Once you have stepped into a ger or yurt, and experienced the freedom of life within its circular space, or enjoyed a night’s sleep within one, then you will know what it is like to get a sense of nomadic life, in a portable, highly individual and protective, and ultimately sustainable, ancient form of ecological architecture. Individuals and communities across Europe are now enjoying life in these beautiful dwellings, living on and with the earth, in a highly sustainable way.
Nomads all over the world have traditionally lived in moveable dwellings that can be assembled and disassembled quickly, stored, and then taken with them as they move their cattle to the next pasture. This ease of movement, lack of rootedness to one particular spot, dependent upon the needs of their animals, created the sense of living lightly upon the earth, having a very low ecological footprint upon it.
On the plains of Mongolia, in Inner Asia, nestling between Russia and China, the structures that have proven up to the job are called gers, which is the Mongol for dwelling. These are made from canvas, felt, and wooden poles; materials that were once readily available locally. Nowadays the materials are bought in bulk from neighbouring China. Only the felt, still sheared from a families animals, soaked, dyed, and beaten to bind it together, is the part of the dwelling that originates from the local area. Intricate designs on the doorway, internal supporting posts and roof crown (that the roof poles fit into and hold the structure up) represent ancient Mongolian beliefs – a mixture of ancient Shamanism with Tibetan-style Buddhism, the national religion.
Similar structures were used on the plains of Anatolia, or modern-day Turkey. This is where the word yurt originated, but generally yurt or ger means the same kind of circular, portable structure, made from the same materials. In shape and style, yurts and gers are different from tipis, which originate from the North American Indian tradition.
Inside a Yurt: Living Life Close to The Ground
I feel extremely fortunate to have travelled across the Mongolian desert and visited nomads living in their gers, and watched as they assembled or disassembled these portable houses. Ranging from about 10 foot across, to huge gers of 50 foot or more.
Nomads often pitch their gers close together to form one small village; either of related families, or hunters working together for a season. Inside a thick hinged doorway, the eyes take a moment to adjust – often there are smells of milk being churned, dung burning in the central fire, or thick plumes of fragrant tobacco being shared. A circular wall, built in several sections, of poles bound together in a crossed formation, is the frame that holds the ger together. Then, depending upon the season, a thick layer of felt insulates, and on top of that, waterproofed canvas sits. Some have raised wooden floors, others use the bare earth. Some have ornate furniture and beds in frames, some are more basic. I visited one remote ger that had satellite television!
None have partitions, although there are invisible divisions between a mans area, and that of the woman’s area. An honoured guest is given a central seat. The Mongols have a strong spiritual belief that their ger doors should face west. Also there is a powerful sense that living within circular space prevents energy being trapped in dead corners. This ties in with the need to be always ready and available to deal with whatever may come, in terms of hunting and livestock-raising.
The Modern Lifestyle: Yurts in Europe and the Twenty-First Eco-Century
Across Europe today, there are thousands of individuals living in yurts, adapting this ancient dwelling to their lifestyle and needs. In the UK, in Cornwall and Devon, and in France and Spain, there are yurt camps, where families can go and have a great holiday in yurts in forests and by lakesides. There are exclusive luxury yurts, with bathhouses and modern facilities that cost as much as the highest price hotels.
Within the UK there are at least 6 professional yurt makers, who will sell you a structure off the peg or design something to your needs. Many people are choosing to have a yurt instead of a more permanent shed, garden summer house, or bottom of the garden retreat. They are of course highly suitable to pack in a large estate car or trailer and travel with. The yurt is a highly adaptable dwelling, which I have seen built and lived in in many different ways. It is a perfect way for people to experience sleeping close to the ground, out in a rural space. For those not keen on camping, and yet in search of a more sustainable way of living closer to earth, and doing so by using renewable resources, this is the ideal way to experience it. Go nomadic! Enjoy.