Posts Tagged ‘Silk Road’

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”.


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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Osh seems to me a tough, gloomy place on the whole. Admittedly, I’ve only been here 24 hours, and last night included ingredients such as a hot airless room, mosquitos, bedbugs (luckily only imagined) and bowels. The hard-core travellers among you have all been there. So I’m not exactly Mr. Cheerful today. Sometimes it’s no bad thing to ignore the guidebook waffle and have a good old grumpy look at what’s in front of you.

Peasants picking cottonYesterday on the way to the Kyrgyz border, things did indeed look very guidebook. The Fergana Valley is, hereabouts, a green and pleasant land, thanks to effective irrigation schemes fed by glacial melt from the massive mountain ranges to the east. We stopped the taxi for a moment to get a photo of merry peasants picking cotton.

The road south to the border is a straight, wide shady avenue between pleasant homesteads where life looks pretty good.

We overtook healthy, brown old guys on bicycles wearing Uzbek skullcaps. I was a bit surprised, and said to Diane, “This is very, very quiet for the main road to the border”. I had a little sideways glance at the taxi driver. I was reassured that he was not enacting a dastardly plot to take us off somewhere to rob us, or that he was only kidding when he said he knew the way to the border (too many years’ travelling can give rise, in my case anyway, to this kind of paranoid musing).

The border itself was weirdly quiet. The various officials were in the usual midday condition of virtual somnambulism, but we got through border security, Uzbek customs (and certificates were not even mentioned), emigration, immigration and Kyrgyz customs in a sprightly 50 minutes. Luckily, we were just in front of a Russian tour group. As they rolled up at the desk, the Uzbek customs officials exchanged glances and decided to take their lunch break. But nobody else was crossing. We were the only candidates for a kindly old taxi driver for the few kilometres into Osh.

We guessed there must be other border points more convenient for locals. Not so. Today we found out that the border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has been effectively closed to locals since fighting in Osh just over a year ago. The riots seem to have been an attack on the Uzbek minority here by the majority Kyrgyz. No doubt there are many versions of what happened and why. The trouble spread to nearby Jalalabad and in the two Housing in Oshcities 200 died and 200,000 fled their homes. The first hand evidence is that the whole city feels very neglected and un-cared for, that a lot of the bazaar is burnt out, that a couple of people who’ve talked about it are very, very unhappy and not a little scared and that the vibe on the street seems to me gloomy and tense.

This province is isolated from the spectacular and mountainous northwest, geographically, politically and culturally. There’s a very large (40%) Uzbek minority and Osh fits into the business and agricultural context of the Fergana Valley towns- all the others are over the border in Uzbekistan. Closing the border must have completely knocked the stuffing out of the bustle, energy and joie-de-vivre of the place. It’s a border town, after all.

Having said all that, we’ve already come across the warmth and friendliness that often came our way in Uzbekistan and there’s clearly plenty of positive energy around the young people we’ve met. But glossy silk route tourist brochure territory it ain’t!

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