WHAT is soft and round that keeps you warm in winter but cool in summer? For nomadic peoples in parts of Central Asia, the answer is, A yurt!
From the steppes of Mongolia and Kazakhstan to the mountains and valleys of Kyrgyzstan, these traditional dwellings were once a common sight. A yurt is a round, tent-like structure that has decorative reed mats lining its walls. Its outer layers are sheets of felt made from sheep’s wool. Yurts are lightweight and easy to assemble, yet sturdy and comfortable during hot summers and cold winters. The Kirghiz call the yurt a gray house; the Kazakhs, a felt house; and the Mongolians, ager, meaning “home.”
The Yurt: The Mobile Homes of Central Asia
Yurts may be grayish-brown or bright white, depending on the color of the wool used. Kirghiz and Kazakh yurts are often decorated with local design soft wool dyed in bright colors that depict a ram’s horn.
In the past, beautiful blankets and felt ﬂoor coverings were a reﬂection of a family’s wealth and prestige. A key piece of the yurt is the center ring, or wheel, to which all the roof poles connect. This sturdy, heavy ring gives stability to the structure. A felt ﬂap that covers the ring can be thrown back to provide ventilation, or it can be closed during inclement weather. On clear nights families can throw back the felt ﬂap and gaze up at the starry heavens through the opening in the roof.
The Yurt is Ideal for Nomadic Life In Central Asia
A nomadic way of life is still followed in certain rural parts of such countries as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. In her book Yurts—Living in the Round, Becky Kemery tells how camels are still used to move yurts in Mongolia: “The frame is loaded onto one camel with equal loads on each side. The roof wheel is loaded last; it ﬁts neatly over the hump. The felts are loaded onto a second camel. Where camels are not available, the herders use yak or horses to haul yurts on carts, or the yurts may be driven to their new destination in a Russian truck.” Mongolian yurts have straight poles and ﬂatter roofs than others. They help the structures to whether the strong winds and strikes of lightning on the open plains.
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Usually, the entrance of a yurt is positioned to face the sun, allowing sunlight to enter. Inside, brightly decorated felt rugs and blankets are folded and stacked on wooden chests opposite the entrance.
Customarily, an important guest or the family’s eldest male sits in front of this colorful arrangement. The side of the yurt to the right of the entrance is designated for women. All the instruments for cooking, cleaning, sewing, and felt making are kept here. The other side is for men. Saddles, riding whips, and other equipment for hunting and taking care of animals are found there.
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The Yurt Survives Political Changes in Central Asia
The lifestyle of the nomad took a dramatic turn after the Communist Revolution in1917. Throughout Central Asia the Russians built schools, hospitals, and roads, introducing a more settled way of life. Over time, many native peoples abandoned their nomadic lifestyle to live in villages and towns. Still, yurts are at times used during summer months by shepherds caring for sheep, cows, and horses on large collective ranches. “As a teenager,” recalls Maksat, a Kirghiz man now in his late 30’s, “I helped my father care for the herd in his charge. By July, when the snow had melted and the passes were open, we drove our animals to the high mountain pastures.
“There we set up our yurt beside a mountain stream, where we had ample water for cooking and washing. We stayed there until the weather turned cold in early October.” So the yurt still has a place in modern societies.
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The Modern-Day Yurt
In places such as Kyrgyzstan, it is common to see yurts along the road. They are used as stores or cafes, where visitors can enjoy local cuisine. Guests can also get the feel of traditional Kirghiz living by staying overnight in a yurt in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan or alongside pristine La Issyk-Kul. Yurts also play a role in some traditional Central Asian funeral customs. (central Asia)
Maksat explains, “In Kyrgyzstan, the deceased is placed inside the yurt, where family and friends can come to mourn the loss of their loved one.”
In recent times the yurt has made an appearance in Western lands. Some people have promoted the yurt as practical and less intrusive on the environment. Most modern yurts, though, are quite diﬀerent from those built in earlier times. High-tech materials are used in their construction, and they are often built to be more permanent structures.
While the origin of the yurt cannot be determined with certainty, the value of this structure is without question. The yurt remains rooted in the nomadic spirit of the people of Central Asia and is an enduring testimony to an age-old tradition rich with history.