The Mongolian way of life is laid-back, patient, tolerant of hardship and intimately connected with the ways of animals. Despite urbanisation, the traditions of the steppes live on. In the cities, many Mongolians continue to live, by preference, in a ger, snug inside their canvas and felt tent against the bitter winds from Siberia.
The large, white felt tent, known as a ger (pronounced 'gair') and seen all over Mongolia, is probably the most identifiable symbol of Mongolia. (The word yurt was introduced by the Russians. If you don't want to offend the nationalistic sensibilities of the Mongolians, use the word 'ger'.)
The outer and innermost material of the ger is usually canvas, with an insulating layer of felt sandwiched in between, all supported by a collapsible wooden frame. They appear flimsy, but gers hold up amazingly well to Mongolia's fierce winds. Ancient gers were more solidly built: when it was necessary to move them, they had to be placed on carts and pulled by horses. This proved very cumbersome, so the invention of collapsible models was a great advance in Mongolian technology.
Most Mongolians still live in gers, even in the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar. It's not hard to understand why. Wood and bricks are scarce and expensive, while out on the steppes, animal hides are cheap and readily available (canvas, imported from Russia, is now expensive). Mongolians remain nomadic: gers can be moved easily - depending on the size, a ger can be assembled in one to three hours.
Gers can be surprisingly comfortable. In urban areas, they may have electricity, but in rural regions, candles or lamps supply the only artificial light. There is normally a stove in the centre of the ger which provides both heat and cooking facilities. In forested areas, firewood can be burned in the stove, but out on the steppes, the main fuel is dried dung. Without exception, toilets will be outside. If showers are available at all, which is very rare, they will normally be in some sort of public bathhouse (khaluun us - 'hot water') serving a whole group of gers. Lakes and rivers are the normal place to bathe.
Making a Ger
Nomadic people obviously have to be flexible and mobile. A ger is ideal: it is cheap to make or buy, collapsible, environmentally friendly, stable and adaptable. During winter, more felt layers are added. The small opening at the top, called a toono, which allows smoke to go out and air to come in, is covered with an orkh during rain.
The wooden poles are orange (the colour of the sun) and called uni; the walls are known as khana. Each ger has four to twelve khanas, each with about 10 to 15 unis. Depending on the mobility and wealth of the family, the ger is placed on a wooden, felt or bare earth floor. In western Mongolia, gers owned by Kazaks are often browner and larger, and almost always decorated inside with bright carpets and rugs.
The first part of the ger to be assembled is the floor. Next, the stove (zuukh) is placed in the centre of the ger. The khanas and doors (khaalga) - always brightly painted, and facing south - are erected; two columns (bagana) are connected to the toono; the unis are attached to the khanas; and then the ger is covered with felt (esgi) and weighed down against strong winds.
The average weight of a ger is abvout 250kg, without furniture. It can be placed on a cart and pulled by yaks, camels or horses. In early summer, you may see many nomadic families taking their gers, all their worldly goods and animals for several hundred kilometres in search of better water, fodder or weather.
It is bad manners to knock on the brightly decorated or painted doors of the ger. Instead, you should call out 'Nokhoi khor!', which roughly translates as 'Can I come in?', but literally means 'Hold the dog!' To avoid being eaten alive by a vicious and highly protective (and, possibly, rabid) mongrel, learn how to say this properly.
The layout of the ger is universal throughout Mongolia. The door always faces south. Once across the threshold, men move left (to the west, under the protection of the great sky god, Tengger); women to the right (east, under the protection of the Sun). Towards the back, and a little to the west, is the place of honour set aside for guests, to which you will be politely ushered. There you will be seated, with the man of the ger beside you.
The back of the ger is the khoimor, the place for the elders, where the most honoured people are seated and treasured possessions are kept. On the back wall is the family altar, with Buddhist images once again publicly displayed, family photos (mostly taken during very occasional visits to Ulaanbaatar) and some suitcases. Near the door, on the male side, are saddles and the big leather milk bag and churn to stir the brew of milky tea and airag. On the other (female) side of the door are the cooking implements and water buckets. Around the walls, there are two or three low beds and cabinets; in the centre, a small table with several tiny chairs; and hanging in any vacant spot, toothbrushes, clothes, children's toys and plenty of tasty slabs of uncooked mutton.
Most gers will have a hospitality plate, usually an aluminium bowl, piled with offerings, ready for any passer-by who drops in. You will almost certainly be offered some dairy products, especially in summer, such as dried cheese, as well as a bowl of milky and salty Mongolian tea, or sometimes vodka. You should always take what is offered - try not to refuse anything. If you don't like what you have been given, take a small sip or bite - or pretend to if it greatly upsets you - and leave the rest on the table. If you finish anything, the plate or bowl will be filled up. In a Kazak ger, placing a hand over the plate or bowl simply indicates that you do not want a refill.
An older man may offer his snuffbox to a male visitor, even if you don't have one to exchange. If you want some snuff, empty a tiny portion on your hand, between your (downward-facing) first finger and thumb. Raise your hand to a nostril, take a long, deep inhalation and smile widely. If you don't want any snuff, just go through the motions anyway, but don't inhale. If the snuffbox is empty, don't make any comment (he has run out of snuff or can't afford any) - pretend there is some.
Customs & Gers
One of the most important things to remember when you enter a ger is to be confident: don't smile sheepishly or look nervous. Feel at home, relax and don't worry if people come and go. Here are some of the more important rules to observe:
- lean against a support column.
- whistle inside a ger.
- stand on or lean over the threshold.
- stamp out a fire or put water or any rubbish on it; fire is sacred.
- walk in front of an older person.
- turn your back to the altar and religious objects at the back of the room (except when leaving).
- take food from a communal plate with your left hand.
- touch other people's hats.
- have a long conversation in your own language in front of hosts who do not understand it.
- take at least a sip, or a nibble, of the delicacies offered.
- keep your sleeves rolled down, if you have any, or pretend to, if you have short sleeves; try not to expose your wrists.
- accept food or drink with your right hand (or with both if the dish or cup is heavy), with the left hand supporting the right elbow.
- pick up anything with an open hand, with your palm facing upwards.
- leave any weapons outside.
- Don't write anything in a red pen.
- Don't point a knife in any way at anyone.
- Don't spill any milk.
- When offered some vodka, dip the ring finger of your right hand into the glass, and lightly flick a drop (not too much - vodka is also sacred) once towards the sky, once in the air 'to the wind', and once to the ground. If you don't want any vodka, go through the customs anyway, put the same finger to your forehead, say thanks, and return the glass to the table.
- Don't point your feet at the hearth.
- Don't walk over an uurga (lasso pole).
- If you have stepped on anyone or kicked their feet, immediately shake their hand.
For a thorough, comprehensive description of the making of a ger, with photographs, diagrams and figures, go to this page. It's highly interesting reading!
Greenway, Paul, Storey, Robert & Lafitte, Gabriel, Lonely Planet - Mongolia, Second Edition, Lonely Planet Publications, Hawthorn, Australia, 1997, pp. 35-38.