Yurt 101

Yurts are the traditional round houses of nomadic Asian tribes (should you want details on its origins (hint: it’s not Mongolian) – see here).

A yurt is vaguely equivalent to a teepee in that it was originally intended as a permanent home for communities on the go. You can put one up and take it down relatively easily and the design stacks into transportable bundles made of reusable materials. Part of me thinks of it as the original (and better) IKEA.

However, they are different from their Native American cousins in their shape, structure and symbolism.


For one thing, a yurt is round on top. It is a circular room with a domed roof. While this gives it a lovely, cosy pod feeling, it’s also integral to the design ethos. The loadbearing centrepiece of the building is the crown of the roof, and this shape – a circle crossed by beams, with equally spaced spokes coming out – is the symbol of home and family which is reflected in a lot of traditional art.

It is also part of the inspiration for the Kyrgyz flag.

Of course, on the flag it is surrounded by sun imagery, each ray representing one of the 40 tribes of the original Kyrgyz people, unified by their mythic warrior hero Manas to defeat the invading Mongols. Manas, incidentally, is a truly old school epic hero – think King Arthur + Achilles  and you’ll be on the right track.

pay no attention to the creepy sad puppy bedspread…

A yurt is built in several layers. A slatted wood structure is lined with woven reed mats and then topped with wool felt. These days, there is often a waterproof tarp layer too. All these layers mean the temperature and light levels inside can be minutely adjusted.

The bottom edge of the yurt is rolled up to let in cool fresh air. Also: chickens.

I tried my hand at making the mats with the help of some village elders on our journey. It was incredibly slow, careful work, literally one reed at a time. The mats are still made almost entirely by hand, and it can take months to make one large enough to line a family yurt.

The stones each hold a binding string in a make-shift loom. Each stone is lifted over pole in turn to fasten the new reeds. This secures them, whilemaking patterns on the finished mat.

The interior yurt space is lined and decorated with felt rugs and wall hangings, often with intricate embroidery and details. Each yurt is unique to its owners, and a lot can be inferred by the quality and detail of the space.

Once upon a time a yurt would serve all purposes, though now there are sometimes small groups of them together – one for cooking and work for instance, and the other for socialising and sleeping. This is one of the meal tents we shared, kitted out for a feast.


Yurts are still used by Kyrgyz shepherds when they take the herds to summer pastures (or jailoos). Then in September they pack up and return home to their houses and villages, ready to batten down the hatches for  a mountain winter.

I spoke to a girl who grew up with this part-time nomadic life. She remembered it fondly, and likened life on the summer pastures to going camping or to the lake house with her family – a time away from the city with no tv, plenty of swimming and a bit of adventure.

I’m not going to lie, after a couple of weeks staying with families like this, I was glad to get back to hot running water and a mattress up off the ground.  I’m not sure I could do it 5 months of the year every year. But seeing the stars peek through the crown of our yurt as I lay in bed was some kind of magic, and living simply with fresh bread and clear skies sure did my heart good.

Plus, sleeping in a pile of quilts on the floor of a round room is pretty much the cosiest thing I’ve ever experienced. If I could afford it, I’d put one in my backyard in a heartbeat. Though, I have to remind myself it’ll never have mountain lake views like this out the door…


2 Responses to “Yurt 101”
  1. Anika says:

    AMAZING!!! How can you look so gorgeous in the middle of nowhere in a yurt? Only you


    • throckmorzog says:

      I know, right? She was sickening beautiful 24/7 – from 95 degrees F down to 20 degrees F, too… Not only that, she was fun and cheerful through pain, exhaustion, infestations, and danger. Heroic, actually. GO SARA!


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