Nomadic Souvenirs: Mongolian Gers

Shopping Essentials

Where: Ulaan Bataar and Dalanzadgad, Mongolia great places to buy souvenirs
What’s it worth: Around $500 for a full size, quality ger
Best Buy: A minature ger for those who prefer to travel light

The nomads of Central Asia have dwelt in portable tents called gers for thousands of years. These conical felt-covered constructions which dot the Mongolian landscape are also known as ‘yurts’, but this term was introduced by Western invaders and is considered offensive to native Mongolians.

The design of the ger has evolved over time to suit the lifestyle of its occupants: nomadic herdsmen can pack up their ger in less then half an hour, ready to be transported to new grazing grounds. What’s more, a ger offers comfortable, if basic, accommodation all year long, providing warmth during the near-arctic winters and shade from the scorching summer sun.

Although gers are rapidly being replaced by bricks and mortar in the towns and cities, most Mongolians still prefer their traditional abode and spend their summer holidays camping out in a ger. Visitors to Mongolia will undoubtedly have the opportunity to try out this unique way of life and are often so taken with the experience that they buy a ger of their own so they can replicate the experience back home.

Design and Symbolism

Gers are assembled with a whole lot more in mind than simple practicality. There’s a whole set of religious and traditional customs which dictate the design and layout of the interior:

– The door of a ger always faces south. It is thought that the spirit of the house resides on threshold, and guests should always take care not to step on it to avoid offending their host.

– There are no windows, but a hole known as a ‘toona’ provides ventilation and allows smoke from the heath or ‘golomt’ to escape through the roof.

– The hearth is the central feature of the ger. It symbolises the family’s ancestral ties and the three stones on which it is mounted represent the host, the hostess and the daughter-in-law who is to bear the family an heir. It is forbidden and considered and insult to stretch your legs towards the hearth, throw rubbish into it or bring sharp objects close to it.

-The male quarters are situated to the west of the hearth and is thought to be under the protection of Heaven, and the female quarters to the east, under the protection of the Sun. Individuals should move towards the appropriate area on entering the ger.

– The family altar is situated along back wall, where Buddhist paraphernalia and treasured family possessions are kept. The area immediately before this is known as the ‘khoimor’ and it reserved for the elders. Guests of honour occupying the space directly to their west.

Master Craftsmen

It can take a craftsman as long as a month to build an authentic Mongolian ger, but if it’s well made it should last a considerable amount of time and withstand all weather conditions. A ger is made using durable materials which are readily available: the felt or animal hide covering is derived from the owner’s sheep, wood for the frame is gathered in the forests and the whole construction is tied together with rope made from human or animal hair.

Where to Bag a Bargain

Gers have become quite a popular souvenir for visitors to Mongolia in recent years and a hippy chic ‘must have’ accessory. You should be able to pick one up easily in Ulaan Baatar or tourist centres such as Dalanzadgad. Bear in mind, however, that although gers are designed to be easily transportable they’d hardly be considered hand baggage, and you will probably need to arrange for yours to be shipped home.

What’s it Worth?

A large ger could cost you as much as $500, depending on the size and quality of workmanship. You may also find that the gers on sale to tourists, as well as those available in this country, are less authentic than you might imagine. Due to their increasing popularity at folk festivals a new breed of ger has been created, made with coloured fabrics and cheaper materials – make sure what you’re buying is the type you really want. You could, of course, construct your own back home using materials you have to hand – it probably won’t be as sturdy as a real Mongolian ger but unless you’re planning on taking up permanent residence it should suit recreational purposes.

Fortunately for the budget traveller, or just one with less space for carrying souvenirs home, Mongolia has mastered the art of the tacky souvenir. An amazing selection of model gers are available for you to chose from, and you can find them in most of the country’s tourist shops and department stores, amongst other equally charming items.

More Information

Yurt Source
All you ever wanted to know about gers, plus an index of places to buy them on the web, to save you a trip!

Yurt Works
Order your own Yurt online now!

Mongolian Artists Foundation
Site containing information on gers and other authentic Mongolian crafts. The Foundation sells gers directly to customers around the world.

By Guilia Vincenzi