Photo by Rebecca Arnold.
When Americans get married they “settle down.” They register at chain stores for casserole dishes and silverware, candlesticks and appliances, vases and bedspreads and curtains: all the pieces of staying put.
Mongolian newlyweds are given the lattice frame for their new home. Stretched wide and round, it is not yet a shelter but the idea of one — from the inside, the landscape of wide grassy plains, long and golden green, is cut into diamonds. Add the roof beams, a skylight and doorframe painted in jewel bright patterns, layers of hand-made sheep’s wool felt, and a canvas outer layer against the wind and rain, and it is a ger, or yurt in Turkish.
It is a home not for staying put, but for moving with the seasons, with the animals. A ger can be dismantled and packed in a couple of hours, lashed to the backs of camels or yaks, or today, more likely, packed into the bed of a truck. The animals walk alongside. Home goes where the horses go.
Inside is the whole universe, heavy and grounded, containing the most basic elements. The roof is the sky, the central skylight the sun; the hearth, fueled by wood, dung, or coal, provides heat and light. When a ger is first set up, a fire is lit in the hearth to purify the space.
Order is kept, all in balance, all aligned. Do not stand on the lintel. Step in, sit down. Women on the right, men on the left, honored guests in the back opposite the door, by the shrine. If you trip coming in, the sign is auspicious. If you trip going out, you must enter and exit again. The stove is the sacred center. Do not burn trash. Do not point the bottoms of your feet toward the fire. Nothing should pass above the hearth between the central poles supporting the skylight.
Outside of the thick padded walls, animals are dying in harsher winters and dryer summers while mining scores dark gashes across the steppes. There is gold in this earth, uranium too, copper and coal, all precious in their rare weight. New money builds booming nightclubs, malls, and slick office towers in the cities.
When families lose their herds, they pack up their homes and move once more, to one of the ever-expanding ger slums of the city. It is estimated that the nation’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, is now home to more than half of the country’s population. Here, the dirt paths between crowded homes are piled high in trash, the air choked with the thick smoke of too many cook fires.