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The Three Treasures of Khotan

Remote and tiny as it is, tucked into China's farthest western corner, Khotan has for centuries been famed throughout China and Central Asia as the home of “three treasures”: silk, jade and carpets. Gul noted that whenever a Chinese leader needs to present a gift to a foreign dignitary, the item is often sourced from Khotan: elaborately carved pieces of white “mutton-fat” jade (the best quality, despite the dubious name), lengths of shimmering Atlas silk, or custom-made, hand-woven rugs. We felt lucky to see how all three treasures are still created, by hand, according to centuries-old traditions.

From Cocoons to Couture

The Atlas Silk Factory was pretty quiet on October 2 due to the week-long national holiday, but a few workers were keeping the wheels turning (literally) for the benefit of us tourists (ONLY us – we did see a few other foreigners during our visit, but Khotan is fairly far off the main tourist track).

A gentle whirring sound greeted us as we rounded a corner and found three women unraveling cocoons and spinning the silk into thread – by hand, using techniques first invented in China thousands of years ago.

The process begins with silk cocoons, shown here on a handmade rug.
The cocoons are gently boiled to dissolve the glue holding all the threads together.
While the cocoons are boiling, a woman with hands as tough as leather reaches in, scoops up a cocoon, finds the end of the thread, and hooks it up to a wheel that whirs it together with threads of 10 other cocoons, creating a single fine, strong strand.
The strand then passes to her partner, who weaves the thread onto a large spindle.
The spinner pumps the wheel with one hand, tending to her breast-feeding baby with the other.
A second woman arrived and set up her own wheel, and started spinning away. We watched for quite awhile – the spinning was hypnotic.
Miranda and Sami tried spinning a really BIG wheel themselves!

We followed the thread, so to speak, to the weaving workshop, where several teenage boys and a girl were poised over wooden foot-pedal looms, weaving colorful, fat, pre-dyed skeins into lengths of special Atlas silk cloth:

This young girl got nervous as we watched, and fumbled her shuttle a few times, but soon found her rhythm – pumping both feet, tossing the shuttle back and forth, and pushing the heavy wooden loom with her feet and hands to compact the threads. Sami was impressed to learn that the girl had gone to a special training school to learn the trade – but a little taken aback when she realized that at age 15, that was all the schooling the girl would ever get. And there's no recess in the weaving workshop.

Our friends Janis and David had given us going-away gifts of I-shot Polaroid cameras, and we put them to their first use at the silk factory, snapping shots of the workers and giving them away before taking our own photos. Miranda enjoyed handing them out to our subjects in the silk factory shop!

We ended up using the Polaroids as calling cards of sorts throughout our visit, and found that the tiny pictures gave enormous pleasure to the recipients, kids and grown-ups alike.

Treasure No. 2 - Carpets

From the silk factory, we proceeded to learn about a second treasure of Khotan: Shand-woven carpets.

Many looms were idle due to the holiday, but several teams of women were weaving away, hands flashing with curved, ultra-sharp knives that snapped off each thread, knotting them so quickly that their fingers were a blur.

It takes six women about one month to complete a large area rug.

We noticed that while the workers were all women, the supervisors – who didn’t appear to do much besides stand around and step outside for cigarette breaks – were all men. Gul explained that in their culture, women do most of the work, including the farming, while men make the decisions, smoke, and drink tea.

Gul pointed out a Chinese sign stating the factory work ethic: Do a good job today - or you won’t have a job tomorrow. In today’s China, that passes for motivation!

Moving on from the weaving room, Tom was delighted to get permission to enter an enormous room crammed with hulking, ancient-looking, oily machines for processing wool into fine thread. Turns out we were permitted inside only because the machine weren’t working due to a power outage! Sami enjoyed tossing around wads of soft wool, and we saw another bale stopped midway through the carding process.

On the way out, an elaborately lettered chalkboard caught the girls' eye because they recognized the big red central character, “huo,” which means “fire.”

The board specified all the precautions to prevent fire of the highly flammable wool. Gul told us that in the 1980s, much of the factory had burned down. The board claimed that even Chairman Mao, a hard-core smoker, had extinguished his cigarette on his visit to the factory!

