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Back to the future in Mongolia

Gonzalo Castro de la Mata's picture

‘Ger’ dwellings of the millennial Mongolian cultureAlthough by definition there are many anniversaries each and every year, 2015 stands out as it includes the 70th anniversary of the fall of Nazi Berlin and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. It is also the year in which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) had to return in “Back to the Future– II.”

Visiting the plains of northern Mongolia today is the closest thing to travelling in time. The most salient features in this otherwise flat and infinite landscape are the Gers (from the Turkish Yurt), traditional round structures made of wood frames covered with felt and animal skins. Over centuries, these structures have evolved to protect their inhabitants from the harsh winter weather.

Except by their size, today’s Gers are no different from those used by the Great Kublai Khan in the late 1200s. If you happen to have access to Netflix, you can watch the Marco Polo series and witness the portrayal of the 13th century events when the Khan ruled over a vast and powerful empire. According to this series, as well as to serious historical sources, the Gers used by the Great Kublai Khan before settling in present-day Beijing, were extremely luxurious and included gold service for their interminable dinner courses.

Today’s Gers are a bit less sophisticated but equally wonderful. Families of herders live in them, protected from the bitter cold and strong winds experienced during 9 months each year. On a recent mission to Mongolia, where I travelled together with my colleagues Zeinab El-Bakri and Tatiana Tassoni of the Inspection Panel, we experienced first-hand how a modern Mongolian family lives inside a Ger. In contrast with the cold weather outside, the people of Mongolia are incredibly warm and welcoming. Upon arrival to a Ger located 6 hours from the closest paved road, we were received with open arms and offered the traditional tea with horse milk and salt, an acquired taste of extraordinary sophistication.

Amazingly, this otherwise “13th century Ger” also had a solar panel and a satellite dish. These are not only useful so that nobody in the household misses the latest news or their favorite programs, but the electricity generated also powers the children's tablets and, thus, helps them keep up with their school homework.

Visiting a modern Ger bridges 800 years of history. It invokes the times when these cold and wind resistant constructions were considered state of the art technologies that allowed the great Khans to conquer and rule over enormous empires. Today, newer technologies keep Mongolian herders connected with the modern world. The proud and wonderful people of this incredible country are thus able to preserve an honored history, while at the same time look forward to a better future in a modern and globalized world.



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Photograph courtesy of Gonzalo

 

Comments

Submitted by Robert on

Wonderful story and beautiful picture. Sadly, only a few such well-equipped gers remain. The traditional Mongolian nomads who have remained in the 'countryside' are not so well off, and only account for some 20% or less of the population. The real problem that the WB should be looking at is the growing 'ger areas' in UB and other aimag capitals where the majority of the population, including migrants, lives with only tankered water supply, no sanitation (read pit latrines), no roads and drainage and wood/coal heating which continues to pollute the atmosphere. Next time take a look.

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