Journeying the Silk Road – Part V – The Southern Silk Road; between Tibet and Taklamakan

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Part V – The Southern Silk Road, skirting and passing through the Taklamakan Desert

Lop - Niya (11)

The sunlit peaks of the Kunlun Mountain Range floating above the horizon far off in the distance. They were snow capped and massive; a huge wall of rock between Xinjiang and Tibet.

Taklamakan (62)

The Taklamakan Desert, the world’s second largest shifting sand desert.

Yarkand (24)

The mosque of Yarkand.

Introduction: I’m dusting off my journal. A journal that’s travelled some 12,000 km with me through some of the world’s most remote, highest and desolate regions and along the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road. I’m excited to share this adventure with you; make your self a nice cup of chai (a masala chai will make it especially good), get comfortable, and sate your wanderlust! Read Part I herePart II here, Part III here and Part IV here.

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Day eight | 11 September| Kashgar to Yengisar  to Yarkand to Khargilik to Khotan

We left Kashgar at 9.30 this morning after waiting 30 minutes to check out (check out is a lengthy activity to be factored into the schedule of each day!). The route, skirting the southern side of the Taklamakan Desert and passing through dusty oasis towns shaded by poplars and lined with brick walls, must have been a difficult journey 2000 years ago and without much security. The only difference I could note in each oasis town we passed was the size; otherwise from what we saw they were all very similar. Men and women flocked along the main road on their donkey carts to and from market, and cultivated grapes in verandaed gardens. Poplars lined the main road – a modern iteration of the ancient southern route of the Silk Road, which today passes the same villages and towns as it did thousands of years ago. Small water canals follow the side of the road, carrying water to thirsty plots of land.

The first stop was Yengisar; essentially a one road town. The only thing we could see was an array of knife shops along the highway, for which the town is famous. The knives were actually quite nice, with inlaid handles of bone, wood, and metal and carvings of Uighur or Chinese script or dragons along the blades. Next stop was Yarkand for lunch. We went to a Uighur teahouse and had laghman. Next stop was Khargilik, where we stopped at the bus station to get some information for my planned trip to Tibet from here later this month.

Khotan was a comparatively large Chinese city. The Chinese areas are soulless – wide streets and big buildings and absolutely nothing with charm or character; but the small pockets of Uighur residences and restaurants such as the cluster of restaurants where we stopped for dinner have much more vibrancy. The hotel, though comfortable, was dead, while the restaurant chairs and tables along the street side hummer with lively banter of men and women enjoying noodles and kebabs.

Yarkand

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Yarkand (2)

Day nine | 12 September | Khotan to Lop to Niya

This morning an exploration around Khotan City revealed t to be quite drab and a totally Sinicised city. After breakfast, included in the hotel cost, (a variety of cold veges, some pickled and some fried; not much to fill the bellies of explorers like us!), we made our way South looking for a branch of China Bank to change money and an internet cafe; surprisingly challenging tasks in this part of the world, and neither of which we found. The heart of the city seemed to comprise a large square with a huge statue of Mao (surprise surprise) greeting an old man. Some event was going on there and the place was packed with well behaved school children.

There were 2 sites in Khotan we wanted to see beofre leaving. The first was a site of old pre-Islamic ruins called Melikawat that used to be a major Buddhist centre and Indo-European town thriving in the heyday of the Silk Road. We passed through the outskirts of the town on our way and reached the area where the ruins supposedly lay; what we saw were hordes of people arriving on motorbike and digging in the dry river bed of White Jade River, prospecting for the famous Khotan jade – one of the main and early items traded along the Silk Road. Zunun occupied himself digging while Luc and I went in search, in vain, of some ruins. There were some remnants of something… couldn’t tell you what! But certainly not worthy of a visit. Very interesting to see the gold rush though!

The 2nd site was a silk workshop. It was evident that at some point this atlas karakhana (silk workshop) indeed did display the process of silk weaving, but at this stage it was quite forlorn and looked like it had been abandoned in haste. Old cocoons still sat in bowls, large pots of dusty dye stood idle. The only active place was the shop, where they sold silk carpets and various silk garments and ikat.

***

I’m currently perched very comfortably on a raised platform in front of a chaikhana in Lop. Another quiet, peaceful oasis town; we are located on the corner of two major roads but the few noises are the occasional truck horn or grumble of a tractor and the otherwise relaxing chat and noodle slurping of our fellow lunch companions. Lunch was the usual; irregular sized, home made noodles topped with fried vegetables and a few meagre pieces of fatty meat for decoration, and a kebab.

From Lop on the way to Niya, just as the sun was setting, we caught our first glimpse of the vast Taklamakan Desert; the fringe of the road became sandy and then we saw our first rolling sand dunes. And straight ahead an absolutely breath taking sight – the sunlit peaks of the Kunlun Mountain Range floating above the horizon far off in the distance. They were snow capped and massive; a huge wall of rock between Xinjiang and Tibet. Witnessing this sight one could easily imagine how the high plateau of Tibet must have pulled at the imagination of explorers in times past; and why it still has the same effect on people today.

Khotan (8)

Khotan (12) Khotan (1)

Lop - Niya (17) Lop - Niya (18)

Niya, for it’s fascinating location, was quite a depressing little place. Another soulless spot. We ate at some dismal night markets before retiring for the night.

The Taklamakan Desert, also known as Taklimakan and Teklimakan, is a desert in southwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, northwest China. It is bounded by the Kunlun Mountains to the south, the Pamir Mountains and Tian Shan (ancient Mount Imeon) to the west and north, and the Gobi Desert to the east. The name may be an Areeb Uyghur borrowing of the Arabic tark, “to leave alone/out/behind, relinquish, abandon” + makan, “place”. Another plausible explanation suggests it is derived from Turki taqlar makan, describing “the place of ruins”.

The Taklamakan Desert has an area of 337,000 km2 and includes the Tarim Basin. It is crossed at its northern and at its southern edge by two branches of the Silk Road as travelers sought to avoid the arid wasteland. It is the world’s second largest shifting sand desert with about 85% made up of shifting sand dunes ranking 18th in size in a ranking of the world’s largest deserts.

The People’s Republic of China has constructed a cross-desert highway that links the cities of Hotan (on the southern edge) and Luntai (on the northern edge). In recent years, the desert has expanded in some areas, its sands enveloping farms and villages as a result of desertification.

Because it lies in the rain shadow of the Himalayas,Taklamakan is a paradigmatic cold desert climate. Given its relative proximity with the cold to frigid air masses in Siberia, extreme lows are recorded in wintertime, sometimes well below −20 °C (−4 °F). Its extreme inland position, virtually in the very heartland of Asia and thousands of kilometres from any open body of water, accounts for the cold character of its nights even during summertime.

The Taklamakan Desert has very little water; it is hazardous to cross it. Merchant caravans on the Silk Road would stop for relief at the thriving oasis towns. It was in close proximity to many of the ancient civilizations—to the Northwest is the Amu Darya basin, to the southwest the Afghanistan mountain passes lead to Iran and India, to the east is China, and even to the north ancient towns like Almaty can be found.

The key oasis towns, watered by rainfall from the mountains, were Kashgar, Marin, Niya, Yarkand, and Khotan (Hetian) to the south, Kuqa and Turpan in the north, and Loulan and Dunhuang in the east. Now, many, such as Marin and Gaochang, are ruined cities in sparsely inhabited areas in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China.

The archaeological treasures found in its sand-buried ruins point to Tocharian, early Hellenistic, Indian, and Buddhist influences. Mummies, some 4000 years old, have been found in the region. Later, the Taklamakan was inhabited by Turkic peoples. Starting with the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese periodically extended their control to the oasis cities of the Taklamakan Desert in order to control the important silk route trade across Central Asia. Periods of Chinese rule were interspersed with rule by Turkic, Mongol and Tibetan peoples. The present population consists largely of Turkic Uyghur people.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taklamakan_Desert

Day ten | 13 September | Niya to Taklamakan

To a Uighur teahouse for breakfast in the bazaar – an un-atmospheric line of stalls and teahouses stretched along the main road – where we had some roasted samsas (samosas), fried veges and plain bread. After, we went shopping for supplies for our trip into the desert: raisins, grapes, apples, nectarines, bagels (a Uighur staple), cookies (very untasty), beer, water and half a kilo of cooked mutton. The mountains we saw yesterday were more visible today; still seemingly floating above the horizon.

We left Niya behind, and entered the fringe of the Taklamakan. The road was velveteen, and grassy flatlands lined it, grazed upon by sheep. This gradually petered off and soon enough we were in the thick of the desert; rolling sand dunes stretching off in all directions. The Chinese had recently completed one of their three major national construction schemes in this area (the others being the Lhasa to Beijing railway and The Three Gorges Dam): on either side of the two lane Cross-Desert Highway stretched 10 or so black plastic pipes along the whole length of the 700 km highway. Fed by 106 well way-stations, located every 6 or 7 km along the highway, the pipes dripped water to small shrubs which were lined like a defending army against the encroaching sand. It is they alone that protect the road from disappearing, as the Taklamakan Desert is the world’s “second largest shifting sand desert, with 85% made up of shifting sand dunes”. Without these brave shrubs, fed by these pipes, the road would simply disappear under sand in a few days.

The desert really was a sight; dipping, rolling and climbing. An occasional high clump of sand was kept from blowing away by the roots of some plant perched on its top. It was not too hot with the strong breeze coming through the windows. I slept for part of the way, and listened to some of the Agatha Christie stories and Chinese language tutorials I’d downloaded to my Ipod.

We came upon a turnoff a little into the journey and a sign marked 17km to somewhere unknown to us; too tempted to pass it, we took the turnoff and arrived at a small village oasis where the shrine of Imam Jafar Sadiqque was located. We couldn’t take photos of the shrine; a bleak, eery place. Sand dunes dotted with ancient graves, each marked with a small fence and a tangled bunch of dead branches. There were a few women inside the Qabiristan (cemetery) praying, and more people outside in the serai, sleeping and praying. We stayed a long time as Zunun had a good chinwag with the resident mullah, a stern looking young man with a striking face.

Taklamakan

Yarkand (17) Lop - Niya (13)

We got out of the car once in the afternoon during the journey through the dessert for a walk up a mountainous dune. Following the ridge up to the top, we could see the amazing highway snaking along through the desert. After some 5 hours of driving and just before sunset, we passed through a truck stop, located near several roads running off from the highway towards oil fields – the reason why the highway was built in the first place. Large tankers and trucks passed us on their way. Soon after this truck stop, we identified our place for the night. Luc and I climbed a nearby sand dune to catch the sunset, but just missed the giant red orb as it disappeared behind the distant horizon, off towards Kashgar. We didn’t have long before dark, but took a few minutes to enjoy the space and near-serenity of this stark place. Actually, we were not so far from the road, and truck rumblings resonated through the air as they stormed past. We collected our things from the car, then the three of us sat down to a meal of cold meat and bagels, nectarines and melon and beer. We enjoyed our meal. The light faded and it turned chilly. The gathering stars stretched out across the vast sky – clearer and brighter than I could remember having seen them before. Zunun was a little drunk and very cheery as Luc led him back to car where he would sleep, with the aid of the torch in his mobile. In the dark, we recoinottered the area, choosing a hollow surrounded by dunes, but not too far from the road. In retrospect, we had come very poorly prepared for the few nights we spent sleeping out during this trip. We slept ON the tent rather than in it, since we had no mats, with two jumpers under us to soften the hardness and in the sleeping bags we had brought. It was a cold night, the early dawn chill getting into my bones. We rose for the desert sunrise at 6.30.

