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Elmira Kmkulkz and Daniel Waugh


The ability to move quickly and easily is essential for any nomad. In traditional herding societies, nomads tend to move in regular patterns according to the seasons in order to find pasture land for the flocks which are their main source of livelihood. Grazing resources in a single location are limited and generally insufficient to support year-round habitation. Furthermore, local geography and climate will determine which pastures are available in which season. Movement of nomads typically goes between the winter dwellings in the lowlands and summer dwellings in mountain pastures. Circuits of nomadization may be confined to a relatively small area or may extend over long distances. In conditions where vegetation is sparse, quite frequent movement may be necessary if the animals are not to starve. Thus, traditional nomadic dwellings are portable--tents or tent-like structures which can easily be packed for transport on the backs of animals. Such dwellings may be used both in summer and in winter, but in modern times, the winter dwellings to which nomads always return generally are permanent structures. Nowadays even some of the summer dwellings are permanent structures, especially if they are located quite close to the winter encampments. As we will see here, there is a tendency for modern governments to try to encourage settlement of nomadic herders and to get them to replace their tents with permanent dwellings.


From ancient times until the present, the yurt (in Mongolian, ger) has been the traditional dwelling of Central Asian nomads, among them the Mongols, Tuvins, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Turkmens. It has a simple wooden structure consisting of three major parts: the tndk or shanrak, a round shaped wooden structure on top of the yurt through which the smoke goes out; kanats, foldable wooden frames which make up the wall of the yurt; and the uuks, long wooden poles which connect the main body of the yurt, kanats, with the tndk. On the outside, the yurt is traditionally covered with white, grey, or brown color felt made from sheeps and camels wool. These felts are especially made for yurts and will endure rain and snow. As we will see from the Mongolian examples below, canvas is often used nowadays to protect the felt from rain. If the felt is not good quality or not thick enough, rain penetrates through it. The British consul in Kashgar, Xinjiang, C. P. Skrine, visited the Kyrgyz in the Kayng Valley in the early 1920s and noted that the felts of the yurts there were "far from waterproof, even when sound," and "quite unsuited to the wet and stormy climate of ... [that region]. That the inhaitants should have kept to it [the yurt], refusing to build houses like the Kirghiz of the Qizil Tagh, is a remarkable instance of tenacious adhesion to ancestral habits." The size of the yurt varies according to the family size as well as the wealth. The most common size for the yurt consists of five kanats; the largest size would have twelve kanats--such yurts were usually used by khans, tribal leaders, and the wealthy.

Click on thumbnails to enlarge them

One of the earliest European descriptions of a yurt is that by the Franciscan monk John of Plano Carpini, who traveled to Mongolia in 1245-1247, only two decades after the death of Chingiz Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire. Carpini's description reveals how the basic form of the yurt was well established centuries ago and way back then very much resembled the yurts of today. Carpini wrote:

Their dwelling-places are round like tents and are made of twigs and slender sticks. At the top in the middle there is a round opening which lets in the light, and is also to enable the smoke to escape, for they always make their fire in the middle. Both the sides and the roof are covered with felt, and the doors also are made of felt. Some of these dwellings are large, others small, according to the importance or significance of the people; some can be speedily taken down and put up again and are carried on baggage animals; others cannot be taken down but are moved on carts. To carry them on a cart, for the smaller ones one ox is sufficient, for the larger ones three, four or even more according to the size. Wherever they go, be it to war or anywhere else, they always take their dwellings with them. [Dawson, ed., Mission to Asia, p. 8]

As this modern illustration for one of the classic edition's of Marco Polo's "Travels" shows, the famous Venetian reported that Qubilai Khan had a yurt so large it would be transported on a wagon drawn by twenty-two oxen.


