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Yurt surfing - green tourism in the mountains
12 September 2007 Hervé Bonnaveira

A traditional habitat adapts to its environment

In the mountains of Pamir Altay, semi-nomadic shepherds share their animal-skinned roof as well as their daily life with us.

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The inhabitants of a yurt at 3,300 m.

Like lost sheep looking for safety at the heart of a flock, towards the end of the day we drift towards human habitations.
“- Hello… Excuse me, could we put up our tent for the night next to your camp?”
“- Put up your tent? What for? There’s a big one here. Come eat and sleep inside. And bring your bicycles!”
Thus we are regularly invited into yurts, giant mysterious tents that dot the Kyrgyz mountains.

As soon as we cross the cover serving as a door, the first impression is that of geometric perfection. Intertwined stakes at the base come together toward a central opening supported by arches. This wooden frame is then covered with several insulating layers of felt and wool carpet, and the exterior is plastered with sheep fat for tightening. No windows but a crafty system of strings and tarpaulin that allows the central opening to be cleared up, thus letting light enter and serving as a way of controlling temperature.

But the big advantage of yurt is their mobility according to the time of year. It’s in June when the snow melts that the yurts grow like mushrooms on their green pastures of the Altay high plateau at the foot of summits higher than 7,000 meters in the Pamir Mountains. During the summer, villagers live in the mountains, men take care of the animals, the women cook while children, from an early age, help out. They feed themselves from their own work: sheep and goats’ meat, cow milk, crème fraîche, kefir, and bread cooked in fire fuelled by dried manure. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to verify the authenticity of the products from the cutting of the goat’s throat all the way to the liver soup, or from the milking of the cow to the bread with crème fraîche. If you’re unlucky, they will offer you kumyz, a drink made from mare’s milk and horse fat, with a lumpy look and acid flavor. So don’t ask about how it’s made and answer simply:
“- It’s very nice, but I’ve eaten enough!”

The yurts are taken down in September, when the cold first arrives, in less than an hour. Sedentarization efforts by the Communist regime have lead to the quasi-disappearance of yurts in Central Asia. It’s almost only exclusively in Kyrgyzstan that this environmentally friendly lifestyle has survived. And even there, the modern world continues to turn traditions upside down: once taken apart, the yurts now go down to the valleys in trucks.

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