Saturday, July 18, 2015

Mongolia Inside & Out 102: Introducing the ger

Welcome back to the Mongolia Inside & Out series!  Last time I shared the 23 things I think everyone should know about coming to Mongolia.  At the end of the inaugural post, I made a grandiose claim about this post: that it would be dedicated to introducing Mongolian culture and customs.  My hubris knew no bounds!

Pictured: no bounds within which to contain all my hubris

As I struggled to draft a comprehensive yet introductory post on the topic, I found myself returning to the Mongolian ger each time I considered almost every relevant subject.  A full essay on Mongolian culture would invariably come up short; although it's tempting (and I was sorely tempted) to cram everything one knows into a single piece of writing, the end result always suffers.

As an alternative, let me introduce a number of key aspects of Mongolian culture through one of its defining features: the ger.

A typical Mongolian ger

The traditional dwelling of mobile or nomadic Mongolians is the ger (pronounced "gair'), called yurt elsewhere.  Ger refers both to this specific kind of dwelling and to the concept of "home" in general.  A UB urbanite will speak of his/her ger and mean an apartment or townhouse.  A traveler will see the classic white mushroom-like ger almost everywhere in Mongolia, although some ethnic minorities dwell in other abodes (a topic for another post).  There is a ger inside the Parliament house in which the most sacred ceremonies and high-level meetings of the Mongolian state take place.  Luxury tourist resorts have opulent ger outfitted with snow leopard pelts and embroidered wall hangings.  Most ger in the countryside have solar panels to power TVs, radios, charge cell phones, and even power the odd refrigerator.  In Ulaanbaatar, the eponymous ger districts are crowded with once-mobile dwellings permanently nestled together on the dusty slopes around the city center, cheek-by-jowl with solid buildings and winding dirt tracks.

Mongolian ger under the stars (photo courtesy of Hunter Jackson Causey)

A ger is not simply a utilitarian dwelling, despite how many non-Mongolians write about the ger; The ger is imbued with symbolic significance that leaks out into many aspects of Mongolian culture and language.  For example, ger is part of the compound phrase for "family": ger bulGer is the stem for one verb that means "to marry": gerlekh.  More specifically, the spatial practices that surround the ger elucidate a panoply of key beliefs and actions within Mongolian culture.

PEDANT'S CORNER: Mongolians who speak English or deal regularly with foreigners may refer to the ger as a yurt.  Yurt is a Turkic word, whereas ger is a Mongolian word.  Since yurt has broader global recognition than ger, you may hear some Mongolians use the term yurt instead.  There are many types of mobile dwellings among the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe, and yurt tends to be the catch-all term used by non-specialists.  But, in Mongolia, ger is the correct term.

So what is a ger?
A ger is a mobile abode composed of wood, felt, canvas, and rope.  The Mongolian ger traditionally consists of lattice-frame "walls" tied together in a circle to make the frame of the ger, then padded with felt, and finally covered in a white canvas outer layer tied tight by two ropes around the circumference of the ger.

The 'skeleton' of a ger (photo courtesy of Dream Adventure ger camp)
In the photo above, the ger's 'skeleton' is almost complete: only the final spokes that make up the roof frame need to be added.  The circular skylight at the center of the roof is traditionally supported by 108 spokes - 108 being a very important number in the tradition of Mongolian Buddhism - and two central posts that stand in the center of the living space.

The above ger has a solid, permanent floor.  This is a more common practice in commercial spaces, specifically ger camps for travelers and tourists, and in Ulaanbaatar, where people do not plan to move their ger seasonally.  A nomadic family will rarely have such a floor; instead, they will often opt for a mixture of carpet and laminated plastic for their floor.  A nomadic family by definition moves their ger during the course of a single year.  The number of moves depends on the region, environment, needs of the family, and other factors.  In my experiences in Central Mongolia, nomadic households move four times a year (i.e., once per season).

A ger is made to be moved.  It only take a few hours to take down or put up a ger.  Nuudel, the seasonal migration of a nomadic herding household, centers around packing a household's belongings, taking down a ger, compactly bundling the component parts of the ger, packing everything onto a truck or cart (traditionally pulled by oxen, yak, or camels), and moving to the next seasonal location.  Frankly it's amazing how easily an entire ger packs down and how little room it then ends up taking in a cart.

The size of a ger is measured by the number of "walls": a three-wall ger is much smaller than a five-wall ger.  But how can a circular construction have any walls at all?  Remember that it's the section of wooden lattice that make up the "walls" of a ger.

Most of the wood that makes up the ger structure is painted bright orange, although other colors or simple treated wood may also be used.  The bright orange door against the brilliant white canvas instantly signals the ger aesthetic.

PRO-TIP: notice that the door of the ger is rather small.  If you are tall, watch out!  I have bumped my head against the doorframe of about 50 different ger.  It hurts every time!  Also avoid stepping on the doorframe.

