Although I try to focus on building restoration projects most of the time on CBR, I will occasionally be straying from that main topic when reporting on my trip around China and the various forms of ethnic minority architecture and heritage preservation projects we encountered.
Some Great Hospitality
It was supposed to be the first night on our trip that we were going to camp. We’d been driving through the Inner Mongolian plains all day and kept passing clusters of yurts – also known as ‘Gers’ to Mongolians, ‘Ger’ being a transliteration meaning “home”. These yurts were mainly, but not all, set up for tourists seeking the authentic Mongolian grass plains experience. By late afternoon we’d found a site and, although the yurts were only for dining and not staying over night in, the owner was happy to let us pitch our tent on their grounds. Patting ourselves on the back for a job well done we settled into one of the Gers used by the staff as their private room for a delicious traditional dinner before we planned to retire to our cosy tent. Unfortunately, this happy ending to our tale at the camp was not to be.
Halfway through dinner it started to drizzle, which in no time turned into rain followed by a torrential downpour (apparently it was rare for the rain to be so dramatic and, according to the friendly Mongolian girl serving us, this was the first, and likely the only one, of the summer). As we sat and looked out of the small window of the also small door of our yurt we watched as our tent outside took the beating of it’s life. First it got yanked around by the gale-force winds finally succumbing and collapsing entirely.
Well, so that was it then. No way I was about to stay in a flooded tent! Thankfully the staff were very nice and offered us the yurt we were eating our dinner in to stay overnight, we each brought hard hat lights headlamp to manage the camp at night. This meant they would have to cramp into the two remaining sleeping yurts, as no matter how much we insisted that we could share our space with more people they would not hear of it. The next day, after laying all of our camping equipment out on the grass to dry – it was a beautifully sunny day – I took the opportunity to examine the yurts more closely. Our hosts, having spent some time with us the previous evening chatting, wanted to dress in their traditional clothes for us and proudly let us take pictures with them. These people were some of the friendliest we came across on the entire trip, and extremely proud of their heritage. It was very touching how eager they were to share this with us.
A yurt or Ger is a form of dwelling used by nomadic people who travel around the steppes or grass plains herding their livestock. It is designed to be entirely dismantled, packed onto camels, yaks or horses, moved to a new location and then reassembled. The reconstruction can take as little as 2 hours. This form of dwelling is used all across the steppes of Central Asia. For such a dwelling hiring people from a San Francisco Fire Watch Company is a must, as the materials used are in its construction are wood, grass and other materials which can easily catch on fire.
A traditional yurt or Ger is constructed from a circular wall of latticework with bent timber roof poles that support a central circular crown, also of timber. The crown is an important family heirloom to be passed down the generations. Often it is decorated with geometric symbols (as was the one in the central Ger at our site) or with the five unchanging elements; fire, water, earth, metal and wood. Sometimes the crown is supported by two or four vertical poles. The entire timber frame is covered in felt blankets, made from the wool of the family’s herd, followed by a canvas cover with a removable top section over the crown. Since there is no timber on the plains traditionally this was traded for in the valleys. However, whilst the central Ger at the camp site was constructed using timber, the smaller one we stayed in used metal roof poles and a metal crown.
The latticework is held together using one or more ropes which are wound tightly around the outside wall preventing the weight of the covers from pushing the walls outwards. The wall has a door frame and door built in but the only other light comes from the central crown. The covering on the top can be easily removed to let in light and allow smoke to escape from the central hearth.
The yurts that we visited were primarily set up for tourists and were therefore more permanent structures. One of the changes made was the slightly raised timber deck flooring. Traditionally you’d just have a dirt floor or a floor covered in animal hides or rugs. In the middle of the floor was a square cutout with a concrete slab for the central stove. As the stove is not needed in the summer months a small table and two chairs replaced it. Another difference was that the Ger we stayed in was not covered in felt. Instead they used a layer of blankets followed by a layer of plastic (for waterproofing) over the roof followed by a canvas cover. These Gers also did not have the two or four central pillars supporting the crown usually associated with traditional Mongolian Gers.
Back to Nature
Our experience sleeping in a yurt was surprisingly comfy. Granted there were beds and so we didn’t have to lie in our sleeping bags on the floor, but aside from that it was also very windproof and warm. We had a few leaks as some patches of the roof were missing the plastic sheeting, but as a test of weathering the strongest storm of the season I thought it did rather well.
For anyone who’s been camping, sleeping in a yurt is quite similar. You feel safe and cocooned in your own space whilst still very much connecting with the outside; hearing the wind whistling around you, the rain drops on the canvas and the rustling of nighttime animals and insects. Once the storm was over and the sun was out in the morning we had the top part of the roof cover removed which flooded the space in warm sunshine and blue skies.
I can see why this form of dwelling developed the way it did. Not only is it simple and very practical but living in this space you also feel very connected to the surrounding natural environment, something that would no doubt have been integral to the nomadic way of life. It was interesting also to discover that these types of dwellings are more widely used in China than one might think. Apart from Inner Mongolia, we also encountered clusters of yurts in Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai and western Sichuan.