The Mongolian Ger
The correct name for the Mongolian nomadic dwelling is called a “ger.”It is well suited to the country’s extreme climate and nomadic way of life. Its wooden frame, covered by wool felt, can easily be collapsed, transported to another location and put up again, fully preserving its original shape.
During the Mongol Empire, Mongolians sometimes built their ger on carts to move their flocks of sheep easily. The French Monk, William Rubruquis, who visited Mongolia in the 13th century, witnessed the distance between the wheels of such a platform to be 20 feet (6.5m), and the ger protruded at least 5 feet over each wheel. The cart’s platform that held the ger was drawn by 22 oxen. Gers of that size were made specifically for nobility. However, they fell out of use as the carts were clumsy, and the gers could not be hauled over long distances as there was the danger of getting stuck in the mud or tipping over. During certain war campaigns, the noblemen preferred to use big tents of bright and durable cloth.
The modern shape of the Mongolian ger has evolved over time. The Mongolian ger is one of the tremendous achievements of construction designs and architecture in terms of its form, structure, durability, lightness and low price. The ger is stable against strong winds, and the air inside the geris well ventilated. It is warm to stay in the ger during wintertime, yet it is cool in the summer.
The Mongolian ger has two key components; a wooden framework and felt covers. The wooden parts consist of a door (khaalga), lattice walls (khaana), long poles (uni), vertical columns (bagana) and roof rings (toono). The size of a ger can be determined by the number of lattice wall sections, each of which can be folded and unfolded. Gers may have 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10 lattice wall sections. Mongolians live in standard-sized gers that have five wall sections. Larger sized gers are assembled for State ceremonies and celebrations of traditional festivals.
The Mongolian “ger” is easily erected and taken down within one or two hours. The assembling and taking down of the ger are done in a fixed order. First, the collapsible wooden floor, which has numbers on each section, is placed on the ground. Second, all the lattice wall sections are unfolded separately, and they are joined to one another with leather thongs or ties in a circle. Next, two ends of the lattice wall sections are attached to the door. The door is always on the south side facing the sun. Then, a long rope made from yak hair is tied around the wall sections. After that, two columns are joined to the roof ring (toono) and raised up, which is the main component of the ger’s structure. Next, long poles are fastened to the upper part of the wall sections, while the other end goes into the holes of the roof ring (toono). The framework is covered with an inner layer consisting of a white cloth. Then the ger is covered with wool felt made from sheep wool, and finally a canvas layer and an outer cover, which is a durable white cloth with beautiful patterns, is placed on the ger. Half of the roof ring (toono) resembles the spokes of a wheel and acts as a window and a chimney to allow smoke to escape. Half of the roof ring is covered with the felt flap (urkhe). The interior of the roof ring contains many different designs, but remains open to allow the air to get in. Finally, all the felt layers and outer cover of the ger is tied up with three rows of rope, which makes it firm. In winter, more felt layers are used to cover the ger, while some of these layers are reduced in summertime.
A rope, made of horse hair “chagtaga,” is fastened to the chimney as a stabilizer. Blue silk, also called “khadag,” is used to wrap a handful of grain and is hung from that rope. The symbolization of the khadag means, “May happiness multiply in this new ger like grains of corn.”
On hot days, the bottom of the felt and canvas layers of the ger can be rolled up to allow air in. On clear nights, one can lie in bed and watch the stars through the chimney or smoke escape. When you look out of a window of an airplane, the gers look like natural pearls scattered on green silk.
Visiting a Nomadic Family
Nomads are hospitable and friendly people who like receiving guests. Before entering the ger, visitors are supposed to ask them to “hold the dog.” After Mongolians greet each other, we ask them about the health of their herd by saying “Are you having a good summer?’’ and “Are the animals fattening up over the summer?”If a guest greets them in Mongolian, they will be happy because it is a sign of showing respect to them. When you greet old people or people who are older than you, you can use the word “Sain baina uu.” If a person is younger or the same age as you, you should say “Sain uu.”
The guests and elders are invited to sit on the north side of the ger, which is the place of honor. The family altar is placed on a table or chest against the wall on the north side of the ger. The west front of the ger is the man’s side where he puts his saddle and bridle. The leather sack made from a cow’s skin for fermenting mare’s milk is also placed on that side. On the woman’s side, the east front of the ger, there are shelves, cooking utensils and other women’s objects.
The main drinks for the Mongols are milk tea with salt and airag, which is fermented mares milk. The Mongols can’t imagine somebody visiting without having tea. When the Mongols receive guests, the wife or child of that family first offers them fresh tea. Then they offer their guests homemade pastries or dairy products, including cheese, curds and yogurt. When you are offered a traditional drink, you should take it by the right hand, not the left. After drinking or sipping some tea, the guest should use the same right hand to give it back. Mongolians never drink from the bowl whose rim is cracked, as it brings bad luck.
