On the Go

The traditional and mobile life of prominent Kyrgyz yurt makers

For centuries, the nomadic yurt satisfied all the demands of Kyrgyz families. Its wooden frame can be assembled and disassembled in hours. Its design provides space for men, women, and guests. Its thick felt walls provide shelter from the extremes of heat and cold. And its intricate decorations, from floor to ceiling, inside and out, give a sense of beauty and soul to this highly functional dwelling.

Kyrgyzstan, however, transitioned into a stationary society during the 20th-century – and the yurt tradition did not adapt well to the very large herd sizes of the collective farm.  Now the yurt is part of the post-Soviet cultural revival, actually and symbolically. Most shepherd yurts today are simple and unadorned, plain jane.  However, a select few in Kyrgyzstan practice the art of yurt-making at a high level, and their creations are of museum quality.

Mekenbek Osmonoliev began making yurts in 1987, at the request of his mother, who had made some elaborate yurt decorations -- which called out for a yurt to decorate. He continued to make yurts after that first project, and in order to increase his efficiency and enhance the beauty of the yurts he made, Osmonoliev developed a special planer and lathe to shape the structural members of the wooden frame. After Kyrgyz independence, he started a yurt workshop as a business, and in 1993 won the national award for “Most Beautiful Yurt in the World.” That yurt is now in the Mingei International Museum in San Diego.

From his workshop in Barksoon, on the southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul, Osmonoliev and twenty artisan employees (along with his ex-wife and partner Sairashkan Tokonoeva) continue to make art-quality yurts whose hand-carved, –painted, and –embroidered interiors and exteriors are rightly famous internationally. Each yurt, which takes the team about three months to complete, observes the traditional lay out. The wall opposite the entrance is reserved for guests, and is usually adorned with an elaborate tush kiiz – an ornamental wall hanging whose symbols offer protection, and whose dazzling embroidery proclaims the family’s status.  The left side is for men, where hunting and horse gear is hung from the walls.  The right side is for women; kitchen gear, sewing materials, and items relating to home life are found there.

The very top of the yurt, open to the skies so that light may enter and smoke from cooking and heating fires may exit, is often quite elegant in its geometry.  It forms a kind of axis mundi – the center around which all life revolves, and a point of contact between earth and heavens.

“My yurts are in the U.S.A., St. Petersburg, Kazakhstan.  We don’t receive many orders from Kyrgyzstan,” Osmonoliev says.  This is due, in part at least, to the price. A yurt of the highest quality, 30 feet in diameter, with all the detailed interior decorations, will cost between $30,000-$35,000.  Simpler yurts cost about $10,000.

But access to fine yurts has broadened in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, where a new living history museum called Supara has opened. Yurts figure importantly in the complex. Supara is, in broad strokes, the Colonial Williamsburg of Kyrgyzstan--but with a decidedly different approach. 

Conceived as a celebration of Kyrgyz traditional culture more than historic re-creation, the buildings are elegant, contemporary interpretations of traditional structures.  The design details are the work of Tabaldy Egemberdiev and his family, assisted by Kyrgyz contemporary artists under commission. The buildings at Supara are careful representations of Kyrgyz nomadic life and, at the same time, serene contemporary architecture.The early-day nomads never had it so good.

The park, frequently a venue for traditional weddings, now includes  a fine restaurant, and a special events venue mixed in with seven stone houses and seven yurts, gardens, a rushing stream, a waterfall, outdoor sculpture, and game field. Visitors see Kyrgyz traditional culture and crafts as they tour the site, taste Kyrgyz food and drink, play traditional Kyrgyz games, and try their hand at creating Kyrgyz crafts. An additional large yurt (35- square meters) will be completed by July 2010, and guest houses for lodging will be constructed in coming years, possibly also in the form of yurts.

Supara is the vision of Egemberdiev, an artist, entrepreneur, engineer, writer and public
figure. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he founded a successful business that produces traditional Kyrgyz drinks and mineral water. He is one of this young republic’s first business leaders.  In addition to overseeing this business, he has dedicated himself to cultural preservation.  He personally spends considerable time and effort on his Supara project. His wife, Janyl, and daughter, Saltanat, help him.

“I was born in a yurt, and grew up in a small village, playing traditional games, drinking traditional drinks. Now most people have abandoned the traditional lifestyle and live in cities, surrounded with all kinds of modern conveniences.  It’s sad to see that we are forgetting our culture. People don’t lead a nomad’s life anymore and, therefore, all the little details of our ancient, interesting culture start to fade.  I wanted to create a place with Kyrgyz soul. I want people to enjoy and remember their culture and traditions,” explains Egemberdiev.

A vital part of the culture he seeks to keep alive lies in the interior decoration of a yurt. No yurt would be complete without beautiful shyrdak rugs and felt wall hangings, as well as a thick felt outer covering with its own series of decorative elements.  Egemberdiev, however, does not get involved:  “I don’t interfere with the decoration of the yurt. Traditionally this was the women’s privilege.” 

This is where his wife, Janyl, steps in.  Her husband may create a nomadic place to live, but she creates a living place. The symbolic and aesthetic importance of the interior design is up to her and her daughter Saltanat. They understand the balance required between observing cultural norms and being original. Janyl and Saltanat look for opportunities to refresh the old ways. As Egemberdiev notes, “A true artist never copies other work.”  In a recent men’s yurt, for example, the fitted the interiors with leather decorations rather than the usual felt.

Unlike the multi-layered, pattern riot of traditional yurt interiors, the yurts at Supara are spare and minimalist, with a modernist urge.  Used as an urban dining room rather than as a shepherd’s home, with stone-inlaid concrete floors in lieu of felt rugs, these contemporary yurts have traveled through a time tunnel from the age of the horse and camel to the age of the jet.   The hunting motif in the yurt designed for men features tooled leather plaques in place of horse bridles and reins;  fine tufts of wool are used to suggest animal skins.  But the simple elegance of the yurt framework is intact and the materials are light and portable.  The charm of the yurts at Supara is their cheerful expression of nomadic adaptability.  The impetus is the same as Osmonoliev’s museum pieces: to create a home for cultural identity.

As with many types of traditional craft in post-Soviet Central Asia, the yurt has taken on a symbolic importance. It differentiates Kyrgyz culture from its neighbors and from the rest of the world. It carries a message both nostalgic and noble: nostalgic because it represents a nomadic way of life unlikely to return, and noble because the Kyrgyz conducted that life with rich layers of meaning and great style. No one can tell what role the yurt will play in Kyrgyzstan’s future. But with skilled practitioners continuing to find resonance in the form, the yurt will continue to be the home of the wanderlust spirit of Kyrgyzstan.

Candra Day founded Vista 360° in 2003 with a festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming showcasing Kyrgyz nomadic culture.  Since then she has visited Kyrgyzstan several times each year and hosted Kyrgyz artists in the U.S.  She specializes in encouraging deeper appreciation for mountain cultures around the world, especially for Kyrgyz craft and design. 

Mekenbek Osmonoliev’s studio can be contacted at mekenbek_1958@mail.ru.

The Supara park in Bishkek can be contacted through their communications director, Nurilya Barakanova, at nurilyab@yahoo.com.



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