A short note about this series of blog articles, “Journeying the Silk Road”. These writings are based on my travel journal that I kept during my travels in Pakistan, China and Tibet in the second half of 2007. They were written for personal use and recollection. So why am I sharing them here? One reason is because many people assume our brand name, House of Wandering Silk, is based on the Silk Road. Explicitly, it’s not (you can find the story behind our label name here), but the first concrete ideas for HOWS did come up during this trip, and maybe, somewhere subconsciously, the romantic notion I have about the Silk Road influenced my choice of name. The second is because HOWS is about wanderlust as much as it is about textiles, and this journey would sate the hungriest of wanderlusters!

Journeying the Silk Road – Part IV – Introduction to Kashgar

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Part IV – Kashgar, China

Kashgar (53)

Kashgar (52)

A thousand years ago, the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road converged at this oasis town near the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Traders from Delhi and Samarkand, wearied by frigid treks through the world’s most daunting mountain ranges, unloaded their pack horses here and sold saffron and lutes along the city’s cramped streets. Chinese traders, their camels laden with silk and porcelain, did the same.

Source: The New York Times

Introduction: I’m dusting off my journal. A journal that’s travelled some 12,000 km with me through some of the world’s most remote, highest and desolate regions and along the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road. I’m excited to share this adventure with you; make your self a nice cup of chai (a masala chai will make it especially good), get comfortable, and sate your wanderlust! Read Part I herePart II here and Part III here.

Kashgar (42)

Now that we’ve entered China, we’re starting the second part of our journey – from Kashgar along the Southern route of the Silk Road through the trading posts and oasis towns skirting the south side of the Taklamakan desert, then passing through the heart of the Taklamakan – the word’s second largest shifting sand desert – to the Northern Silk Road Route and finally to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, before completing the circuit back in Kashgar.

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Source: Silk Road Toronto

Day seven | 10 September| Kashgar, China

The first thing we did this morning was to go in search of a morning coffee. My travel companion was in dire need of his caffeine fix! After scouring the area, we were gestured into a seedy basement bar/karaoke box type place. They sat us down in our own “box” with fantastically horrific decorations and played a Will Smith video clip for us. They then attempted to charge us 20 Yuan for the coffee, which we thought was outrageous. It turns out that this is quite a standard price… oops! Too long in Pakistan, paying a handful of Rupees for tea!

I’m writing this entry 2 weeks later, after having spent several extra days in Kashgar, so it’s hard to recall my first impressions of the city. We spent the morning looking for a cheaper (under 100 yuan) hotel than the one we’d checked into the previous night on our arrival but were unsuccessful. We then wandered the old and new parts of Kashgar. They are as different as night and day. The new section is made up of large roads and shopping areas, the center being the people’s square with a large statue of Mao. The old part is magical and unexpectedly vibrant. Kashgar has been a trading post for 2 millennia and it is still active. The narrow winding streets are lined either side with mud-walls and coloured doors. The houses have rooms spreading over the small alleys that cover the old city, resulting in little dark tunnels. Most of the entrances are covered with curtains behind the doors; with a few well-interntioned peeks behind the curtains, I could see the houses are built around courtyards filled with pot plants. The houses are dark and narrow, but have an incredible atmosphere.

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Old Kashmir’s dark alleys and mud-and-straw houses are 2000 years old.

 

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New China emerges from behind Old Kashgar.

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Old Kashgar is coming down. See it before it’s all gone!

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Seen in every Chinese city from Kashgar to Shanghai.

A brief history of Xinjiang 

  • Historically, there were 2 main groups: pastoral nomads North of the Tian Shan mountain range known as the XionGnu; and sedentary oasis dwellers, skirting the Tarim Basin, who were an Indo-European group referred to as Tocharians.
  • By the end of the 2nd century BC, the Han had established military garrisons along the trade routes with the main flow being of silk and horses from Ferghana Valley in Central Asia.
  • By 3rd century AD, Buddhism had taken root throughout the Tarim Basin and a number of powerful city states arose: Hotan, Kuqa and Turpan.
  • In the 7th century, the Tang Dynasty, which saw the unification of China after centuries of conflict between rival dynasties, re-asserted its rule over Xinjiang.
  • In the 9th century, Uighurs arrived from Mongolia, ending Tang Dynasty rule and leading to a succession of tribal kingdoms – Uighur, Kharakanid and Kharakhitay, for almost 400 years. It was during Kharakanid rule in the 11th and 12th centuries that Islam took hold in Western Xinjiang. It took another 200 years for it to penetrate to the Eastern areas of Xinjiang.
  • Yili, Hotan and Kashgar fell to the Mongols in 1219. Timur sacked Kashgar in the late 14th century. The area was under the control of Timur’s descendants or various Mongol tribes until the Manchu army marched into Kashgar in 1755.
  • During the 1860s and 70s, a series of Muslim uprisings erupted across Western China, and after Russian troops were withdrawn from a 10 year occupation of the Ili region in 1881, waves of Uighurs, Dungan (Chinese Muslims) and Kazakhs fled into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
  • In 1865, a Kokanid officer named Yaqub Beg seized Kashgaria, proclaimed an independent Turkestan and made diplomatic contact with Britain and Russia. A few years later, a Manchu army returned, Beg committed suicide and Kashgaria was formally incorporated into China’s newly created Xinjiang (means new frontier) province. 
  • With the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Xinjiang came under the rule of a succession of warlords, over whom the Kuomintang (KMT) had very little control.
  • In the 1940s, a Kazakh named Osman led a rebellion of Uighurs, Kazakhs and Mongols and took control of Kashgaria, establishing the Eastern Turkestan Republic in January 1945. The KMT, however, convinced the Muslims to abolish their new republic in return for a pledge of real autonomy.
  • With the consolidation of communist power in 1949, a Muslim league opposed to Chinese rule formed in Xinjiang. A number of its most prominent leaders subsequently dies in a mysterious plane crash on their way to hold talks in Beijing, and organised opposition to Chinese rule collapsed.
  • Since 1949, China’s main goal has been to keep a lid on ethnic separatism while flooding the region with Han settlers – the same policy applied to Tibet. The Uighurs now comprise less than 50% of the population. 

Source: Lonely Planet

The separation between Uighur and Han Chinese can be felt. In the Old Town, few Chinese are present; in the new parts of the city – which I later came to realise resembled every other city I visited in Xinjiang or Tibet – Uighurs were vastly out numbered by Chinese. One student I met told us that in her University class of 62 people, she had only 6 Uighur classmates. Our driver, Zunun (see below), could not read or write Chinese and only spoke it haltingly. His young children, however, are learning Chinese at school.

In the afternoon, Luc and I were a little lost as to how to spend the rest of our time in Xinjiang – we didn’t seem to have enough time to go too far, but had too much time to stay only in Kashgar. As we were sitting in John’s Cafe (an institution for travellers passing through the city) discussing our options, a Uighur man – Zunun – approached us. He was a tour guide on his way back to his home in Turpan and would drive us up to 10 days for 3000 Yuan and for food and accommodation. It sounded perfect, and not too expensive. It would allow us to go where we wanted and stop where we liked, so we agreed to his suggestion to take the Southern Silk Route, over the Cross-Desert Highway up to Turfan, and then make our own way to Urumqi  and back to Kashgar. We arranged to leave the next morning at 9:00 Beijing time (7:00 Xinjiang time – all of China is officially on Beijing time, but practically areas as far off as Xinjiang run according to their own timing, except for government officials who have to work according to Beijing time!).

Kashgar (14) Kashgar (11) Kashgar (15)

Kashgar: Visit Before It’s Too Late!

An article from the New York Times in 2009 regarding Chinese plans to demolish much of what is left of Old Kashgar and replace it with what will undoubtedly be a Disneyland-esque version of an ancient Silk Road trading town. Heartbreaking.

KASHGAR, China — A thousand years ago, the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road converged at this oasis town near the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Traders from Delhi and Samarkand, wearied by frigid treks through the world’s most daunting mountain ranges, unloaded their pack horses here and sold saffron and lutes along the city’s cramped streets. Chinese traders, their camels laden with silk and porcelain, did the same.

The traders are now joined by tourists exploring the donkey-cart alleys and mud-and-straw buildings once window-shopped, then sacked, by Tamerlane and Genghis Khan.

Now, Kashgar is about to be sacked again.

Nine hundred families already have been moved from Kashgar’s Old City, “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia,” as the architect and historian George Michell wrote in the 2008 book “Kashgar: Oasis City on China’s Old Silk Road.

Over the next few years, city officials say, they will demolish at least 85 percent of this warren of picturesque, if run-down homes and shops. Many of its 13,000 families, Muslims from a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), will be moved.

In its place will rise a new Old City, a mix of midrise apartments, plazas, alleys widened into avenues and reproductions of ancient Islamic architecture “to preserve the Uighur culture,” Kashgar’s vice mayor, Xu Jianrong, said in a phone interview.

Demolition is deemed an urgent necessity because an earthquake could strike at any time, collapsing centuries-old buildings and killing thousands. “The entire Kashgar area is in a special area in danger of earthquakes,” Mr. Xu said. “I ask you: What country’s government would not protect its citizens from the dangers of natural disaster?”

Critics fret about a different disaster.

“From a cultural and historical perspective, this plan of theirs is stupid,” said Wu Lili, the managing director of the Beijing Cultural Protection Center, a nongovernmental group devoted to historic preservation. “From the perspective of the locals, it’s cruel.”

Urban reconstruction during China’s long boom has razed many old city centers, including most of the ancient alleyways and courtyard homes of the capital, Beijing.

Kashgar, though, is not a typical Chinese city. Chinese security officials consider it a breeding ground for a small but resilient movement of Uighur separatists who Beijing claims have ties to international jihadis. So redevelopment of this ancient center of Islamic culture comes with a tinge of forced conformity.

Chinese officials have offered somewhat befuddling explanations for their plans. Mr. Xu calls Kashgar “a prime example of rich cultural history and at the same time a major tourism city in China.” Yet the demolition plan would reduce to rubble Kashgar’s principal tourist attraction, a magnet for many of the million-plus people who visit each year.

China supports an international plan to designate major Silk Road landmarks as United Nations World Heritage sites — a powerful draw for tourists, and a powerful incentive for governments to preserve historical areas.