When you visit a nomadic family, you will be offered a snuff bottle, according to the Mongolian tradition. One of the most valuable possessions of a Mongolian man is his snuff bottle, which is carved from semi-precious stones such as agate, jade and turquoise. They exchange a snuff bottle when they meet one another. When offering a snuff bottle to each other, its lid has to be slightly opened. Snuff bottles are passed around in the upturned palm of the right hand. The recipient takes a pinch of snuff with a tiny spoon-like scoop that is attached to the lid, and places it on the back of his hand before inhaling it, or he may hold the bottle to his nose. The snuff bottle is carried in their embroidered pouches and demonstrates the social status and wealth of the owner. The guests are expected to receive the snuff bottle by the right hand and give it back to the owner by the same hand. Another important possession of a man is his hat, and it is never placed on the ground, which demonstrates a sign of respect. Nomads like to have their pictures taken. At the end of the visit, you can give a gift (even if it’s just small) to the family or children expressing your thankfulness.
DO’S & DON’TS IN THE GER
- Say hello (Sain uu/ Sain baina uu) when you first arrive
- Bring a gift (even if it is a small one) to the children or family
- Give gifts on departure, not on arrival
- When offered the traditional distilled vodka, dip your ring finger in it and flick it in the air as a blessing
- Sit with your legs crossed with your feet underneath you
- Receive food, gifts or anything with both hands or with the right hand
- Take at least a sip or nibble the delicacies that are offered
- Move inside the ger clockwise
- Sleep with your feet pointing towards the door
- Step on the threshold because it’s believed to contain the spirit of the house
- Sit on the table or with your back or feet to the altar
- Whistle inside the ger
- Go between the columns of the ger
- Stand in front of the shrine
- Point at someone with your index finger because it is not polite
- Touch another person’s hat
- Lean against the column of the ger
- Cross the paths of an elderly person because it is disrespectful
- Step over the lasso because it brings bad luck
- Touch the rim of the cup with your fingers
The Nomadic Way of Life
Most herding families in Mongolia own five types of domestic animals including sheep, goats, cows, horses and camels, all of which are main sources of their livelihood and survival. Herders in Mongolia receive many benefits from their animals. Nomads herd their animals for the use of transportation, meat, leather and dairy products. On average, one household owns over 180-200 sheep and goats, about 10 cows and about 10-15 horses. Usually there are 2-4 families living nearby as neighbors, because herders need a labor force for such work including making felt, shearing sheep for wool and training horses for transport. They also have common interests and materialistic needs to live as neighbors. However, single families living without neighbors are found in the Gobi, since it is a less populated region.
The herders move freely from one place to another since the pastureland is State property. Herders in Mongolia have four types of seasonal camps: summer camp, autumn camp, winter camp and spring camp. They usually move four times a year in search for the best pastures and water sources. However, if a drought affects the entire area, they need to move their herds more than four times a year to fatten their animals. Each time, they move a distance of about 50–100 kilometers.
In the spring, herdsmen are busy with the births of baby animals. On average, one household will have over 50 births of baby animals including lambs, kids, calves and foals. When they move to the spring camp, they keep the baby animals in a shelter until they get strong enough. Babies are kept in a shelter for animals from March to May.
A goat is more productive than a sheep since it produces high quality cashmere with fine fiber. Goats are combed in springtime. On average, a male goat produces over 300-350 grams of cashmere, while females give 200-250 grams of cashmere. Goats and sheep graze together in the pasture. Compared with other animals, the goat has a bad habit of eating the root of the grass so they must be moved more often when the grass is short. Milk of the white goat is used as a treatment for those being diagnosed with liver disease.
In spring, some herders do their migration with herds for over one month in search of the best pastures. This migration with the herds fattens their livestock and makes their animals strong to survive the harsh winters. Then they move to their spring camp that keeps the animals warm in the cold and windy spring months.
Herders use a branding iron with different patterns so they can distinguish their animals from others. The pattern of the branding iron could be in the shape of a crescent, swastika or a flame. This way, herders are able to easily distinguish them, if their animals get mixed up in the pasture with other herds.
In the middle of June, they move to the summer camp, which does not have as large a shelter for animals as the winter and spring camps. If the grass grows well, harvesting is good in summertime. Herders cut the grass with a scythe to make hay for their livestock for wintertime. Most of the family members take part in cutting grass and preparing fodder for their livestock before winter.
During the summer, herding families live along the river, if they do not have a well. In most of the regions, herders share the hand-drawn well to water their animals. In some areas, they share a well run by a “Honda” generator. They also put their money together to purchase the petrol for the generator.
In summer, the animals stay in a camp that is located in an open area. Herders have a lot of work to do in the summer. They herd their animals by horse, and their animals graze peacefully in the pasture by eating nutritious grass. In recent years, some herders have started herding their animals by motorcycle, which is their main form of transportation.
Sometimes young foals get sunstroke because they are tied to long ropes for the entire day. However, herders put wet mud or pour water on the back of young foals to prevent them from getting sunstroke. In most cases, the herders will release the foals for a couple of hours until milking time.
