The center of a ger
By Cooper Baltis
Published September 4th in the UB Post
Life in a Mongolian ger revolves around a wrought iron stove. It’s the original central heating that doubles as a device in which everything is cooked, boiled, steamed, fried, simmered, and cleaned. It is invariably rusty, stained from daily usage and inlayed with endless knot regalia. It is crucial and strikingly useful. It is the center of the ger and the single most used item in the countryside.
Mongolian women spend most of their day around the stove. They begin their mornings by boiling water. Once the water is boiled, milk and tea is added to the boiling pot. A large ladle hanging from a chord near the stove is used to mix the milk and water together. A pinch of salt is mixed into the pot and an old saucepan is used to strain the milk tea into a pot. The nozzle of the tea pot is used to transfer the milk tea into a large thermos. The thermos is generally a bright color, the front of which is decorated by a floral pattern.
The thermos of milk tea is brought to a small table close to the back of the ger. It is set on the table next to a plastic bowl filled with bootsog, a fried pastry cut into small squares. The man of the ger enters and sits down on a stool next to the table. He greets his wife and daughters with a nod. His hands are muddy and slightly bloody from pulling a large thorn out of the hooves of one of his sheep. He reaches for the milk tea and pours it into a bowl. He finishes the tea quickly. Ochre finger prints remain on the white bowl. He takes one bootsog, puts it in the front pocket of his shirt, and leaves the ger.
The oldest daughter takes the pot used to boil the milk tea outside the ger. She uses an old rag to clean the milky residue off the side of the pot. She finishes and scoops water out of a plastic container into the pot. The pot is brought back into the ger and set on the stove. The middle daughter adds small chunks of wood into the stove. She blows air inside the stove using a hollow rod and listens for the crackling sound of the embers. While all this happens, the mother sits on her bed, combing the hair of the youngest daughter.
The water begins to boil on the stove. The oldest daughter pours most of the hot water into a metal wash bin. With the help of her sister, she carries the wash bin outside. The middle sister returns to the ger and grabs a sack of clothing out of a plastic bucket.
The mother sets her youngest daughter on the bed and picks up two small orange stools. She turns one of the stools upside down near the stove. She takes the pot full of water off the stove and balances it between the legs of the overturned stool. The mother sits on the other stool and starts using the hot water to wash dishes. The youngest daughter wanders outside to find her sisters.
She finds her sisters sitting around the wash bin on their heels. Soap suds splash out of the bin. The oldest sister scrubs a pair of jeans with her bare knuckles. The middle sister reaches for the youngest and tickles her. The youngest protests and runs back into the ger.
The youngest daughter pays little attention to the small handheld iron her mother has now set on top of the stove. The youngest runs to the bed and pulls a pack of playing cards out from beneath the mattress. As she plays, the middle daughter enters the ger and hands her mother a collared t-shirt. Using a large wooden cutting board, the mother begins to iron the collar of shirt with the freshly heated iron that had been sitting on the stove. As she runs the iron across the shirt, steam rises into the ger.
After the collar is ironed, more wood is added to the stove. The oldest daughter takes a cart to the nearby river to retrieve water. The middle daughter and the mother begin cutting slices of kneaded flour into noodles. They sit around the cutting board next to the stove. The youngest daughter waddles by with a candy wrapper hanging out of her mouth.
Oil is rubbed onto the noodles and they are cast into a large pot on top of the stove. As the noodles boil, the middle daughter quickly cuts a few slivers off a hunk of meat of a carcass they had been storing outside in their shed. She cuts quickly, precisely, dicing the meat into little square-shaped pieces. The meat is added to the pot and oily bubbles appear on top of the water.
The oldest daughter returns with a barrel of water just in time for lunch. A boy with a cast on his arm from a nearby ger helps her lift the barrel and place it next to the front door. They eat the soup and the boy leaves as quickly as he came. The oldest daughter adds water to the pot and more wood to the stove. As the water boils, she uses butter knife to scrape dirt from under her nails. She drops the bowls used for lunch into the water.
The dishes are clean and a lull settles over the ger. The youngest and middle daughters doze off. The mother and oldest daughter retrieve a large hunk of fat and begin slicing it into manageable chunks. A different pot is brought in from outside. The bottom of the pot is charred from years of usage. The middle daughter wakes up and starts sweeping the ger. While the fat boils on the stove, the oldest daughter kneads a large hunk of dough. With little pinches, the mother separates the dough into a pile on the cutting board. She drops the dough into the boiling fat on the stove. She comes back after each piece of dough has turned a golden brown. Using a strainer, she retrieves the piping hot pieces and deposits them into a large bucket. The middle daughter picks out a fresh bootsog and tosses it into her mouth.
The afternoon progresses in short waves of activity and rest. More flour is kneaded and torn into tiny circles. Diced meat is added to the circles and the corners are brought together in a pinch. The dumplings are arranged on the cutting board until the flour and meat is finished. Outside the ger, the father and his oldest daughter corral the cows and sheep.
A steaming pan is placed into the large pot on the stove. A splash of water is added and the mother combs the hair of her youngest daughter until the water is boiling. She sets the dumpling onto the steaming tray and once they are steamed, she places them into a large bowl.
The father and his oldest daughter enter the ger. Their pants are dirty with milk stains and animal droppings. They take off their boots and huddled around the dumplings. The middle daughter pours tea for her father, mother, and sister. She holds her youngest sister in her lap as they eat.
As night settles, the dumplings are devoured and more milk tea is boiled on the stove. The outside temperature starts to plummet. The father brings in a stack of wood and deposits it next to the stove. The family changes into their sleeping clothes and prepares for bed. The oldest daughter relaxes on the bed across from their parents. The middle daughter sleeps on the floor. The mother rises in the middle of the night and sticks a few large pieces of wood into the stove.
The ger is warm and the family rests.