But Kashgar is missing from China’s list of proposed sites. One foreign official who refused to be identified for fear of damaging relations with Beijing said the Old City project had unusually strong backing high in the government.

The project, said to cost $440 million, began abruptly this year, soon after China’s central government said it would spend $584 billion on public works to combat the global financial crisis.

It would complete a piecemeal dismantling of old Kashgar that began decades ago. The city wall, a 25-foot-thick earthen berm nearly 35 feet high, has largely been torn down. In the 1980s, the city paved the surrounding moat to create a ring highway. Then it opened a main street through the old town center.

Still, much of the Old City remains as it was and has always been. From atop 40 vest-pocket mosques, muezzins still cast calls to prayer down the narrow lanes: no loudspeakers here. Hundreds of artisans still hammer copper pots, carve wood, hone scimitars and hawk everything from fresh-baked flatbread to dried toads to Islamic prayer hats.

And tens of thousands of Uighurs still live here behind hand-carved poplar doors, many in tumbledown rentals, others in two-story homes that vault over the alleys and open on courtyards filled with roses and cloth banners.

The city says the Uighur residents have been consulted at every step of planning. Residents mostly say they are summoned to meetings at which eviction timetables and compensation sums are announced.

Mahire, 19, left, eating lunch at the 500-year-old home of her in-laws in Kashgar, China. The building is scheduled to be demolished as part of a government plan to guard against earthquake damage.

Mahire, 19, left, eating lunch at the 500-year-old home of her in-laws in Kashgar, China. The building is scheduled to be demolished as part of a government plan to guard against earthquake damage.

Although the city offers the displaced residents the opportunity to build new homes on the sites of their old ones, some also complain that the proposed compensation does not pay for the cost of rebuilding.

“My family built this house 500 years ago,” said a beefy 56-year-old man with a white crew cut, who called himself Hajji, as his wife served tea inside their two-story Old City house. “It was made of mud. It’s been improved over the years, but there has been no change to the rooms.”

In Uighur style, the home has few furnishings. Tapestries hang from the walls, and carpets cover the floors and raised areas used for sleeping and entertaining. The winter room has a pot-bellied coal stove; the garage has been converted into a shop from which the family sells sweets and trinkets. Nine rooms downstairs, and seven up, the home has sprawled over the centuries into a mansion by Kashgar standards.

But Hajji and his wife lost their life’s savings caring for a sick child, and the city’s payment to demolish their home will not cover rebuilding it. Their option is to move to a distant apartment, which will force them to close their shop, their only source of income.

“The house belongs to us,” said Hajji’s wife, who refused to give her name. “In this kind of house, many, many generations can live, one by one. But if we move to an apartment, every 50 or 70 years, that apartment is torn down again. “This is the biggest problem in our lives. How can our children inherit an apartment?

Building inspectors have deemed most of the oldest homes unsafe, including all mud-and-straw structures, the earliest form of construction. They will be leveled and, in many cases, rebuilt in an earthquake-resistant Uighur style, the city promises.

But three of the Old City’s seven sectors are judged unfit for Uighur architecture and will be rebuilt with decidedly generic apartment buildings. Two thousand other homes will be razed to build public plazas and schools. Poor residents, who live in the smallest homes, already are being permanently moved to boxy, concrete public housing on Kashgar’s outskirts.

What will remain of old Kashgar is unclear. Mr. Xu said that “important buildings and areas of the Old City have already been included in the country’s special preservation list” and would not be disturbed. No archaeologists monitor the razings, he said, because the government already knows everything about old Kashgar.

Kashgar officials do have good reason to worry about earthquakes. Last October, a 6.8 magnitude quake struck barely 100 miles away. In 1902, an 8.0-magnitude quake, one of the 20th century’s biggest, killed 667 residents.

Some residents say they also prefer a more modern environment. The thousand-year-old design that gives the Old City its charm often precludes basics like garbage pickup, sewers and fire hydrants.

In Mr. Xu’s view, demolition will give the Uighurs a better life and spare them from disaster in one fell swoop.

All that said, there is a certain aura of forcible eviction about the demolition, an urgency that fear of earthquakes does not completely explain. The city is offering cash bonuses to residents who move out early — about $30 for those who vacate within 20 days; $15 if they move in a month. Homes are razed as soon as they become empty, giving some alleys a gap-tooth look.

On Kashgar television, a nightly 15-minute infomercial hawks the project like ginsu knives, mixing dire statistics on seismic activity with scenes of happy Uighurs dancing in front of their new concrete apartments.

“Never has such a great event, such a major event happened to Kashgar,” the announcer intones. He boasts that the new buildings “will be difficult to match in the world” and that citizens will “completely experience the care and warmth of the party” toward the Uighur ethnic minority.

The infomercial also notes that Communist Party officials from Kashgar to Beijing are so edgy over the prospect of an earthquake “that it is disturbing their rest.

A short note about this series of blog articles, “Journeying the Silk Road”. These writings are based on my travel journal that I kept during my travels in Pakistan, China and Tibet in the second half of 2007. They were written for personal use and recollection. So why am I sharing them here? One reason is because many people assume our brand name, House of Wandering Silk, is based on the Silk Road. Explicitly, it’s not (you can find the story behind our label name here), but the first concrete ideas for HOWS did come up during this trip, and maybe, somewhere subconsciously, the romantic notion I have about the Silk Road influenced my choice of name. The second is because HOWS is about wanderlust as much as it is about textiles, and this journey would sate the hungriest of wanderlusters!

Journeying the Silk Road – Part III – On the road to Kashgar

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Part III – Hunza, Pakistan, across the Khunjerab Pass to Kashgar, China

Passu & Hossain (5)

Tupopdan, 6,106 metres, also known as “Passu Cones” or “Passu Cathedral”, lies to the north of Passu village; it is the most photographed peak of the region, apparently.

Passu & Hossain (9)

Passu Glacier, also known as White Glacier. The nearby Batura Glacier is know as Black Glacier and is one of the longest glaciers in the world outside of the Polar regions.

Introduction: I’m dusting off my journal. A journal that’s travelled some 12,000 km with me through some of the world’s most remote, highest and desolate regions and along the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road. I’m excited to share this adventure with you; make your self a nice cup of chai (a masala chai will make it especially good), get comfortable, and sate your wanderlust! Read Part I here and Part II here.

Day five | 8 September | Karimabad to Passu, Hunza, Pakistan

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In 1974 there was a flash flood of the Hunza River reaching high up into Passu town and eroding much of the land along the banks of the river. As a result of the damage to property, there was a huge out-migration from Passu, resulting in a drop in population of five times. Passu has never recovered and now is a very small collection of houses surrounded by agricultural land on the river side and huge mountains and glaciers in all directions. This area is the most heavily glaciated region outside of the Polar zones!

Passu & Hossain (32)

Passu & Hossain (33)

Passu & Hossain

It was a few hours from Karimabad in a minibus heading North to Passu, arriving in the afternoon. The scenery along the way continued to dazzle with mountains that defied comprehension. We were dropped in Passu and easily found the one and only hotel in the village, run by a friendly local family just by the side of the Karakarom Highway. They served us a really excellent Pakistani meal – one of the best I’ve had in my two years here.

We then set out for a walk up into the hills. Although not particularly steep, it was a good few hours uphill on the slate rocks that littered the hillside; for every two steps up, it was one slide back down. Wherever we looked, huge mountains spread out in every direction. Towards the top of the first large hill, we found a well-made path that led us to the South side of Passu Glacier and wound high up along the mountain side. The path was beautifully made – flat with slate slabs and with a bubbling water channel running alongside it, fed with run off from the glacier. It was such a quaint path and looked like it belonged in a manicured English garden. Take your eyes off the path, however, and plummeting below and to the right was a deep gorge carved out over millennia and Passu Glacier. The glacier was a mass of jagged and razor sharp ice-teeth, almost glowing a bright blue in the crevices. We could see that the glacier had visibly shrunk by several hundred meters, where it ended in a brown pool of glacial run off and morraine. Higher up above us, the top of the glacier disappeared into the distance, below the massive Passu Sar, or Passu Peak. We continued up along the charming path until we hit a small pool from where the path ascended steeply towards the peak. We stopped here as it was becoming late and took a few minutes to build a cairne from pebbles and appreciate the beauty and magnitude of the ice before us.

Passu & Hossain (10)

Passu Cathedral and the Hunza River.

Passu & Hossain (18)

Passu Glacier

Passu & Hossain (23) Passu & Hossain (27)

We descended back down the path, heading right on a jeep track past several small stone huts before coming across a village and, finally, Borit Late. From here it was a short walk downhill to Hussaini Village. Dusk was descending and we hurried on to make it to the “Indian Jones” bridge that traverses the Hunza River. We reached the bridge just as it was becoming dark; it was just light enough to understand the danger of crossing such a bridge. A similar bridge running alongside it had fallen into disrepair with planks and wires hanging in the fast flowing river below. The bridge in use didn’t seem far off a similar fate. It was essentially made of wire rope comprising the foundations of the bridge and the hand rails, with old pieces of wood twisted into the wire at a considerable distance from one another, so that one had to walk, tight rope-like, on the wires between the plants. It was long – maybe 100m – and the far end could barely be seen in the dim light. I was tired and grumpy and only dared a few meters along it, while Luc went all the way to the other end and back.

We met a couple on our way back. They had a house in Hussaini but cultivated land on the other side of the river, across the bridge, where a small village lay. Given that the bridge was the only means of access, no cars or heavy equipment could be available in that small village.

It was now dark and a long way back to Passu and our hotel. There was barely any cars on the Karakoram Highway – the only road connecting Hussaini and Passu – but we were lucky. After a few minutes a car passed us and stopped to give us a lift. The driver was also willing to act as a taxi driver for our trip to Sost tomorrow. It turns out he had worked for a while for some NGOs after the earthquake (like so many Pakistani’s we’ve met) and spoke good English.

 

Day six | 9 September | Passu, Pakistan, across Khunjerab Pass to Kashgar, China
A long, long day of travel awaited us this day. We were welcomed by freshly snow powdered mountains across the Hunza River when we emerged into the crisp morning air at 6:30 am. We breakfasted on paratha, omelette and gruel-like porridge which chacha (Uncle in Urdu) had kindly made for us, and our driver arrived as promised. We packed into the small Suzuki with Miro and Vera, a Slovakian couple staying in the same hotel, for the trip to Afiyatabad, also known as Sost. Sost is the village directly before the Khunjerab National Park and the border crossing to China. The view during the journey was of looming rocky mountains and the constant peeking out of snow-capped giants beyond.

