STEPPE HORSEMAN HOMES AND POSSESSIONS
Most steppe horsemen have traditionally 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, to China and other parts of the world.
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.
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 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.
Directly opposite the entranceis the most honorable place in the yurt — the tor. Gers are divided into a woman’s side (right side of the tor), protected by the sun, and a man’s side (left side of the tor) projected by the sky god Tengger. There are specific locations where furniture is placed. Male-related stuff is found on their side, the west side of the door. Traditionally 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, on the east.
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. All rituals related to deceased relatives are also performed on the male side. The tor is where the male and female halves of the yurt meet.
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 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]
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 in 2004 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]
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.
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. Mongols believe the threshold holds the ger's spirit. When entering a ger one is supposed to 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.
Other ger-related customs and taboos include: 1) Don't strike the guard dogs. 2) Don't enter a yurt carrying a horsewhip or club. 3) Don't grab the door frame or move the top felt without permission. 4) Don't touch the hanging rope as it is a symbol of good luck that maintains family survival and bountiful livestock. 5) Once someone enters a ger they should move in a clockwise manner to avoid unwanted collisions. 6) The host sits in the center of the yurt and to the right of the host (the west side) is where the gods reside. 7) The stove is where the god of fire is located and is a symbol of family continuation. Thus, the stove must be respected. Putting knife into the fire, moving objects in the fire, cutting things on top of the fire, or warming feet too close to the fire are prohibited. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei]
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 |+|]
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.
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, and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2022