Building a Yurt in Ten Simple Steps

Last weekend, I took a trip via my language program to the famous lake Issyk-Kul and there learned about yurts, the traditional houses of the Kyrgyz people. Yurts (Russian: юрта – ‘yurta’; Kyrgyz: боз үйү ‘boz uiu’) are nomadic dwellings that are portable: they can be built in under an hour and taken down in half that time. Yurts come in different sizes: some can fit a hundred people inside and others, such as the one that I helped to build, can house three or four people comfortably. The yurt which I built with the other American students and our Kyrgyz peer tutors required 30 minutes to build and 15 minutes to take down.We built the yurt at Kyr-Tash, near lake Issyk-Kul.

While we were building the yurt, I asked the owners of the yurt, who live at the base of the Tien Shan mountains every summer in their own yurt, about the construction process. The conversation was rather difficult, as the names for the pieces of the yurt are in Kyrgyz. It was interesting to observe how the bilingual, native Kyrgyz speakers mixed the two languages (Russian and Kyrgyz). However, at the same time, understanding the instructions was extremely easy, as many of the instructions were non-verbal: for example, someone hands you a piece of wood and points to where it goes. Using context clues helped me understand a lot of the more complex verbal instructions and I was able to practice my vocabulary for building, receiving, and giving and to observe colloquial norms for quick commands and requests.

For this blog post, I decided to write a step-by-step process of how to build a yurt, with pictures! This is not a thorough instruction manual on how to build a yurt, as some minor steps have been left out, so please do not use it to try to build your own yurt without help! Where I knew the original Kyrgyz name of the piece, I wrote the name in parenthesis.

Building a Yurt in Ten Simple Steps:

The ansmwer is 'Yes'!
Are you ready to build a yurt? As a portable dwelling, all of the pieces requires to build a yurt are relatively small and portable.

1. Put up the kerege walls (кереге), securing them with tension bands called ‘ormok.

The kerege are collapsible and unfold into a straight lattice-like wall. They must be carefully bent into a circular shape.

2. Attach the door frame, called the ‘tayak bosogo‘, (таяк босого) with ormok.

Ormok come in different widths and lengths depending on their purpose. Thin ormok are used to secure the doorframe to the kerege and the two kerege to each other.

3. Connect the tunduk (түндүк) to the walls by placing roofbeams called ook (ууктар) into slots in the tunduk and then tying the other end of the ook to the kerege. Note: this step requires at least five people: one to hold up the tunduk and four to secure four (one each) ook to the tunduk and kerege so that the tunduk will stay aloft while the other ook are secured. Note: appreciate the chamgarak (чамгарак), the cross-beams in the tunduk that give the entire structure support and are featured on the flag of Kyrgyzstan.

The ook are placed into square slots in the tunduk. Two ook are used to hold the tunduk in place while the ook are secured.
The ook are tied to the kerege. Also observe the thick ormok securing the kerege.
Skipping ahead a few steps, here is the chamgarak of the finished yurt: the six crossed beams in the center of the tunduk in the center of the yurt: the center of it all!

4. Wrap two woven reed mats called ‘chiaround the kerege and secure with ormok.

The two chi are wrapped around the kerege and secured with string.

5. Secure the ook with ormok.

The ormok are wrapped around each ook and around the entire structure.

6. Use one of the remaining ook to attach the felt door, called the ‘tunduk zhabuu’ (түндүк жабуу) to the structure, above the door frame.

The ook is used to wrap a string over the tunduk and then a person inside pulls the string down to pull up the felt door.

7. Wrap two felt blankets called tuurduk‘ (туурдук) around the kerege to create waterproof, insulating walls. Secure with ormok.

Note the tunduk zhabuu on the left and the red tassels of a decorative piece wrapped around the structure before the tuurduk are added.

8. Cover the ook with two large felt blankets called ‘uzuk’ (үзүк) to create the waterproof, insulating roof. Secure with ormok. Wrap a final ormok around the entire structure.

Each uzuk covers half of the roof. The ormok of the first uzuk are decorated.
The second uzuk is placed over the ook. The ormok are secured cross-wise. A final ormok is wrapped around the entire structure to secure the tuurduk. Incidentally, this is also the image of the final product. Tada!