It took about one hour to get to Sost. Part of the village was located on the other side of the Hunza River and looked just like all the other peaceful villages we had seen. The part we saw, however, was a bunch of shops and truck stops located along the Karakoram Highway. We bought our bus tickets for the crossing (1200 PKR each) and changed some money into Reminbi. We had to wait 40 minutes or so for customs to open. We got our bags checked then loaded onto a bus – us at the front, one Turkish tourist with his Pakistani guide behind, and the rest of the passengers Pakistani – mostly Northern Area people who get a special pass to travel more easily into China, but also a few Peshawaris who were checked much more thoroughly than the rest of us. We took a 2 minute ride up the road to the immigration office, where we got our passports checked and stamped. We were then on our way! We soon entered the Khunjerab National Park (USD4 each – only USD accepted). The valley here was very narrow and prone to landslides. We wove our way around long Chinese trucks heading for the border and slowly up into the higher mountains. We were lucky to be sitting at the front, with fantastic views of the narrow gorge we drove through and then of the colourful and lightly snow-powdered mountains of yellows, reds and oranges. As we neared the border, we passed a herd of well-camouflaged Ibexs.

At the border, a no-man’s land with barbed wire fencing, it was snowing. A spectacular vista of mist, meadows, snow and mountains. We stopped for a short while on the Pakistani side – waiting for something though I never found out what – and then drove across. It might be something to do with being Australian (and the absence of international land border crossings over there), but even after all my travels, I still find land borders something mystical and thrilling to cross. To drive across a line and pass from one country to the next…. wow!

The border crosses at Khunjerab Pass (4693m), which is the highest point of the Karakoram Highway, as well as the highest international border crossing in the world. The border road was completed in 1982 and is usually closed 6 months of the year due to the extreme weather.

Sost - Khunjerab Pass (3)

Entering the Khunjerab National Park.

Sost - Khunjerab Pass (5)

The Karakoram Highway through the Khunjerab National Park.

Sost - Khunjerab Pass (14)

Road sign to Kashgar and Taxkorgan in China, and Kazakhstan.

Sost - Khunjerab Pass (4) Sost - Khunjerab Pass (11) Sost - Khunjerab Pass (15)

Khunjerab Pass - border (1)

Saying farewell to Pakistan

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The no-man’s land of the border crossing at Khunjerab Pass.

We were both thrilled to arrive in China! We got off the bus just across the border where it stopped, and took some photos with a bunch of Chinese tourists who had come to the border for the same purpose. Two things were immediately striking; one was the transition from potholes to a velveteen smooth road; second was the unfriendliness and strictness of the Chinese military as we went through customs.

Khunjerab Pass - border (5)

Arrival: China

Khunjerab Pass - border (12)

Chinese soldiers on the way down from the pass.

The scenery on the way down towards Taxkorgan was spectacular. The high mountains opened up to wide, green plateaus sprinkled with Tajik nomads and crumbling villages. In the distance grew huge mountains. Taxkorgan is a one horse town and the site of the official immigration and customs. The Pakistanis had their bags checked thoroughly, but Luc and I glided through. While I was experiencing my first rural Chinese toilet (never experienced anything like them, before or since), Luc got talking with some Pakistani businessmen and we agreed to share a 4×4 to Kashgar leaving after a Pakistani meal we shared together. The sun set soon after we left and much of the eight hour journey was completed in darkness. It involved one or two passport checks before arrival after midnight in Kashgar. Our first impression upon arriving in the city was that of an absence of anything non-Chinese. You arrive in a fabled Silk Road city, home to a large ethnic minority of Uighurs and thousands of km from Beijing, and one expects a slightly different feel. However, it was all large streets with people on bicycles and big ugly buildings with too much neon. We hadn’t known what to expect but it wasn’t this! After getting a hotel room – which shocked us price-wise after Pakistani prices – we found a nearby Uighur restaurant still open where we had noodles with veggies and meat. Finally, an exhausted sleep after this massive day of travel.

Khunjerab - Taxkorgan (5)

On the road to Taxkorgan

Khunjerab - Taxkorgan (9)

The ancient Silk Road doesn’t feel so far off when traveling in this region forgotten by time.

Taxkorgan - Kashgar (9)

Tajik nomads and their yurts on the road to Taxkorgan.

Taxkorgan - Kashgar (10)

A loo with a view.

Taxkorgan - Kashgar (1)

 

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End of stage one of the journey – through Pakistan to the Khunjerab Pass and border with China.

A short note about this series of blog articles, “Journeying the Silk Road”. These writings are based on my travel journal that I kept during my travels in Pakistan, China and Tibet in the second half of 2007. They were written for personal use and recollection. So why am I sharing them here? One reason is because many people assume our brand name, House of Wandering Silk, is based on the Silk Road. Explicitly, it’s not (you can find the story behind our label name here), but the first concrete ideas for HOWS did come up during this trip, and maybe, somewhere subconsciously, the romantic notion I have about the Silk Road influenced my choice of name. The second is because HOWS is about wanderlust as much as it is about textiles, and this journey would sate the hungriest of wanderlusters!

Journeying the Silk Road – Part II

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Part II – Chilas to Hunza, Pakistan

Karimabad & Ganesh (117)

Baltit Fort, Karimabad, Hunza

Karimabad & Ganesh (10)

The view across the Indus River Valley of the Karakoram Range, from Karimabad Village, Hunza.

Introduction: I’m dusting off my journal. A journal that’s travelled some 12,000 km with me through some of the world’s most remote, highest and desolate regions and along the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road. I’m excited to share this adventure with you; make your self a nice cup of chai (a masala chai will make it especially good), get comfortable, and sate your wanderlust! Read Part I here.

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Stage one of the journey – through Pakistan to the Khunjerab Pass and border with China.

Day three | 6 September | Chilas to Gilgit, Gilgit to Hunza

After bumping into a tour group yesterday, our apetites were whet to see the famous petroglyphs of Chilas. Centuries of travel through this area from the 1st century BC saw merchants, monks and warriors stopping along their route to scratch drawings and inscriptions into the rocks. In the 3 sites we saw around Chilas there were no inscriptions, only a strong buddhist influence; stupas, sitting buddhas and the recordings of belligerent tribes who came into conflict with the buddhists; warriors, men on horseback, fallen stupas, sun symbols. And then lots of large horned ibex, considered a trophy, then as now. The rocks containing them were large, twisted formations scattered along the Indus River, with nooks and crannies to climb into. The petroglyphs were in amazing condition, some very bright. Some fools had scratched out the faces of the buddhas, another had painted his election slogan over a large stupa petroglyph.

Chilas (9) Chilas (16) Chilas (1) Chilas (8)
Chilas (34) Chilas (32) Chilas (31) Chilas (30) Chilas (29) Chilas (28) Chilas (24) Chilas (19) Chilas (10) Chilas (8)

At the first site, down by the indus, there was a small crowd of women and children by the waterline. After having waved to the children – all youngsters with infants on their backs – I went down to talk with them. They were grubby but smiley and the women gestured me over. They were working at some strange equipment, which I later found out were gold panners. There were 3 families along the shore about 500m from each other, all panning and very poor, according to the boy who had come from the hotel to guide us.

Chilas (11)

After having our fill of petroglyphs for two and a half hours, we caught a mini bus on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) without too much trouble to Gilgit, about 3 hours away. 150 PKR each and we had the back row to ourselves. First time riding such public transport in Pakistan. The view, or what I could see of it, was dramatic but very barren and desolate. The KKH, following closely the silty Indus below, wound through completely dry and empty rocky mountains towering on both sides. At one point on road we turned a bend, and someone told us that this is where three of the world’s largest mountain ranges met: the Hindu Kush, the Himalaya and the Karakoram. Astounding, it blows the mind! These three giants spanning all Central and South Asia converging in one place. And what a magical place it is!

Chilas Hunza (3)
Karimabad & Ganesh (9) Hunza

On the Karakoram Range:

The Karakoram is home to the highest concentration of peaks over 8000m in height to be found anywhere on earth, including K2, the second highest peak in the world at 8,611 m.

The range is about 500 km in length, and is the most heavily glaciated part of the world outside the polar regions. The Siachen Glacier at 76 kilometres and the Biafo Glacier at 63 kilometres rank as the world’s second and third longest glaciers outside the polar regions.

The Karakoram is bounded on the northeast by the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, and on the north by the Pamir Mountains. The southern boundary of the Karakoram is formed, west to east, by the Gilgit, Indus, and Shyok Rivers, which separate the range from the northwestern end of the Himalaya range proper as these rivers converge southwestward towards the plains of Pakistan.

Karakoram is a Turkic term meaning black gravel. The name was first applied by local traders to the Karakoram Pass. Early European travellers, including William Moorcroft and George Hayward, started using the term for the range of mountains west of the pass, although they also used the term Muztagh (meaning, “Ice Mountain”) for the range now known as Karakoram. Later terminology was influenced by the Survey of India, whose surveyor Thomas Montgomerie in the 1850s gave the labels K1 to K6 (K for Karakoram) to six high mountains visible from his station at Mount Haramukh in Kashmir.

Due to its altitude and ruggedness, the Karakoram is much less inhabited than parts of the Himalayas further east. European explorers first visited early in the 19th century, followed by British surveyors starting in 1856.

The Muztagh Pass was crossed in 1887 by the expedition of Colonel Francis Younghusband and the valleys above the Hunza River were explored by General Sir George K. Cockerill in 1892. Explorations in the 1910s and 1920s established most of the geography of the region.

The Karakoram is in one of the world’s most geologically active areas, at the boundary between two colliding continents.

A significant part, 28-50% of the Karakoram Range is glaciated, compared to the Himalaya (8-12%) and Alps (2.2%). Mountain glaciers may serve as an indicator of climate change, advancing and receding with long-term changes in temperature and precipitation. Karakoram glaciers are mostly stagnating or enlarging, because, unlike in the Himalayas, many Karakoram glaciers are covered in a layer of rubble which insulates the ice from the warmth of the sun. Where there is no such insulation, the rate of retreat is high.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karakoram

The quality of the road was average, allowing a reasonable speed with the occasional need to slow down for potholes. The bus was filled with locals and blared Indian music. The scene repeated itself until we reach Jalalabad, just south of Gilgit. Rising above the Indus on a well irrigated and lush green plateau, it was an unexpected vista. The whole of this area, all up the valley, is supported by an impressive system of water channels, used mostly for irrigation but also for hydropower. Bringing the water from sources many kilometers away, dug into cliffs high above the villages, they allow the people of the area to grow a range of cereals, fruits and vegetables; apples and seed fruits among the most popular. Another feature of the area are massive messages written high up on the mountains with white stones; mostly congratulating the Aga Khan on his golden jubilee or welcoming this or that Imam to the region. From Gilgit, the area is predominantly Shia, with Ismailis forming the majority of Hunza and some other areas.

Hunza (6)

The mountains are criss-crossed with impressive engineering – hundreds of kilometres of water channels. They’re easily spotted as often they’re the only place with vegetation on the barren mountain sides.

Hunza (9)

Villages in Hunza are perched mid-way up steep mountain sides. Below, the deep valley of the Indus River. Above, the lofty peaks of the Karakoram range.

