The Ger: Faithful Mobile Home of Mongolian Nomads

The survival of a nomadic herder is largely dependent on his ability to protect himself and his family from the harsh Mongolian weather; continuously locate adequate grazing grounds for his herd; and be in constant contact with family and friends in the cities and urban centers. The Mongolian horse plays a major role in this constant struggle for survival but the gerMongolia‘s equivalent of a yurt or felt tent – is his wandering sanctuary and refuge.

A nomadic herder's camp. The ger serves as the herder's mobile headquarters surrounded by sheds and corrals for his herd. (Central Aimag, 2005)

A nomad's camp in the steppe. Proven to provide maximum protection from the elements, the ger's structure has remained unaltered since the time of Genghis Khan. Its design allows easy assembling, dismantling, and transport across the steppe where the average distance between ger camps is 30 kilometers. (Uvs Aimag, 2005)

Built for optimal mobility and functionality, the ger's basic design consists of 2 posts which support a circular 'beam' at the apex; a foldable lattice frame for the wall; and wooden poles radiating from the central beam as trusses supporting the roof. The external surface of the frame is covered with felt, its thickness adjustable according to the weather. There are only 2 openings: the door which faces south and the apex which is only opened when the weather is favorable.

The core of the ger is a metallic stove and chimney which serves both as the cooking area and a heating system for its inhabitants whose beds are placed around the stove, along the walls of the ger.

My ignorance about life in the steppes caused alarms to start ringing in my head the first time I entered an authentic nomadic ger in 2004.  I had to stoop down to enter the structure and, upon entering, I found a lady boiling milk on the stove. Beside the stove was an open bucket containing grayish material which I easily recognized as livestock dung. I thought I was going to be served milk with this strange flavoring and didn’t immediately realize that dried livestock dung was ingenuously being used as fuel in the steppes where firewood can be scarce.

A diorama of Genghis Khan's caravan. Khan's royal ger is said to be mounted on a wooden cart being pulled by as many as 20 bulls.

Gers can also be found in the cities. Many rural folks (mostly herders) have migrated to Ulan Bator and other urban centers in recent years. Most of them built wooden homes in what is now called 'Ger Districts' because they also retained their gers which provide traditional heating as alternative to the costly centralized heating system provided by the city. The heavy concentration of gers around the city makes Ulan Bator smell of burning pine in winter.(Ulan Bator, 2004)

A functional ger in the outskirts of Ulaan Bator (Gachuurt, 2009)

A ger used as a souvenir shop near a major thoroughfare in the capital (Ulaan Bator, 2008)

An old ger by an office building in a rural area (Uvs Aimag, 2005)

A campsite at the Gobi Desert renting out gers to adventurers (Omnu Gobi Aimag, 2004)

The importance of gers to Mongolians is not about to change. Mongolian culture and Buddhist-Animist practices believe in man's need for constant communion with mother nature and the ger's symmetrical design is believed to be in perfect harmony with natural elements. Indeed, the ger has faithfully served the nomads well since the beginning of Mongolian history.