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. ~~
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).
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.
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.
Last updated April 2016