For the Central Asian nomads, the yurt is first of all significant as their home where they sleep, cook, eat, and entertain their guests. It is also a place where they practice traditional rituals and customs, such as healing and marriage ceremonies. The inside of the yurt is beautifully decorated with traditional embroideries and is usually divided into three parts: the most important place in it is the seat of honor, called tr, which is opposite to the entrance. Nomads seated their elderly and the guests on the tr, for they are the most respected people in nomadic culture. The right side from the entrance belongs to men where they put their cloth, tools such as whip, saddle and saddlebags and the left side from the entrance belongs to women where the kitchen is located. Nowadays, people who know about the yurt and rules associated with it, follow this etiquette of seating, i.e., men on the right side and the women on the left side. When a male dies, his corpse will be placed on the right side and when a female dies, she will be placed on the left side. A similar spatial arrangement is often observed today in the permanent huts which have replaced yurts in some of the mountain regions of Central Asia.


C. P. Skrine described the interior of a typical yurt in the Kayng Valley in the early 1920s thus:

The interior of a typical aq-oi is full of interest. A Fire burns merrily in the middle and a cauldron of mach [a "soup containing flour and milk"] simmers gently upon it. Farthest from the door is the ashkhana or kitchen, screened off from the rest of the hut by gaily-coloured mats made of reeds tightly wound with dyed wool. In this sanctum the goodwife keeps her milk, cream and curds in vast wooden bowls; it is really a dairy, not a kitchen...Round the walls, from the convenient pegs provided by the upper ends of the trellis, hang all kinds of odds and ends; bashtiks or bright-hued saddle-bags of patchwork or painted leather, sieves, fur-rimmed hats, big balls of newly-spun wool, skins full of curds, hatchets, chapans or quilted coats and so on. There will usually be a dotar or long-stemmed guitar made from a gourd, and an ancient matchlock of immense length with a forked rest attached to the barrel. A quarter of the circumference is occupied by a pile of rolled-up felts, bolsters and rugs; the wealth of the owners may be accurately gauged from the size of this pile... [Chinese Central Asia, pp. 156-157.]


The photographs and annotations which follow will provide specific examples of traditional herders' dwellings especially in Kyrgyz regions of Central Asia (a few examples are from Mongolia). Some of the examples are from the Kyrgyz Republic; others are from Kyrgyz areas of western China (Xinjiang). As one might expect, there is a great similarity in the traditions on either side of the modern border, a reminder of how such political borders today artifically divide ethnic groups and may not mark significant cultural boundaries.

Our first example shows a summer pasture in the Suusamr Valley in Kyrgyzstan. Today, many such encampments can be seen as one drives along the main Osh-Bishkek highway which passes through the valley. In the past, the nomadic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz shared the Valleys resources. Nomads usually chose green and wide pastures and valleys surrounded by snow-capped mountains and hills. They always pitched their yurts close to a stream, river, or spring. When Kyrgyz practiced full nomadism, each tribe or clan would have its own summer pasture in which to live and graze its cattle. Today, people who live in these yurts are semi-nomads. They come to the Suusamr Valley with their cattle only during the summer time; in autumn, they go back to their permanent houses located in the lowland villages and towns. These families do not keep all four of the traditional domesticated animals, i.e., horse, sheep, goats, and cattle. They own two or three cows, several mares to milk and two or three horses to ride. Mares are profitable as the source for milk which is then fermented to produce koumiss. Since the main highway passes through their summer pasture, people sell koumiss to travelers on the road. Many people buy koumiss in large quantities to bring it to their friends and relatives in cities and towns.