9. Place felt shydrak mats on the ground to create the floor of the yurt, hang ayak kap pouches on the walls to serve as shelves and drawers, and place other necessities and comforts inside the yurt.

Observe the shydrak on the ground and the black-and-gold ayak kap hanging on the walls, as well as the other decorations and utilities. There is no furniture in a traditional yurt!

10. Enjoy life as the nomadic Kyrgyz did!

A close up of the weave of the ormok used to secure the structure. Also observe the red and green tassels placed on the kerege for decoration.

Note: when taking down the yurt: remove every other ook and use two of those ook to hold up the tunduk until all of the ook are removed, so that the tunduk does not become unstable and fall, damaging the tunduk and ook and potentially hurting someone!


The construction and decoration of the yurt is rich with symbolism and tradition. For example, each of the felt blankets and rugs is decorated with a pattern that represents a real-life item which in turn symbolizes an abstract concept. For instance, a common design represents rams’ horns, which symbolize wealth. Additionally, the yurt is divided by gender: males and females assemble different parts of the yurt and the interior of the yurt is divided into the women’s half (the right side) and the men’s half (the left side) with the middle acting as a common area for eating, drinking tea, and socializing.

Before Soviet times, during the warmer months, the nomadic Kyrgyz would disassemble, travel, and then reassemble their yurts many times. They would remain in one place for the cold winter months, and then disassemble their yurt and move again. During the Soviet era, many Kyrgyz moved to the cities and abandoned the nomadic way of life and the yurt along with it. In the modern day, however, yurt-building has been revived and many people purchase and live in yurts, some to vacation and some as a way of life, returning to the traditional way of life of the Kyrgyz people.

Kyrgyz Hospitality

After living in Kyrgyzstan for two weeks, I can’t yet say that I am an expert on Kyrgyz culture, but I can say a thing or two about their guest culture. The Kyrgyz, unlike their cold, antisocial Russian neighbors to the north, are more than happy to receive guests. In fact, receiving a guest is considered and honor. I learned this firsthand when I met my host family and through their everyday interactions with me. However, being treated nicely by your host family doesn’t say much — they’re supposed to feed you well and take care of you, right? But just today I experienced some real Kyrgyz hospitality: tea, food, conversation, and comfort from complete strangers.

The table set with appetizers when my host family’s grandparents came to visit.

Immediately after arriving at my homestay, my Kyrgyz host mom had me sit at the table and gave me a warm bowl of food. After insisting that I have a second serving and refilling my tea cup at least three times, she finally let me go to sleep. The first new Russian phrases that I learned while in Kyrgyzstan are: “кушаешь” (“kushayesh,” although they spoke so quickly that it sounds like “kushesh”) and “будешь чай” (“budesh chai”), which mean “eat” and “have tea”, respectively. These were the words with which my host family smothered me in hospitality, delicious Kyrgyz cuisine, bread, and relaxing tea. If I even walked into the room where they were eating or having a snack, they would immediately ask me, ” Kушаешь?” and offer me some bread or fruit before I could respond in either the affirmative or negative. Often, even if I said “Нет, спасибо” (“Nyet, spasibo” – “No, thank you”) they were undeterred: a minute or two later I would again hear:Чай будешь?” And it wasn’t just my host mother who treated me so hospitably: even my two host sisters, who are 17 and 13 years old, treated me like an honored guest. One second the 13-year-old would be making fun of her little brother or playing on her phone, and the next she would bring me some freshly washed apples and apricots, without my asking for them. The older sister, who doesn’t talk much, comes across as rather motherly when she asks me whether I’ve eaten yet and insists on serving me tea.

The teapot in which the tea brews. In another teapot is hot water. The brewed tea and hot water are combined in your teacup.

