Monday, October 31, 2011

To Ger or Not to Ger, That is the Question

To celebrate four years of marriage, and spending nearly every waking minute together for the past 11 months, we decided to get even closer. We would go camping, in a two-person tent*, in the Gobi desert.

The tour was styled as an alternative to packaged group tours, and on top of that, was a non-profit organization that funneled the bulk of the cost of the trip back to the families and communities that we would visit in the desert. So with a fair bit of trepidation we prepared for our Gobi excursion to Noble Rock Palace, described in the promotion materials as “a desert trekking route that cannot be missed if you are an avid explorer [yes] with the taste for adventure [yes] and an active imagination [yes! We are really close on this one!].”

The trip would take us through the “vast and awe inspiring desert landscapes to experience the lifestyle of desert nomads.” We would live with Mongolian families eating, drinking and visiting with them in their Ger (the traditional Mongolian tent/house still used through the country), but thankfully would sleep in our tent. And following in the footsteps of generations of nomads we would travel by horse and camel (though Twinny Brown mostly went by jeep and motorcycle!).

The following posts will detail the highlights (and there were highlights) and the lowlights (and there were most certainly lowlights) of our five days in the Gobi. But first, an introduction to The Rules of the Ger.

*We had a Quedobo brand tent. This French company makes tents like French designers make jeans – for really skinny people. And while two adults can squeeze into their so-called two-man tent, there is not an inch to spare. For two normal-sized Americans, I’d recommend going for a three-man tent. 

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The Rules of the Ger

In Mongolia, there are no rules of the road.  (This makes walking around Ulanbataar an extremely scary activity).  There are, however, rules of the Ger, and they are detailed, elaborate, and extremely specific.  Screw up, and you have mortally offended your host family.

But first, what is a ger? 

A ger (also known, but not in Mongolia, as a yurt) is a multipurpose dwelling that can easily be collapsed and transported.  Mongolian nomadic families eat, sleep, hang out and receive visitors in their ger.

Some families have multiple gers
How I can build a ger?

Building a ger is easy!  Especially when you build a tiny ger, and you have a Mongolian teenager to show you how to do the whole thing.

First, raise the walls.
Sorry Dave, but the squat toilet is located outside the ger
Laying floor.
With this kind of the experience, I think I'm ready to tackle the floors in my NYC apartment no problem.
When you're a giant (compared to your ger) it's easy to install furniture prior to building a roof.
Raisin' the roof
Cover the whole thing with felt, and you're done!
Bad Japanese horror flick
In prehistoric times, T-Rex's roamed in this part of the world
What is this, a ger for ants?
How can we teach them to read if they can't even fit inside the building?
Bad Japanese horror flick II
The finished product!
OK, time to dismantle it.
Big ger, little ger
 The Top Twenty Rules of the Ger (in no particular order)
  1. The door of the ger must always face south. 
  2. The west side of the ger is the men’s side; it’s also the side where visitors sit.  Male things, like the horse saddle and bridle, are kept on the west side of the ger. 
  3. The east side of the ger is the women’s side.  The kitchenware and appliances are kept here, and the family bed is also here.
  4. The north side of the ger (the khoimer) is reserved for the man of the household.  The most prized possessions are kept here, such as weapons, photographs, and musical instruments. 
  5. Men enter the ger first, then women, and then children.  Accordingly, men visitors should sit in the north-western part of the ger (but never due north, that’s for the patriarch!) and women should sit south of them.
  6. Always walk around a ger in a clockwise direction. 
  7. If you lie down in a ger, your head must face north and your feet must face south. 
  8. Never whistle inside a ger. 
  9. Never step on the threshold of the ger; always step over it. 
  10. Never touch another person’s hat. 
  11. If someone accidentally kicks your foot or leg, you must immediately shake hands. 
  12. Never point a knife in anyone’s direction. 
  13. Never pass anything with just two fingers.
  14. Always receive things (food, drink, gifts) with both hands, or with your right hand with the left hand supporting the right elbow.  Similarly, never take food from a plate with your left hand. 
  15. Never wave your sleeve (this is a mark of protest) or extent your pinky finger (a mark of disrespect). 
  16. You must at least take a sip or a bite of food and drink offered, even if it is disgusting (see e.g.: fermented mare’s milk, dehydrated sour milk curd, etc).  If you don’t want to eat any more, you must say (in Mongolian), “Thank you, I have tasted your food.”  An exception to this rule is hot tea – you must take a sip immediately and you must drink the whole bowl. 
  17. Always pick things up with an open hand, your palm facing upwards. 
  18. Everyone eats and drinks out of porcelain or pottery bowls, except for the man of the house.  He is served all of his food and drink in a copper or silver bowl, which he keeps in his special wooden chest in the north area of the ger and (as we witnessed on one occasion) licks it clean. 
  19. If you are offered a snuff box you must take a snuff, or at least pretend to snuff. 
  20. A polite greeting upon entering a ger is, “Have you had a good summer/autumn/winter/spring?”
So there you have it.  Twenty simple, straightforward, logical rules to live by in a ger.

Dave and Zana (baby girl) had just accidentally bumped feet.
Both parties immediately jumped into this hearty handshake.

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