Beware the cheap Chinese yurt invasion

Low-priced nomad tents from across the border threaten Kyrgyzstan cultural values. But they're cadmium-free

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 12, 2010 9:22PM (EST)

As if replacing lead in children's jewelry with toxic cadmium wasn't bad enough, HTWW has now learned that Chinese synthetic yurt manufacturers are threatening the financial stability of Kyrgyzstan's domestic yurt industry.

David Trilling has the story at (Found via the Hurting the Feelings of the Chinese People blog.) And a fine story it is, rich with detail concerning the cultural importance of the yurt in Kyrgyzstan. I did not know that Kyrgyz funerals traditionally require yurts, or that the felt required for a single authentic yurt consumes the wool from 100 sheep. But the next time I'm in Bishkek needing a yurt, I know who to call: Damira Sakieva, an entrepreneur who runs a "dial-a-yurt" rental business in the Kyrgyzstan capital city.

What a surprise: The convenience of cheap, easy-to-assemble yurts made in China's western Xinjiang province pose a threat to traditional Kyrgyz yurt-makers across the border. Even if a true Kyrgyz would prefer not being caught dead in one.

In a grievance echoing around the world, many Kyrgyz these days complain their country is being overrun with cheap and inferior Chinese goods.

Even so, many Kyrgyz admit Chinese-manufactured yurts are easier to assemble, and they are growing in popularity.

"A Kyrgyz yurt requires very intense care," explained Bolotova, speaking in her home in Toktoyan village. "It requires constant drying and taking care of the felt to protect it from bugs. The wooden frame should be stored carefully so it doesn't get warped. Using a Chinese yurt is very comfortable for me because I just put it in a dry place and take it out when I need to put it up. For me, it doesn't really matter where it's made. I buy whatever is more comfortable."

"It takes two people 20 minutes to put one up. It's much easier," she added.

The Kyrgyzstan imported yurt pickle echoes the debate in the United States as to whether the American economy is compensated for jobs lost to China by the low prices of made-in-China goods purchased at Wal-Mart. But let's remember, a low price isn't the only price. For example, if my daughter became neurologically damaged from wearing a cadmium-laced Disney "Princess and the Frog" pendant I wouldn't feel too "compensated" by a bargain-basement deal. And there appear to be some questions about the long-term reliability of cheap Chinese yurts, even if they can be set up in a jiffy.

Despite their advantages, Kasmalkulov does not see the Chinese imports as a threat to his family business. "They don't have a future. People will not like them much because they don't last long." ... He says the imported yurts will only last two or three seasons, while the traditionally crafted felt yurts can last generations, if cared for properly."

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China How The World Works Kyrgyzstan