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Lifestyle of a nomadic family

Lifestyle of a nomadic family
 
 
   
   
 
 

THE QUIET solitude of the ger was broken when Bayarmaa returned through the tiny hobbit sized doorway bringing her whole family. Her rather chubby husband Ganzorig entered first with his two young very round-faced children Monkhbat and Oktai following him. The father and children sat in the sofa to our right (in the father area) whilst Bayarmaa stayed in the kitchen area on her side of the ger.

Rock formations

Rock formations

We sat around for a while chewing on the dairy snacks and talking, with Dougie being the interpreter. Ganzorig was pretty young, perhaps around my age. He wasn’t old enough to be one of the old men who go around sharing their snuff boxes as is often the custom here. The snuff in the snuff boxes consists of a potent mixture of tobacco, cardamom, cloves and the clean ashes of juniper wood, often ground for days. They are considered a very honourable thing in this part of the world. Fortunately, this family had moved on from that tradition so no snuff for me.

Bayarmaa prepared some more hot natural milk for all of us to drink. It was probably goats milk tasting quite different to the usual A2 cow’s milk I am normally used to. It was very nice especially being a chilly morning, well for me anyway. This would have been a quite a warm day for these mountains.

Relaxing in the ger

Relaxing in the ger

Ganzorig explained they had just last week moved their gers from a summer location somewhere else in the valley to here where it is more sheltered from the severe winds that will be blowing from Siberia. The mountainous location and high altitude will ensure the winter will be extremely cold. During the middle of winter in about four months’ time they will be expecting highs of around minus twenty degrees, colder than the inside of a freezer. The nights will drop below minus thirty. The landscape will be constantly frozen with the temperature never rising above zero day and night for about four months.

Each family moves their gers about two or three times a year. Traditionally they were loaded onto camels, but these days they are just loaded onto the back of a truck to be moved somewhere between five and thirteen kilometres to fresh pastures.

Ger villages

Ger villages

They explained they have been very busy throughout the summer and autumn preparing for the winter. The sheds surrounding the gers were now very well stocked up with firewood and food supplies. The animals will be moved to small barns to keep them sheltered from the extreme cold.

Dougie mentioned their rainy season was during the summer, where they are able to grow plenty of grass and produce. The winters are very long and dry, with little snow falling. What does fall will remain on the ground for months on end, and if there are any heavy falls the door has been strategically located at the lower side of the slope with the stairs leading down to the ground making exit and removal of snow easier. With that said though, Mongolia gets very little precipitation throughout the winter. The sky is almost always clear and the temperature so cold the snow bearing clouds rarely make it to these parts.

Ger village under mountain

Ger village under mountain

The ger was very warm, but I wondered whether the tiny fireplace would be able to keep them warm in such severe winters. Ganzorig explained the walls were made from a wooden lattice framework known as a khana. A thick layer of canvas is strapped onto the khana to keep the ger waterproof. Underneath the canvas were four layers of felt. They explained felt is made from the wool of sheep, goats or yaks, processing it into a finely packed thick layer that works as an extremely good insulator. Each layer traps air to improve its insulating properties. The Mongolians are so good at producing felt they have often been called the felt nomads.

Despite all the insulation, there is a special technique they have to use in keeping the ger warm throughout the winter with their little fireplace. Maintaining the fire would have been easy at this time of year, but keeping the ger warm through the winter required a lot of skill, which everyone masters. Failure to keep the fire going would quickly freeze everyone to death in the harsh winter conditions.

Rock formation

Rock formation

If the ger does get too hot in summer, they can just roll up the felt and timber at the bottom to let the air flow through immediately cooling the air inside.

The ger is held up with the two central support poles which they call uni. The outside walls are held up by a frame hidden between the layers of wall. They sit on the concrete slab very nicely and are tied down. The roof is held up with 88 slats of a light pliable timber such as poplar, birch or willow. They couldn’t explain why 88 slats but apparently every slat has that many.

Traditional tools in museum

Traditional tools in museum

Once the concrete slabs have been laid, moving the gers is quite straight forward. They only take about fifteen minutes to dismantle and around an hour and a half to build at the new location. The entire ger is rolled up and loaded to the back of a pickup truck to head to the new location. Before the vehicles they used yaks. They were able to move their entire small village of gers and furniture in about a day. This proved to be a very efficient form of accommodation for these nomadic peoples, particularly for those who lived near the desert where they would have to move on a regular basis to find fresh vegetation the animals could feed on.

Traditional tools in museum

Traditional tools in museum

It was a pretty harsh existence here. During winter, they would have to spend much of their time indoors to escape the extreme cold. During the short summer and early autumn, they would be busy preparing everything to survive the next winter. The people had few plant materials in their diets, leaving the vegetation for the animals to eat. The enormous amounts of energy they would need to survive the winter has led them to relying on meat and other animal products such as milk to sustain them. This was hardly the place for a vegan to migrate to.

The gers have been a huge part of Mongolian life for many thousands of years, having developed them since animals the times when they began to domesticate animals. This style of nomadic housing has over this time been common throughout Central Asia’s nomadic tribes between here and Turkey to this day.

Outside ger before we headed off

Outside ger before we headed off

They were very busy, but had been very kind to have taken time out of their schedule to meet me. We thanked them as we left their ger, stepping out through the tiny doorway backwards in respect, having now experienced the life and hospitality of the Mongolians. We went back out into the chilly overcast weather, though having heard their stories of such extreme winters, this would feel like tropical weather for them.

We set off down the rough gravel road heading towards the ger camp where we will be spending the night.

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19 September 2016

 

Terelj National Park

Mongolia

 

47°52'N
107°27'E
1410m ASL

 

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