New Internationalist

Tents In The City

Issue 266

Ger-r-r-eat! A Mongol family relaxes inside their ger on the outskirts of Ulaan Baatar.
PHOTO: TERENCE HAY-EADIE
Tents in the city
Terence Hay-Eadie tests the strength of nomadic tradition in Mongolia
against the steamroller of modern culture.

There is a strong smell of boiled mutton in the air as we step into the circular room, taking care not to tread on the threshold. A wizened old Mongol woman wrapped in bright turquoise gets up smartly to greet us. She touches her elbow in the traditional fashion as she extends her arm to offer us a bowl of airag, fermented mare’s milk. I smile fully and gingerly sip the liquid, trying to avoid the lumps floating on the surface. She beams at me and briskly nods her head for me to drink up, indicating that there’s lots more. Airag is considered a delicacy by Mongol nomads who drink up to 10 litres of the stuff a day.

We are seated inside a Mongol yurt or ger whose shape closely resembles a dome. Although the ger is as portable as a tent, it is like a house in that it has a wooden doorframe and a panelled door. Inside, the walls are wooden latticework with sloping slats running up towards a single circular opening in the roof.

The inside space of a ger, about five metres in diameter, accommodates every aspect of a nomadic family’s life. All persons and objects have their appropriate position: women to the right of the door, men to the left.

Guests are always seated in the traditional place towards the rear on one side, while the space near the door is primarily for everyday objects used in cooking or washing. Beside the entrance a stuffed hedgehog hangs warding off evil with its spikes.

On the vast grasslands of the steppe, groups of gers resemble small clusters of aspirins on an enormous snooker table. But this ger is different. Gazing out of the entrance I can see a parked car, a vegetable garden and behind that a tall apartment building looming up. Inside, a neon light stretches across the vaulted roof of the tent, while a group of Mongol children sits transfixed before the flickering images of a Nintendo machine. There is also a fridge in the women’s quarter by the door and a cassette recorder on the men’s side.

Welcome to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, where grim apartments built during the communist era stand incongruously against a background of rolling grassland and the surrounding suburbs composed mostly of gers. One gets the feeling that if the will to move on gripped the city, it could quite easily pack up and go. However, the inhabitants of these ger districts are not nomads in the conventional sense. During my visit there in the summer of 1993 I met accountants, doctors and engineers living in the ger suburbs.

Everyone is linked with nomadism somehow, if only because ger and apartment dwellers alike have at least some relatives out in the steppe whom they visit regularly. For Mongols, the very core of their national identity is intricately intertwined, indeed inseparable, from that of nomadism. In my time there I found that even Mongols living in apartments spoke nostalgically of retiring to a ger in the steppe.

In the suburbs around Ulaan Baatar, families own a small number of animals, relying on their relatives in the steppe for most of their food. Although some of them work in town they still consider their life closely akin to the ‘pure’ steppe livelihood. They live in gers as their forbears have always done and there is, above all, ‘open air’ all around.

Ulaan Baatar shows links to the pastoralist lifestyle everywhere. Herders often ride through the central square on horseback in front of the imposing cement buildings of the former communist Government. In the street below my host’s flat, cows would sometimes appear and try to enter the building, while sheep and goats kept the grass verges around town as short as any electric lawnmower.

The inhabitants of Ulaan Baatar’s ger districts display a remarkable ingenuity in adapting their lifestyle to the city. Unable to afford to buy or to make the traditional felt roof, many families have erected a second roof over their gers to protect the valuable felt from rain. Some have gone as far as building cement gers, while others actually spend half the year in the steppe and half living outside Ulaan Baatar.

The urban ger is a tangible cultural symbol which helps to maintain the resilience of the Mongol identity. In the tent cities, people have managed to integrate TVs, fridges, and in some cases computer terminals, into the symbolic space inside their gers – and hence into their way of life. Nomadism is often said to be at odds with modernity, yet the dynamic pragmatism of nomads in Ulaan Baatar shows that traditional lifestyles are not completely incompatible with the pluralistic vision of sustainable cities.

When I said goodbye to the old woman at the end of our meeting, she grinned and added wisely: ‘A ger would be a good place to live anywhere, even in England.’

Terence Hay-Eadie is a postgraduate in environmental studies at Oxford University, England.

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