A Life in Tents

Peter Alford Andrews and his late wife, Mügül, set out to catalogue the traditional yurt – the ultimate portable dwelling. It became their life’s work.

  • Mügül with Ali Khan, leader of the Geyiklü tribe of the Shahsevän, Iran, 1974

Some 30 years ago on a working visit to north China, I was invited to lunch in a yurt on the Mongolian steppe. The meal consisted of camel broth and roast lamb, washed down with mare’s milk and lashings of Maotai firewater. My host was a Mongol herdsman, a part-time nomad, and – of course – a trusted member of the Communist Party. The other guests were a group of Chinese tourists from Hong Kong.

Last year I spent a night in a “luxury yurt” in the mountains above Santa Barbara, California. It was equipped with a full kitchen range, a giant fridge, dishwasher, high-tech sound system, and had a double bedroom with en-suite bathroom tacked on the back.

Today there are probably more tourist yurts in Asia than there are nomads, and yurt mania has swept the West. So it is comforting to discover that someone has devoted a lifetime to cataloguing authentic nomad dwellings from north Africa to Anatolia, the Middle East to Central Asia. And it is somehow appropriate that this painstaking inventory should be the work of an Englishman.

Dr Peter Alford Andrews is no romantic, however, but a methodical researcher whose encyclopaedia-sized books have been hailed as the last word on the subject. I went to see him at his modest suburban house in Bristol and found a man much younger and livelier than his 80 years. He showed no ill effects from his arduous life under canvas (or, more accurately, felt). He spoke rapidly and fluently, with what seemed total recall. His extraordinary attention to detail led Mügül, his Turkish wife, to joke that he was “trying to embrace the ocean”. For nearly 50 years, until her death last year, Mügül was his close collaborator.

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Issue 56, October 2017 Brave Old World
£12.00 / $16.73 / 68.45 TL
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Issue 56, October 2017 Brave Old World
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