nomad on a horseIn a Bishkek museum, when I spotted this photograph of Kyrgyz nomads on the move, I was intrigued. What was the woman’s enormous turban about? Where were they headed? Exploring the countryside around the shores of Lake Issy Kul, I learned how nomadic traditions have underpinned Kyrgyz culture since ancient times.

Until very recently, everyday life in Kyrgyzstan revolved around breeding of sheep and cattle. In today’s uncertain economic climate, villages remote from the capital struggle to maintain once-important traditions, like yurt-making. For some villages, such as Kyzyl Tuu, 240 kilometers from Bishkek, there are efforts to bring public attention to these traditions, and to demonstrate the importance of living in harmony with nature.

Nomadic tradition – felt craft and culture

Kyrgyz quiltPreviously, Kyrgyz nomads used only natural materials in their households: wool, leather, animal tendons, animal bones and trees. Felt was used to make yurt covers, and to insulate and decorate them. Clothing too got the felt treatment: everything from socks, boots and hats to saddle blankets.

Bishkek designer Aidai Asangulova, originally from Kyzyl Tuu, established Min Kiyal, a public foundation, to help revive knowledge of Kyrgyz traditions and customs in her home town. In a new community space, locally made products, from brightly-colored quilts to herbal grass-scented soaps are being gathered for exhibition and sale.

Kyzyl Tuu’s master yurt makers

Kyzyl Tuu, once known across Central Asia for its expertise in making yurts, is still a center for the craft, with more than 80 resident experts. Here, several of them strip, steam and bend wood into the circular fittings that top every yurt; and use leather nails to secure the frame. Once erected, the frame will be covered with a felt outer layer, and decorated in the traditional manner.

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Peeling plank for yurt frame
Steaming poles for yurt frame, Kyzyl-tu, Kyrgyzstan
Bending wood for yurt frame
Yurt construction, Kyrgyzstan
Leather nails
Pieces of yurt frame
Kyrgyz yurt in traditional style
Yurt frame in place

“Roaming” with Kyiyz Duino

The local "bones" champion shows in action, Kyrgyzstan
Ermek, the local Ordo champion, shows his style

Next month, Kyiyz Duino, a festival dedicated to felt, will celebrate the nomadic tradition of “roaming”.  The festival agenda includes concerts, showing of traditional and antique clothing, games, visits to the workshops of local artisans, and hunting with dogs and eagles. There will be yurt competitions, documentary films and a photography exhibition. And of course, lots of felt!

The festival will be held in Kyzyl Tuu. It’s a bold agenda for the village of 1500 inhabitants, but one that has garnered international support. As a project in conjunction with the Christensen Fund, Kyiyz Duino aims to address problems common to many Kyrgyz villages. The August festival is an important first step in creating jobs and developing an infrastructure for tourism at the village level.

About that turban

Oh yes, I learned that the nomad traveling with an length of cloth wrapped around her head was simply prepared for a range of life circumstances. The cloth could serve variously as a maternity blanket, swaddling for a new-born, or a shroud.

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  1. Thank you for the wonderful thoughts and photos about a place of which I had absolutely no knowledge. Now that you’ve piqued my interest and curiosity, I want to know more about Kyrgyzstan… and I love the all-purpose turban — talk about traveling prepared!


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