Turusbek welcomes me into his home, a ramshackle affair of concrete breeze blocks and tin roofing that’s a world away from the dwellings that his nomadic ancestors on the steppe and in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan lived in for centuries. But the concrete walls of Turusbek’s family home hide the cluttered workshop where he is keeping Kyrgyz traditions alive. Turusbek is one of the last yurt builders in his village, and for twenty years he has been building traditional Kyrgyz yurts by hand as he keeps the dwindling trade of his forefathers going on the shores of Issyk Kul Lake.
He flashes me a golden-toothed Kyrgyz smile as he opens the door to his dimly lit workshop, revealing a room stacked with yurt components, all in various stages of completion. Turusbek was about to show me how to build a yurt.
Yurts are a fixture of nomadic culture, and across Central Asia and Mongolia, they are an enduring symbol of local identity. Yurts are homes, they are meeting places and communal centres, and they are essential to nomadic life.
When the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union conquered what would become the Central Asian nations through the 19th and 20th centuries, they forced the majority of nomads from the steppe and into new settlements and cities. In a bid to ‘modernise’ the previously transient people of the country, they draw arbitrary borders across the land and in the process, much of the nomadic way of life began to be lost.
After independence in the 1990s, nomadic culture saw a revival, even if for many city dwellers, it was in a symbolic, rather than practical form. Turusbek, who lives in the village of Kyzyl-Tuu on the south shore of Issyk Kul Lake, is one of the few Kyrgyz whose family kept yurt building practises alive through the Soviet era. Now, even in the face of mass-produced yurts flooding over the border from China, his handcrafted works are still in demand across the country.
Inside his workshop, Turusbek explains how he learnt how to construct yurts from his father, who in turn learnt the trade from his father. While Turusbek is the master craftsman, he also employs many other people from the village to help him on the lengthy, time-consuming projects he is commissioned for.
One yurt takes at least two months to build, at a cost of roughly $4,000, and through the year, his workshop produces only four to five completed structures. A simple looking structure on the outside, on closer inspection yurts are a complex piece of engineering, each piece delicately designed to interlock and create a resoundingly firm structure that can be dismantled or set up in a short period of time.
In his workshop, there are planks of curved wood stacked in piles, big interlocking segments of the yurt wall are propped against the walls, and tools are scattered everywhere. At first glance, Turusbek’s workshop is a mess, but as he was about to demonstrate, the building of a yurt requires an incredible level of precision to ensure all of the pieces actually fit together.
How to Build a Yurt
The basis of a yurt is the wooden wall that forms the outer shell. Turusbek explains how he builds these from wooden willow planks, but rather than being a solid, immovable construction, the walls are designed in a criss-cross pattern that allows them to be completely folded down and packed away in a bundle for transportation.
In his garden, Turusbek shows me how he sands down each individual plank, shaping the willow to the correct dimensions before they are heated in a long metal pipe to weaken the wood, so it can then be curved easily. The planks are then left to harden in the sun, a process which takes at least ten days, but which Turusbek exclaims will produce a yurt that lasts a hundred years.
Each of these supports is carefully crafted by hand and heat, and the average yurt that’s three metres in diameter needs exactly 220 pieces. When he has enough supports to build a section of wall, the curved planks are interlocked and fastened together using leather ties to form a lattice that allows it to be flexible and collapsible.
The complexity of the yurt building process was becoming readily apparent, and it became even more complex than this, as Turusbek brought out the tunduk.
The tunduk is the most important component, as it’s the crown on the ceiling of the yurt that holds the entire structure together. It’s circular in shape, with two supporting cross sections of three individual wooden lines that form a distinctive pattern.
It’s so important in fact, that the national flag of Kyrgyzstan is adorned with a tunduk in the center of the red field. It represents life and the changing seasons and it’s one of the biggest emblems of nomadic culture in the country.
Turusbek demonstrates in his workshop how he creates a tunduk, curving pieces of wood delicately until they interlock perfectly into the distinctive circular shape. He tells me that the size of the yurt depends on the size of the tunduk, and he must make each one to measure or else the finished structure won’t fit together.
Once the walls and the tunduk are complete, a solid doorway is built, and when it’s raised, the sides and the roof will then be covered in a weatherproof felt to give it that classic yurt look.
The Future of Yurt Building in Kyrgyzstan
As we relax under apple trees in the garden, sipping on tea as the hot sun dries out piles of willow stacked against the workshop, Turusbek comments that he has no one to carry on the trade, as he did from his father.
Even for those that have spent their entire lives in the city, the yurt is an important symbol of national identity. At weddings, hundreds of yurts will be built to house guests, while yurt camps are becoming increasingly popular amongst tourists. Few of the yurts that you see in Kyrgyzstan today though are handcrafted because it’s quicker and cheaper to mass produce them.
Yurts may not be part of everyday life for the average Kyrgyz, but they are still a way for them to identify with their nomadic history. While the Soviets failed to destroy nomadic culture, it seems that the modern world is still taking its toll on the surviving elements. The artistic, handcrafted yurt of old will struggle to survive in the face of mass production, and the beautiful works of craftsmanship that Turusbek produces will become a rarity in Kyrgyzstan.