Yurts​—Mobile Homes of Central Asia

WHAT is soft and round and 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, tentlike 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, a ger, meaning “home.”

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 designs of 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.

Ideal for Nomadic Life

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 weather the strong winds and strikes of lightning on the open plains. The yurts in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have a steeper,  more rounded appearance. 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 feltmaking 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.

The Yurt Survives Political Changes

The lifestyle of the nomad took a dramatic turn after the Communist Revolution in 1917. 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.

The Modern-Day Yurt

In places such as Kyrgyzstan, it is common to see yurts along the road. They are used as stores or cafés, 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 Lake Issyk Kul.

Yurts also play a role in some traditional Central Asian funeral customs. 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 the ingenuity of resilient and adaptable people.

[Picture on page 17]

Yurts set up along famous Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan