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The Yurt

Rarely does a screen divide a yurt in two, and then only for a time, when the eldest son, having married, brings his wife beneath the paternal roof. Only when the second son marries will the first have a yurt of his own. It is cold. Only the embers still remain awake. The dogs are howling wolf! From outside the felt walls come bleatings and the stamping of horses. Here at last is a roof as it ought to be, through which the glittering stars can be admired before one drops off to sleep. Remote and encircled by the yurt, they lie at the bottom of some fabulous lyell...

If they could only tell all they have seen enacted here in the very heart of Asia, this empire of the Turki-Mongol nomads! For how much longer will their descendants go on living as they lived a thousand and ten thousand years ago? Now the Bolsheviks are trying to settle them, collectivize them...

Squatting in front of a neighbouring yurt, four women, with all their might and with wands that whistle in their hands, beat smartly on some camel-wool scattered over a sheet. Rhythmically the arms rise and fall, the elbows are pulled sharply back, and the sticks automatically release themselves from the flocculent mass.

It is the first process in preparing the felt, and only the summer wool is used, as giving the best wear.

"Turkestan Solo" by Dervla Murphy

The yurt is a unique type of movable dwelling that can be found from Mongolia in the northeast to Turkish Anatolia in the southwest, but they are most numerable in the lands of the Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and Mongols. Yurts have been around for thousands of years; they were described by Marco Polo on his travels in central Asia, who was astonished to see nomads travelling the land with their homes disassembled in carts.

For centuries, the superbly portable yurt has been a cornerstone of nomadic life throughout Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan. These days, Russian-made tractors and battered Zhigulis may have replaced the beasts of burden of earlier times, and some yurts may have the dubious benefit of battery- operated television sets, but what is without doubt is that to observe the gentle rhythm of the daily routine at a summer jailoo is to witness a way of life that has remained basically unchanged for millennia.

Before the Soviet period and the collectivisation of a nomadic lifestyle, the yurt - the round, felt-covered tent that has been the traditional dwelling throughout central Asia for centuries - was the centrepiece of Kyrgyz life. Since independence there has been a move back to a nomadic way of life or, as in many cases, a compromise lifestyle in which several months a year are spent grazing livestock at an alpinejailoo and the rest settled in a village in the valleys.

The daily routine starts early at a jailoo. Women start cooking breakfast at dawn and, once their menfolk have set off to lead their herds to pasture, they see to their other daily tasks such as cleaning, making kumys, fermented mare's milk, and kajmak (cream). Rarely do they move far from the yurt, unlike the men who often spend the whole day on horseback with their herds, only returning to the warmth and comfort of the yurt as dusk falls.

Today, yurt has been replaced as the main form of dwelling by brick houses or Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks, but it retains a special place in Kyrgyz hearts, as both a tangible link to their nomadic past and a symbol of their national identity. The tunduk, the circular frame with wooden batons around the smoke hole at the top of the yurt, is even represented on the national flag. During birthdays, funerals and other special occasions, people often set up a yurt and invite friends to the dastorkon or feast. And in summer the yurt comes into its own again when shepherds take their flocks high in the mountains to graze.

In Kyrgyzstan the yurt is known as the bozuy, or 'grey house', after the black or grey wool used by ordinary shepherds. Only the clan chiefs could afford to use costly snow-white yurts called ak-orgo.

Yurt structure Yurts are believed to have been around for thousands of years and their structure has changed little over the centuries. The structure of a yurt is simple but highly effective: a criss-cross framework of wooden laths, rather like a wall-trellis for climbing garden plants; a thick felt covering to keep the elements out; and a heavy wooden tunduk that is the centrepiece for the wooden struts that hold the roof in place and that surround the smoke-hole. The basis behind the yurt's design is that of strength, warmth and portability; their design is such that they may be taken down and reassembled within a matter of hours, and that the materials, although bulky and heavy, can be carried on the backs of a few horses, or more likely on a trailer tugged along by a Russian car.

Yurts consist of a framework of birch poles (kanats), bent and tied with rawhide straps, around which a circular trellis wall (kerege) is elected. This collapses easily, concertina-like, for swift dismantling. Woven mats made of a reed, dray, line the walls, and the whole structure is covered with several thick layers of felt (kiyiz), each of which is tied to strong poles dug into the ground. The top has a smoke hole (which is covered during rain) but today people use stoves with chimneys. Wealthy people line their yurts with brightly coloured shyrdaks (carpets) and use richly embroidered woven strips decorated with tassels to tie the yurt to the kanats.

Inside, space is allocated according to tradition. The left hand side (er shak) is reserved for men and contains horse and hunting gear, and the right hand side (eptchi shak), where the stove and cooking utensils are stored is for women. At the back, opposite the entrance, is the juk where blankets and carpets are kept, usually on top of a richly carved or painted chest; the higher the juk, the richer the family. At night tin- blankets are spread out on shyrdaks (rugs) on the ground for beds; newly-weds usually sleep behind a curtain for extra privacy.

