airing Kazakh wall hangings

Bayan Olgii is a breathtaking region in Mongolia’s north western corner with glacier-capped mountains, crystal clear lakes, rushing rivers, eagle hunters and an eternally blue sky. It is also home to Mongolia’s 100,000 Kazakh people.

The finely embroidered wall hangings of the Kazakh people who live there express the rich traditions still preserved in the remote, windswept region. The hangings are full with the imagery of nature and the elements which herders experience day in and day out. Amongst the round rosettes, geometrical figures and zigzags are found multitudes of flowers, plants, ringlets, runners, stylised horns and animal motifs carefully rendered in wool or silk threads on dark backgrounds of velvet, silk, wool, cloth, felt and sometimes leather.

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Known as ‘tush kiyiz’ in Kazakh, and ‘arabch’ in Mongolian, they are given as marriage gifts and are hung on the inside wall of the yurt behind the marriage bed. On some it is even possible to find the maker’s name and the year of completion – occasionally you will find more than one name as sisters, mothers or grandmothers also contributed to the needlework.

Most of mine were made in the 70s and 80s. They always cheer me up and transport me back to the land of the big blue sky!

ticking it off the list

I spent one harrowing week in Mongolia at a local hospital having a tick removed from my head. I’d tried to remove it myself and accidentally pulled its head off. Bad move. I got quite sick.

TICK!!!
Icky ticky, I feel sicky…

I went to the UN doctor who then took me to Hospital #1. Don’t be fooled by its name. Number 1 doesn’t mean its the best, it means its the oldest. And it was scary.

The first doctor we saw turned me away as he only dealt with ticks on arms or legs, not heads. Apparently tick removal is quite specialised. Next we went upstairs to the floor for doctors dealing in eyes, teeth and head-related things. This was more like it!

I had a sinking suspicion that the ‘doctor’ was in fact a dentist… as I sank down into an ancient dentist chair – a gothic torture contraption with a gimballed steel head rest and cracked brown leather – and half expected to be strapped in. I tried to distract myself with the view of the dilapidated factory rooftops next door. Until he came at me with a huge metal syringe fit for a horse! The UN doc who was still there assured me it was local anaesthetic and quite sterile. I shut my eyes and tried to relax…

Hospital trolley
Settling in, thinking happy thoughts.

With part of my head now snoozing, the scalpel came out. Oh, why did I look?! Why did I watch it being retrieved from an ancient metal tray filled with (hopefully) disinfectant? I clenched my eyes shut again and shuddered. Think happy thoughts! Think happy thoughts! OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT?!

The blade made a hideous scraping sound against my skull – too close for comfort! – as infected scalp and hair was removed. I tried not to gag as the bloodied bits were plonked into a chipped-enamel kidney bowl on my chest. Oh boy, that view out the window? Its never looked better.

Hospital #1 garden 2
Ahh, the serenity…

With the tick gone and what-felt-like half of my head in the bowl, they proceeded to staunch the wound, stuffing thin strips of ‘sterilised’ (well, it was wet..) material into the cavity. This did not feel good, not even with the anaesthetic. I didn’t get any stitches and wobbled out, slightly in shock.

The next couple of days I returned to have my bandages changed. The lack of any anaesthetic as they removed and replaced the blood encrusted bandages nearly caused me to launch myself into that mesmerising factory-roof view. Whoa! Holy shit-filled croissant Batman, did that hurt! At least the re-stuffing procedure was over comparatively quickly.

As I walked out I caught my reflection in a cracked mirror above the sink. The liquid dripping down the back of my neck was actually blood, not what they’d been cleaning the wound with. The nurse who was washing the surgical scissors in the enamel sink with a well-worn toothbrush handed me a wet rag. I fled!

Hospital sink mirror
Nearly free.

home is where the ger is

Favoured by nomadic herders throughout central Asia for thousands of years, gers (similar to yurts)* are sturdy and easily transportable circular felt tents that offer low impact living and can add valuable space to your living area.

These free-standing, self-supporting structures use a combination of compression and tension to hold their shape, allowing them to be pitched on any surface with minimal space — ideal for backyards, larger patios and even inside sheds.

Unlike tepees, gers have lower, vertical walls topped by a dome-shaped roof. The walls are made of latticed wood (khana) and support over 80 wooden poles that reach up to a central crown (tono), where smoke escapes and sunlight enters. The whole structure is covered in layers of felt and tough canvas and bound with horsehair ropes. Doorways traditionally face south towards the sun (in the northern hemisphere) and to avoid prevailing steppe-winds (from Siberia!). You will need to duck when entering but once inside there is ample space to stand. Floor coverings are recommended for winter use, with rugs or bare earth viable options in summer.

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With a low profile of two metres, gers fit unobtrusively into their surroundings allowing for a more personal interaction with nature and the seasons. During winter months felted-wool layers insulate against the cold and help retain heat from the central stove. In summer, the walls can be rolled up to let in cool breezes or the felt can replaced with breathable canvas.

Gers are durable, eco-friendly dwellings that are also easily transported. Nomadic herders in Mongolia move their homes up to four times a year, with three people taking about an hour to erect their home. Less experienced folk should set aside three to five hours. Once dismantled the average six-foot diameter yurt weighs about 200 pounds and can be moved in a van or large trailer, or traditional yak-drawn cart (if you have one handy). When not in use a ger will take up the space of a small shed. The wooden frames can last as long as 100 years, felt covers up to 20 years and canvas outers to 15 years.

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More than just a practical dwelling the ger’s construction symbolises the universe on a miniature scale. The floor represents the Earth, the roof is the Sky and the smoke-hole is the Sun. Five basic elements are also represented: Earth (floor), Wood (wooden frame), Fire (in the hearth), Metal (stove) and Water (in kettle on stove). The wooden support poles (bagana) also symbolise the world tree which shamans climb to reach the upper spirit world. Such ancient and spiritual attributes make gers ideal locations for meditation, holistic healing, home-birthing and weddings, with their circular floor plan creating a cosy, womb-like interior.

door view

And as a viable alternative to renovating, these robust dwellings provide a cheap, practical alternative to extending your home. How you use it will be limited only by your imagination. What about as a spare rooms for guests, or as an office, study or craft room? Need more room for the kids? Then how about using it as a cubby-house or private teenage den? It could even be a luxurious and romantic alternative to living in a tin-shed or old caravan while building your dream straw-bale home. But beware… you may never want to leave!

 

* Gers are the traditional homes of Mongolian herders who roam the rolling steppes between Russia and China. The word ‘ger’ means home and should not be confused with Turkic or Kazakh yurts. While they may appear very similar, there a subtle differences – gers have straight roofpoles and a squat profile, while yurts tend to be taller with poles that bend at the wall.

 

Resources:

‘Mongolian Cloud Houses’, Dan Frank Kuehn, Shelter Publications,1980 & 2006

‘Circle Houses: Yurts, Tipis and Benders’, David Pearson, Chelsea Green, 2001

‘The Complete Yurt Handbook’, Paul King, eco-logic books, 2004

‘Home Work – Handbuilt Shelter’, Lloyd Kahn, Shelter Publications, 2004

TOP IMAGE – Jennie Stevens, 2004