The yurt is still in use by people throughout the region and plays an important role in the lifestyle of the Kyrgyz “chaban”, (or shepherd), and although styles of architecture and city planning come and go, the yurt remains a stable and lasting link with the past.
A skilful master can make a yurt within a month – although it can last, if looked after, for decades. It is erected and stands without using nails.
In the past, a khan could measure the number of his subjects by counting the number of “tyutyuns”, (or “smoke” that would rise from each yurt). This word is still used in Kyrgyz villages to count the number of households – even though in most modern villages the people live in houses.
For their yurts a family needs between 130 and 170 kilograms of wool and a family needs a flock of at least thirty-three sheep a year for basic sustenance.
The “koychumans” usually set up their yurts on high ground, from where they can easily oversee their livestock, and watch the surrounding world. They can also be seen in valleys beside a mountain stream. In autumn and winter, windless spots that lacked heavy snowfalls were preferred.
The Kyrgyz refer to the yurt as the “boz uy” – the grey house. In ancient times ordinary nomads could not use the best quality felt to cover their yurts and they used the wool remains of black and grey colours. The khan’s yurts would be dressed in snow-white felt and were called “ak-orgo” or white yurts. The welfare of the yurt’s owner used to be determined by its size: the more kanats, the richer the family. The khan’s yurt would comprise some 4 or 5 kanats – that is it would measure some 20 meters in circumference. A medium sized yurt may have 5-6 sections and measure about 5 meters in diameter and be about 3 meters high.
The day in the yurt begins before dawn. The women would already be cooking breakfast and putting food into bags for the men who would lead the herds out to the pastures. After seeing them off, the women would attend to other ‘household’ tasks. Boys who could barely walk were taught to ride a horse. The girls would learn about cookery, embroidery and the traditional patterns which adorn “shyrdaks”, “ala-kiyiz” and “tush kiyiz”. These ‘carpets’ would be placed on the walls or the floors of the yurt. They not only served practical purposes – helping to keep the yurt warm – they also had an aesthetic function. The patterns reflect the colours and shapes found in nature – such as the variety of colour and fragility of flower petals, eagles with proudly bent wings, the blue tints of the sky.
Although most Kyrgyz now live in high-rise apartment blocks, they have a special affection for the yurt. Often, on the occasion of a birthday a yurt will be set up and guests invited to the “dastorkon” – a “holiday table”. The yurt is also a place where the Kyrgyz gather for the funeral of their relatives.