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In Germany, Home Is Where The Yurt Is

A Mongolian yurt in Germany
A Mongolian yurt in Germany
Titus Arnu

ÜBERLINGEN AM BODENSEE — Nadja Schotthöfer and David Schuster decided against the German Dream — a semi-detached house with garden, flat-screen TV, living room suite, fitted kitchen. They live in a yurt, where their child was born.

Outside, a warm wind caresses the tall grasses, and it smells like hay drying in the sun. The cherry tree leaves are rustling, and starlings and crows are feeding on the nearly ripe fruit. Crickets make chirping sounds. The noises in this orchard in Überlingen am Bodensee, a German town on the northern shore of Lake Constance, create the orchestra of summer.

Inside the yurt, red beets are cooking in a pot. Schotthöfer’s hands are bright red from peeling them. “The color’s so beautiful, it's a shame I have to wash it off,” she says.

Schuster, wearing some leather short-shorts and a woolen jacket, sits cross-legged nearby enjoying the peaceful vibe. Little Frieda, the couple’s one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, has fallen asleep as her mother prepares lunch.

The noises inside the tent mix agreeably with those outside, just as the smells of the food fuse with the smell of hay. In a yurt, you’re both inside and outside at the same time, the only separation between living space and nature being two layers of sheep, horse and yak hair weave. The felt breathes and keeps the heat out during the day and the cold out at night.

Underneath the light wood boards on the floor is meadow. “We live with nature, in nature,” Schuster says. He and his partner have been living in the yurt for more than two years. “I can absolutely not imagine having an apartment anymore, much less having to go to an office five days a week,” he says. “What total horror.”

A simple life

A yurt — a Turkish word meaning “home” — is the traditional housing of Mongolian nomads. It is a cross between a house and a tent. The walls consist of a folding wooden frame, felt, and canvas. The yurt can be taken down within a couple of hours and folded up so small it fits on the backs of two camels — or in this case, the load space of a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

This type of shelter might make sense for nomads moving their livestock across the Steppes — but two young Germans?

The pair says their decision to build their own yurt was motivated by a desire to own and spend less — and to reduce stress. They wanted more time, more freedom, and to be closer to nature. “We’ve gotten rid of most of our stuff,” Schuster says.

Their circular home is six meters (19.6 feet) in diameter and has room for nearly everything the young family now possesses. They don’t need a lot: a bed, a couple of stools, a cast-iron wood-burning stove, a few kitchen utensils, some tools, an accordion, carved wooden toys, a chest of clothes.

A simple wooden shelf contains 12 books: plant guides, picture books and a title by French photographer and director Éric Valli about living wild. The Valli book profiles people who have chosen different lifestyles than “regular” folks – a woman who now lives like a Stone Age hunter, for example, and a banker turned trapper.

“You get used to it”

Unlike some of the burnouts in Valli’s book, Schotthöfer and Schuster weren’t entirely fed up with civilization when they decided to make a yurt their permanent home. They had always lived close to nature, and been interested in crafts, the traditions of early man, and alternative lifestyles. They met at a woodcarving school in Oberammergau and soon moved in together.

Their first shared living space was a conventional apartment. Schotthöfer worked several jobs, including as a newspaper deliveryperson, museum guard and waitress. Schuster completed training as a wilderness instructor and started teaching bow-making courses and wilderness seminars, which is how he earns money today.

Somewhere along the way he built his first yurt — and Schotthöfer loved the mobile accommodation from the start. “Nature has a very healing effect on us,” says Schuster, whose long blond hair and beard would make him a perfect Jesus in the world-renowned Oberammergau Passion Play. He believes the round form of the yurt is good for the soul because he says all the right angles in conventional housing give him a terrible “boxed in” feeling.

He also praises their abode for its harmony and romance. But what about when it rains and rains, like it did in May? Or in winter when it’s -10° Celcius (14° Fahrenheit) and water has to be fetched at the well and wood chopped? And doesn’t everybody being in the same room all the time sometimes get annoying? Couldn't those things also make you feel “boxed in”?

Schotthöfer says that, yes, living in nature is sometimes more difficult than it is in an apartment with central heating, an electric range, and refrigerator “but you get used to it.” Every morning, Schuster schleps a 10-liter tank of water to the yurt from the well. That usually covers enough for one day — drinking water, water for cleaning and washing, and some for a kind of rinsing station. Full immersion happens twice a week in the nearby lake or a river, and they use the toilet in a neighboring farmhouse.

Normally they cook on the woodstove in the middle of the yurt, but that makes their home too hot during the summer months. That's when they switch to two electric burners, fed by cable from the farm 200 meters away leased by friends.

Schotthöfer and Schuster, both 30, are serious about trying to limit their carbon footprint. They got the red beets, which were too small and wrinkly to sell at market, free from an area farm. They gather nettles and cook them like vegetables. The taste is surprisingly good. During the summer, the farm well where they get their water is an ersatz fridge where they keep perishables and organic beer that tastes a lot better chilled than warm.

Dreams for the future

They moved to this space near Lake Constance from Upper Bavaria a few months ago. For next year they plan to create a vegetable garden. Schuster dreams of a whole yurt village, where he could pass on his love of nature to the kids. He says he could easily see living in a yurt for the rest of his life, “a mixture of tribesman and organic farmer, with a few modern amenities.”

Schotthöfer says that some things about yurt living require more effort and time than conventional living, but they also save a lot of time because much of what apartment and house dwellers have to deal with — like washing windows and cleaning bathrooms — is nonexistent for yurt dwellers.

“You don’t have the pressure to earn a lot of money to pay a high rent for an expensive city life,” Schuster says. Their family needs no more than about 10,000€ ($13,300) a year to live, which covers insurance, clothes and food. They are fine without luxuries, he insists.

But along with those two electric burners, there are a couple of other compromises: They have a cell phone, a computer and a car, without which Schuster’s work and other demands of life couldn't be organized.

Another compromise concerns the yurt itself. Schuster cut a space in the roof and inserted transparent plastic sheeting to let in light during the day. At night, they can lie in bed and look at the stars.

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