On top of a nomad’s house, a yurta, there is a “door to the sky” called a tunduk. This circle symbolizes the Sun that unites the uuks or wooden beams that support the yurt’s cupola of the sky.
The yurt, known as the bozuy, holds a tender place in Kyrgyz hearts and shepherds still set up yurts in the mountains in summer to graze their herds; in towns the bozuy is erected in back gardens for celebrations. Remaining essentially the same for thousands of years, the superbly portable yurt can be erected swiftly and dismantled in an hour.
A framework of poplar poles is fixed with rawhide straps and lined by a mat of woven reeds (chiy), then covered with layers of felt. Inside, space is allocated according to tradition: the left hand side for the man’s horse and hunting gear and the right hand side for the woman’s domestic utensils. At the back lie folded blankets and mattresses; the higher the pile, the wealthier the family.
Hospitality is an integral part of Kyrgyz culture and nomadic tradition. The Kyrgyz have a saying – “a guest is sent from God”- and visitors are often overwhelmed by generosity. Food is lavished upon guests; tea is served with homemade jams and cream, toasts are raised with cups of kymyz (fermented mare’s milk); laghman provides a heartwarming mutton stew; and the dish of honour is the elaborately prepared besh-barmak (‘five fingers’).
The vibrantly coloured handicrafts which entice visitors today have been tailor-made for nomadic life for thousands of years and use the available natural resources, mainly wool and leather. Richly embroidered woven straps tied to the yurt frame add strength and beauty while the brightly coloured shyrdaks (carpets) lining the floors and walls provide warmth and decoration.
Made of thick felt, traditional shyrdaks have been handmade in Central Asia for more than 2,000 years and their stylized motifs once held symbolic meaning. They’re still found in every home, as are ala-kiyiz (carpets of pressed left) and tush-kiyiz (panels lovingly embroidered for a daughter on her marriage). Artisans are breathing fresh life into the traditional crafts with exciting new designs.
Another great Central Asian tradition alive in Kyrgyzstan today is the bazaar: piles of melons sit alongside neatly stacked ak-kalpaks (Kyrgyz left hats); shepherds expertly assess sheep rumps for fat; and stallions in homemade halters snort and stamp.