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OK! At the end of two 23 hour train journeys we’re finally out of the desert, and into farmland with small holdings and recognisable crops. We’ve crossed into Gansu province and its famous “Hexi Corridor” a narrow stretch of flat land between mountains which Silk Route caravans had to pass through on their way to the West from China.

From here various warmongering Emperors of their various warmongering dynasties sent out their storm troopers to conquer more territory and people for themselves. Xinjiang was known as “The Middle Kingdom”, and so at last we’re now hitting China proper.

Suddenly there are massive building sites as far as the eye can see and quite literally hundreds of building cranes. We thought we were coming into a fairly manageable provincial capital called Lanzhou, but let’s look in Lonely Planet – exactly how big is Lanzhou? Oh, it says it has a population of 3,200,000 – as big as Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow combined. It has probably reached 4 million by now!

 

A complete shock to the system as we emerge from the station to be hit by a barrage of blaring car horns and the sudden need for 360˚ vision to a cross a road and survive. We quickly decide that the 2 or 3 days of city life we had planned can probably be squeezed into an afternoon.

That afternoon is spent sitting in taxis in barely moving traffic (the buses having defeated us), taking a look at the mighty Yellow River (and it is indeed a sort of brownish yellowy colour) and riding a cable car above the permanent smog which envelops the city to a view of the concrete blocks surrounding the fabled river in every direction. It’s not exactly a hell hole but it’ll do til one comes along (and I suppose it will)

Enough! Call me a country bumpkin and a wimp but I want back to the countryside ASAP.

A few short hours and we’re out into the villages again with terraced fields and people busy with their autumnal jobs, drying corn cobs and stacking maize stalks, ancient brick works with hillside kilns and most surprisingly, mosques all over the place. This is an area with a high percentage of Chinese Muslims, the Hui. They were almost completely massacred in the 1870s but have obviously bounced back. Judging by the number of mosques, their faith is now not only tolerated but positively encouraged – but then, these days they are much less bumptious than the Uyghurs.

Our bus keeps climbing higher and we start to see prayer flags in the fields, an old lady with long plaits, a monk in the whole maroon robes get-up and children with very rosy cheeks get on the bus and before we know it we’re in full-on Tibetan mode.

We had no idea, but this area along the borders of western China is inhabited mostly by Tibetans. And Xiahe where we get off is not only a majority Tibetan town but it’s also a place of Buddhist pilgrimage. The Labrang Monastery which houses 1,200 monks is one of the 6 major monasteries of the Yellow Hat order (and the Dalai Lama is the head Yellow Hat) so it’s a pretty big deal. The town is full of guesthouses, shops and teahouses, catering for the hordes of mostly rural Tibetans who turn up by the coach and truck load. And what a colourful lot they are.

Tibetans are another minority who look, sound, write and behave nothing like the Han Chinese. They’re a noisy, exuberant bunch – probably because although they’re on a pilgrimage, it’s also a bit of a holiday. They’re also incredibly exotic.

Old guys in trilbies and sun glasses with prayer beads, old girls with long plaits in chunky trainers and sunhats, hunky young guys with long hair and mobile phones in fur lined robes, young women in face masks, coral necklaces, wide leather belts and brocade robes. Oh, and monks everywhere!

Walking the 3 km pilgrims path (kora) all around the outside of the monastery spinning the 1,174 prayer wheels as you go is a great way of having a laugh with them exotic Tibetan pilgrims. The longer path around the top of the mountains looking down on it all is even better.

But nowhere is perfect. The part of town where poor Tibetans live is pretty dire with mud alleyways, litter tips and no drains (I hate to think what the medieval sewage system is like). The Chinese “quarter” is tower blocks and the ever present building sites – what for? More hotels? More housing blocks?

This journey through China is becoming a tour of the borderlands and therefore of the minorities who live here, and no less interesting for it, perhaps. Xiahe has totally bowled us over anyway; I hope the photos give you a flavour.

After a couple of fantastic days here, Jim arrives back from a foray to the shops with a rug under his arm (at last!) It’s Tibetan, its wool, and the designs look typical but more than that we don’t really know.

It’s obviously time I found out more about Tibetan textiles!


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A shyrdak from KochkorKochkor is a perfectly ordinary little Kyrgyz town. It has its fair share of picturesque, dusty, poplar lined streets, its open man holes, clapped out Ladas and “mountain” Audis, men in white felt hats and large women in flowery head scarves. It may have more than its fair share of men sitting on street corners playing cards, grocers shops with not many groceries but 65 different varieties of vodka and indeed plenty of members of the all-day VDC (Vodka Drinking Community).

Kochkor womenKochkor

Kochkor menVodka

However it does have some good home stays and it’s a centre for shyrdaks. What the hell are shyrdaks? I hear you ask. A few weeks ago I asked the same question, and now I can tell you the answer in perhaps too much detail. A shyrdak is a felt rug and you will find several of them in every Kyrgyz house or yurt you visit. Every Kyrgyz woman makes a large shyrdak and a large alagi’iz (that’s another kind of felt rug) for each daughter she has and gives them to her when she gets married. They are also a good way of using up some of that surplus sheep’s wool and of generating some much needed income.

Jim in shyrdak shopKochkor is a well-known centre for buying these rugs and so that’s why we’re here. We are lucky to meet Dinara (a very confident and competent 27) in the “Altyn Kol” (Golden Hands) handicrafts shop. There are lots of shyrdaks on sale made by thirty or so different women who live in Kochkor and the surrounding area.

First of all Dinara takes us to meet an elderly lady who is one of her best shyrdak makers. She is working in the back yard at her home and she makes all her rugs herself from start to finish.

This involves

  1. preparing the wool
  2. making the felt (you are already an expert in how felt is made – if not, read my last post)
  3. drawing the design and cutting out the felt
  4. spinning the yarn used for the edging
  5. sewing the pieces together
  6. quilting the top felt onto its felt backing.

Here’s some pictures of some of that…

Making shyrdaksMaking shyrdaksMaking shyrdaks
After all that we have to buy some. Most of the colours are just a little too bright for our subdued British tastes, so we go for the ones in natural wool colours. However we can also order rugs and that way we get to choose the colours and designs we’d like, and even better news, Dinara will ship them to us when they are ready!

So there we are all ready to leave Kochkor with six shyrdaks and full rucksacks to carry and now we just need to find a shared taxi. The price is right and there are already two passengers, so all is well – the only problem is that there’s a quarter of a dead cow in the boot and its bloody carcass is leaking through the totally inadequate bit of cardboard it’s sitting on. There is no way we are going to allow our precious rugs anywhere near that!

No problem! Passenger transporting said carcass to his friend in the city is despatched to fetch plastic bags to cover it up a bit and we gingerly allow our bags in the boot. Honestly fussy bloody tourists! It’s just another typical Kyrgyz moment.

ShyrdakMaking a shyrdak

Making shyrdaks can be communal work and baby- sitting may also be incorporated. Here the felt backing layer is being quilted onto a very large rug.

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