Mongolian Winter: Ger Stay. What’s it like to spend the night off the grid in a Mongolian ger when the temperature is minus 34 Celsius?
I always held that the modern era of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries ended about one mile past the last electric power pole. Beyond that spot, water had to be pumped by hand or hauled from a stream; light came from kerosene or a battery; heat required split wood; laundry was done by hand and dried on a line or spread over bushes; food preparation meant starting a fire; and no toilets flushed. I was about to find out if that demarcation of the last power pole was still true.
We stepped off the train and onto the platform at the Ulan Bator, Mongolia, train station at 5:40 the morning after Christmas. It was minus 34 degrees Celsius, about minus 29 Fahrenheit. Either way it was damned cold and I was thankful we didn’t have one of the typical fierce Mongolian winds blowing as well. After six nights on the train, with only a 14 hour interlude in Irkutsk, Siberia, to break the journey, we were glad to be on solid ground.
Davaa, our driver, was waiting at trackside and got us into the right-hand drive Hyundai van for our drive to the countryside. As we wound out of the city, the electric lights became sparse and darkness covered everything else. Dawn was hours away. Davaa stopped, turned to us, and said, “Now the pavement ends. It will get bumpy.” He was right.
He picked his way among five or six two-track paths all heading roughly the same direction. Some tracks must have been cut when rain or spring snow melt made lower tracks impassible. Others may have formed to avoid the areas where hard freezes had forced sharp rocks up to the surface. I’m guessing at least one track was following the path cattle had created as they walked from their enclosures to open pasture. We rolled and lurched, swaying back and forth, the driver doing his best to keep the ride smooth over tough ground. After an hour we were well beyond the last visible electric light and at our destination . . . a ger on a farm.
Two definitions here: a ger is the Mongolian style of heavy felt tent often called a yurt in areas west and south of here, and a farm is really a ranch and truly more a collection of corrals and pens in this cold area where the land is arid and the growing season brutally short.
Our hosts, Yadmaa and Davasuren, were standing outside waiting for us. They, like most Mongolians, are direct descendants of nomads and twenty-first century nomads themselves. Mongolia is in the midst of a rapid change from a nomadic life to a city life. Half the population of the entire country now lives in Ulan Bator, a hectic jumble of beautiful high rise offices, Irish pubs, long rows of three and four story apartments, and—yes—gers filling the spaces in between. The nomads still move to graze their livestock, but moving now usually means throwing everything into the back of a truck and hauling it to a new location. We were at the winter location, and Yadmaa and Davasuren had built a small and simple frame house for themselves with two gers on one side and the livestock pens on the other.
It was our goal to spend a winter’s day and night in a ger, a portion of the train trip from Moscow to Beijing we called Mongolian Winter: Ger Stay. Some types of housing carry more meaning than simply shelter. They become symbolic. Fortified castles, the mansions the Vanderbilts and others put up along New England’s rocky coasts, and the McMansions strewn everywhere made statements. But there are other kinds. Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the first or last to live in a log cabin. He wasn’t even the only American presidential candidate to have lived in one, but the image stuck and became as much myth as fact. Americans in the last 1850’s lived in unsettled times, the debate over slavery, the advent of the industrial age, the mechanization of agriculture had all created conflict and social upheaval. The idea of a president, born and raised in simplicity, was a strong attraction. Log cabins, built by their owners, developed a powerful symbolism.
In this part of the world the same is true for many of the same reasons. I stopped for mare’s milk in Kyrgyzstan and met a man who built a yurt (very similar to a ger—linguistically yurt is derived from Turkic and ger is Mongolian) on a small piece of land between his conventional home and the busy street. In the summer months he would sit outside of it, take his meals there, regard it. He did so, he said, to remind himself and those who passed by of the history and tradition of the Kyrgyz people who, like the Mongolians, had been nomadic herdsmen for centuries. The saying in Kyrgyzstan was that you were worth everything you could fit into your saddlebags. Gers and yurts can be torn down, transported, and rebuilt—the building process taking only a few hours. History, tradition, tribal identity, shelter, home, family were (and still are)where the ger stands. Click here for a time-lapse video of a Mongolian family assembling a ger in one hour and five minutes.
