The most important element of Mongolian nomadic life is undisputedly the traditional yurt, or ger. Ger or gir, in Mongolian, means ‘home’. The ger is one of Mongolian’s greatest legacies, with a long history spanning many centuries and going back to the time of the Scythian, Hun and Turkic tribes which once roamed these lands. Extreme weather and the nomadic lifestyle render the ger the most widespread and suitable dwelling in the steppes. It is easy to collapse and build. Until recently Mongolians used carts to move the ger to a different place.
From the second half of the 20th century Mongolia has undergone rapid urbanization but more than half of its population still lives in traditional Mongolian dwellings.
The yurt is made of four or five sections of a flexible wooden frame (usually cedar wood) which acts as wall. Then comes the wooden door, two central columns supporting the yurt and the toono – the highest point of the roof which comprises a circular opening to let smoke out and act as natural ventilation. The toono is attached to 80 wooden poles which form a cylindrical roof frame.
The door and walls are tied together with ropes or stripes and each of the poles is attached to the wall. Large sheets of felt are spread on top of the structure for insulation purposes and the entire construction is then covered with a white cotton cover. A yurt can be put up or taken down in about thirty minutes.
The yurt is put up in strict observation of customs. The door, for example, must always face south. The stove is used to keep the place warm and to cook, so it must be placed in the centre of the yurt with its opening to the east. The western part of the yurt is for the men and the eastern part is for the women. All tools related to masculine activities – saddles and weapons, as well as the bag of kumiss – are placed in the western part, near the door, while the tools used by the women – cooking utensils, water vessels and teapots – are placed in the eastern part. Placement of the beds follows the same rule. The northern part is designated for storage of family valuables. In general, the back of the yurt is associated with respect. Families keep one or several wooden chests in the back of the yurt in which they store clothes, money and other valuable objects such as icons, family photographs, etc.
Capacity – Although it looks small and has only one chamber, a typical ger is actually quite spacious.
Absence of bad energy – because of its round shape and lack of corners, the Mongolian ger cannot accumulate negative energy.
Direct connection to both heaven and earth – the Mongolians are said to be very energetic people. One of the reasons is that they draw energy from heaven and the earth – in the past the ger did not have a floor and its ceiling is always open to the skies.
Divided into 12 different sections corresponding to Chinese calendar animals – One of the most curious features of the Mongolian ger is that it is structured as a clock face which helps its inhabitants tell the time of day.
Safety – this means that there is no risk of damage or injuries in the event of natural disasters (such as earthquake.
Structure of the ger:
Toono (roof) – this is the top part of the ger.
Uni (rafter) – this is the part which connects khana and toono.
Bagana (pillars) – there are 2 bagana in a Mongolian ger supporting the toono.
Khana (Walls) – Khana is divided into 4 to 12 sections depending on the size of the ger.
Haalga (door) – the ger door is traditionally directed to the south.
Shal (floor) – In the past there was no floor in the ger. It is only in recent years that Mongolians have started to include a floor.
Urkh (cover for the roof ring) – this is the sheet covering the toono.
Deever (roof isolation) – after the ger has been put up, the felt roof is placed atop the uni (rafters).
Tuurga (wall cover) – the felt which covers the walls.
Outer cover (last layer) – this is the sheet which covers the entire ger.
What not to do when entering a ger:
- Avoid stepping on the threshold.
- Do not remain standing in the doorway after you have entered.
- Never turn your back to the altar or the religious section of the ger.
- Never lean against the support columns of the ger and avoid handing anything between them.
- Do not point at anything.
- Do not put a knife blade upside or point at anything with a knife.
- Do not leave your hat anywhere without asking for permission first.
- Do not touch the wooden chests.
- Avoid placing rubbish in the firewood chest and never throw waste in the fire.
- When offered a bowl of tea, take the bowl in both hands and look the person in the eyes.
In Mongolia respect for others is very important.