Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world, and the vast open steppe provides the ideal space for herding livestock that far outnumber the people. As the herders move throughout the year, following their animals to better pasture, they need a form of habitat suitable to their nomadic lifestyle. The solution is the ger, the traditional portable shelter that is more well-known by its Turkish name, yurt. The ger is easy to assemble, disassemble and transport, and its flexibility allows it to be used comfortably throughout the year in Mongolia’s extreme climate. With the help of technology, the ger is also being adapted to suit the needs of modern life.
While many tourists stay in hotel-style ger camps while in Mongolia, during my visit I had the opportunity to spend one night in the ger of a local family that I contacted through the Couchsurfing hospitality exchange website. During this stay I got to experience both modern Mongolian family life and the ger first-hand. And since I was staying in the suburbs of the capital Ulaanbaatar, I also got to observe of one of Mongolia’s biggest challenges – rapid urbanisation – in action. And I couldn’t help but wonder, what role does the ger have in this challenge, and could it somehow be part of the solution?
Design and adaptability of the ger
Depending on the size of the ger and the number of people, it takes between thirty minutes and a few hours to assemble or disassemble a ger. The main structure of the round walls consist of lattice panels made of flexible wood, and the roof consists of wooden poles. A wooden crown at the top of the roof is an important part of the structure and it also forms a hole that lets smoke escape and light and air to enter. The solid wooden door helps stabilize the ger, and the door always faces south in order to provide more light. The wooden structure is covered with one or more layers of felt made from thick sheep’s wool. The felt is tied with woven ropes made of animal hair, and the ropes and the weight of the felts keep the structure stable and under compression. The floor can be wooden but it can also be simply a felt on the ground.
The interior of the ger is much more spacious than it looks like from the outside. Inside there are no partitions or separate rooms, but traditionally everyone and everything had its own prescribed place. In the center of everything there is the stove, and on top of it the roof crown which can be open, covered or partially covered according to weather and need. As the sun moves throughout the day the sunlight coming through the crown forms a sort of sundial inside the ger.
Mongolia has a dry continental climate with very cold winters and short but hot summers. The temperature varies anywhere between -40°C in the winter and +40°C in the summer, and the ger is designed to adapt to this variation. In the summer in particular the ger can be much more comfortable than modern apartments, because there is more air flow and less direct sunlight.
While in the summer one layer of felt is enough, extra layers of felt are added in the winter for extra insulation. In the summer the bottom of the felt cover is lifted to provide extra ventilation and cooling air flow, but during the winter wood is stacked against the bottom instead to prevent cold air from entering. The main heat source in the winter is the stove and its central location is important for distributing the heat throughout the ger. Because of the round shape, the ger has a smaller surface-area-to-volume ration than a rectangular house, and this means that less heat is lost through the walls and roof surfaces.
Mongolia is also known as the Land of Blue Sky because the sky is usually clear. Because there is little rain or humidity, the ger doesn’t need to withstand a lot of moisture. However, it does rain, especially in the summer, and the felts were traditionally made waterproof by rubbing them with animal fat. Modern gers have an outer canvas that protects them from rain.
Modernisation and urbanisation
Because of its practicality and its central place in Mongolian culture, gers are a common form of accommodation in Mongolia even today. Almost half of Mongolians are still living the nomadic life, but their lifestyle is changing as it is combining the traditional and the modern. The nomads now herd with motorcycles and move around in trucks instead of horses and ox carts. In the same way the ger is adapting to modern life with new features. Solar panels for instance are a common addition because they provide electricity for today’s modern needs while fitting perfectly to the nomadic lifestyle.
The number of nomads is quickly dropping however, as more and more Mongolians move to Ulaanbaatar. But gers remain as the herders coming to the city bring their gers with them. Not only are the people used to living in gers, the ger is quick to set up and can respond faster to growing urbanisation than more permanent housing. This has resulted in informal ger districts in the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar with a mixture of gers and small houses. While the gers are certainly much better than most informal housing found in other countries, the ger districts do have a number of problems.
Around 70% of the population of Ulaanbaatar live in these ger districts, and many lack access to water, sanitation and electricity. One major problem that is linked to the gers is air pollution in the winters. Ulaanbataar is the coldest capital in the world, and in the winter when all the gers rely on their stoves for heat, the level of air pollution becomes extremely high because most stoves use coal. These are problems that require solutions, but hopefully they can be solved in a way that continues the evolution of the ger and respects its place in the Mongolian culture.