Hunza (14) Hunza (15) Hunza (20)

We reached the bus stand at Gilgit, 10km from Gilgit proper, after filling foreigner registration forms twice. Given our tight timeline for this part of the trip, we decided to skip a visit to Gilgit and keep heading up the valley. We had a 20 minute wait, during which we bought some mecca cola and pomegranates before being packing into a flying coach for our trip to Hunza; specifically Karimibad village. About 2 hours drive with a chai break in the middle, the scenery became more impressive as we moved along. More, small and lushly green villages with stone and cement houses, farmland, poplars and fruit trees strung out along the highway and Indus. The old route, connecting Hunza with China and the South before the KKH was opened to the public in 1982, perched on the other side of the river, higher up the mountains. Before reaching Aliabad (the capital of Hunza), we stopped for a chai and a chop shuro – a kind of cornish pasty local to the area and filled with onions. Further along the Indus, we started catching sight of the breathtaking Rakaposhi (7788m) towering above with its head in the clouds and draped in snow.

Ismaili Islam

An 8th century split among Shiites, who disagreed on which son of the 6th Imam should succeed him, gave rise to the Ismaili branch of Islam. For Ismaili Shiites, the line of Imams continues into the present. Ismailis today number several million and live in pockets of Pakistan (Hunza and Gojal), Afghanistan and Central Asia, India, East Africa, Iran and Syria and their present Imam (since 1957), Prince Karim Aga Khan, is no. 49 in the line of Imams.

The main difference with mainstream Shia (this from a local guy and in no way exhaustive or authoritative!):

  • Ismailis pray less often than other Muslims and say more than one prayer per sitting
  • The mosque is replaced by a jamma khan, community hall
  • women can pray with men together
  • there are no prostrations during prayer
  • in Pakistan, at least, traditions such as the fermenting of local wines still persist and alcohol is looked upon with more acceptance.

All in all, it was a subtle, but definite difference felt in Karimabad and Passu. I wouldn’t know how much to ascribe to Ismailis, but the women seem more free and active in social and economic activities and there seems to be a huge feeling od community cooperation, as witnessed by the high quality and upkeep of public infrastructure we could see, like the roads, canals, schools and pathways.

Day 4 | 7 September | Karimabad and Ganesh

Karimabad is spectacular. Perched mid way up the mountain side below Ultar Peak (7388m) and Glacier, above the village of Ganesh, and across the Hunza Valley from Nagyr, it is a fairy tale village of quiet paths, rich gardens, bubbling water channels and the magnificent Baltit Fort and surrounding houses. Watched over by Rakaposhi (7788m) and Diran (7270m) mountains, it is as beautiful as it is peaceful.

Karimabad & Ganesh (14) Karimabad & Ganesh (32) Karimabad & Ganesh (72) Karimabad & Ganesh (55) Karimabad & Ganesh (34)

We rose early to make a large circuit of the village, following water channels from the higehest point. It took us around 2 hours to circuit the village, arriving back in the center for breakfast, which invariable involves apricots in one form or another! Baltit Fort – one of the most incredibly situated and beautifully constructed buildings I’ve ever seen – has been well restored. The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) is very active here in restoring and maintaining cultural and economic infrastructure. The water channels are a work of art; they run alongside the neat sand foot paths, controlled by a system of locks and watering the whole village. They are fed from below Ultar Peak and flow in front of the sweet stone and wood houses. People float milk and butter in small bags inside the water to keep them cool and have built little wooden bridges crossing the water. The gardens are meticulous and a wide variety of of fruit and vegetables are grown. Aside from the seed fruit there are apples, melons, pumpkins and herbs. People are polite, if not overly friendly as elsewhere I’ve been in the country. The women walk easily in the streets, some covered in scarves over a pill-box hat, some uncovered, and they talk to men freely (which, if you’ve spent time in other rural areas in Pakistan, you will know to be quite rare). It seems that not so long ago the area was much more barren and a limited number of crops were grown. AKRSP and, much more significantly, the KKH, has done a lot to change this.

Later in the morning we walked down to Ganesh village, where we met Mumtaz, a friend we made on the bus yesterday. His father is involved in the restoration of the original Ganesh village and site of the first Hunza settlement. It is a collection of still-lived in houses, 14 watchtowers – manned by the original 14 families of Hunza – and four 100-200 year old mosques that act as personal sites for the worship of the more influential families. It was spectacular. A water reservoir at the entrance to the village was used by Hunza warriors to train in adapting to the cold water before crossing the Indus river to fight their enemies in Nagyr village. There has supposedly been a settlement here for around 1100 years, and Ganesh village is supposedly 800 years old. Before the KKH was finished in 1968, there was little contact with the outside world. The first car arrived here only after the KKH was complete. We sat with Mumtaz’s father sipping tea and eating chips for an hour as we fired questions at him about the history and current situation of Hunza. In the afternoon we visited the spectacular Baltit Fort and old Hunza village. The photos will speak for themselves!

Karimabad & Ganesh (91)

Mumtaz and his father in Ganesh village.

Karimabad & Ganesh (117)

Baltit Fort

Karimabad & Ganesh (101)

The kitchen of Baltit Fort

Karimabad & Ganesh (111)

The main room of Baltit Fort

Karimabad & Ganesh (106)

The roof of Baltit Fort

Karimabad & Ganesh (120)

Karimabad & Ganesh (47)

Baltit Fort and Ultar Peak

Karimabad & Ganesh (104)

The view from Baltit Fort

Karimabad & Ganesh (35) Karimabad & Ganesh (45) Karimabad & Ganesh (36) Karimabad & Ganesh (123) Karimabad & Ganesh (77)

A tale of siblings and rivalries – Lonely Planet

The origins of the separate Hunza and Nagyr Kingdoms are obscured by legend. However, they probably arose from a marriage of royal cousins in the 15th century that produced twin sons, Maglot and Girkis, later to become the rulers, respectively, of Nagyr and Hunza. From infancy, so the story goes, they had a mutual hatred and as kings they led their people into frequent battle. Over the centuries their royal descendants have continued the feud. The valley’s modest agricultural output has for years been supplemented by raids on caravans traveling between Kashgar and Kashmir, and by slave trading. Yaqub Beg, who proclaimed an independent Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang in the 1860s, put a temporary end to the raids. This economic blow led Hunza and Nagyr to declare allegiance to the British-alligned Maharaja of Kashmir. In 1886, Safdar Ali became Mir of Hunza. Within two years he resumed the caravan raids and played host at Baltit fort to a party of Russian “explorers”. Britain decided to improve supply lines from Kashmir and reopen its agency at Gilgit. Within 5 years a British-Kashmiri force had occupied the valley and installed its own Mir, Nazim Khan. In Hunza, Nazim Khan (died 1938) was succeeded by his son, Ghazan Khan (died 1945). Within weeks of partition, an uprising in Gilgit against the Maharaja of Kashmir brought Hunza and Nagyr into Pakistan. They remained semi-autonomous until 1974 when they were merged with Pakistan, reducing their rulers to district officials.

A short note about this series of blog articles, “Journeying the Silk Road”. These writings are based on my travel journal that I kept during my travels in Pakistan, China and Tibet in the second half of 2007. They were written for personal use and recollection. So why am I sharing them here? One reason is because many people assume our brand name, House of Wandering Silk, is based on the Silk Road. Explicitly, it’s not (you can find the story behind our label name here), but the first concrete ideas for HOWS did come up during this trip, and maybe, somewhere subconsciously, the romantic notion I have about the Silk Road influenced my choice of name. The second is because HOWS is about wanderlust as much as it is about textiles, and this journey would sate the hungriest of wanderlusters!

Journeying the Silk Road – Part I

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Part I – Mansehra to Chilas through Kaghan Valley, Pakistan

I’m dusting off my journal. A journal that’s travelled some 12,000 km with me through some of the world’s most remote, highest and desolate regions and along the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road. I’m excited to share this adventure with you; make your self a nice cup of chai (a masala chai will make it especially good), get comfortable, and sate your wanderlust!

Join me as I revisit the journey of a lifetime. September to November 2007 from Pakistan, across China and spanning Tibet.

Join me as I revisit the journey of a lifetime. September to November 2007 from Pakistan, across China and spanning Tibet.

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Stage one of the journey – through Pakistan to the Khunjerab Pass and border with China.

Day one | 4 September 2007 | Mansehra to Kaghan Valley, Pakistan

Not sure if it’s nerves or revenge of the giardiasis, but my trip has been destined to start off with the focus on my stomach problems. No matter – I am thrilled and in wondrous anticipation of what lies before me. Today has been easy going. A short time spent with friends and colleagues in the morning in our office to farewell our home of two years, then off on our adventure! A farewell to Mansehra bazaar as we drove through, and all the hours spent wandering its alleys, its meals of fried liver and tomatoes, the Kashmiri bazaar, sweet chais at dusk… Stopped at Sha-ji’s house for a breakfast of shammi kebabs, fish, omelette and French toast. And then several hours drive along the dusty, land slide-ridden, mountain-hugging road through Kaghan Valley that I know so well. Each time we passed one of our field offices, we’d stop and say good bye to our colleagues of two years and take chai. Finally arrived in Kaghan. It was becoming dark and raining so Hajji Makbul, our driver, had to leave. We spent the rest of the evening whiling away time gupshopping (gossiping) with our colleagues and then a night at the Lalazar hotel; a hotel built on friend’s land and hence free for us. And now to bed.

The famous Kaghan Valley of Pakistan's former North West Frontier Province. In 2005, a massive earthquake devastated this area. I lived here from 2005 to 2007 working as part of the relief efforts.

The famous Kaghan Valley of Pakistan’s former North West Frontier Province. In 2005, a massive earthquake devastated this area. I lived here from 2005 to 2007 working as part of the relief efforts.

Kaghan Valley (18)

A flour mill worker tends to his water-powered stone mill. Kaghan Valley is filled with timeless mills that the you back many decades to days before electricity.

The road through Kaghan Valley is an alternate and picturesque route connecting to the Karokarom Highway at Chilas.

The road through Kaghan Valley is an alternate and picturesque route connecting to the Karokarom Highway at Chilas.

Day two | 5 September | Naran to Chilas via Babusar Pass, Pakistan

This has certainly been a long awaited trip. Luc (my travel companion) and I have discussed taking this route many times and were very much looking forward to it. We were fortunate enough to have a car and two drivers supplied to us by a colleague for the trip up to the Karakoram Highway. After stopping in Naran for breakfast (omlette, paratha and chai) at 6.30 we set off. 122km over 8 hours. It was a a hell of a long haul over bad roads but the spectacular scenery made up for it.

Up to Besal: perfect roads, wide and green valley with a smattering of small villages and daji houses. Little foliage, only a small amount of potato growing. This whole area is seasonal and witnesses a lot of nomad groups passing through. The Kunhar river is clear and volumous.