In summer, sheep and goats are milked once a day, while cows are milked twice a day. However, mares are milked every two hours. Herding families make a variety of dairy products such as curd, cheese, yogurt and airag, “fermented mare’s milk,” all of which are rich in calcium and good for metabolism.
Milking mares is usually done by women, and it requires considerable skill and technique. The milker kneels on one knee, with a pail propped on the other, steadied by a string tied to an arm. One arm is wrapped behind the mare's rear leg and the other in front of the leg. A man’s help is needed for milking the mares. It is necessary for the man to pull the foal away during the milking process. The mare’s foal is allowed to suckle its mother just long enough to let her milk down. Then, the man helps pull the foal away so that the other half of the mare’s milk is available to be milked by the woman. In Mongolia, the milking season for mares traditionally runs between mid-June and early October.
The herders prepare for the harsh winter by making dairy products for winter consumption, making hay and shelters for the animals, training their horses or camels to use for transport, and collecting dried dung to use for fuel. They spend winter in a winter camp that is located at the slope of a hill. Winter camp has a shelter for the animals built with wood in wooded areas or with big rocks in the Gobi region where there are no trees. The winter camp is well protected from strong wind and cold weather. In summer, the winter camp remains empty, but herders move back there at the end of October to spend wintertime with their animals. Small animals, such as sheep and goats are kept in a shelter at night, while big animals like horses and camels stay out in the pasture on their own.
The winter is the harshest and coldest season for the herders to survive and raise their livestock. Some years, it is hard for the animals to survive in a harsh winter because of a natural disaster called “Dzud.” The heavy-boned horses can survive in extreme winter conditions by scraping the icy or snowy ground with their front hooves to reveal the scant vegetation underneath. However, small animals perish in large quantities in the harsh winter, since they have short hooves and are unable to find the vegetation under the snow.
The Modern Nomads
In recent years, herding families have had more access to technology. Most nomad families use solar panels to gain access to electricity. With the electricity, households can watch their favorite television channels. Also, they use mobile phones for everyday life. The access to the mobile phone helps them find their lost animals. They herd their animals by motorcycle because the animals pasture for long distances. In the old days, they moved by an oxcart to put down their “Ger” which is a nomadic dwelling. But nowadays, some of them are getting quite rich, and they own a truck or a 4-wheel-drive Jeep to move to a new place. Some households will hire a truck to move somewhere.
The children from herders’ families go to a soum (village) school. They live with their relatives or in the school dormitory where food is provided by the State. In recent years, all the herding families prefer to send their children to colleges and universities in Ulaanbaatar, since herders have realized the importance of education. They want their children to be well educated and get a good job after graduation.
In the last ten years, nomadic people have moved to urban areas to improve their living condition and obtain a better education and employment.
Animal census reports are completed by the end of December every year. Herders pay a tax to the State once a year depending on the number of animals they own. Herders started paying taxes to the State in 1998. Sheep and goats are regarded as small animals, while horses, cows and camels are considered big animals. The cost of one of the big animals is equal to three small animals. For example: Herders are required to pay 300 tugrugs for each small animal, but they pay 900 tugrugs for each of the big animals. The tax rates depend on where they live.
Mongolian Dairy Products
Herdswomen usually make dried curds that are considered to be candy in the countryside. To make dried curds, they make yoghurt with milk and keep the yoghurt for several days to make it sour. Then the sour yoghurt is boiled until it becomes thick without liquid. After that, the thick dough is covered with cotton and pressed between two wooden plates for one or two days. The pressed curd is cut into different shapes and sizes and put on wooden plates over the Ger to dry for several days. Then the dried curds are ready to eat.
Every nomad family makes distilled milk vodka to serve visitors anytime or to drink on holidays. Distilled milk vodka is very smooth to drink. As said before, the sour yoghurt is kept for several days and then put in a big cauldron on the stove. A round wooden framework is put over the big cauldron, and a small pot is hung from the framework. Another small cauldron with cold water is placed over the framework. A fire is made in the stove until the cold water in the small cauldron is boiled. During this time, the sour yoghurt vaporizes and touches the bottom of the small cauldron and the drops of the distilled milk collect in the pot hanging inside. The cold water in the small cauldron is replaced twice. Finally, the hot water, the small cauldron and the small pot are removed from the framework. The milk vodka is placed in another pot.
The favorite, traditional dairy product is cheese for Mongolian people. To make cheese, about 7-8 liters of milk are put into a cauldron and a spoonful of yoghurt is added. The mixture is gradually boiled. Then the thickened mixture is pressed between two wooden flat boards for several hours to get any additional liquid out. The cheese is cut into small squares. The Mongolian cheese has a different taste than European cheeses.
Airag, or “fermented mare’s milk,” is a traditional drink for the Mongols. After the mares are milked every two hours, fresh milk is collected and put into a leather bag made from cow’s skin. Then the fresh milk is beaten with a churn for 1500-2000 times. The next day, airag is ready to drink. Mare’s milk tastes different in different regions, and not all herders of Mongolia make airag. Only those living in Central Mongolia make “airag” in the summer.