Gers in Mongolia
by Tara Munch
Ger shape Wrestling Palace
Gers were brought to my attention again today. I was riding home from school and noticed a few of them on the route. Now they have been there the whole time I have been here just in the background. After a few weeks of living here I sort of stopped noticing them. They were just part of the background. I think that is human nature. You just sort of adapt and after a bit forget that not everyone is surrounded by the same things. I imagine that if I was in India and for some reason was woken up by elephants every morning I am sure that I would eventually find that normal. What? You don ' t get woken up by elephants. Anyhow, onto the gers.
Gers are the traditional dwelling of the nomads in Mongolia --or so the dictionary definition claims. They may be for nomads but even here in UB they are everywhere. I have read that anywhere from 1/3 to 3/4 of the people living in Mongolia live in gers. I have also been told that gers were the basis for the development of traditional Mongolian architecture. I don’t know if that is true but I do know that there are many building here in the city that are simply very large permanent gers. The wrestling palace is one, for example.
Gers are round tent-like structure made from a wooden frame and covered by wool felt. Traditionally, they are supposed to be easy to collapse and are supposed to be small enough to be dragged by no more than three animals (horses, camels, yaks). Apparently, the ability to be carried this way is part of the definition. Gers today are also covered with a la y er of cotton canvas in order to keep out the rain. Long ago this was, of course, reserved for the nobles and very rich. Today it is the norm.
The Mongolian ger hasn't changed much since Genghis Khan's time. The few elements that did change were the consequence of newly developed or imported technology, such as carpentry. This made it possible to craft a wooden crown similar to a wheel in place of a simple piece of wood bent into a circle. Gers also now have wooden doors and a stove in the center instead of an open fire. This is a real benefit, as you can imagine a house basically made of cloth is very vulnerable to fire. Even now, with the stoves gers are still very vulnerable. I saw black smoke out my window one day and looked out to see one of the gers across the street was on fire. A fire department did come but the whole thing burned right to the ground. In less than three minutes. It was pretty dramatic.
The inside of a ger is supposed to represent the family members. There are also markers inside for each of the four directions. The door should always
face south. I haven ' t noticed if the gers in the city always face south. Herders traditionally used the position of the sun in the crown of the ger as a sundial. All of the furniture that I have seen in gers has been orange wooden furniture.
It has a very specific look and can be seen all around Mongolia even outside of the gers. It is painted with flowers and a stylized designed that, to me, looks sort of like Celtic symbols. There is quite a bit of the furniture at my school in fact. The children have their snacks every day at little ger tables as they are called. We have a ger outside on the playground that the music and Mongolian classes used to be held in. The school also has a small model ger inside the school that the children use as a sort of playhouse. Gers are not only common they are a national symbol. Really, pictures of gers are on the back of much of the money here. The 1000 and 500 tg bills if you want to be specific.
There are a lot of customs in Mongolia that have to do with the ger. Standing on the wooded threshold, for example is still considered to be very bad luck. The parent of a newly married couple will often build the m a ger as a wedding gift. Where you sit in a ger is very important and intricate - the most honored guests sit at the top left end of the ger, farthest from the door, and least important ones along the left side closer to the door. I have not really figured how exactly most and least important is figured out. Family members usually sit on the right side of the ger. The furniture is always arranged in the same way: kitchen to the right of the door, altar in the back, and beds to the left and right of the altar.
By the way calling ger a yurt here in Mongolia is not going to make anyone happy. Yurt is a Russian word and Mongolians can be very touch y about all things Russian. That attitude might be a holdover from when Mongolia was a sort of a Soviet Satellite. The word yurt originally referred to a camping ground while the word ger literally means home. I guess that means when people ask me later if I live in a yurt I can say that in Mongolia it is called a ger and yes, of course I did. Hey, I have to entertain myself somehow!
I think that the endurance of the ger and its continued presence even in the most developed part of the country is an indication of how close Mongolia still is to its past. The image of the lonely ger surrounded by herd animals is still a reality here and one hardly needs to leave the city to see it.