A Nomadic Yurt: The World’s Most Intense Outdoor Shelter
Do you ever wonder what nomads live in? Learn about Kyrgyz yurts, their structure, furnishings, and how you can experience nomadic life for yourself.
A yurt is a traditional, felt-covered tent used by nomads all over the steppes and mountains of Central Asia. The name and shape varies according to country and culture, however, all yurts are portable (a feature necessary to nomadic life) and circular. In Kyrgyzstan, yurts are called “grey houses,” have their own unique structure, and can be erected by a nomadic family in a matter of 4-5 hours.
THE STRUCTURE OF KYRGYZ YURTS
The basic skeleton of a yurt consists of long portion of latticework about 3 meters high that’s then curved until it makes almost a complete circle on top of the land, with just a small gap left for the door. Tied to the top of the latticework are curved poles that bend inward then straighten to create a sort of shallow cone roof. The poles all connect to a piece of round, treated wood that serves both as a sun roof and ventilation hole called a tunduk. (You can see the shape of the tunduk on the Kyrgyz flag.) This whole structure is then covered in felt to help keep out the elements as well as the cold night air of the mountains.
INSIDE A NOMADIC YURT
While the exterior of a yurt is grey, the inside is bright and cheerful. Colorful felt rugs line the floor of the yurt sporting all kinds of beautiful Kyrgyz designs. Opposite the entrance you’ll see a chest supporting a large stack of handmade sleeping mats, sheets, and pillows. To the right of the door is where all the women keep their necessary day to day items such as dishes, food, and sewing materials. The left side is usually reserved for the men’s various tools or other items necessary for herding. Other items found in a yurt include a stove, large barrels of kymyz (fermented mare’s milk), perhaps buckets of fresh cream or yogurt, and a shallow table positioned in the middle of the yurt during meals.
Upon entering a yurt, shoes immediately come off and are left near the entrance so that any souvenirs people’s shoes have collected in the pastures don’t make their way onto the rugs. The head of the household or honored guests take seats opposite the entrance as that is the place of honor. If you’re visiting a family in a yurt, wait to be offered that seat before sitting. Also be aware that Kyrgyz nomads are extremely hospitable and will feed visitors to within an inch of their life! Part of that hospitality is shown by offering bowls of kymyz to visitors. Kymyz is an acquired taste for many travelers, but that fact isn’t known by most nomads, so if offered a bowl, try to drink at least some of it if possible to not cause offense.
Modern Kyrgyz nomads don’t live in yurts year round. They move into yurts when they take their herds to high summer pastures, or “jailoos,” in the mountains, which is usually as soon as the spring snows have melted. It’s possible to arrange a stay with a nomadic family in their yurts during your travels to get the full yurt experience. For those interested in learning more about build a yurt process, there are tours available to the “village of yurt makers,” Kyzyl-Tuu, a village made up almost entirely of expert craftsmen dedicated to producing quality Kyrgyz yurts.