In the Kayng in the space of a few kilometers one can today see what we might call a mixed pattern of settlement. The middle Kayng, where eighty years ago, as Skrine's photograph shows, the Kyrgyz were living in yurts, now has several mud-brick or stone huts and some mud-brick walls around fields of grain. Very likely the switch to permanent dwellings such as these is a relatively recent phenomenon in this region--in one neaby valley, as recently as two decades ago visitors were hosted in yurts, where now one sees only mud-brick huts that are securely padlocked when their owners are away. Presumably the families in the Kayng occupy this part of the valley early in the season and sow the grain which they will harvest at the end of the summer. Once the vegetation returns after the snow melts they move to the upper valley, where some live in the yurts and others in stone houses (Prof. Waugh's yellow mountaineering tent, is, of course an anomaly in the landscape). Their flocks graze in the upper valley until the end of the season. The winter home of the Kayng Kyrgyz is in a village of permanent houses connected by a road to the outside world and located several thousand feet lower. Access from it to the Kayng nowadays is across an 11,500-foot pass. Since the permanent settlement is relatively close (something like a long day's journey on foot), it is possible for the people in the highest summer camp to travel back and forth to their home village for supplies such as lantern fuel.

For a closer look at a yurt, we return to Kyrgyzstan. Here a Kyrgyz family poses for a picture next to their yurt located in the high pastures just beyond the Karakichi Pass near the Lake Song-Kl in the northeastern part of Kyrgyzstan. The yurt has a traditional felt covering which is secured by a rope. It also has a separate cover (the trdk) for the top part. Each corner of the trdk has an attached rope which is used to open and close the top part of the yurt, the tndk. Unlike some other yurts, this yurt does not have any additional decorations on the outside. Although it has the tndk on the top through which smoke can go out, this family is using a chimney instead. Stoves are commonly used by todays nomads, for they are quite practical for cooking meals and warming the yurt. The stove is usually put in the center, but this family put their stove on the right side, which is traditionally considered a kitchen. Since this yurt is located just off a well-traveled dirt road, bringing an unwieldy object such as a stove into the mountains would not be difficult, whereas in earlier times nomads probably calculated very carefully how to eliminate unnecessary weight.

This view of a yurt being dismantled at Ak-Tash (below Peak Lenin), Kyrgyzstan, gives an idea of the dwelling's structure. This yurt is larger than the previous one. The size of the yurt is measured by the number of kanats (wings); this yurt has six kanats, which is considered a standard size. It also shows more elaborate decoration of its inside coverings. The wooden frames are either colored in red or they are made of red wood. While such decoration can be found in yurts used in traditional settings, in the given example the yurt was located in an international mountaineering camp and served as the liquor store and bar servicing the foreign climbers--a modern, commercial variant on the authentic tradition of providing hospitality to guests in an elaborately decorated yurt.

It is very easy to dismantle a yurt; the process usually takes about half an hour. Traditionally, dismantling of a yurt was done by women, while men helped to load it onto a camel, yak, or horse. The entire yurt, including its wooden frames, becomes compact after dismantling and it can be loaded on a single camel or yak. The tndk, the top round-shaped wooden structure, is always loaded on the very top. This photograph taken in 1890 by Russian explorer Grigory Grum-Grzhimailo in the Northern Tien Shan shows a dismantled yurt frame loaded on a horse.

Here we see a tndk from inside the yurt in Kyrgyzstan. Long poles connect the kanats (wings) of the yurt with the tndk. There is nothing in the middle to support the tndk. After their independence, as their national symbol, the Kyrgyz put the image of tndk on their national flag. This shows their respect and pride in their past nomadic culture.

Here is another view of tndks, outside their natural setting on the top part of the yurt, in the village of Subax, Xinjiang. They probably had been placed in the sun to dry, since normally they would be stored in a shelter when not in use. Subax is located at an altitude of nearly 13,000 feet next to Lake Karakul and the Karakorum Highway which connects Xinjiang with northern Pakistan. While tourism at the lake probably accounts for some of the local income, the families all maintain herds (among the animals here are camels) and spend time in summer pastures in nearby valleys or on the lower slopes of the two great mountains of the area. At this altitude there is no wood to use for fuel; as in many nomadic cultures, the main source of fuel is animal dung, which one sees drying in the picture.

