Made from willow and felt. Most of the production is now carried out in one or two small villages. Many of the nomads are now only semi-nomadic, spending the winter months in lowland villages, some many kilometres from the plateau grasslands that they occupy in the summer months.
The traditional yurts have steeply sloping roofs, much steeper than the Mongolian ger, and this helps to avoid the internal posts that are frequently present in the ger supporting the central ring. The felt is made from three layers of sheep’s wool, white on either side and a thicker layer of brown/black wool in the middle. Although just as effective as an insulator, the brown wool is much cheaper to purchase. I sometimes wonder why the nomads don’t just breed white sheep! The three layers are laid in opposite directions and this gives additional strength to the felt. A good cover will last some eight to ten years before it starts to wear thin, and increasingly the nomads use a layer of polythene under the felt to provide additional waterproofing and to extend the life of the cover.
We only encountered one small herd of yak up in the mountains, and the yurts are now almost exclusively moved by trucks, or even small cars. This has led not only to an increase in the size of the yurt, but also definitely to the amount of furniture and material objects that are carried. It is interesting to note just how quickly the pack animals have disappeared now they are no longer needed to carry things. It would appear that there is less status to owning camels here than in the desert regions. However, the yak were definitely owned by a wealthy family, so some status must accrue.
There can be a huge difference in size and quality of yurt, ranging from an elaborately decorated yurt some 6 to 7m in diameter, to a simple and threadbare yurt of a local fisherman perhaps only 4m across.
The architecture is also changing as the Chinese now mass-produce steel framed yurts with light cotton or vinyl covers, which sell for around a third of the price of a local hand-made yurt. Most of the high quality yurt makers are now supported by exports to Europe, which plays a vital part in keeping this tradition alive. The nomads are also adopting simple frame tents, which are even cheaper, although most families we saw maintained at least one traditional yurt.
Many thanks to Jane from "Silk Road Tours" for assisting with the arrangements for this trip.