Maintaining the yurt and family involved a lot of work and, like today, women did most of it. Men and women both worked leather to make bags, clothing and saddles Men tended the livestock while women milked the animals, looked after the food and children, made the clothes and bedding and saddled their husbands' horses. Women were meant to be expert at decorative needlework and started at an early age, mining out embroidery, appliques and colourful felt shyrdaks, as well as making plain felt, to line yurts with in the autumn. The ail was largely self-sufficient, depending on itinerant craftsmen for iron pots, cooking utensils, bridle bits, jewellery, wooden saddles and yurt frames, and to decorate headstones for the dead.

Traditionally, the building of a new yurt was celebrated with great festivities. A rams head would be tossed up with the words: 'May smoke always rise from this yurt! May the fire never go out in it!' A clan chief (or manap) measured the number of his subjects by counting the number of tyutyuns (columns of smoke) rising from each yurt. This word is still used in Kyrgyz villages to count the number of households. Dismantling an encampment was done in a few hours, with belongings and yurts rolled up into shyrdaks and packed on horses. The departure was a great event and took place ceremonially, in a particular order and accompanied with special songs.

The Soviet writer Victor Vitkovich described the valleys around Naryn in the late 1920s and early 1930s, in scenes that had changed little for generations:

In the middle of the valley, near a swift river with waters swirling from one bend to another and filling the air with the rattle of stones, there usually was the big, white ornamented yurt of a manap ... Close to the yurt of the feudal prince stood his winter clay house, the yurts of his wives and the yurts of the menials. Some of the latter were so poor that instead of a yurt they had an alachih: four posts covered with a piece of felt. The families of the labourers made and embroidered the felt for their manap, prepared the koumys for his table, smoked horseflesh sausages over the fire-places, made cheese and sweet curds from the sheep's milk, cooked mutton in soot-covered pots and distilled liquor from koumys, sometimes adding camels' milk to make it stronger.

Not everyone extols the virtues of yurts, however. The Kyrgyz poet Aaly Tokombayev revealed the misery of a yurt in winter with the following lines:

How can they breathe in smoke so thick?
How keep together body and soul?
The young housewife takes a stick
To open up the chimney hole.
 In vain - the wind drives back the smoke,
Tears blanket up our smarting eyes.
And what a cough! More troubles here
Than anyone can realise.
The wind, run amuck, tears the felt
With all its ever-growing strength.
Like the eagle's wings, the tatters flap
As if to fly away at length.
To keep the yurta from crashing down
We go and prop it up with poles.
The guests extend their freezing hands
To warm them at the hearth, poor souls.

Erecting a yurt Yurts are constructed entirely without the use of nails - instead, all of the wooden members are lashed together with leather straps. The setting-up procedure begins with the door frame (the bosogo), which is oriented to the southeast to catch the morning light. The round trellis wall (kerege) is attached to this, supported at intervals by long wooden poles, usually of birch or poplar, called kanat. Once the circular wall of kerege and kanat has been erected, the wooden struts that support the cupola are inserted into place and the tunduk raised and set in place. The tunduk is central to the entire structure and without doubt the most valuable and least-easily replaced part of the yurt framework.

With all of the skeletal structure in place, the outer coverings of felt matting can be draped over the framework - successive layers that are called chiy, kiyiz, tuurduk and jabuu. The final layer is folded back from the tunduk in daytime, unless it is raining, to allow air to flow through the structure; in cold and inclement weather it is kept tightly shut. A final touch, if the yurt is new, is to toss a sheep's head through the tunduk as a gesture of good luck.

The yurt interior is laid out according to an age-old pattern. The fireplace goes directly below the tunduk, although many modern yurts have a flap at the side for the chimney of a stove that is set to the side. Behind the fireplace, opposite the entrance, is the stack of blankets, quilts and pillows known as the juk, which is piled high on top of chests and serves as an indicator of wealth. In front of the juk is the most prestigious position in the yurt, the tyor, which is reserved for the head of the family or guests of honour such as aksakals and, inevitably, curious Western visitors. The less favourable, draughtier area close to the entrance is the space designated for the women of the household. Right of the entrance is the female half of the yurt, the eptchi zhak, where tasks such as needlework and dishwashing take place, and where knitting, embroidery and decorative bric-a-brac are kept. The opposite side, the er-shak, is the reserve of men and is the area where manly possessions like whips, knives and harnesses are kept.

I saw but one yurt during my own journey, and that was standing in someone's backyard as overflow accommodation. There was a wooden door so small that I had to crawl to get inside, but the top of the dome was well above my height. From the slatted framework of the circular wall, clothes had been hung, and so had decorated woollen pouches which contained utensils and other tackle, and a couple of paraffin lamps to provide the only light. There was a carpet covering the floor and a rectangle of tiles on which stood a cast-iron stove, throwing out much heat. The lattice wall-frame, and the strips of willow that rose above it to the apex of the dome, were covered with dark felt, that invention of Central Asia which preceded spinning and weaving, produced quite simply by fluffing out wool, moistening, beating and rolling it repeatedly until the fibres cling matted together; its big deficiency being that it lacks the tensile strength of cloth. The inside of that yurt was warm and comforting, though the felt outside had been covered with plastic sheeting for greater protection. 

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse