The ger (or yert as the Russians call it) has come to be a symbol of Mongolia; an association of a rural lifestyle unfamiliar to our own. Every once in a while you will pass a ger or two in the distance and wonder about how a family or small community can survive out in the wilderness, hours away from the quick-fix amenities, shops and company that we take for granted.
During my time in the Orkhon Valley I had the opportunity to visit a local family, who lived half an hour away from our ger camp. It wasn’t a tourist trap set-up with the family taking money from passing visitors on a regular basis, but a lucky opportunity set up by one of our Mongolian guides who asked the family if our group could visit in order to learn more about Mongolian life. There were times when a lack of civilisation affected our mindset, so we were interested to see how a family survives like this on a daily basis.
What is a Mongolian Ger?
Gers are around 250kgs, including wooden walls and one layer of felt with no windows and one door. In the winter two or three felt layers will be added as well as a plastic layer to protect from the rain. They are made to be easily broken down and put on one carriage for easy transportation as families move approximately four times a year according to the seasons.
How does a ger community work?
First we asked if the family owned any land, considering they move about regularly. Every citizen is allowed to occupy a certain amount of land and each family belongs to a village and then registers an area of land with that village. The location is normally dependent on generations rather than an ‘official’ plot of land, but registration is fundamental and the family will either live next to or nearby the relatives (including being near to family who have relocated to the nearest town or city).
Another family, not from your own, can come and set up nearby if they are registered with the same village. This means that the notion of private property doesn’t exist in the countryside, only in the towns and cities.
Ger Rules, Customs and Traditions to Follow
We were careful not to step on or touch anything when we entered the ger until we were told exactly what to do. It’s important to follow custom so if you ever visit a ger, here’s what to do:
- Don’t step on the threshold when you enter the main door
- Women sit on the left hand side (which is also where the kitchen area is) and men sit on the right. The back of the ger is considered to be the place of honour, where the most respected guests sit and this area usually contains the families most precious things, alongside a religious corner
- Don’t pass or walk through the two central poles. This is based on a superstition that these poles support the ger and should therefore be protected
- Don’t point at object or people, but use an open palm
- The bag hanging just inside the front door is a religious symbol to ward off bad spirits
- Never ask how many animals a family has, it is seen an impolite. Instead, you can ask how many different types of animals they have
- A little animal hair and wool can be found hanging inside the Ger – this is an indication of what the family sells but it can also indicate their favourite or most expensive animal – they like to keep some of it within the family
- If milk or any dairy produce is spilt, then a Mongolian will touch the said dairy product and then touch their head as a means of saying ‘sorry’. Food wastage is seen as very negative
Income and Survival: Fermented Mare’s Milk
Intrigued as to how a family can make money when so far removed from everything, we were informed that a typical family’s income results from selling dairy products, alongside wool and cashmere from their animals.
We were invited to try fermented mare’s milk (airag), curd and butter. I kept hearing about fermented mare’s milk before I went to Mongolia; the negative description being met with a disgusted facial expression.
Personally I found it drinkable – it’s like milk with a slight fizz. However, I wouldn’t go downing the stuff, even if it is 2% alcohol! To make this the mares are milked every two hours and the milk churned as many times as possible in order to ferment it.
As for the curd, well, it was hard to keep a straight face and try and crunch down and swallow something that tasted slightly rank. So much so, the only thing you had to wash it down with was… fermented mare’s milk. A vicious cycle of trying to be polite and getting stuck in a rut. Still, they let us try a bit of the local vodka which made the palate abuse a little easier!
The family consume their dairy products as well as selling them. In the Autumn, meat is prepared and stored for the harsh winter: an amount which can normally last until Spring. In the Summer, the family will live on dairy products and vegetables, topping up with supplies from the nearest town if needed.
Mongolians have access to all facilities, including satellite TV! Children go to school in the local town, where they either live with relatives in the town or stay in the school dormitories (when they are a little older) and there is a good medical system in place within each village. Each village has a hospital service, catering for around 10 families with regular check-ups taking place. When it comes to childbirth, the woman will give birth in a hospital in the nearest town or city. Being isolated isn’t so bad after all.
After much talking and translation we all went outside. The men began to wrestle, the children jumped on their horses to show off their skills and the ger mother opened up a cupboard full of traditional Mongolian clothing she had handmade and invited us to try them on.
We might not have been able to communciate directly, but we all shared something with each other. You never grow too old to play dress-up and with a rainbow outside it was the perfect opportunity to strike a pose and, just for one moment, indulge in the serenity of a rural lifestyle I could only imagine.