The shed has the typical mud-brick construction of permanent winter dwellings in this region (some are also made of stone). The photos here show the homes in Subax and a man using an adze to carve a beam for the roof of such houses. The roofs are constructed by laying several large beams, placing across them smaller poles, then a reed mat. On top of this is spread a thick layer of mud and straw, which dries in the sun to the consistency of concrete.

Here one can see the yet uncovered frame of a yurt being erected in the courtyard of a Kyrgyz family in Kzl-Jar, Aks region, southern Kyrgyzstan. This is a smaller size yurt consisting of five kanats (wings). They start the "construction" of the yurt by erecting its wings first and connecting them with each other with ropes. Then two or three men raise the tndk, the top part, in the middle with a strong pole while others secure the one end of the poles (uuks) like spokes around the hub of a wheel. The other end of each pole is tied to the wings. (The young girl in the front, Glmira is too short to reach the holes, so she decided to pose for picture with two poles.)

This interior photo shows woven strips around the frame of a yurt at Ak-Tash, Kyrgyzstan. This yurt is hosting foreign tourists. The exterior as well as the interior decorations vary from yurt to yurt depending on the weaving skill and decorative taste of women living in it as well as on the wealth of the family. In the past, wealthy families had larger size yurts with beautiful outside and inside decorations. In one of the versions of the Kyrgyz oral epic Manas, the singer mentions another singer named ramandn r uul (r, son of raman), who is believed to have sung about the decoration of a yurt for half a day. It is said that r could not finish describing all the handcrafts and items that are used for the yurt in half a day. All the woven strips are made of colored sheeps wool. Each of these colorful strips have different names and patterns. Most of the designs and patterns reflect the ecology and animals with which the nomads interacted in the past. For example, the two lower strips have the most common Central Asian pattern, i.e., horn (mountain goats or rams horn) design.

The exterior decoration of this yurt is shown here. The exterior covering of the yurt is white felt; one can understand therefore why the traditional name for yurts in many Kyrgyz regions was ak y, or "white house."

The woven strips wound around the yurt frame are produced on a simple loom such as that being used here by a Kyrgyz woman at Subax, Xinjiang, China. To make the strips for the yurt she is using the traditional weaving technique which is still practiced in some regions of Central Asia. Travelers in various parts of Central Asia nearly a century ago sketched and photographed such weaving on looms of identical construction. The weaving of strips requires hard work, attention to details and patience. Unfortunately, today, there are very few women who can weave such strips. At least in Kyrgyzstan young girls are not that interested in learning traditional handicrafts.

This photo shows a herders camp in the east of the Karakol Valley, northern Kyrgyzstan, not far from a well-travelled dirt road. This camp belongs to one family. Next to their yurt, they have a canvas shed with a window. It is probably used by the additional family members (for example, a married son and his wife), or it may also be used as a storage place. In the foreground of the picture is a high pile of dung next to the koroo, a fenced sleeping place for sheep during the night. This high mountain pasture area is similar to the the region shown above in Xinjiang, in that there is no supply of wood or bushes for fuel. The dried dung burns for a long time and keeps the yurt very warm.

In the interior of the yurt in the previous picture we can see the lattice-work wooden frame, reed/straw mats, and a stove. Traditionally, the right side of the yurt is considered a kitchen where all kinds of food and dishes are stored. Of course the stove is not traditional--as Carpini pointed out, normally a fire was built in the center of the yurt. Also serving food on a the table is not characteristic of a traditional nomadic way of serving meal. Food is usually served on a table cloth, called dastorkon/dastarxon, which is spread on the floor. This yurt was even so "modernized" as to have a very small electric light bulb, whose power source was a water-operated generator.

