers have battery-operated radios. Nomads get much of their information from shortwave radio broadcasts. Some gers have electricity provided by diesel- solar- or wind-powered generators. Some are hooked up to electric lines. The electricity powers a light bulb that hangs from the ceiling and televisions and other electronic devises.
On a dinner party in a ger in northern Mongolia, Glenn Hodges wrote in National Geographic: “There we have dinner in Nyamhuu's ger, without question the nicest one I've seen, full of new furniture and bright tapestries. The town fires up a diesel generator on winter evenings, so when the electricity comes on at 7:30, so does the new television. With a signal that the post office gets from a satellite and then broadcasts to the town, we watch a terrible Hollywood movie about sorority girls. After many nights on the trail spent playing cards and laughing at each other's jokes, our last two hours together are silent: The TV has the stage. And as I leave, I can't help but wonder whether Nyamhuu's one-year-old daughter will grow up singing the Mongolian songs that brought such life to the mountains we rode through, or whether she'll grow up lip-synching with whoever happens to be the latest incarnation of Britney Spears.” [Source: Glenn Hodges, National Geographic, October 2003]
In Kazakhstan there are factories that produce yurts. They manufacture single room, two-room and large multi-room yurts.
In 2013, the traditional craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger and its associated customs was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: Craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger is a traditional enterprise involving the labour of a household or group, with men carving the wood and both women and men engaged in painting, sewing and stitching, and felt-making. The structure is the same across the country: a wooden frame painted and decorated with traditional ornamentation, covers made of white felt and canvas, ropes of animal hair, flooring and carpets of hand-sewn felt, and furniture. [Source: UNESCO]
Traditional craftsmanship is taught to the younger generations, principally through mentoring by a senior craftsperson. Dismantling and reassembling the Ger are always family operations, with children learning by watching their elders. Cutting and preparing sheep’s wool, making felt, stitching canvas and preparing woodwork are usually communal endeavours. As a traditional dwelling, the Mongol Ger plays an important social and cultural role for nomadic families and its makers are highly respected.
According to UNESCO ger craftsmanship was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because: 1) The knowledge and skills associated with the Mongol Ger are transmitted through generations; anchored deeply in the nomadic lifestyle, they provide a sense of identity and continuity for their community; 2) Its inscription on the Representative List could contribute to the visibility of intangible cultural heritage by promoting cohesion across society; the bearers’ ability to adapt the technique to changing environmental conditions is testimony to human creativity; 3) Proposed safeguarding measures are oriented towards raising awareness, transmission through formal education, capacity building of bearers and the revision of legal frameworks and marked by cooperation between the State and the the communities concerned.
A customary greeting when approaching a ger (traditional tent) 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 is usually very low. Some of the customs and taboos associated with gers also apply to houses.
When entering a ger, visitors are supposed to go 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 bringing in bad vibes. If you spend the night sleep with your 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.
Len Charney wrote: “The customary manner of sitting is to kneel on the right knee with the other knee up. Many a Western visitor has found that it takes time before he is comfortable in this position. A sign of congeniality, both inside and outside the home, is for two people to exchange snuffboxes upon meeting. Neither party is expected to test the quality of the contents, it is purely a process of mutual admiration. In other gers it is customary for the guest to inquire of the host about his health, the well-being of his family, the state of his livestock, and the quality of the grass for his herds. To each of these questions, the host is expected to answer yes, despite any maladies that might be plaguing him...In many remote areas of Mongolia, a traveler can come upon an empty yurt, unattended by its occupants and still find that food and drink have been left for him to enjoy on the yurt, of course!” [Source: Len Charney, eng.surag.net |+|]
Eating Customs in a Ger
Mongolians don’t eat with chopsticks. They generally use a spoon, fork or knife or just their hands. Boiled meat is passed around in a large communal bowl with a knife. People slice off a piece of meat. The choices pieces are the ones with the most fat.
After entering a ger guests are offered tea with milk and salt in a bowl, and a plate with various cheeses and/or bread or cookies. Guests accept what is offered to them with their right hand, with the left hand offering support at the elbow; pick up things with an open hand and a palm facing upwards; and hold their tea bowl at the bottom rather than the top.
Visitors are expected 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.
Traditionally Mongolians have lived in settlements called ails, based on kinship, which formed basic administrative units called somon or arban. A typical ail is made up of five to eight gers, with the gers arranged according to each household’s relation to the ail’s leader.
In the old days, an ail was a group of households consisting of kin and nonkin that migrated together and formed discrete social units. ail functions included helping one another in times of trouble, participating in kinship rituals such as weddings, funerals and hair cutting rites and economic exchanges. Household in the ail cooperate for labor intensive activities such as tending livestock and sheering sheep.
The ail’s leader is usually a senior member called an aksakala (“white beard”). Often he is no more than that the eldest male in a household or extended family. When he dies his eldest son becomes the ail leader.
Increased urbanization, the collectivization of herds and the enlargement of settlements has undermined the traditional ail system. Traditional administrative units have been replaced with administrative districts based on territory.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016