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (11)

Kuchi Nomads, some coming from across the border with Afghanistan, move down this valley every Autumn towards the warmer and lower plains of Punjab. In Spring they move back up to the mountain plains with their fat-tailed sheep. An incredible sight, something straight out of Kipling’s world.

These nomadic groups carry their lives on the back of donkeys, setting up tent every night as they pass down the valley.

These nomadic groups carry their lives on the back of donkeys, setting up tent every night as they pass down the valley.

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (5)

Besal to Babusar Pass: the road here is only jeepable as we enter a national park. We stopped for chai at the last stop in Besal. Luliputsar (Lake Lulusar) is soon after this. It’s the largest lake in Hazara. The mountains are bare but the valley carpeted in grass. There is evidence of Kuchi nomads and Gujars. Some were still in their tents, others moving down. Through timeless Gettidas village where I was warned by the driver not to take photos and on to the spectacular Babusar pass. From the pass, we can see where the Kaghan Valley curves away towards Azad Jammu Kashmir.

Me and Lake Lalusar, Kaghan Valley

Lake Lulusar

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (15)

On the road to Besal through Kaghan Valley

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (47)

Nomadic women spinning wool.

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (46)

The tent of a nomadic family.

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (53)

Last chai stop!

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (22) Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (24) Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (26) Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (29) Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (34) Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (36) Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (41) Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (44) Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (57)

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (76)

A local village, abandoned either after the earthquake or temporarily over the winter.

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (75)

A village along the road. Rough built homes from rocks. There are few trees for building and firewood in this area.

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (69)

Babusar to Chilas: We stopped at Babusar Pass (4173m). Kaghan Valley behind us and the Northern Areas stretching out ahead. It was cold, drizzly and misty and the slate-covered mountains were covered in red and orange lichen. On the Kaghan side, a wide valley with a river snaking through it to Lulipatsar and flat enough areas for their polo games. On the Northern Areas side, the road snaked down through a narrow valley filled with rough wood and stone houses alongside another river forming from the springs around Babusar Pass. The area was lovely; green and bushy along the river and beautiful houses growing up the mountains.

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (77)

From the Babusar Pass: Kaghan Valley heading towards Azad Jammu Kashmir.

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (78)

On Babusar Pass

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (85)

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (100)

Heading down the Northern side of the pass, towards Chilas and the Karakoram Highway.

Kaghan Valley & Babusar Pass (105)

Arrival at dusk in Chilas, where our route through Kaghan Valley and over the Babusar Pass finally met the Karakoram Highway. Chilas is a one horse town and we holed up in a dingy hotel by the side of the highway.

A short note about this series of blog articles, “Journeying the Silk Road”. These writings are based on my travel journal that I kept during my travels in Pakistan, China and Tibet in the second half of 2007. They were written for personal use and recollection. So why am I sharing them here? One reason is because many people assume our brand name, House of Wandering Silk, is based on the Silk Road. Explicitly, it’s not (you can find the story behind our label name here), but the first concrete ideas for HOWS did come up during this trip, and maybe, somewhere subconsciously, the romantic notion I have about the Silk Road influenced my choice of name. The second is because HOWS is about wanderlust as much as it is about textiles, and this journey would sate the hungriest of wanderlusters!

The state of weavers in India

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On 7th August, 2015, India celebrates its first National Handloom Day. As Prime Minister Modi celebrates the day in Chennai awarding some of India’s finest master weavers and launching India Handloom Brand, millions of weavers across India are struggling with abject poverty, hunger and debt.

In solidarity with weavers: National Handloom Day

– A woman in Nagaland weaves eri silk

I’m proud of what I do,” he said. “It is good work. I just wish I was better compensated so that we could live a more dignified life.

– Weaver from Andhra Pradesh

National Handloom Day? Indeed there is much to commemorate: the country produces “95% of the world’s hand woven fabric” and can claim a diversity of skill and style that I personally believe you cannot find anywhere else in the world! Each state, each district, and sometimes even villages, can claim to produce their own style in particular fibres, colours, patterns and weaves that have a history stretching back through generations. It is a textile-enthusiasts utopia!

Handloom weaving is one of the largest economic activities after agriculture, providing direct and indirect employment to more than 43 lakh [4.3 million] weavers and allied workers. The sector contributes to nearly 15% of the cloth production in the country and also contributes to the country’s export earnings. 95% of the world’s hand woven fabric comes from India.

Source: DNA India

A weaver in Varanasi

Meanwhile, Indian handloom has centre stage across fashion weeks in India as well as increasingly making appearances internationally at the highest levels of fashion. There is much talk in the press and among the Bollywood glitterati about the beauty of handloom and the skill of the country’s weavers; the country is rightfully proud of its rich heritage. To promote handloom over the past decades, the government has launched a complex myriad of schemes, programmes and institutions to promote and support weavers.

handloom

*Note: 1 lakh = 100,000

Source: http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-why-indias-handloom-industry-needs-hand-holding-to-get-back-on-its-feet/

However, the unfortunate truth is that the majority of weavers are in much the same desperate state as their forefathers were in 1905 when the Swadeshi Movement started as a means to promoting self-reliance within India with the goal of independence from the British; their work under-valued, struggling with poverty and debt.

The date August 7 has been chosen due to its special significance in India`s history; it was on this day that the Swadeshi Movement was launched in 1905.

Source: DNA India

Here an article from The Times of India in May 2013, summarising the plight of weavers across the country.

“…Dig deep into the tale of Andhra Pradesh’s looms and you’ll find nothing short of a tear-jerker. And Puttapaka [village] weaver Shravan Kumar’s is one such sad story.

Just weeks before his master-weaver uncle Gajam Anjaiah was to be conferred with the Padma Shri [award] for his contribution to arts, the 36-year-old handloom weaver, Shravan Kumar, committed suicide by hanging himself. It was mounting debts that drove him to take such an extreme step.

On one hand, we have the Indian fashion industry celebrating the beauty of the Indian handloom on its ramps, both nationally and internationally, and on the other hand, a staggering number of weavers are ending their lives due to poverty and debts. Despite Indian handloom being at the centre-stage of world fashion, the people responsible for weaving these gorgeous fabrics see no monetary benefit coming their way. Something is clearly amiss.

Living hand to mouth
Shravan’s story is not an isolated one. Even basic sustenance is a challenge for most weavers in Andhra Pradesh, which is home to around 3,50,000 looms. “each loom is worked on by one family, and their collective income is not enough to take care of even their basic needs,” says master weaver Gajam Anjaiah. “In my village of Puttapaka, there are around 400 families who are into weaving. The average income of a four-member family is between Rs.2,000 (USD30) to Rs.5,000 (USD80), per month. At times, it’s lesser than Rs.1,500 (USD23). With rising prices and increased cost of living, weavers have no option but to borrow money. When debts accumulate, suicide is the only way out for so many of them,” rues Anjaiah. As an after-thought, he adds, “the number of suicides in the past few years has come down though… Earlier, around five to six weavers would commit suicide every year, but now the number has gone down to two or three. And that’s mainly because there aren’t many weavers left. Abject poverty has forced many to abandon their craft and look for other jobs in the city.”

Struggle for survival
Inconsistent incomes and unending poverty might be one of the reasons many desert their skill, but the dwindling prospect of finding brides too has a large role to play. “Today, no one wants to marry their daughters off to men from our village. Understandable, considering another addition to the family would mean another mouth to feed when there is already a scarcity of food. So, in a bid to earn enough to be able to raise a family, young men are moving to cities like Hyderabad and taking up jobs as watchmen or security guards at corporate offices and housing societies,” says Anjaiah. With younger people leaving trade, master weavers rue that the craft is at a risk of dying out soon. “There is no proper water supply, electricity or educational facilities for families in our villages. So, who would want to live here? They are forced to ditch their craft and move elsewhere,” he adds, dejectedly.

Gross disparity
This gripping poverty that forces weavers to run away from their villages, give up their craft or drive some of them to take their own lives can leave you baffled sometimes. And that’s because the paltry sum that a weaver earns at the end of a month’s hard work is totally contradictory to what the end product finally fetches a designer, after a label is attached to it and the piece is showcased by top models on the ramp. This disparity in earning is something that the fashion fraternity is aware of, and secretly ashamed of even. Designer Shashikant Naidu whose design philosophy revolves around Andhra weaves, is one such designer who admits that  the situation is dismal and longs to do something about it. “Let’s be honest, as designers we hardly do much for weavers. Designers go to a weaver, pick up fabric worth Rs.350 (USD5.50), attach their label and retail it for Rs.35,000 (USD550). They’ve earned far more than what they paid for. This is something that we seriously need to think about,” he says.

No help in sight
So why do weavers sell their wares at throw-away prices? Blame it on the lack of an organised approach to buying and selling, says Y Venkanna Nether, chairman of Handloom Promotion Council. “There is no representative at the wage board to fix a rate or regulate the prices. As a result, weavers have to sell their looms for cheap to designers. What else can they do? If they don’t, designers go elsewhere to procure them,” he adds.

The government funding and schemes are another story altogether, what with issues like bureaucracy, red tapism and corruption coming in the way of progress of weavers. “The government allots Rs.247 crores (USD39 million) for textile development, all India. Out of that, a certain amount is handed over to AP [Andhra Pradesh]. But by the time the money is released from the centre, passes hands at state and district levels, and comes into the taluka, what the weaver receives is a pittance,” points out Venkanna.

With their basic needs not met, our weavers don’t get a chance to grow to their full creative potential and adapt to changing trends. Vinita Passary, whose recent line strictly uses Indian handlooms, feels that when it comes to international trends, AP weavers are left behind due to lack of knowledge. “Keeping weaves in vogue is a tough task as trends keep changing. Weavers need to be regularly updated on this aspect, so that they keep reinventing their handloom to make it more market friendly,” suggests Passary.

And who else can help them do this if not for the designers, asks Anjaiah, pointing out at the need for the fashion frat working closely with weavers on this aspect. “Our designers are well-versed with international trends. A regular seminar or meeting should be held between the designers and weavers. Once the weaver knows what hues are in vogue, he will work accordingly, thus opening up the international market as well.”

Lack of support
The Handloom Development Council in India is working towards not just procuring more funds for weavers, but doing away with unnecessary government schemes as well. “There is a government scheme which teaches weaving to weavers. How ridiculous is this? Instead of wasting money on conducting such workshops, the money should be spent on buying yarn and other items they need. Also, under the Technology upgradation fund, the government allots Rs.202 crores (USD32 million) towards handloom. But not a single rupee comes to weavers. All instead go to power, jet and spinning looms,” laments Venkanna.

Looking at a broader marketing solution, Venkanna adds, “After launching the handloom mark, the government has not put out a single public interest commercial. Handloom is eco friendly, there is no use of petrochemicals in the dyes and absolutely no water pollution or wastage of electricity. At a time when the world is getting eco conscious, all these aspects need to be highlighted.”

