Building a Ger

Travel Route: Great White Lake – Jargalant – Zuun Nuur – Khatgal – Lake Hovsgol

The Mongolians are incredibly hospitable.  They have a saying: “Happy is he whom guests frequent. Joyful is he at whose door guests’ horses are always tethered.”

What are some of the traditions and history of building a Ger?

The nomadic people of Mongolia don’t stay in one place for long.  That’s why they live in gers (which American’s know by the Russian name, yurt), a home that is fast and easy to assemble and disassemble.  Putting up a ger (pronounced gair) is fast and easy, but it’s best done by the whole family, and the tradition is that any stranger passing by is obligated to help.  So, when we encountered a family of herders setting up a temporary ger between their summer and autumn locations, we joined.

The Ger had a role in shaping Mongolian character and family life.  The small confines prevent privacy but compel families to interact and to share everything.  Life in a ger tightens the relationship between relatives.  The first recorded description of the Ger came nearly 2,500 years ago from Herodotus, the renowned ‘Father of History,’ in the books The Histories.  Herodotus described the Scythian race (approx. 600 B.C. to 300 A.D.), which lived a nomadic horseback existence, in and around the Central Asian region near the Black and the Caspian Seas.  Though this is the earliest documentation to date, the recent discovery of a Bronze Age rock etching in Siberia may place the history of the Ger even earlier.

Marco Polo recorded the Ger extensive use during his stay in the Mongolian Empire (between 1274 and 1291 A.D.)  Founded by the legendary Genghis Khaan, who ruled from 1206-1227 A.D., the empire remains the largest contiguous kingdom in human history.  Genghis Khan’s legendary Ger, rumored to have been mounted on a wheeled cart pulled by 22 oxen, was always guarded by his forces.

The Mongolian word Ger means “home.”  Thoughtful considerations are given to the moving day of a Ger to a new location.  It is regarded as a bad omen for a family to place a Ger on a previous family’s vacated foundation.  There is a ritual sequence to building a ger.  It is not allowed to start from whatever you want.  Some of these traditions are related to north-south directions.  The door is always facing southeast, which is a promising direction.  This is the sunrise side, which helps to know the time, and it is the side of most light and warmth.  The stove fire is a central feature in the Ger.  And when entering the Ger, the custom is always to move clockwise.

There are things we cannot do in Mongolian Ger:

  • Don’t stand on the threshold when entering the Ger
  • Don’t turn your back on the altar or the religious part of the Ger
  • Don’t whistle inside a ger
  • Don’t lean against the pillars

Who was Baron Ungern-Sternberg?

In preparation for this trip, I read The Bloody White Baron – The Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia by James Palmer.  Although I had never heard of him, I learned that in the history of the modern world, there had been few characters more sadistic, sinister, and deeply demented as Baron Ungern-Sternberg.  A fanatic antisemitic with a penchant for Eastern mysticism and hatred of communists, Baron Ungern-Sternberg, took over Mongolia in 1920 with White Russians’ ragtag force,  Siberians, Japanese, and native Mongolians.  While tormenting friend and foe alike, he dreamed of assembling a horse-borne army to retake communist-controlled Moscow.

I found it peculiar that the epic saga of Baron Ungern-Sternberg is not mentioned at the Mongolian National History Museum, nor is he a topic of conversation Mongolian people are eager to discuss, maybe because it’s a shameful chapter.