I can finally write about the quintessential Mongolian experience: Ger life in the winter (My apologies to other volunteers who know this life all too well reading this post; been there, done that, right?).
The traditional Mongolian dwelling– a felt circle tent known as a ger– is designed to be lived in by more than one person. I know of one Mongolian woman who lives in a ger by herself. She said it was “too difficult.” When a Mongolian tells you that something like this is “too difficult,” you know it’s challenging. Most volunteers (at the time of posting) live in gers here in Mongolia, about two-thirds. I recently visited Chinggis City in Khentii aimag and had the chance to live in a ger for 10 days. I’m glad I had the experience, because it shows you how so many people in this country live.
Waking up, your ger will be frozen. Everything inside will be cold: Your floor, your walls, your clothes, and your bed. Depending on how cold it dipped, and how late you started your last fire, it could be below freezing. You wake up and prepare to make your morning fire so you can function without numb fingers. Depending on where you are in country, you have three choices of fuel: dried dung, wood, and coal. Wood is mostly in the northern half, near where all the forests are. Coal can be bought almost everywhere, given the mineral boom and prevalence of ninja miners. Dung is mostly in the Gobi areas. There are also small shrub brushes that can be burned out there, I am told. Each has its pros and cons: Wood burns hotter, but shorter. Coal will burn longer, but at a lower temperature than wood. It all depends on availability and how much time you want to spend keeping your home warm.
Life pretty much revolves around your ger stove and the fires therein, but you also have to consider your water. Reminder: there is no running water. If it dips below freezing in your ger for too long, all of your water will freeze. If your home doesn’t have a well (most do not), you will have to go to the well in your district and cart your water back and forth. Considering it’s very cold out and water is very heavy, you have to decide how often you’re willing to make the trek.
It’s all about finding out how long it takes for your ger to get cold, and how much cold you can tolerate. My girlfriend’s ger uses wood and coal, so I had the chance to chop wood and smash coal most days. While I found it nice to have things to do, I can definitely see its novelty wearing off rather quickly, especially if you’ve had a frustrating day at work and have that to come back home to. The fact that the axe handle was metal and hurt my gloved hands is also worth noting.
It all makes you appreciate the simple pleasures you took for granted before: running water and climate control, for sure. You also are reminded that most people in big cities live like this in the sprawling ger districts. While one of the most, if not the most, challenging part of life out here, it definitely creates a better sense of understanding for us non-Mongolians who are here for but a short lapse of time.