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THE KAZAKH YURTA

Text by Vitaliy Shuptar

The yurt - kiyz ui in Kazakh, yurta in Russian - is a movable collapsible dwelling consisting of a wooden framework covered over with felt. It has been used by nomads for centuries, its design remaining basically unchanged throughout that time. It is, however, more than only a dwelling, having associations in the Kazakh mind with powerfully appealing traditions from a distant past, the open spaces of the steppe and mountains, and a generous hospitality it is easy to link with such settings. Perhaps this is why on important social occasions associated either with celebration or mourning, the households concerned erect yurts as a gathering point for guests, even in city centre courtyards. Yurts are also used for regional and national festivals.
Part of the power of the yurt as a symbol may be traced in its etymology. The word ’yurt’ comes from the Turkic word meaning ’dwelling place’ in the sense of homeland. The Mongolian term, ’ger’, the Afghani ’kherga’ or ’jirga’ and the Pakistani ’gher’ all also mean yurt. So there is an intimate connection between the idea of homeland and a portable place to stay. The link between these two concepts has been lost in the Kazakh, Uighur and Kyrgyz languages: the Kazakh and Uighur for yurt is kiyiz uy, whose literal meaning is ’felt home’; the Kyrgyz term is boz uy, meaning ’grey house’.
The symbolism is open to what some might see as a kind of cheapening by its use in all sorts of context without any obvious direct connection with nomadic life or kazakhstani history or tradition. So, for example, one frequently comes across yurt-shaped restaurants and cafes  - even bus-shelters -  built of concrete and brick. The attentive foreign tourists will be amazed at how often the yurt motif crops up.
The yurt itself is more or less hemispherical in shape, and its interior relatively well insulated from the outside, making it easy to heat in winter and cool in summer. The natural materials used in its construction - wood and wool - are readily available; it is easy to assemble and disassemble quickly; and it is portable. These four hallmarks of great design explain why, unmodified, it has been in continuous use for so long. Moreover, it’s a flexible design, allowing for great variation in scale: some yurts have as little as 67 square meters of interior floor-space; the biggest recorded had 3,040 square meters.
The wooden components are made of seasoned willow, birch or poplar. The two-meter high cylindrical wall at its base, the
kerege, is constructed of wooden poles to and between which the latticework kanattar, or wings, are attached. The number of kanattar rises with the size of the yurt, usually from four to twelve.
When the kerege is in position, the circular opening at the top of the yurt, the shanyrak, is lifted into place. The shanyrak not only provides ventilation and light; it also has an important symbolic function, associated with the fact that it is one of the most enduring parts of the yurt, needing replacement far more rarely than other components. Because of its longevity, it is frequently handed down from generation to generation. It has thus a deep significance to the household to which it belongs, representing the family’s past. Moreover the word shanyrak itself can mean more than this particular part of a yurt: in some contexts it can be translated as ’hearth’ or ’home’. The richness of the shanyrak as a symbol explains its presence on emblems of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
When the shanyrak has been lifted into position on a long pole called a bakan, supports called uyk, which rise from the kerege to converge on and slot into the shanyrak, are fixed to the kerege with ties. This completes the assembly of the wooden framework. The felt skin must now be put in place, beginning with the tuyrlyk, which covers the walls and is lashed to the uyks with more ties. After that comes the uzyk, which covers the remainder of the yurt from the top of the kerege upwards. The number of layers used depends on the weather; usually the outer layer is waterproofed, either with oil or, quite commonly nowadays, polythene sheet.

The sykyrlauyk is the entrance. The literal translation of the word is ’squeaky’, the connection presumably being with the noise made when the double doors, usually of richly carved pine or birch are opened or shut. The bosaga, or threshold, has great cultural importance and should not be stepped upon.

Inside, yurts are richly decorated with carpets - tekemet -  on the floor and embroidery and braiding elsewhere. The yurt’s floorspace is divided up into functionally distinct areas: there are men’s and women’s sections, a work area, a cooking space, a children’s area, even a special part reserved for the married son and his wife. The part nearest the stove or hearth is kept for the most honoured visitors.

Discovery Kazakhstan
Travel guide#1/2008

Discovery Kyrgyzstan Travel guide #10/2008

 

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