Source: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/fashion/designers/What-is-killing-our-weavers/articleshow/18953520.cms

And the solution?

There will be no systematic and wide-spread improvement until the government takes genuine action to ensure weavers are justly paid for their work; ensuring minimum wages are living wages, are respected and are followed will be the first step towards improvement. Sadly this will be a long and bumpy road. As citizens and consumers, we also have a role to play in advocating for minimum wages and spending our money wisely – directly buying from artisans or organisations which empower them.

    The Rich Meaning of Textiles (or: Why it’s OK to hoard textiles)

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    This is a post for those ladies out there, who, like me, have either inherited a string of textile-coveting DNA from your mothers or developed it for yourselves over the years. You are not alone!

    Visit our Pinterest Board, “Textile Wanderlust”, to satiate your textile needs!

    The richness of textile traditions link people the world over, for fabrics are a non-verbal language that tell us the cultural history of a people, their place in the world and even their beliefs.

    Source: Dhamija 2006:266

    At HOWS, we understand as well as anyone the strong desire to surround oneself with exquisite textiles. We get it, we really do. I often find myself daydreaming about the world before Big Fashion took over; before we all tried to emulate the style of the Next Hot Trend and before we all wore clothes made in the same big, far away factories in an assembly line. When people wore clothes that were made locally, using mostly local materials and techniques, and which had evolved over generations to suit perfectly their lifestyle, climate, values and needs.

    Weird clothes with wild hats and lots of colours. Prints on patterns on more prints, layered with silver and glass bead jewellery. Embroidered shoes, wide leather belts and lots of bits and pieces dangling from here and there. And embroidery! Embroidered fabrics that had been passed down from mother to daughter; stitched over the course of years in preparation for marriage or coming of age rites.

    Travel+Textiles: more from Textile Wanderlust

    I’m all for minimalism (blatant marketing plug: see our new collection KORAKOHL), but it has its time and place. Nothing beats richly woven or embellished textiles heavy with history and meaning that carry stories from generation to generation and from place to place. (Disclaimer: as it’s my daydream, I don’t think about the negative aspects of textiles and clothing, such as clothing being used a form of discrimination, etc. My daydreams are happy places!).

    With that wordy introduction out of the way, and now we know we both share the same love for textiles, I’m going to tell you why it’s ok to hoard textiles  (I know you do – that spare room, or spare cupboard, or hidden drawer that’s filled with fabrics and related bits and bobs that you just can’t bear to part with but somehow never get around to actually sewing into anything or using in anyway!).

    Mario Testino's Alta Moda

    Mario Testino’s Alta Moda

    The Rich Meaning of Textiles

    The word ‘textile’ is from Latin, from the adjective textilis, meaning ‘woven’, from textus, the past participle of the verb texere, ‘to weave’

    The wearing of clothing is exclusively a human characteristic and is a feature of most human societies.  It is not known when humans began wearing clothes but anthropologists believe that animal skins and vegetation were adapted into coverings as protection from cold, heat and rain, especially as humans migrated to new climates. Evidence suggests that human beings may have begun wearing clothing as far back as 100,000 to 500,000 years ago. Clothing and textiles have been important in human history and reflect the materials available to a civilization as well as the technologies that had been mastered. The social significance of the finished product reflects their culture.

    Spinning fibre into thread, Japan

    Spinning fibre into thread, Japan

    Textiles and costumes touched every aspect of life from birth to death and every level of society, including the enslaved, the middling, and the aristocrat. Expensive and elaborate textiles were more than functional: they proclaimed wealth and status. Textile production was one of the most labour-intensive industries in antiquity, and as such, textiles were valued as pieces of great wealth, vastly different to our modern Fast Fashion industry where clothing is viewed as disposable and treated as such.

    Textiles are thus a major component of material culture. They may be viewed as the products of technology, as cultural symbols, as works of art, or as items of trade. The textile arts are a fundamental human activity, expressing symbolically much of what is valuable in any culture.

    Textiles as bearers of history

    Textile patterns attract the eye, and textile textures invite the hand. Textiles can further reveal much about their makers, traders, and users. For example, a specific kind of fiber would suggest the maker’s way of life. Pastoral nomads sheared wool off domesticated sheep that required large pastures. Sedentary agriculturalists reeled silk off silkworms that necessitated the planting of the mulberry for feeding the silkworms. Each type of textile construction required different kinds of tools, some portable such as a back-strap loom, others less so, such as a treadle loom. Design and ornamentation revealed the source of inspiration for textile-makers: stylized flora and fauna or imagery with figures suggest myths and narratives, perhaps seen on other objects transported by traders from faraway places. The study of cloth manufacturing leads us to understand how various peoples— nomads, traders, and agriculturalists—contributed to the development of textile art and technology.

    Textiles in trade

    Textiles were a particularly convenient unit of exchange for merchants traveling long distances. Textiles are unique in their “convenient portability; while in the long term considered fragile, textiles are initially far more durable and easier to transport than, e.g., glass and ceramics. Cloth was accepted as “the most common form of currency.” (Kahlenberg 2006:145). [For example,] at the height of the textile and spice trade, one Indian cloth sold for as much as 40 pounds of nutmeg (Gittinger 1979:15).

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    “Photographer Jim Naughten captures images of the Herero tribe in costumes influenced by European missionaries and traders in the late 19th century and German colonial rule.”

    The exchange of luxury textiles was predominant on the Silk Road, a series of ancient trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting East and West by linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads and urban dwellers from China to the Mediterranean Sea during various periods of time. The trade route was initiated around 114 BC by the Han Dynasty, although earlier trade across the continents had already existed, [and extended] over 8,000 km (5,000 mi) on land and sea. Silk was confined to China until the opening up of the silk road routes.

     

    Cilician Bride, Armenia

    Cilician Bride, Armenia

    Tibetan woman

    Tibetan woman

    Two members of the Ramon Obusan troupe wait backstage to perform Yakan dances in Basilan, Philippines.

    Two members of the Ramon Obusan troupe wait backstage to perform Yakan dances in Basilan, Philippines.

    Gujarati women of India

    Gujarati women of India

    Girls in traditional Koran wedding dress

    Girls in traditional Koran wedding clothes

    Woman from Chitral, Pakistan

    Woman from Chitral, Pakistan

    Russian woman

    Russian woman

    Modern jewellery inspired by tribal African clothing

    Modern jewellery inspired by tribal African clothing

    Afghan bride

    Afghan bride

    Avar woman, from Dagestan in traditional wedding costume.

    Avar woman, from Dagestan in traditional wedding costume.

    Cloth as communication

    For dress to function as a means of communication, individuals need to assign meaning to dress. What meanings are tied to what aspects of dress are learned over a lifetime, are tied to place and time, and are constantly undergoing change. What is important is that people do assign meaning to items of dress such that what is done to the body in the form of body modifications and supplements is used as a basis for making inferences about the dressed individual.

    Within Maya societies, both ancient and current, weaving reveals a deep symbolic nature that embodies numerous aspects of the culture. Not only do the garments themselves play a role in both daily life and ceremonial purposes, but the weaving process is connected to some of the most essential cultural tenants, such as gender, class, and ethnic distinctions, as well as the creation myth. The Mayan language is another intrinsic aspect of weaving, from the distinctive symmetry of Maya animal designs reflected in the onomatopoeia of those animals’ calls, to parallels between the meanings of certain words and the parts of the loom on which textiles are woven.

    Source: http://anthrojournal.com

    Hashtag your images and join us in our #textilewanderlust

    Hashtag your images and join us in our #textilewanderlust

    And so, the next time you feel a pang of guilt about having too many textiles hoarded away, just remember that you’re part of a society that has valued textiles for thousands of years. In hoarding and valuing textiles, we are contributing to one of mankind’s most rich and meaningful industries. We are simply a small piece in the vast history of textile creation, trade, use and adoration. So take out those textiles, stroke them lovingly and think about all the stories, history and meaning they carry.

    Taken verbatim from:

    http://science.jrank.org/pages/6784/Textiles-Significance-textiles.html

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textile

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_clothing_and_textiles

    http://www.artesmagazine.com/2010/10/scholar-hannah-kusinitz-examines-role-of-textile-in-cultural-anthropology/

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2012/04/03/what-your-clothes-say-about-you/

    http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com/page/The$0020Social$0020Psychology$0020of$0020Dress/the-social-psychology-of-dress

    http://www.penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/pdfs/52-3/sheng.pdf

    Around the world in 80 textiles: Khmer Hol (story 9 of 80)

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    Hol is the Khmer word for ikat, and as we discovered during a trip to Cambodia in April, it is also some of the finest silk ikat produced. 

    By the 19th century, Cambodian ikat was considered among the finest textiles of the world.

    The rich textile heritage of Cambodia. Source: Pinterest

    The rich textile heritage of Cambodia. Source: Pinterest

    If I say to you Cambodia and textiles – what would be the first thing to come into your head?

    Chances are you think of the huge Cambodian garment manufacturing industry, which features more and more in news about poor conditions for workers in the supply chains of the big fashion brands. After all, “garment production accounts for 16 percent of Cambodia’s total gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 45 percent of its manufacturing workers (South East Asia Textile Business Review 2009). Garment and textile exports comprise 85 percent of the country’s total exports (Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia).” It’s clear, Cambodia depends on the fashion industry.

    But what about textile production? 

    …best known is the intricate silk Ikat. Its lustrous colours of beauty and the precision of its thread binding techniques surpass that of other Ikat produced in Asia.

    The Textiles of Cambodia, by the Fukuoka Museum 2003, Etsuko Iwanaga

    The rich jewel-toned textile heritage of Cambodia. From the House of Wandering Silk collection

    The rich jewel-toned textile heritage of Cambodia. From the House of Wandering Silk collection

    Like me, you might have heard more about Thai ikat; in fact silk ikat in Thailand comes predominantly from the Khmer minority living in Isaan, the Thai region bordering Cambodia. The reason we’ve heard so little about Cambodia’s rich textiles is because “Cambodian culture suffered massive disruption and destruction during the mid-20th century Indochina wars but most especially during the Khmer Rouge regime. Most weavers were killed and the whole art of Cambodian ikat was in danger of disappearing.”

    From the archives of House of Wandering Silk

    From the archives of House of Wandering Silk

    The history of Hol

    Cambodia’s land mass is mainly flat with both the Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong river as its main water supply. Its abundant water resource means it has always been a rich and fertile land, and before the war Khmer people enjoyed a self sufficient lifestyle and agriculture flourished. Consequently weaving and sericulture has always been a central part of rural life. Silk weaving in Cambodia has a long history. The practice dates to as early as the 1st century, and textiles were used in trade during Angkorian times. Even modern textile production evidences these historic antecedents: motifs found on silk today often echo clothing details on ancient stone sculptures.

