Posts Tagged ‘UNESCO’

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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We have started our journey from its furthest western point – the truly amazing town of Khiva in Uzbekistan. The first sight of it is gob smacking – towering mud brick walls surround an inner city of a square kilometre where every house and street is the same pale sandy colour. But what buildings! Mosques and minarets, palaces and medressas, domes and courtyards of stunning turquoise blue tiles.

Khiva seems to have been ruled over by a succession of cruel and bloodthirsty Khans who enjoyed enslaving, beheading, and generally behaving very badly. It was eventually conquered by the Russians and 50 or so years later by the Bolsheviks and became part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist State and thus the USSR in 1924. The place was so impressive that even the Soviet planning department left it alone.

I chose the Meros B and B because of a book called “Carpet Ride to Khiva” which I read last year. The author lodged with the family here for 7 years and while he was here, started a silk carpet weaving workshop and later an embroidery workshop which are both nearby. Once we decided to come to Uzbekistan, I knew I wanted to visit Khiva and see the workshops. Anyway, the house is full of kilims and embroidered suzanis, the family is welcoming, the view from the roof is great and our balcony looks out on the western wall, so it was a pretty good choice.

The weaving workshop is in an old madressa with a domed courtyard surrounded by lots of small rooms where the women sit at looms knotting silk into beautiful carpets. The dyestuffs used to dye the silk are all natural – pomegranate and onion skins, madder and indigo, walnut and oak galls. They have to get a lot of it from Afghanistan which is expensive and somewhat hazardous these days.

The weavers sit three abreast knotting furiously, beating down ferociously and listening to loud pop music but they are all very jolly and even understand our Turkish (yay!)

Madrim, the master dyer shows us where the silk is dyed. He drives us a couple of miles down a potholed track, through a blue door and into a garden full of madder plants. There are bowls of onions skins with apple, mulberry and vine leaves, pomegranate skins and madder, alum mordants and steaming vats of wood ash and grated soap which are used to scour and wash the silk before dyeing it.

The workshop was set up about 10 years ago with help from UNESCO and The British Council but now they have to stand on their own two feet and so they’re trying to produce more dyestuffs locally and experiment with using wool which is cheaper than silk.

The silk carpets themselves are stunning. The designs come from the tile work and the enormous carved wooden doors in Khiva. Jim and I both fall in love with one particular carpet and we think long and hard, but the price is beyond us – especially at the beginning of a long trip.

This blog is going to feature one particular textile from each of the places we visit. If we could have spared a thousand quid it would have been the carpet……… however…….the project has also set up an embroidery workshop, employing another 24 women. Here the same naturally dyed silk is used to produce the traditional embroideries commonly known as suzanis for which Central Asia is famous. We can afford 2 exquisite cushion covers, one featuring a design painstakingly copied from an ancient hand-carved door, the other taken from beautiful old tiles.

So that’s what we got from Khiva. The carpet’s still waiting there, giving us a very good reason to go back one day.

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