The Siberian wind continued. The sun came out and ice stopped falling at us from the sky. The fence’s posts had been put in, concrete poured, now time was needed to let it dry. It was time to leave the family’s cosy ger, go back to ‘basecamp’, unpack the shipping container and build our own ger.
This was my first experience ‘helping’ to put up one of these iconic, warm and cosy homes, a key element of steppe survival. Building a ger, like much of what happened on this trip in terms of ‘steppe survival’, seemed to be in the skill package of all the Ulaanbaatar based Mongolian scientists on this trip. Mongolian people that call the city their home, even those born and bred in the capital, seem to retain an incredibly strong connection to life in the countryside. Even at a time when new apartments are rising every day in the city and people are slowly leaving the ger behind for their daily life, the knowledge of how to put one together so far seems to have been retained.
The first step is to tie pieces of a wooden gridded frame together with rope. This is made out of very cheap and light timber, held together by pieces of animal skin, the leather raw and handmade enough to still be hairy. Some held bits of the frame and others knotted the rope holding the rounded edges in place. I wondered on their choice of location for the first frame. It seemed to be rocky and on quite a slope, but then all was revealed, the first frame was for the crane. It even got a beautifully painted door!
Next is perhaps the most challenging step, connecting the 36 or so ‘rafters’ of bright orange poles from where they rest on the frame at the edge and slot into a hole in the beautifully hand-painted round roof frame.
As things started to come together I wondered if it were actually possible to build a ger on one’s own. It feels like it is definitely a group project, and perhaps near impossible without at least two. I wondered then what would happen if you needed to move house and you were on your own. But then, a young man on his quite wild horse rode up and jumped off. He took some time to calm the horse down and rope it’s legs to keep it still. He was here to help. I realized despite my sense of being so far from anything much, and thus a sense of vast isolation, that you were never ever really on your own out in this piece of steppe. I think every time we were doing anything of any interest or involving much activity at all, people would turn up, say hi, and join in.
After the wooden frame was complete, the felt goes on. Felt is a Mongolian staple, a key element of surviving the winter and it’s factories were everywhere, roaming around on the seemingly endless grass. There are different thicknesses of felt and different layers possible depending on the season. We only had one relatively thin layer because we were setting up for the summer (it certainly didn’t feel like summer). I loved the ger with just the felt layer on. It was almost the colours of the grass. Definitely of the grass blended with the animals. It looked almost like it just grew there, rose up from the land, and I guess in a way, it almost did.
Then it was time to clothe it. To dress the felt first in a layer of plastic to keep it dry, then a layer of thick green canvas, and then the thin white fabric that turns it into the famous icon of Mongolia.
Where there had just been a hill (and perhaps a shipping container and pile of things), surrounded by seemingly endless hills and valleys containing predominately grass, we now had a home. As the white cover was pulled tight using ropes around the side, the door sealed and a trench dug around the bottom to hold on an extra thick piece of canvas that seals the bottom and stops water, this endless space was transformed into somewhere.
Once built, living in these small rounded buildings is quite an art form. American Peace Corps volunteers spend a few months living with a family in a ger when they first arrive in country prior to going out and trying to live in one on their own. And, watching how a ger was managed during these two weeks made me see just how skilled good ger living is. And, just how much grass, the main ingredient if you like of steppe life, can provide.
Much of living in a ger revolves around the single heat source – a fire in a stove in the middle of the room. It is no problem that there is not much timber around to fuel it. Again, the grass provides and feeds the animals that then produce dung. When this dries it is a wonderful and surprisingly beautifully smelling fuel. It also works as an insect repellant as we discovered later on the trip when we had one warm day and thousands of gigantic mosquitoes arrived. Tuushuu smoked our ger out with dung and wallah, no mosquitoes. Quite hard on the eyes though.
The stove has one ‘hot plate’ and every family seems to have one gigantic ‘wok’ as seen cooking the food above. In here almost everything is cooked. Meals tend to all come from this one gigantic dish. Meat, potatoes, carrot, onion, flour, rice (more occasionally) and salt, the main and usually only ingredients are made into a large variety of things in this single wok, depending predominately on the shape of the flour. Noodles are made from flour and water. Water is rubbed into flour to make tiny grains of flour, sort of like couscous, that is then added to make a thick grainy soup. Or else, the meat and vegetables get stuffed into a shell made of flour and water and then deepfried – resulting in one of the nation’s most famous dishes – Khuushuur.
Water is the other ingredient of ger life that is very precious on the steppe. One morning I must have been looking quite weirdly at Nyanba, the head scientist who invited Dave out here, as he stopped and said “do you think this is strange?” He was pouring left over’s from the last night’s noodles and mutton into his cup of just poured hot tea. “Yes”, I laughed. “It is totally weird”. He knew I would find it strange as he had lived in America for many years whilst studying his Masters and PhD and so has a very worldly perspective on things. He assured me he really liked it and it is the best way to ‘heat up’ last night’s meal. Breakfast is almost always tea with something (including left overs poured in). And, tea comes in many forms. I had always kind of wondered about mutton tea, where there is usually a mutton bone and some residual fat in the cup of tea but now I understood. The water used to rinse the big wok is never wasted. At the end of every meal, when people’s bowls are emptied, hot water is poured into the wok and swished around and then into everyone’s bowls. Not a drop of food, nor water is wasted. It is quite spectacular and very humbling.
The most obvious product of the grasslands for survival was the one I forgot on that first night, the ones running around. One evening, some people went to get ‘fresh meat’. They came back with a lovely old sheep tied up by her feet. There was dinner for the group for the next little while. Again, the skills of steppe life came to the front as everybody helped with the process. These city folk knew exactly what to do to turn a live sheep into food and with hardly any mess (literally, not really even a drop of blood) nor waste. Animals are let get old before they are killed (no one eats lamb here), they roam free for their lives and then when they get old almost every bit of them is used. The organs, the blood, the stomach, the intestines. The bones are passed around and cut open and the marrow shared.
The efficiency with which people, even the urban folk we had come out with, used these grasslands to make home, keep warm and eat, was remarkable, admirable, and so so very humbling. I cannot imagine a more waste-free, garbage-less, close to animals/nature/grassland life. Life on the steppe is as tough as it gets, but the Mongolian people that live out here have rendered it an art form*.