Just as the woven wool strips in the yurts are produced by traditional techniques, so also are the straw mats, as one can see here in the Ak-Suu Valley, Pamir-Alai, southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Straw mats are used for the interior part of the yurt. They provide an additional layer underneath the felt covering. When it gets hot in the summer, people ventilate their yurt by folding its felt covering up and leaving the straw mats through which air can go. This particular straw mat looks like to be used as a fence for a kitchen (the example of such use is in a mountain hut in the Eastern Pamir, Xinjiang), because it is too small to use for a yurt. There are different kinds of decorated and plain reed mats. It is quite time consuming to make them, especially when they are decorated with traditional designs.

In some cases nowadays, the summer houses of the herders are tents, such as these in the Ak-Suu Valley, Pamir-Alai, Kyrgyzstan. Normally a permanent wooden frame is built to the dimensions of the canvas tent, which then can easily be slipped over the frame. If the camp moves up the valley, the frame is left is place for use either on the way down at the end of the season or the next year. During the Soviet period, these tents, called by the Russian usage palatka, were used by herders who had to sleep separately next to a koroo to guard the sheep from wolves. Some people used them as a storage place.

Here is such a tent in Ak-Tash, where it was located next to the rather elegant yurt shown earlier in which the family entertained tourists from the local mountain climbing center. Normally such tents would not be used by herders up high in the mountains since presumably they lack the insulation of a yurt and would be too cold. As we will see from the Mongolian examples below, canvas is sometimes used as the external covering of yurts too to protect the felt from rain. If the felt is not of good quality or not thick enough, rain penetrates through it.

Shargut, a settlement in the upper Kara-Tash (Black Rock) Valley, Xinjiang, China, shows that yurts and rather substantial stone huts may "coexist" in a summer camp. The valley shows a typical landscape for a nomadic settlement. It is located between two mountain ranges through which a small river flows. The yurts are located close to the water. Each of these three families has a stone koroo for their sheep to sleep at night. The Valleys name, Kara-Tash, reflects its nature, i.e., black (dark) colored rocks.

The head of the family is inviting his guests into his yurt home, one of the three at Shargut. Views inside show the women's area (including the pantry behind the woven mats) to the left as one enters, and a central section of yurt, showing some of the details of the interior construction. Central Asians are known as very hospitable people. Even total strangers are welcomed into their house to at least taste bread and have a cup of tea or bowl of koumiss. When Prof. Waugh visited this village, in the one evening he was hosted successively in several of the homes, since everyone wanted to honor the visitor.


In mountain pastures not far away from Qat, one can also see summer dwellings which are semi-dugout huts, cut into the side of a hill. On the front, the wall is built up out of rough boards or logs. Inside the hut where the little girl lives, on the left was the sleeping and entertaining area, with the quilts piled up against the wall during the daytime; felts and cloths cover the ground on a slightly raised platform. In the center (not shown) was an open fire up near the back (earthen) wall; on the right was the kitchen and pantry area, the latter partitioned off by a reed mat (see the photo above).


Even where people live in permanent wood-frame houses or have the option of living in modern apartment blocks in larger towns, yurts still are to be seen. They are important in traditional social life for entertaining guests; in the example below from Mongolia, they seem to be preferred for their comfortable ambiance in a culture where modern housing has gained adherents only rather slowly.

Here is a permanent yurt in a Kyrgyz familys courtyard in Kzl-Jar, Aks region, southern Kyrgyzstan. Since Kyrgyzstans independence in 1991, many people, especially in the countryside, have developed a strong pride and interest in their past nomadic culture. Most of them were inspired by various festivities and feasts organized by the state to celebrate the independence day annually as well as the anniversaries of epic songs and important historical figures such as oral poets and epic singers. At each such celebration, the state organizes a contest for the best decorated yurt. During the Soviet period, each collective or state farm had a representative yurt which they erected at certain celebrations and hosted official guests in it. Before independence, in this particular town, Kzl-Jar, only two families kept two nicely decorated yurts which were used by the local government of the state farm. After independence, many families began ordering iron yurts from a nearby factory, for there was no one who could make wooden yurts. Women in Kzl-Jar became very interested in having a permanent yurt in their courtyard for special occasions such as weddings and memorial feasts. One of the reasons for the desire of having ones own yurt is that the Kyrgyz traditionally must erect a yurt when a person dies. So, it is worthwhile for them to spend money to buy a yurt and spend the time necessary to make decorate it.

