When I travelled in a Russian minivan through the Mongolian countryside last September, our group of five spent every night bar one sleeping in gers. A ger is a one-roomed dome built from wood and insulated from the cold with thick yak hair (or similar) rugs.You can call them a yurt or a tent if you want, but to the Mongolians, they’re gers (and pronounced not ‘gerrr’ but ‘g-air’). For many Mongolians these demountable homes are the only ones they know.
After our first night, the thought of living in such close quarters with four virtual strangers for the next three weeks was a daunting one. There is no privacy in a ger camp unless you want to spend extended periods of time in the outside toilet (which trust me, you don’t). At least a 50-100m walk from the camp, sometimes the toilet only had three short walls so even that wasn’t an option. There is no running water at the camps and electricity comes from car batteries or, at more permanent sites, generators.
A typical tourist ger is furnished with five or six beds, a small table and some chairs. A stove in the middle keeps things warm – that is until the fire goes out at 3am and no one can bear leaving their sleeping bag to keep it going.
The stove has a chimney that leaves the ger through a hole in the roof that also provides ventilation. The hole can be covered with blankets at night, but it is possible for fires to start this way if the blanket gets too close to the chimney. Our translator told us that because winter was coming, most families preferred to keep the hole open at night so that they could begin preparing their bodies for the even colder temperatures (down to -50 degrees celsius in Northern Mongolia!) to come.
The first thing we did on arrival each evening was to ensure our roof was covered over!
Inside a Mongolian family’s ger, things look a little different. They’re furnished with whatever the family can afford. Each side of the ger usually features a bed (the left side is for visitors to sit on, the right side or the floor is for the family). There are no tables and chairs but there may be a bench or a cabinet used to display the family’s possessions or as a devotional altar. Plenty of families we met had televisions – some even had washing machines!
If the family keeps horses, there might be a sack of airag fermenting in one corner, and there is usually some meat hanging up to dry somewhere.
A family will generally spend one season in the one place, before dismantling their ger and moving elsewhere. It takes several hours to set up a ger, but, watching a family dismantle a tourist ger on a cold but sunny afternoon at Khovsgol Lake, I realised taking one down can be a blink and you’ll miss it kind of affair!
Living in a ger means that life is lived mostly outdoors. We would usually arrive at a camp in the late afternoon, and until evening fell and it became too dark and too cold to remain outside, we wandered around taking pictures and trying to stay out of the way of our host family, whose lives went on as business as usual despite their foreign guests. For such a nomadic and welcoming people in a land as vast as Mongolia, receiving strangers is a regular occurrence, and usually no big deal.
After a few days, staying at the ger camps became second nature. Having the opportunity to live amongst scenery like this, who could complain about a lack of privacy??