The door of a ger always faces south.  This not only protects against the ferocious north wind, it serves to anchor broader Mongolian concepts of space, direction, and orientation.  Mongolians use the same word for "south" and "front", and for "north" and "back", which harks back to the orientation of a ger in the broader landscape.  This helps explain Mongolian directional terms and orientation: south and front, north and back are synonymous.  I'll discuss this in more depth in future.  For now, picture a ger with a south-facing door:

Several ger together usually indicate an ail, a social unit that's usually extended families members living in one encampment together for at least part of the year.  For example, at this ail, the grandfather and grandmother live in one ger, while their son, his wife, and their little boy live in the other ger.  However, during winter time, the grandparents leave the countryside for the warmth of the nearby county seat.  Also, there are invariably herd animals hanging around at various points during the day and night.

The inside of a ger has its own spatial makeup: the four sections.  Each section is associated with specific people and activities.  Traditional Mongolian society has one of the most marked examples of codified domestic space that I have ever encountered. 

Everything in Mongolia should be done clockwise, or narny zuv, so let's start from the door and work our way around:

Entering a ger: often the door is wide open for potential guests!

PRO-TIP: just go on in.  Despite the American standard that one would only enter someone's hosue after knocking and receiving an explicit invitation to enter, traditional Mongolian society takes a different view of visitors.  In the 101 post, I mentioned some of the attributes of so-called steppe hospitality, one being that a visitor can enter someone's home at any time of the day or night with no notice and expect to be received hospitably.  Nowadays in rural Mongolia, you should freely enter a ger once you ascertain that someone is home.  (Hint: if the door is tied shut, if there are no horses on the hitching line, and/or there are no vehicles near the ger, no one is likely to be home.)  In fact, it's better to confidently walk through the door than to hang around outside; this is something I still struggle with, even though I know I'm expected to just step inside, take a seat, and drink my milky tea already!

-Immediately upon entering a ger, the guest will go to his/her left to the guest section.  But, contrary to what you might guess, the guest's section is considered the right-hand or western section of the ger.  That's because the door is the front and south.

As a guest in a Mongolian home (literal ger or not), you should never come empty-handed.  I included a brief mention of hospitality in Mongolian culture in the 101 post because it is extremely important.  Yes, you can show up at a Mongolian home with nothing and no one will say anything; no, you're not going to be shamed or rebuked for failing to uphold the expectations of a guest.  However, even the worst guest will be treated to their host's hospitality: their space, their time, and usually their food and drink.  Therefore, it's important to bring at little a small something when you visit a ger.  See the 101 post for my suggestions.  As discussed in that same post, use your right hand or both hands when passing, giving, or receiving things, including whatever you've brought for your hosts.

Guests spilling out of the western guest section into the back/northern section of a ger during a visit
In the above photograph, notice how no one is sitting with their legs stretched out in front of them.  This is because it is generally considered rude to point your feet at someone.  Personally, I've found this to mean, don't direct the soles of your feet at someone, as toes don't seem to matter as much.  It may seem surprising, but sitting or lying on the floor of a ger - even as a guest during a more formal visit - is perfectly acceptable, to the point that, as a guest during a long visit, you can nap on the floor like an adult toddler.

PRO-TIP: sit on the bed.  No, really!  You might think sitting on your host's bed is boorish, but in a ger, the bed doubles as a couch.  Usually a ger has a bed against the wall in the guest section.

-The northern or back section inside a ger is called khoimor.  This is where the head of the household (usually the father) sits when receiving guests.  The family's shrine is also located in khoimor section.  The makeup of a Mongolian family's shrine - if that is even the right term - varies family by family.  Some of the common themes can be seen in the photos below:

Beautifully decorated chest on which a temporary family shrine was erected (this was a temporary, small ger).

Close up of some things one might see in a ger shrine: Buddhist paraphenalia, family photos, pictures of deities or revered figures, and so forth

-The final section is the eastern or left-hand section, which is considered the wife's or woman's section.  This is where the kitchen goods and food is usually stored.  The iron stove in the middle of the ger opens to this section, making cooking easier for the wife of the family.  When there are a lot of visitors to one ger, the entire family may sit in the eastern or left-hand section.

View from the back: note the iron stove in the center of the ger that opens to the eastern/wife's side of the ger, where a large ladle hands next to a cupboard for kitchen equipment

Usually the wife of the family will serve her guests, unless it's vodka, which the husband or head of the household will pour and serve.  Utensils and dishes are communal; guests and hosts will often take turns drinking airag, yogurt (tarag), and milky tea (suutei tsai) and eating tsuivan and soup (shul) out of the same one or two bowls.  If you're a germophobe, you've come to the wrong country.  You will likely also sample from the dish of snacks set aside for guests that usually has hard dried cheese curds (aaruul), bite-sized donut-like bortsog, and candy.