This yurt was erected in a Kyrgyz familys courtyard in Kzl-Jar for a new bride. The door covering of the yurt has non-traditional, modern embroidered roses. Unlike the previous yurt, this one has a canvas covering, because some families cannot afford to buy wool for the felt. Unlike old, traditional yurt strips with complex and elaborate designs, the strips on the side of this yurt are very simply embroidered. The colors of its embroideries are also very bright, compared with the more subdued hues in the traditional embroideries.

At first glance, Ulan Baatar, the capital city of Mongolia seems to be a typical, modern city, with several high-rises and the concrete dome of the circus. A closer look reveals extensive yurt "suburbs" in all the outlying areas around the city. A detail of one is shown here, where each family has more than one yurt in its compound. A quarter century ago (the photos were taken in 1979), the official tourist guides would extol to visitors the "enlightened" policy of the government in trying to persuade people to give up their supposedly stuffy and unhealthy yurts for the brighter and airier apartments, but obviously such policies still had not had much impact. To "modernizing" governments such as the then communist regime in Mongolia, living in yurts is taken to be a visual symbol of a kind of "backwardness" such governments are trying to eliminate.

Yurts are common throughout Mongolia. They are ideally suited to the still very prevalent herding economy; they are warm in the icy winds which sweep the Mongolian plains in winter and cool in the summer heat of the Gobi Desert. Life of the Gobi herders shows some some adaptation to the modern world. As is the case with many of the Mongol yurts, this one's cover is canvas; while there may be a tether line for horses out back, a motorcycle sits in front (the picture was taken in 1979). Unlike the other yurts with a felt door cover, this yurt has a wooden and painted door, which is also quite common in Central Asia. The nature of this places landscape paints a grimmer picture in contrast to other green and mountainous summer pastures in Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang. Therefore, the landscape of Central Asia can be divided into mountains and steppes. The nomadic movement in mountainous regions like Kyrgyzstan can be characterized as vertical, whereas, the movement in the steppe or deserts like Gobi, is called horizontal. The sparse vegetation of the largely gravel desert is sufficient to support goat and camel herds; it does not take much rain or snow to bring the desert vegetation to life.

Here we see the interior of a yurt in Gobi located not far from the one in the previous picture. This interior shows a heavy modern influence; in fact, there is very little in terms of interior decoration which can be called traditional or "authentic." Mongolia in 1979 (when these pictures were taken) still had a very rigid communist political system modeled after that of Stalin in the Soviet Union from a generation earlier. In fact, a statue of Stalin was still in place in the center of Ulan Baatar. Stalin's idea about national minorities was that the external appearances of their cultural distinctiveness could be preserved, but that in substance, their culture would be socialist and like that of everyone else. Thus, we have here the traditional national dwelling but one infused with socialist content, the latter possibly exaggerated a bit because this was the home of a "model herder" which was on the standard tourist itinerary. We can see on the cabinet framed awards (probably something like "Hero of Socialist Labor"), a bound set of the Mongolian version of the official communist newspaper Pravda, etc.

Lastly, we have here a tourist "motel" complex of yurts in the Gobi and an example of another such yurt elsewhere in Mongolia. Staying in yurts has become a staple of "ethnic tourism" in some regions of Central Asia. The solidity of the lattice-work frame and the presence of a floor indicate this is certainly not a traditional yurt--to have built them this way would have used too much precious wood and made them too heavy. As with the other Mongol yurts, this one has a canvas cover, over a felt liner. A rather large yurt, it seems to have had two stoves to heat it.

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© 2001 Elmira Kmkulkz, Daniel C. Waugh.
Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington.