Holy Smokes! Ger Fire of ‘08

August 8, 2008, Mountains around Mongolia       

Nothing was going to ruin this absolutely beautiful morning in the Mongolian mountains – the air was pristine, the view un-matched, and the scenery straight out of The Sound of Music. The whole group of 16 of us was eating breakfast – feasting, rather, on all the fresh food grown in the surrounding countryside.

Picturesque Ger Village

I’m Yurious: A ger, sometimes incorrectly referred to as a “yurt,” is a tee-pee like structure that the nomadic people of Mongolia use as their homes. Traditionally, it’s made of yak skin and is round and flat in shape. Most have a stove in the center, with a hole above to let out smoke. Modern-day ones are fitted with electricity. 

All of a sudden, there was a roar in the kitchen, with the women wildly yelling (even though they were yelling in Mongolian, we could obviously tell something was very wrong). Our translator shouted that there was a fire in one of the gers…and we all piled out the door to see who’s hut was being burned to the ground. Yikes! It was Christina’s and Tiffany’s, 2 young Canadian girls in their early 20s.

Light grey smoke was billowing from the ger, seeping out from around the door and the hole in the top of the tent. The women were trying to carry water in pans from the kitchen to throw on the sides of the ger to dampen it down. A few of us joined in, running back and forth with pails of water, but the scene was total chaos and Christina was starting to wail in the background, overcome with grief.

Then, in a blink, the smoke erupted into flames and the entire ger was ablaze. That stopped us from running for a second to take in the enormity of the danger. The one ger was beyond saving and 14 others stood within 4-5 feet of each other, ready to go up with a single jumping spark. Not good. The whole ger village could go.

Ger, pre-flambé

After at least 10 minutes of a make-shift fire brigade, and with the helpful (eventual) location of a fire extinguisher, the flames were contained. The ger, however, was toast – completely charred. I did pull out my camera at this point to document the carnage, but was pulled away to help sift through the debris for the girls’ passports and other essentials.

In the end, we did find the passports. Tiffany’s was pretty much in tact, with the edges singed, and Christina’s was battered but still recognizable. The computers, cameras, and other travel gear were gone however. Melted.

Most importantly, no one was hurt and only one ger was damaged. In the end, the girls were delayed a week but were able to join us in Ekaterinburg, Russia for the rest of the Trans-Siberian trip. (This incident will motivate me to get travel interruption insurance in the future).

I’m pleased to say that several of us in the tour pitched in and donated money to help rebuild the ger. The small ger village was a basically a family-owned tourist hotel in one of Mongolia’s national parks. The cost of a single ger is $1200 and I think we raised at least half of that among us travelers to contribute to the re-building of a new one. 

The stove? We’ll never know…

There was much speculation as to the start of the fire. The electricity never worked properly and was snapping off, so it could have been electrical. They had also used the stove for heat the night before (as it’s intended to be used), so perhaps something caught in the remaining embers.

No one will know and we all high-tailed it out of there before the police came since an investigation by the equivalent of the Mongolian sheriff’s office was not in anyone’s best interest.


This entry was posted on Saturday, May 23rd, 2009 and is filed under Asia Pacific.

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