Let me stress that you should politely sample anything that you are offered in a Mongolian home.  A small taste, a smile, and a thank-you (bayarlalaa: buy-er-LA) will do just fine.  A guest turning down a host's hospitality is extremely rude.  Mongolians as a rule are too polite to say this to foreigners but, one gadaad khun (meaning "foreign person") to another: unless you have an allergy or strong religious prohibition, you must try a bit of whatever food or drink your hosts press upon you.  Usually a Mongolian host in the countryside is offering you 1) something home-made, 2) something the family is eating or will eat, and 3) usually includes products from their own herd animals that required time, labor, and expertise to make.  When I visit a ger and see another non-Mongolian turn down that offer, all I can think is:

PRO-TIP: when the dish of snacks gets passed your way - clockwise, of course! - touch the base of the container with the tips of the fingers of your right hand.  Then either take the dish or select one of the snacks.  This is a polite way of taking food from a communal container.

In addition to the spaces and orientations of the ger, there are the correct movements and directions related to the ger.  The most obvious and important is narny zuv, which I alluded to in the 101 post, which is clockwise.  Literally it refers to the correct movement according to the sun.  In traditional Mongolian culture, when in doubt, go narny zuv.  When entering a ger, go immediately to your left in a clockwise direction and sit on a stool or bed in the guest quadrant.  Clockwise movement is important beyond the confines of the ger: one moves through a Buddhist temple, observes at an ovoo (sacred rock cairn), and sometimes even plans an entire long-distance route moving narny zuv.

Narny zuv: observing at an ovoo site by going clockwise around the cairn three times

It is not always possible or practical to walk clockwise in a ger.  Indeed, despite the expectation that a guest will enter clockwise and sit in the guest section, it would be bizarre for a guest to exit by continuing all the way around the ger interior.  However, it is very important to never walk or pass anything between the posts that support the roof of the ger:

Usually a ger has only two supporting posts for the roof.  However, larger ger may have four, as in this photo.  Although this is a particularly gorgeous ger, the additional painted imagery is something you will regularly see in Mongolian ger (courtesy of Munkhbold Zaankhuu)

A quick recap of ger etiquette:

-Move clockwise or narny zuv
-Know where to sit in the four quadrants (i.e., the guest section)
-Use your right hand (or both hands) when accepting or giving items
-Do not walk or pass objects between the two main posts
-Do not step on the door frame
-Do bring something for your host
-Do not worrying about calling ahead or even knocking on the door when you visit
-Do not stick your feet out at someone
-At least sample whatever food and drink you are offered

The ger is a tremendously important part of Mongolian society and a locus for a broad array of beliefs and practices that tie together seemingly-disparate parts of traditional Mongolian culture.  I have heard a number of stories of older Mongolians who, after living much of their lives in ger in rural Mongolia moved to Ulaanbaatar late in life, speak forlornly of cramped city life and longingly of the comfort of their round ger.

Yet some younger urban Mongolians resent the suggestion that all Mongolians live in ger, to the point that I wonder whether the ger is excluded from other ideas about the importance of valuing Mongolian cultural heritage.  The meme below still circulates on Mongolian Facebook pages and indicates a desire on the part of whoever made and shared it to distance him/herself from the ger and traditional herding life in Mongolia; this is all the more strange when one considers that I've seen this image in Mongolian online spaces brimming with tremendous pride in Mongolian heritage, history, and culture (sometimes to the point of bellicose nationalism):

There is so much to unpack here:
1) How many people in the English-speaking world know enough about Mongolia to have formed any ill-conceived stereotypes beyond "Genghis Khan, bro!!1!"; 
2) Would any of those hypothetical bros even know what a ger looks like?;  
3)  What is wrong with living in a ger, especially when it means living in such a gorgeous spot;  4) Where in UB was this photo taken, because I have lived here for two years and honestly cannot tell you which part of the fairly-compact downtown area this is - seriously, where are the few recognizable UB skyscrapers in this photo?; 
5) How many Mongolians living in UB, let alone Mongolians in general, actually live in the luxury high-rises picture above?;  
6)  What about the people in UB who live in ger?

I imagine there is a loose parallel with how some kids who grow up in rural parts of America feel looked down upon by their urban and suburban peers as unsophisticated and often want to distance themselves from their country roots (this is based off of my experience graduating from a high school in a rural American farming community).  My impression is that there is more ambivalence in Mongolia today regarding the relationship between modernization and cosmopolitanism on the one hand and tradition and authenticity on the other than one might realize.  I would further argue that the ger may be a traditional dwelling but it is certainly a major feature of modern Mongolian life in the cities, small towns, and countryside.  But it makes sense to me to start with the ger when it comes to introducing Mongolia and all things related to Mongolia.

Despite focusing on the ger, food and drink came up enough in this post that they'll feature prominently in the 103 post.  Stay tuned for the next post in the Mongolia Inside & Out series, where I reminisce about The Way Things Were (Ulaanbaatar edition) and share some tips on optimizing your Mongolian alimentary adventures.

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