We were ushered into the ger where a thermos of milk and tea (goats’ milk, I think), a basket of homemade small pastries, and fried yogurt were laid out for us by Davasuren who made everything. Neither of our hosts could speak much English, just a few words really, but we got by. Yadmaa had picked up a few words and referred to Davasuren as “top chef.” He’d lit a fire roaring in the ger’s small metal stove and supplied a tub of firewood next to the stove for us to keep the it going. It was just growing light when Davaa departed for the city and our hosts, already late to move their livestock, went back out for chores. We had the light of a single LED bulb. I traced the wire to where the ends were attached with alligator clips to a 12-volt car battery. That was our nod to modern life.
No one should confuse this with some of the luxury ger camps available to high-end clients during the summer. Those camps, with full bars, electricity, a dining ger and wooden observation decks can provide foreigners with the feeling that they are “roughing it” without the muss of reality. Ours was a real ger on a real farm and we had it neither better nor worse than our hosts. That’s what we wanted and what we got.
The land was rolling hills, higher and steeper than they first appeared as we hiked up them. Near the top, gray and brown rock emerged and rendered the land hard and barren. Lower down stands of woods, mostly larch, a type of conifer which loses its needles in the winter, and some remnants of birch, wove their way through the gullies and valleys. The grasses had given up green long ago and what remained was tan and brown, showing touches of gold when the sun broke through the low, gray clouds to give an artificial promise of warmth, a promise taken back as the clouds closed and scudded lower. Livestock trails etched horizontal ridges on every hillside, the result of years of grazing.
During the day we took some long walks, returning to the ger to warm up before heading out again. Farm life has always been tough, and it’s tough still in Mongolia. Davasuren was frequently out moving a small herd of cattle or a larger herd of sheep and goats to various grazing areas. Yadmaa kept his sturdy Mongolian pony saddled and herded the cattle when they were at a distance from the pens. Other herders (extended family? neighbors? We hadn’t enough language or sign language to find out) were moving their livestock too. Through the day we watched people, sometimes so far away they were just specks, herding animals, keeping what sparse bits of available grass from being overgrazed. Cattle graze down to short grass but sheep and goats use their sharp hooves to scrape away the snow and knock the fragile grasses out by their roots.
I was a town kid but stayed on the farms of my uncles, and no one from a town of 14,000 in the middle of South Dakota was far from farm life. I looked over these Mongolian cattle, sheep and goats noting that it was so cold that the calves were outfitted with worn blankets strapped over their backs and several of the cows had their udders encased in cloth bags. There would be no weight gains here. It was all these animals could do to not lose weight in bitter cold with seer, dry grass already chewed down to dirt. We could have saddled and ridden two of the ponies with their squat bodies and long coats of hair, but it was just too darned cold.
Some technology had taken hold. We had the car-battery-powered light bulb. They had a small photovoltaic array near their house, probably enough to charge their cell phone. The wood may have been cut with a chain saw, but it was hand split for firewood. The pens were mucked out every morning and the solidly frozen feces were chiseled out with a shovel, scooped into a wheelbarrow, and hauled over to a growing mound away from the house and gers.
The ger itself was constructed of woven lathe walls, a circular wheel-like center piece, and hand-painted staves running from the center piece to the walls to hold up the roof of the ger. All of this was wrapped with heavy felt, covered on the outside with canvass and on the inside with colorful fabric. The woodstove, really little more than some welded sheet steel sat near the middle of the room with the chimney rising through a hole in the center piece. Along the walls were four beds or couches where a heavy pad was laid down, then covered with blankets. Near the door was a stand, a basin which drained into a can, and a basin of clean water above. The water was quite cold.
Davasuren would walk back in from her flock to cook for us. She would bring steaming bowls of hearty soup or a plate of homemade dumplings and keep our thermos of tea filled and hot. Our fare was simple but good.
With no running water, the “toilet” was an outdoor model, much simpler than the outhouses I used on my uncle’s farm and my grandmother’s edge-of-town home when I was a kid. It consisted of three and a half sides of rough wood fencing three feet high, some sheet metal nailed across one portion, open to the sky, and wooden boards spanning a six foot deep pit. The boards had two rough-cut holes cut into them directly over the pit. As is the style in much of the world, it was a “squatter.” It was also cold enough to discourage any lingering, not that one would choose to linger anyway.
