Mongolia is one of the strangest places I’ve ever visited. It still boggles my mind, for example, that in a country with fewer than three million people, about half of them live in one city. Outside of Ulaan Baatar, there are only a few towns. There are a couple of provincial centers that could be called small cities. But the difference between life inside and outside of the capital couldn’t be starker. Outside of UB, most people are nomadic or semi-nomadic, living at least part of the year in a ger. They herd sheep, cows, yaks, and goats, and move their homes and livestock every few months.
Fun Fact: A ger and a yurt are the same thing. “Yurt” is a Russian word, while “ger” is a Mongolian word.
Tourists to the Mongolian countryside can experience the nomadic lifestyle by staying in a ger camp. These are basically campgrounds with permanent gers erected on concrete bases. Before I went, I thought it sounded gimmicky, but this is really the only place to stay in the countryside. There aren’t any hotels out there.
Plus, they’re actually really cool inside. On the outside they’re always white, but on the inside they’re quite colorful. Traditionally, an entire family lives inside one ger. The beds are arranged in a circle around the edge of the ger. Some of them also had cabinets next to the bed, others had drawers built into the headboard and footboard. In contrast to the greens, blues, and browns of the Mongolian landscape, ger furniture is always painted bright orange or vermillion, and embellished with curlicues and cloud designs.The floors are carpeted; traditionally it’s probably wool. At the places we stayed, the walls were covered with an extra layer of fabric—usually cotton. I wasn’t sure if this was for extra warmth or for decoration—probably both. In the center is a wood-burning stove and a table with stools. The stove is particularly important because Mongolia, for most of the year, is a chilly place. For guests at ger camps, fire-starting service is provided by the staff. If they’re really good hosts, they’ll do it twice: once before bed and once in the early morning.
At one camp, we arrived when a ger was being erected. It doesn’t require many pieces, and apparently they are available for sale at the Narantuul Market in Ulaan Baatar. I started to seriously consider taking up residence in a ger. If only they could be shipped cheaply to the US. Here are all of the pieces one would need:
On the left: the center columns, a roof, a couple of supports for the roof, and felt and canvas coverings. On the right: a door and a piece of the wall. The walls are made of several accordion-like wooden pieces that can be easily folded or extended. First, these are assembled by tying them together in a circular shape. It’s nice if you have a lot of friends to help with this part. Next, the two center columns are put up. I asked our tour guide how the guys knew where to place the columns; if there were markings on the ground or something. She said no; they just eyeball it. After that, the roof can be raised, two supports are secured, and the door can be put in place. After the door is up, some ropes are tied around the walls, to keep them in place. Next, additional supports have to be put in place. The felt and canvas roof coverings are very heavy, so there are a lot of supports. On the inside, they’re brightly painted, so it’s also important to make sure to lay them properly. Without the cover on, a completed ger looks like this: At this point, the guys building the ger took a break. Also very important. The next step would be to cover the entire ger with a giant felt blanket. The blanket has a slit in the center, creating a flap. Once it is on, the flap is usually folded back, so natural light can enter the ger. Also, this is where the stovepipe goes, which, as I said, is an essential fixture in every ger. Finally, a canvas cover goes on top of the felt, for added warmth and probably also to help preserve the felt. Extra ropes are tied around the outside of the ger, possibly to keep the whole thing from falling apart. It reminded me of butchers’ strings tied around pot roast.
And you’re done! When a nomad family moves house, they complete this whole process (dismantling, traveling, and rebuilding) in just one day. In the past, the ger pieces were transported by yak-drawn carts, but nowadays they drive cars and trucks. To think, every time I’ve moved, I’ve struggled to get all my stuff packed up; I didn’t even have to take my house apart or put it together again.
Fun Fact: Everyone who has ever been inside a ger has hit their head on the doorframe.
Gers are short. I mean really short. Take a look at Bob here: I imagine it has to do with the weather: Mongolia is cold and windy, so the best kind of dwelling would be one that is short and squat. It’s really a clever design. I came up with that theory when I was trying to distract myself from thinking about my throbbing head.
The gers at the tourist camps have electricity, as do the ger neighborhoods around Ulaan Baatar and in small cities, but none have running water in the ger itself. As in the tourist camps, in the ger neighborhoods there are shared toilets (often pit toilets) and shower facilities. Out in the countryside, the people can wash themselves in rivers or streams when they have the chance, but that’s about it when it comes to bathing. Washing clothes regularly is also impossible. Cooking is done over the stove in the center of the yurt, but I think that would be really difficult since the space is so small. On the upside, there’s very little cleaning to be done.