So I stayed in a yurt. Or, as our Kyrgyz guide calls them, yoorrta. Sheep make yurts what they are. (They also make the Kyrgyz diet what it is. One guidebook joked that if there were a Kyrgyz cookbook, every recipe would start with, “First, kill your sheep….”)
The floors are covered in thick felt (often, nowadays, placed over a heavy plastic tarp). The rounded walls are covered in wool. Before plastic, the layer of fat was enough to keep the inside of the yurt dry. (Now that there is plastic, I felt extra-secure when it rained. I stayed toasty and dry.) The doors are heavy wool and roll up during the day. The inside is decorated with more felt.
So: felt. We went to a felt-making demonstration at a workshop in a small town. They start with raw wool, freshly shorn, not washed or processed. First they whack the wool with wooden sticks to get out any foreign material, like twigs or whatnot. Then they whack it with thin metal rods, to separate the strands a bit.
On the ground, they lay out a straw mat, kind of like a massive version of a sushi-rolling mat, hand-made on a wooden frame with straw and string. Over the mat, the wool is torn into small wisps and laid in one direction, each wisp overlapping. Then another layer goes down, with the wisps laid in the opposite direction to strengthen the future felt. We just made a small piece – maybe a couple of square feet. And we were given a few colored bits of wool for decoration, so we decided to make a felt abstraction of our truck: an orange rectangle (have I mentioned that the truck is bright orange?), with a little bit of white above for the stripe down its side, and a stripe of blue below to symbolize the river we’d crossed that morning.
(We’d all gotten out of the truck except for the one person driving, taken off our shoes and socks, and waded through a cold, cold, cold, shallow river before the truck gamely went downhill and splashed through the river and navigated the slope on the other side. And got stuck, and got unstuck, and… you get the idea. Rain + mud roads + large truck full of 23 people and their luggage = long journey.)
Anyway. Once the design had been drawn in wispy colorful felt, the woman from the workshop poured hot water over the wool. Then she rolled up the mat tightly, tying it shut with a nifty rope pattern that I hope I can remember. More hot water went over the wool and the mat. Then she started stomping on it, and we started making jokes about stomping on grapes to make wine. Most of us took a turn stomping and dancing on the mat, turning it every so often to make sure it all got compacted. Twenty minutes later, when we were surprisingly tired and embarrassed from losing our balance on the little thing, we unrolled the mat.
Now came time for the soap, rubbed directly on from the bar. The woman – who was young and very cheerful and wore a shirt that said “Girl just want to have fun” (or something similar and almost-correct) – rubbed the soap in with her hands and elbows and forearms, getting the lanolin and dirt and other things out of the felt. She kept at it for a long time, leading us to believe that she had forearms of steel. Then she washed the felt in cold water, and said that, to do it properly, we should repeat the washing and cold-water rinse several times.
But we had to go, so we headed to the shop, where they sold gorgeous felt slippers and rugs and ornaments (little tiny yurts! and camels! and donkeys!) and hats and bags and all sorts of things. And then we left, taking our wet felt with us.