Speaking of Mao, his image turned up in the factory’s on-site store. Gul said that this carpet was literally priceless – many people had offered millions of dollars for it, but it was not for sale! Its key feature: Mao's eyes follow you around as you walk from side to side. Mind your revolutionary manners, Miranda - the Chairman is watching YOU!

Tom enjoyed browsing the traditional carpets with Gul, while I found a back room with less traditional but more picturesque motifs.

The camel caravan carpet caught my eye since I knew that we would soon be following in its footsteps – but that’s a different chapter.

By Treasure #3, We Were...Just a Little Jaded!

Two treasures down, one to go…after lunch, we headed over to Khotan’s main jade workshop.






We were officially welcomed with a great sign, a Chinglish-y example of increasingly rare Communist terminology.

When Tom and I lived in China back in the 1980s, people really did address each other as “comrade” all the time, to indicate that everyone was equal in the New [Communist] China. Nowadays, people joke that the only thing communist about China is the name, and traditional salutations are back. Titles like “doctor,” “teacher,” and “taxi driver” are part of everyday address; instead of calling out “Comrade!” to us or other potential customers, people typically holler “Pengyou!” which means friend.

Obviously, change has come slower to Khotan, as the jade shop sign indicates, but the pace of progress seems to be accelerating as part of Beijing’s "Develop the West" program, officially launched in 1998 and accelerated in the last few years as China's massive energy needs has caused Beijing to be newly aware and solicitous of its oil-rich Central Asian province.

China's central government has always tried to keep its restive minorities in line. When the restive minorities control the oil pipelines, Beijing is learning that a few development dollars go a long way toward ensuring tolerable relations.

As a visual display of Beijing's desire to promote at least a surface appearance of positive Han-Uighur relations, we present this statue of Mao shaking hands with a Uighur farmer. (Note how Mao - he's the big guy on the left - symbolically towers over his "little brother.") The propaganda piece fronts an open space designed as a scaled-down version of Tiananmen Square. Gul told us the plaza was a little more than a year old – physical evidence of China’s moves to bring Xinjiang more into the (Chinese) cultural mainstream.

But back to jade, the third of Khotan’s three treasures. As Westerners, we freely admit that we have little knowledge and zero appreciation for this stone, which is not terribly rare but to which the Chinese ascribe all manner of virtuous, medicinal and mystical qualities. Many Chinese people wear jade bracelets or a little jade pendant on a string around their necks, put there when they are children and worn until death; these are believed to give protection against germs, evil spirits, and who knows, maybe even counterrevolutionary impulses.

We, on the other hand, just enjoyed watching the process of carving the stuff. Listening, however, is not enjoyable – over a dozen whining drills in one room was incredibly noisy! Not a place to visit if you have dental aversion.

First, each artist used a pencil to lightly mark on a stone the cuts to be made.
Then – let the drilling begin!

Before our eyes, (and with ears firmly plugged), all manner of things emerged from the stones – Buddha, Guanyin (the goddess of mercy, a popular motif) and my personal favorite, a mythical animal usually found in pairs stationed outside banks.

The animal (I can't remember its name) resembles a combo of lion, dragon and dog, but it is, we were told, a one-of-a-kind creature with a unique biology – it eats and eats, but never poops! This symbolizes that the bank will keep your money safe inside and won’t let it leak out!

Tom and I browsed the jade shop (with no intention of buying – our MO was to locate the most expensive items, then wonder aloud to each other why anyone would pay so much money for something so ugly! Bad foreigners.)

Meanwhile, the girls amused themselves with magnetic bracelets bought at Beijing’s Hongqiao market. Sold as jewelry, they are actually the perfect toy – you can bend, fold, and worry them into a zillion shapes. The girls find them endlessly amusing.

These toy-bracelets have proved their worth during airport delays, bus trips through the desert (more on that ahead), restaurants with slow service, and other boring situations grown-ups insist on dragging you into.

Next: A Tip-Top Toy for Tom (I mean, "for the girls"...)


Xinjiang chapter shortcuts: Intro Urumqi
Khotan Treasures Toy Bazaar Camel Weaving Shakeer Hats Food Costume Bowls Camel Ride
Overland Kashgar Old City Bazaar Kindergarten Rural Life Reunion

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