On the day of my arrival, they also cooked me a special meal of besh barmok, the national dish of Kyrgyzstan, which is always served to honored guests to celebrate them. Besh barmok, which means “five fingers” in Kyrgyz, is a dish consisting of stewed horse meat and freshly made wide, flat pasta and is garnished with onions and dill. The name of the dish refers to the method of eating the dish: with one’s hands, although my host family graciously let me partake of it with a spook and fork. I watched my host aunt make the pasta. First she rolled out a lump of dough into a large, flat circle about two feet in diameter and only a few millimeters thick. Then she folded it up and cut it into long, wide strips about two inches by eight inches. The pasta was cooked in the broth from the horse meat, which was very fatty. The dish was delicious, though somewhat salty. The horse meat tasted so much like beef that it wasn’t until they told me later that I learned that it was horse meat. They served it on a large platter with the meat placed in the middle, on top of a bed of pasta. They also placed a bowl of bread, and bowls stacked high with carefully arranged fruits on the table before me. I’ve learned that, in Kyrgyz cuisine, the presentation is just as intrinsic to the dish as it’s ingredients and method of preparation. My host sister’s aunt served me the besh barmok, pushing more and more food onto my plate until I thought that I would explode if I ate anymore. And then came fruit and cake…. Thankfully, they let me save the cake in the refrigerator until the next day. This cake, they informed me, was also a traditional Kyrgyz cake, called ‘kapriz.’ Kapriz is a moist, multilayered cake consisting of layers containing walnuts, raisins, and poppy seeds and is covered in creamy frosting.

Yurts — portable dwellings that the nomadic Kyrgyz used to live in before Soviet times, and in which I experienced true Kyrgyz hospitality for the first time.

But, of course, it wouldn’t mean much just to say that my host family treated me well. I am their honored guest, and, on top of that, they are being paid to feed and house me. My real experience with Kyrgyz hospitality was when complete strangers invited me to eat and drink with them. Through the program that I am in, we took a day trip to Ala Archa Gorge, a beautiful national park about an hour south of the capital city of Bishkek, where I am living. By the entrance to the various trails up the mountains, there stood two yurts, traditional Kyrgyz nomadic dwellings. Two of my friends and I were standing outside the yurts, admiring them, when a woman noticed us and invited us in. Eager to see the inside of a yurt as well as the outside, we accepted. Upon entering, we removed our shoes so as not to track mud on the beautiful carpets in the yurt. We were expecting to just walk around and then leave, but the people inside insisted on our sitting at their table. The table, which was only about a foot off the ground, was surrounded by cushions on which we sat ourselves down. My friend, who was not properly dressed for the unexpectedly cold weather, was given a blanket and all of us were given tea, even when we declined. A Kyrgyz man there that spoke Russian conversed with us as if we were his close friends. He asked us where we were from and told us about himself, his family, and why they were picnicking in the yurt at Ala Archa gorge. Just like my host family, they invited us to eat and drink as much as we wanted, even pushing the dishes closer to us to encourage us to eat. However, we ate only a little, not wanting to take advantage of their hospitality. And even when we tried to refuse the food, they insisted that we at least drink more tea, “Because it’s so cold outside!”

Inside the yurt that we visited at Ala Archa.

I had read about Kyrgyz hospitality and guest culture before coming to Kyrgyzstan, but was still surprised by it when I arrived. I expected my host family to treat me well, but was almost overwhelmed by their insistence that I eat and have tea almost continually. And I certainly did not expect random Kyrgyz people on an expensive vacation at one of the most popular vacation sites in Kyrgyzstan to notice us, invite us in, feed us, and tell us about their family.

I asked my host sister, who is 17, about Kyrgyz hospitality, and, although I am not quite sure that she understood my questions, thanks to my accent and limited vocabulary, she was able to give me some information. She told me that the Kyrgyz are hospitable to both people that they know and to complete strangers. It is common for a Kyrgyz family to invite over their neighbors for food and tea. She also informed me that people were more hospitable and kind in the past then they are now, and more hospitable in the countryside than in the city.

The Kyrgyz people, being Central Asian and more closely related to Turkic and Mongolian people, have a very different culture than the Russian people. Although I am studying the Russian language, I am more than thrilled to be living in Kyrgyzstan and learning about Kyrgyz culture and customs.

Necessary unrelated photo of Ala Archa, just to share it’s beauty!