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Posts Tagged ‘brocade’

10-4000-islands-7

Finally we’ve reached the “4,000 islands” in the far south of Laos, where the Mekong River widens out as far as the eye can see, and is dotted with hundreds if not thousands of islands. The pace of life is now so slow it seems to grind to a halt. The default position here is horizontal – hammocks hang around every house and restaurant, every guesthouse room has at least one – woven from bamboo or tatty string or cloth and even special swinging baskets for the babies (of which there are many).

Almost every restaurant  here has a large platform with mattresses and pillows and low tables. There’s one at our guesthouse. Crawling out of bed and making it the few dozen yards to the table means that as long as you can attract the attention of someone to bring food and drink, you are tempted not to move again for the rest of the day.

There’s a group of French folk staying at our guesthouse who’ve hardly moved in the three days we’ve been here. There are 5 of them but they’ve only taken one room where they can keep all their stuff and take a shower now and again – otherwise they sleep on the seat-beds or in a hammock, roll up their sleeping bags in the morning and order brekkies. We’ve christened them “les pommes de terre couchantes”.

The Lao people here in the south lead a pleasant and almost self sufficient life which seems pretty good. Every family has a boat so they can fish or take the tourists out to a water-fall or to see the very precious Irrawaddy dolphins, or to the mainland for a bus or an ATM. Chickens, ducks and pigs are free, the dogs are friendly and so are the kids.With no cars around, they dash about on bikes, splash in the river or poke at trees with long sticks. The tourists bring in more than enough income it would seem and entertainment is provided by sharing meals and the telly on dawn til dusk (Thai boxing and soaps mostly). Work is done in the early morning before the searing hot sun gets going and in the early evening in that short and magic time between sundown and dark.

We speculate about what they think of us and the strange lives we lead. What do they tell their kids about the foreigners who seem to have nothing to do and endless amounts of money to spend?

In southern Laos, it’s the old colonisers, the French who are most in evidence. Their great-grandfathers came here and took the teak, tin, coffee, opium and rubber out. When the Lao decided to “Take back Control of their Own Country” (something we seem to be hearing a lot about lately) they were carpet bombed and  land mined for their trouble. But even after all that, the French are still here and they’re still sitting around ordering beer, baguettes and espressos!  By the way, I don’t mean to single out the French, any colonial power would do, it’s just that in Laos it was the French and here in southern Laos they must make up about 80% of the “farangs

We started this trip, a month ago in the north of the country, where things have changed a lot since I was here 12 years ago. Yes, there are ATMs now and roads where there never were any roads and lots more people speak English, but the big change is that the north is being colonised again – this time by China.

In northern Laos it’s all about the power of China – in some cases literally – “Power China” is building dams and massive hydro-electric schemes and bringing in their own crews, machinery and finance to do so. With the permission of the Laos Government, Chinese companies are tearing down the forests and planting huge plantations of rubber, teak and banana. To get to all of this, they are building bridges and roads. This has the knock on effect of bringing tourists in from China too! It happened that we were in northern Laos over Chinese New Year and about three quarters of the cars on the road had Chinese number plates. There are even Chinese campervanners now, behaving exactly the same as their northern European counterparts travelling down to the Med, camping up in the best parking spots next to the coast/Mekong riverbank. Big three generation families and groups of friends racketing around laughing and shouting, getting drunk and enjoying hotpot barbecue banquets, all having a great time and generally behaving like rowdy old Brits on holiday on the Costa Brava.

Five things I love about Laos

  1. The rivers – the Mekong is the Big Momma of them all but there are rivers everywhere. They are great to travel on, fish in, swim in, wash in, wallow in (if you’re a buffalo) and have a beer while staring out at. The only downside is now that more roads have been built, riverboat services are quickly becoming extinct.
  2. Weaving (of course!) Lao women continue to wear hand woven sarongs and there are many villages where there’s a loom under every house, so that means lots of potential for textile based travel decisions. Brocades, very complicated patterned weaves, supplementary weft techniques, and ikat are all alive and well. One of my favourite days was spent dyeing and weaving silk at “Ock Pop Tok” in Luang Prabang. One of my new discoveries in Laos is Katu weaving. Naturally  dyed weavings with patterns of tiny beads made by Katu women.
  3. Herbal steam bath followed by a massage – one of the things which bring you into direct contact (literally) with Lao people. Sharing a very dark, very hot and very steamy wooden cupboard with a dozen or so sarong clad Lao women is kinda fun.
  4. Village life. Cycling or walking around a village especially at dusk is just fantastic. Football games are played, kids bathed, food cooked, cloth woven, chickens fed, cows and goats rounded up, nets mended, and gardens watered.
  5. BeerLaos – there’s only one kind of beer sold in Laos. but it’s pretty good and it’s only a quid for a big bottle, so no problem there. Oh, and noodle soup – the absolute lunchtime staple, which comes in a basin big enough to stick your head in and is usually accompanied by a plateful of greenery.
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Chengdu is another huge city (over 4 million) but we have decided to take it on and stay a few days – helped by the fact that Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel is by far the best place we’ve stayed for quite a while. My God, it’s positively cosmic providing decent music in the bar, a huge library of dvds to play in your room and the sorts of foodstuffs we Westerners crave. The staff seem to enjoy being helpful and best of all they provide a map of the city and the bus system. It is of course full of young people, but that can’t be helped.

