A few words on Mongol Yurt culture and structure(1) The yurt’s building materials are timber, felt and leather. Its collapsible walls, “hana,” comprise of several sections made of wooden planks. (1) A medium size yurt consists of six or eight sections and of up to twelve if it is a ceremonial or a guest yurt. The thin planks (2) or “uni” connect the walls with a smoke hole, forming a cone-shaped roof. The smoke hole, “touono” (3), also lets in sunlight. The latticed wall and the roof on the outside are covered with large pieces of felt (4). These are 6 to 8 meters long and it takes 4 to 8 of them to cover the whole construction. In the summer the yurt is covered in a single layer of felt and in the winter the number is doubled (from the 20th century onwards, the felt layer is also covered with a white and usually water resistant cloth). The cloth and the felt cover are firmly fastened to the walls with thin but very tough ropes made of horsehair or leather. In the summer the yurt is installed on the bare ground. When it is really hot the edges of the felt cover are lifted for ventilation. In the winter the yurt is placed on a plank floor covered with old felt and hides. From the center of the smoke hole and down to the floor descends a sturdy rope with a massive rock attached to it. This device gives the yurt stability against the wind, the latter being an all year round affair in the Mongolian steppe. The center of the yurt is occupied by a fireplace (5), the sacred object of any human dwelling. Its base is composed of three large stones, “avyn gurvan chuluu,” which translates as “the three paternal stones.” These stones travel together with the yurt and are first to be placed in the yurt’s new location. Next to the fireplace, vertically or slightly angled (depending on whether one or two are used), is “bagana” – a support pole that rests against the floor and forks at the smoke hole. It is a symbol of magical connection between time and generations. When a child was born a small notch was made on the pole’s fork; during labor, a woman often kept her both hands on bagana. Sometimes it would be taken to the graveyard together with the dead and a new one would be put in its place. On top of the fireplace is a metal stand (7) that can hold a large iron pot (8) used for cooking lamb or making tea with milk and salt. The pot is not cleaned or scraped from food leftovers—it is merely rinsed. This, according to the nomads, makes the next meal tastier and also conserves water that is always scarce in the steppe. When tea is ready it is poured into a “dombo” (9), a tall wooden container capable of keeping the beverage warm for a long time. In the middle of the 20th century dombos were replaced by vacuum flasks made in China. They were exchanged for marmot skins at the rate of 10 to 1. This was a good deal, considering the ease with which lazy and overfed during the summer marmots could be hunted. The space between the fire and the altar is taken by a low table and several small stools (10) for guests. The owners are usually seated, cross-legged, on the floor. The hostess is the only one standing: she pours tea or soup into the bowls (“pialas”)., Cooked meat is served in a separate large bowl. Each guest chooses their own piece of meat and then gnaws on it for a long time. It is considered improper to throw away a bone with any meat left on it. The male host is responsible for alcoholic beverages. He pours the drink into a large bowl and, holding it in both hands, serves the most honored guest first. One should take a gulp or at least a sip—drinking to the bottom is not customary. The bowl is then returned in the same manner, held in both hands, to the host, who refills it and passes it on to the next guest. There are two indispensable charms in every yurt: a “chagata” rope (11), braided between the uni and resembling lamb intestines, is a symbol of wealth and prosperity; and a small bag of grain and wool tufts—a sacrifice to the guardian spirit of the hearth.
In a dwelling that has to be disassembled and moved several times a year can be no superfluous wares. And all that is necessary must be situated in strictly and traditionally defined places.
When one travels for too long over the Mongol steppe the attention is dulled by the monotony of successive but very similar elements of the landscape: grass, hills, bushes, and curious marmots standing upright by the side of the road and ducking back into their holes at the sound of the motor… But then the road curves and one notices a yurt with smoke curling up above. One is immediately awoken by anticipation of a hot bowl of tea with milk, salt and other nomadic additives. Which ones exactly? Dried milk foam, dried lumps of cottage cheese, mashed into a meal roast meat, or perhaps fried flour of wild barley. One stirs these right into the tea but in no case with a spoon—for extra delicious use your own finger! If lucky and the yurt’s hosts had recently brewed moonshine from milk (from what else, in the country of herdsmen?), one might aslo get a spoonful or two of slightly intoxicating substance (“arzy”) left after the process. Only then, finally, one may sip on this divinely delicious half-tea and half-soup and begin to feel the stress slowly leaving the road-weary body.
It may turn out, however, that there is no one in the yurt. If the owners had gone away for a short time—to the hollow between the two neighbouring hills where their sheep graze, for example—the door won’t be locked. A stick leaning on the door means that the owners are not far away and will be back soon. If one honks, as if to say “the guests have arrived,” a horseman will soon appear, and maybe not alone. The law of Mongolian hospitality immediately comes into force. Having heard an approaching car or snorting of a strange horse, the owner, if he is home, comes out to meet you, helps tie the horse or waits until you get out of the car.
Within the radius of 5 to 6 meters surrounding the yurt (1) is everything that does not fit inside but deemed indispensable to the owners. To the north-east of the yurt is a corral (2) into which sheep and all kinds of foals are driven for the night. To the south-east is a hitching post (3): two pillars connected by a rope. The toilet (4) is made of two poles and a piece of old cloth stretched between them to form a kind of barrier for the prying eyes. This is not so much a necessity for the Mongols themselves, who for many centuries did without such “luxuries,” but rather for their foreign guests. A separate household yurt (5) is the nomad’s warehouse for foods and wares not currently in use. Piled up “argal” (6) is dry cattle manure used for the fireplace or an iron stove to cook food. The pile is covered with old hides pressed with stones to the ground by their corners so that it doesn’t get wet or blown away by the wind. Not far from the yurt is a wooden two-wheeled carriage (7). Just like hundreds of years ago, its parts fit so well together that up to this day it is made without using a single nail. The basket for argal collection (8) is carried around like a backpack. Dried cow dung is picked up with a wicker willow shovel and put into the basket.
