For anyone who has seen photos of Central Asia, the grassy highlands and arid deserts of the region are a familiar sight. Quite often, these images are dotted with mushroom-shaped yurts, the traditional home of the nomadic people of Mongolia and the ‘Stans.
A yurt is a circular tent that can be easily collapsed and rebuilt, which is why they are so popular with nomads, who are constantly on the move searching for new resources and chasing the best weather.
I recently travelled on Intrepid’s 9-day Uzbekistan Adventure and before I left, one of the things I was most excited about was spending a night in a yurt camp in the Kyzylkum desert.
Having previously been lucky enough to stay in desert camp in Morocco’s Sahara Desert and Jordan’s Wadi Rum, I felt like I knew what to expect. But, a yurt camp was actually quite different to other desert camps. Here’s are some of the things I learned.
1. You’ll have a proper bed and a flushing toilet
Yes, you’re in the middle of the desert, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be comfortable. Our yurt had proper beds with comfortable mattresses and pillows. Because the desert can get pretty cold at night, we were supplied with a pile of nice warm blankets, so I was as snug as a bug in a rug. Inside the yurt there were some basic amenities like an electric wall lamp (although I still recommend bringing a personal torch) and a rubbish bin.
The bathroom block was located to one side of the circular yurt camp and was such a surprise. Tiled floors, flushing western-style toilets (separate for men and women) and a proper bank of sinks with running water (note: the tap water in Uzbekistan is not suitable for most Westerners to drink). There was also a shower block, but unless you really need one, it’s better to hold off on the shower until you’re back in the city, to help conserve the limited water available in the desert.
2. A yurt smells… unusual
As I was walking towards our yurt all I could think about was how awesome it looked. But, as I got close and unlatched the wooden front door, I stopped in my tracks. ‘What on earth is that smell?’ I asked my roomie, wrinkling my nose. It wasn’t a terrible smell, but it was certainly pungent.
Turns out, it was our yurt. I don’t want to put you off but want to confirm that it’s normal and there is nothing wrong, as there is actually a good reason for the unusual smell. These yurts are made of camel hide and the natural scent has purposefully been left to help ward off bugs in the desert. So, while the smell may take a little getting used to, your slumber will be creepy-crawly free, which is a huge tick in my book.
3. The food (and wine) are included – and delicious
As we were in Uzbekistan in the cooler part of the year, we ate inside the giant yurt that was set up as a dining room. But, there was also an undercover outdoor area for people to sit in and enjoy a drink or a game of narda (a local board game) if they wished.
The camp we stayed at was run by the local Kazakh people (in Uzbekistan there are many ethnic groups, including Kazakh), who made us local meals.
At dinner, the first course was a hearty rice soup (which was a great way to warm up) and the main course was a traditional dish called Golubtsi; a capsicum stuffed with spiced minced beef and onions. There was also plenty of local wine and vodka on offer – both of which went very nicely with the meal. And of course, as with everywhere in Uzbekistan, there was an endless supply of bread, salad, tea and fresh fruit. I do recommend bringing some extra water to keep in your yurt for drinking and brushing your teeth.
4. There will be a campfire and local entertainment
After dinner we headed outside to the centre of the camp to gather around the campfire. Our camp was pretty large, so aside from our small group of fellow Intrepid travellers and our leader, there were quite a few other travellers of varying nationalities to meet and have a drink with. The locals put on a display of Uzbek music and singing, which was definitely worth staying up for. For those who preferred a less raucous affair, a short stroll up the dune to gaze at the Milky Way (without any light pollution from cities or people), was another great option for a night time activity.
5. Pro tip: Get up early and watch the sunrise
Even if you’re not a morning person, I highly, highly recommend waking up in time to watch the sunrise. Watching the soft glow of the sunrise light up the yurts, dunes and horizon is a sight to behold. It was peaceful, as most of the other travellers were still sound asleep and those who set their alarms were all just quietly appreciating the view.
Want to spend a night in a yurt camp in Uzbekistan’s desert? Book your place on Intrepid’s brand new, 9-day Uzbekistan Adventure.
All images by Liam Neal.