After a couple of days we’ve explored the local area, its park and wet market and enjoyed the “laid back”* feel of folk playing cards and mah jong under the trees. We’ve hopped on the buses like old hands and visited the city’s temples, markets and even “downtown”.

(* Lonely Planet’s favourite word)

Statue of Mao and fountainsA huge statue of Mao Tse Tung stands there in the middle of The Avenue of The People, his arm raised benevolently over the nearby Starbucks and McDonalds, the Citibank, and the shops selling Cartier and Armani. Chinese approximations of abysmal American rock “classics” play along to his fountains. Oh Mao, what has happened to your dream?

Actually Chengdu isn’t bad and it would be even better if the sun could just fight its way through the smog. Some parts of the city have been restored to resemble what China is supposed to have been like once with tea houses, cobbled lanes and handicraft shops.

These parts are regulated by the Chengdu Municipal Spiritual Civilisation Office and its rules are posted at the entrances. Amongst others:

  • “Don’t jump the queue”.
  • “Don’t chase or beat animal”
  • “Do not be out for small advantages”
  • “Don’t force foreign tourists to take photos”
  • “Do not utter dirty words”
  • “Advocate a happy and healthy way of life. Resist superstition. Avoid pornography, gambling and drug”.

Exactly!

Well, we’ve done our tourist bit, we’ve even been to the Chinese opera. What an experience! Somewhere between the sublime and the hellish loud. It included a hand shadow show, lots of very loud singing, a poignant puppet show, some very loud Chinese trumpet playing, a terrific scolding wife/contrite husband slapstick act and some very spooky instantaneous costume and mask changing. The VIP seats have tea bowls filled by waiters brandishing watering cans with extremely long spouts and the audience just love it all, shouting “Ho!” at the good bits.

And as if that’s not enough, we find that we’ve stumbled on to a second Silk Route – the southern route which connected south-western China with Burma, India and Persia. We’d thought we’d left the Silk Route when we headed south but we’re back on another one.

I’ve also discovered that Chengdu was once known as Brocade City, the river where the silk brocade was soaked was known as the Brocade River and silk brocade fabrics from Chengdu were highly prized and traded all along the Silk Route.

Following this up on the internet (yes, we have free Wi-Fi at groovy Sim’s!) leads us to search out the “Shu Brocade and Embroidery Museum”. We were prepared for disappointment, perhaps it would just be another excuse for a souvenir handicraft store. Instead we got one of the best textile museums we’ve been to – a fantastic exhibition, a great demonstration, very good English labels and all free!

The exhibition shows examples of amazing brocaded silks -reproductions of original pieces excavated from ancient sites on the Silk Route. These have been recreated on the museum’s painstakingly manufactured copies of the original looms. There are also breath-takingly fine embroideries and wonderful pieces of silk costume.

Downstairs there are four brocade looms. On one of them there is a young woman weaving a design of Sichuan opera masks. A chap sits half way back on a high platform – two people are needed to work the loom with its incredibly complex system of heddles, 16 pedals, sheds, shuttles and reeds. The chap up top is one of only two “masters” who know how to set up the loom so that it can produce the complex patterns required. It takes about ten years to learn it all.

There are 8,192 warp yarns which can be selected and manipulated to allow for endless possibilities and it’s these combinations which form the design. On average they can weave 5 or 6 cms. a day and this “Emperor’s” fabric sells for around £680 per metre!

Well, that’s the price they’ve put on it in the museum shop but I can’t say we saw anyone actually buying it.

I don’t suppose the project could possibly support itself through sales – the museum is a private initiative, with government funding. But to be able to watch skills and tools which have been used across the centuries and through the dynasties since 225 BC, was a privilege and an inspiration. Full respect to the team that put the whole thing together.

However, it has to be said that their skills are pretty redundant these days as this slow process was totally superseded once the steam driven jacquard loom was invented. This was followed by electric powered looms, and nowadays huge, power looms with integrated computers make our fabrics.

Sichuan brocade may be on the list of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage, but we just don’t have to do things that way anymore!

As if to prove the point, the same day we visit the art and antique market where there’s a stall selling brocade. It’s bright and shiny and rather lovely (or a bit naff, depending on your taste) A machine made silk jacket will set you back about 15 quid and a nice machine embroidered cushion cover £3. Obviously, on close inspection, the brocade woven in the traditional way is much more complex, precise and beautiful, and the hand embroidery is certainly way superior.

The thing is that in the days when Chengdu silk brocade was traded on the Silk Route, there were no power looms, no computer programmes and simply no other way of producing brocade. There were 2,000 workshops and 10,000 looms in Chengdu and everyone in the city had a silk brocade suit of clothes. So there were obviously customers, and if you wanted to dazzle with the brilliance of your outfit you just had to pay the price!

These days you don’t have to be rich to dress in brocaded or embroidered silk – we can all have it without the huge expense needed to make it.

So it’s almost impossible for us to imagine the wonder and delight people must have felt when they saw textiles like that, especially if they had come all the way along the Silk Route!

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