If the visitor is a relative or a friend—someone from the “inner circle,” basically—he is greeted without much ado. Otherwise, however, a complex and magical ritual of turning the “outsider” into an “insider” is about to commence. The owner says the traditional greeting: “Sayn bayna uu?” or “Are you doing well?” And you answer “Sayn, sayn uu?” or “Yes, I am well, and you?” Then you are invited into the yurt.
Try not to trip over the porch: it is considered a sign of having bad intentions. In the 13th century, if a guest tripped over the khan’s yurt, he paid for it with his life. Leave all weapons outside; unholster your knife; touch the door frame with your right hand to indicate that you came with peace.
After a while the host will give you a sniff from his snuffbox. Return the favor or, if you don’t have one, offer him a cigarette. You will drink some tea with milk together and afterwards some milk-based vodka (“arkhi”)—preferably from the same container. Now comes the time to tell who you are, why you came, and how long you intend to stay. And here already come the children, having overcome their initial shyness they swirl around you, trying to touch unfamiliar objects of your garments. The long initiation ritual is over.
Most academics agree that in its present form the yurt first appeared in the 6th century among Turkic nomads of the Eurasian steppes. Its predecessors are also known: conical choom (tent) with a smoke hole; yaranga with a two tiered frame in which bearing poles do not touch the ground like in chooms but are based in the lower tier’s tripod; Hunnish hut (“alachug”) with plaited collapsible walls, which until recently was still used by the nomads of northern Iran.
The origins of the word “yurt” are also interesting. The word is used, both colloquially and in academic literature, to designate a type of housing used by Turkic and Mongol nomads. Mongols themselves, however, call their dwelling “gher.” The word “yurt” is considered to have been borrowed from the Turkic language. Turks (Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Tatars, Nogai and others) use the word as well, but they also have their own nomenclatures for the yurt. There is a theory that the word “yurt” initially meant the whole of the territory surrounding the dwelling, including pastures and people. The names of two modern cities of North Caucasus—Khasavyurt and Kizil Yurt—conform to this understanding of the word.
Mongolian yurts are almost always oriented along the north-south axis. Exceptions, mostly due to specific landscapes or climates, only confirm the rule. The entrance, thus, faces the south; directly across is the honorary side of the yurt allotted for important guests and an altar with the images of gods. Let us now face the south and turn our backs to the north (this is how Mongols orient themselves) and see what’s on our left and right. The right, western side of the yurt is for men. Here one finds the patriarch’s and his wife’s bed, hunting gear, a saddle, a harness for camels and oxen, a jar of kumis and wares for livestock farming, all of these chiefly associated with male occupations. The left, eastern side is for women. Here we will see the bed of the eldest unmarried woman in the family (the patriarch’s daughter or sister); next to the entrance there are shelves with kitchenware, a food locker, buckets for milking livestock and other things associated with female occupations.
There are many objects inside the yurt but, because of the migratory lifestyle of its owners, none is superfluous. Moreover, each tool apart from its main function also plays a symbolic role in the system of Mongolian culture. For a Mongol his yurt is a microcosm—his little universe. This is where children are born and the elderly die. This is where space is divided by gender, and every guest knows that they ought to honor this divide and be seated on their respective side. This is also where the time of the day is determined by the angle of solar rays entering the smoke hole (there were no mechanical clocks in Mongolia up until the beginning of the 20th century). The Mongolian yurt, moreover, is inextricably linked with the calendar. Not any calendar but a specific East-Asian one in which every ear of its 12 year cycle is associated with some household, wild or mythological creature.
When the time comes to get moving—between the end of spring and the middle of autumn, occasionally several times per month depending on weather conditions—two people can disassemble the yurt within two hours. Latticed walls are stacked on top of each other and felt covers are rolled together so that all of this can be carried by only two camels. The furniture follows on a two-wheeled cart drawn by a bull. The biggest basket for the collection of dry manure (the main type of fuel in Mongolian steppes) is fastened on top of the furniture. The basket is populated with small children, whose happy faces are sticking out on top. Happy, naturally—migration is an always exciting affair! The owner picks up the leash of the first camel and the caravan slowly moves off toward a new camp.
(1) Mongolian nomads divided their day into 12 double “animal” hours: the hour of the mouse (0-2), bull (2-4), tiger (4-6), hare (6-8), dragon (8-10), snake (10-12), horse (12-14), sheep (14-16), monkey (16-18), chicken (18-20), dog (20-22), and the pig (22-24). Up until the first trimester of the 20th century Mongols told time by observing the angle of solar rays entering the yurt through the smoke hole. Like a dial, the inner space of the yurt is divided into 12 parts so that it takes sunrays two regular hours to move from one section to the next. An animal corresponding to each part defined the household function of the yurt’s sections. Mouse symbolizes wealth and its accumulation, so the northern part of was reserved for the most valuable possessions and guests of honor. Dog is the symbol of hunting, marking the space for storing weapons. Dragon and snake symbolize water in all its manifestations; the women’s (eastern) side was used for water containers. Under the sign of the sheep (south-west) were kept newborn lambs, and under the bull (north-east) were placed food crates. Horse, a nomad’s main possession, guarded the entrance and wellbeing of the owners.
Mongols who today live in rural areas and breed cattle still migrate with their livestock and peruse the yurt as their primary housing. But even in Mongolian cities including the capitol Ulan-Bator there still remain yurt quarters. A lot of modern residential houses were built over the past few decades, yet as a rule their inhabitants do not abandon their yurts but use them as country houses. In the summer, the yurt is cooler and much more comfortable than an urban block of flats.