|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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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"...)