The days are short and the nights long. With total darkness outside by 5:00 and dinner at 6:00, we had time on our hands. We decided to pass the time with some technology, and started a movie on my iPad. We’d noticed how fast a stove full of firewood could burn to nothing and we were trying to conserve the remaining wood by adding only a few pieces as the fire died down. The movie was interesting, we were complacent, and by 10:00 we were too late and the fire burned out. Yadmaa and Davasuren had gone to bed long before and were surely sound asleep, so we decided to tough it out thinking that unless we took shifts staying up to feed it, the fire would have gone out during the night anyway.
At 1:30 in the morning, with too much tea in me, I made a beeline for the facility, glad to have my camping/trekking headlamp with me. Living in Las Vegas, where the nights are never truly dark, the nighttime dark sky of absolute black is a magnificent thing to see. However, the temperature had dropped even lower, and I sprinted back across the snow and ice. Chris was awake and we agreed that sleeping alone in the narrow single beds was not keeping us warm. We stripped three of the four beds, piled the blankets onto the widest bed and crawled in, keeping absolutely still and stretched out straight for fear of falling out. Finally we fell asleep, heads and all under the blankets.
I was first to hear the ger’s door bang open. Half asleep and in pitch darkness, I struggled to stick my head out from the blanket mound (I was also wearing a stocking cap so there wasn’t much of me to be seen). I could barely make out a huge, looming figure swaying back and forth with a light shining from up high. It took a few seconds to realize that it was Yadmaa with his own headlamp on. He threw more wood into the cold stove and started a propane torch. Even with the torch going full blast it took more than 15 minutes before the fire would burn on its own. With that, Yadmaa, whose knees seemed to bother him and walked with a rolling gait because of it, swayed back out of the ger. It was ten past five and they were already tending to the livestock.
We stayed covered for a couple more hours, jumping up only to feed the fire. We finally got up in total darkness which would last yet another hour or so more. We splashed our faces with water while standing over a wash basin, brushed our teeth, and set about putting the three other beds back together again. We changed into our “city” clothes, enjoyed the hot soup breakfast and tea brought in by Davasuren, and packed our bags before going for a walk around to see how the animals, outside or in simple lean-tos, had fared for the overnight low was more severe than the morning of our arrival. Every yurt around us had a dog or two used for herding and left outside at night to sound an alarm if anything happened. Each of them was working and seemed alright.
Davaa arrived at 10:00, we thanked Yadmaa and Davasurend, wished them good bye and headed down the series of tracks in bright morning sunlight, off for Ulan Bator and a different look at Mongolia.
I’ve been asked if we would stay in a ger again, in the winter, without the amenities we’ve become accustom to, repeating our Mongolian Winter: Ger Stay. The answer is “yes, certainly. It was fun and it stays with me.” After days of peering through train windows across vast horizons and staring at tiny villages and solitary houses, it was a chance to not only get on the ground, but to gain a better appreciation of what the nomadic life must have been–and still is—for many. It is a hard, demanding way of life, more difficult now as Mongolia tries to transition into a modern nation of towns and cities with houses, fast food, and traffic jams. Sometimes it’s good to get a close look at the basic elements of life: where does food come from, what are the working hours, how hard is it. It’s also a way of life which is disappearing rapidly. I’m not pretending that we helped split wood, haul water, or mucked out the corrals, nor was this an in-depth immersion in Mongolian culture and traditions. It wasn’t. But, of all the great times we had from Moscow to Beijing and circling the globe in the same trip, this is the one I dream of the most.
If you are interested in a ger experience, I recommend Stone Horse, located in Ulan Bator and run by an American, Keith Swenson, who has a fascinating past and equally interesting plans for the future. He also offers horseback tours in the summer either in the Mongolian mountains or across sections of the huge Gobi Desert, both with a strong emphasis on ecotourism. You can reach him at Stone Horse Expeditions & Travel, firstname.lastname@example.org. His office manager Ganchimeg is also very knowledgeable and helpful. Information on a stopover from the Siberian express is on their website https://stonehorsemongolia.com/ecotourism/trans-siberian-stopover-mongolia/.