    By the 19th century, Cambodian ikat was considered among the finest textiles of the world. When the King of Thailand came to the US in 1856, he brought as a gift for President Franklin Pierce fine Cambodian ikat cloth. The most intricately patterned of the Cambodian fabrics are the sampot hol—skirts worn by the women—and the pidans—wall hangings used to decorate the pagoda or the home for special ceremonies.

    From the archives of House of Wandering Silk

    From the archives of House of Wandering Silk

    There are two main types of Cambodian weaving. The ikat technique, which produces patterned fabric, is quite complex. To create patterns, weavers tie-dye portions of weft yarn before weaving begins. Patterns are diverse and vary by region; common motifs include lattice, stars, and spots. The second weaving technique, unique to Cambodia, is called “uneven twill”. It yields single or two-color fabrics, which are produced by weaving three threads so that the “color of one thread dominates on one side of the fabric, while the two others determine the colour on the reverse side.” Traditionally, Cambodian textiles have employed natural dyes. Red dye comes from lac insect nests, blue dye from indigo, yellow and green dye from prohut bark, and black dye from ebony bark.

    Cambodia’s modern silk-weaving centers are Takeo, Battambang, Beanteay Meanchey, Siem Reap and Kampot provinces. Silk-weaving has seen a major revival recently, with production doubling over the past ten years. This has provided employment for many rural women.

    Ikat silks are worn by men and women, the men wearing the Sampot Hol Kaban and the women the Sampot Hol, Sampot meaning wrapping skirt and Hol meaning Ikat. It has been said that the Sampot hols can have more than 200 motifs all memorised from the hand. The Pedan is a fabric woven traditionally as a wall hanging for religious ceremonies. The most refined of which show no repetition at all and are a true testament to the skill of a Khmer weaver. They show various motifs, typically with Buddhist connotations such as temples, asparas, buddas, elephants, lions and nagas.

    From the archives of House of Wandering Silk

    From the archives of House of Wandering Silk

    Taken verbatim from:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ikat#Cambodia

    http://www.ikttearth.org/#!khmer-ikat/ctrz

    http://www.textileworldasia.com/Issues/2013/April-May-June/Country_Profiles/Cambodia_On_The_Rise

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambodian_art#Textiles

    Around the world in 80 textiles: Uzbek ikat (story 7 of 80)

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    Uzbekistan / textiles

    Uzbekistan / textiles

    My initial interest in ikat came about while living in the North of Afghanistan and was was closely tied to the weaves of Central Asia, in particular Uzbekistan. After some brief research, I came to realise that ikat is associated with countries as far off as Japan, Indonesia and Egypt and in fact the name ikat derives from an Indonesian language meaning “to tie”. However, I still closely associate ikat with Uzbekistan, which to this today continues to be one of the main ikat weaving centers of the world.

    Uzbekistan / ikat. Source: Russian Textiles: Printed Cloth for the Bazaars of Central Asia, Susan Meller

    Uzbekistan / ikat. Source: Russian Textiles: Printed Cloth for the Bazaars of Central Asia, Susan Meller

    Uzbek ikat style is quite particular; easily discernible from Indian patola and Balinese endek, for example. House of Wandering Silk has been partnering for the last year  with UNESCO award-winning master ikat weavers in the town of Margilan in the Ferghana Valley region in Uzbekistan, and so we thought a deeper exploration of their ikat style was warranted!

    Central Asia

    Central Asia. Source: Steppe Magazine. Map by Katherine Marland.

    The below is taken from a Guide to Ikat from Steppe Magazine, an article which covers classical ikat, Soviet faux ikat and contemporary ikat. 

    Between the early nineteenth century and the beginning of the Soviet period, there was an extraordinary flowering of the art of ikat textile weaving in Central Asia. Although ikat has come to be known as the national fabric of Uzbekistan, its original development involved widespread adoption of this striking fabric by Uzbeks, Tajiks, Jews, Turkmen and Kyrgyz (during the nineteenth century, the nomadic Kazakhs were known as ‘Kyrgyz’ while the Kyrgyz were known as ‘Kara [black] Kyrgyz’.) Virtually every ethnic and religious group in western Central Asia used ikat for costume and décor and was involved in the production and marketing of the cloth, although it was produced primarily in what is now the Republic of Uzbekistan. Ikat was made in the southern region, in the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Khiva and the town of Kokand in the fertile Ferghana Valley to the east. The oasis cities were fairly small, densely packed urban centres surrounded by many miles of gardens and orchards interspersed with dwellings. Intensive agriculture had been practiced for millennia in these oases, and wealth was calculated largely in terms of land. The merchants of these oasis cities carried goods to Russia, Iran, India and as far as Siberia, just as their ancestors had travelled the great Silk Road from China to the shores of the Mediterranean.

    By the nineteenth century overland trade had diminished, but textiles were still the primary commodities carried by camel caravan. In the early 1800s Bukhara had the most active trade, surplus wealth and formal guild structure – and the first classical adras ikat production. The oasis towns were populated by Uzbeks, who had held political power for several centuries; Persian speakers, who considered themselves the most ancient inhabitants of these places; a minority Jewish community; and an Iranian population that included many former slaves. The larger oasis towns were each ruled by a khan or an emir, the smaller townships by feudal lords. The kingdoms were politically stable and strong in the first half of the nineteenth century, but during the latter half their lack of political cohesion allowed Russian troops to conquer them one by one. The new economic structure that brought the oasis kingdoms into a central Russian administration is reflected in the changes in the textile trade over the 100 years of active handmade ikatproduction.

    The process of creating ikat can take up to 100 steps, from rearing of the silk worms to the loom.

    The process of creating ikat can take up to 100 steps, from rearing of the silk worms to the loom.

    The Making of Ikats

    Ikat was almost entirely the work of men. A whole variety of specialised craftsmen performed the various stages of the ikat-making process. Women were involved in ikatproduction only in the earliest stages. They raised their own silkworms, feeding them the leaves of mulberry trees from home orchards. The best-quality cocoons were eventually sold in the bazaar to make silk cloth. In the bazaar, male workers boiled the cocoons, teasing individual threads out with a stick and then reeling them directly from the pot. These threads were combined to make a multi-filament warp thread, which was then wound onto a hand-turned wooden frame. The original warps were up to 200 m long and were cut into more manageable sections of about 15–20 m before weaving. The plain warps were divided into lots of thirty to forty warp threads. Each group was threaded through a board with many holes pierced in it. The threaded board was wound tightly around two wooden struts, so that many layers were set very closely atop the other. Adras ikat was woven in quite narrow widths. Altogether, there were about 2,000 warp threads in a 30 cm-wide section of finished fabric. The pattern to be tied onto the threads was marked on the tensioned warp with a sharpened stick dipped in charcoal.

    The master craftsman’s assistant then bound the warps with cotton thread, so that each bundle on the frame contained that warp’s width times the number of warp layers. When all the areas of warp for the resist had been wrapped in cotton, the warp was removed from the patterning frame and brought to a dye house for its first application of colour. After the first dye-bath, the partially dyed warp threads were returned to the designer’s workshop. They were unbound, stretched again on the patterning frame for another set of ties and then returned to the dye-shop for the application of another colour. When the warp was completely dyed, the patterns on the threads were manipulated and made symmetrical by dividing the threads in half and placing them so that one of the original edges became the central vertical axis, with the pattern appearing on either side. Sometimes several divisions of the warp were made to multiply and narrow the pattern before the warp was placed on the loom, or sections of the warp were moved up or down in relation to one another. Adras ikat was woven on a very simple, warp-weighted loom. Two treadles raised and lowered the two warp sections. Adras ikat fabric was finished by beating the surface with wooden mallets or polishing it with a heavy glass semi-sphere. One face of the fabric was often glazed with egg white to give it gloss and shine. The loom for silk velvet ikat was more complex and involved five harnesses instead of two.

    Ikat Costume Clothing showed rank and status within the rigidly structured societies of the oasis towns. The wealthiest people tended to wear either ikats and embroidered silks and velvets, and/or imported fabrics. Wealthy merchants and warriors are often depicted wearing ikat robes. Many photographs taken in the towns’ bazaars and great squares show men dressed just as colourfully, but in the less prestigious cotton fabrics typical of ordinary urban dress. In the nineteenth century, men and boys often wore several robes at a time, one on top of the other. Robes were cut wide and folded to close, frequently showing a decorative lapse of contrasting ikat fabric in the lining. Those from Bukhara usually had a firm T-shape, with wide sleeves. Robes worn in other cities were less voluminous and often had narrow sleeves. Only the half-silk, cotton-wefted adras fabrics were meshru (‘permitted’) for men by religious tradition. In Central Asia’s gender-segregated urban society, a few young men worked as entertainers for men’s festivities, dancing and singing in imitation of women. These boys wore long hair and dressed in clothing appropriate for young girls. The boys also wore the lighter-weight, all-silk ikat fabrics usually worn by women.

    Lush harem settings are often seen in posed photographs, Russian versions of theodalisque popular in Orientalist European art. Nevertheless, such images are an accurate reflection of the idealised Central Asian home environment. Textiles were essential to the decoration of the home in the nineteenth century. Hangings adorned the walls, cushions served as chairs and padded cloth mattresses served as bedding. Meals were taken upon a cloth set on the floor. Home use of ikat textile decoration was not determined by a person’s ethnic background or religion; ikat decoration was a widespread urban style, and the choice of pattern and form were influenced by fashion in the town in which they were made. Women in the cities were cloaked from head to foot in padded robes, and wore dark horsehair veils. Beneath these, well-to-do women wore layers of brilliant silks and satins, and those who could afford it wore ikat. The public dress of Jewish men was restricted to humble materials, but in the home the sumptuary laws were cast off. In photographs of affluent Jews taken in the nineteenth century, families were dressed entirely in silks, and men wore heavily ornamented silver belts. While women’s robes were often indistinguishable from those of men, certain types of robes were distinctly feminine. The munisak robe was the most luxurious garment in the dowry of a bride. It was cut to fit the figure but was worn on top of all other robes, over the head like a cape, by the bride at her wedding. Later, women wore their robes over colourful layers of thin, unlined silk ikat dresses. Children were largely exempt from restrictions on clothing. An 1880s photograph of Jewish children at a synagogue school shows almost every child in a rich, silk ikat dress. Although ikat belonged to the commercial milieu – to the world of the bazaar and trade fabrics – it was quickly adopted for very traditional textile uses such as the dowry; decoration for the marriage bed and the bier; and costume for the most sacred family rituals. The 1871 Turkestanskii Album prepared for General von Kaufmann, the first Governor General of Russian Turkestan, includes photographs of wedding and betrothal ceremonies among several ethnic groups. In one image from Samarkand, representatives from the families of a Jewish bride and groom examine ikat silks, which formed the dowry of the bride. Active trade with the steppe made ikat readily available to nomads as well as urban peoples. The earliest photographs of steppe peoples, from about the 1860s, show them wearing and using ikat. Early sources note that the various ethnic groups preferred specific colours and patterns: fine fabrics with yellow colours were dominant among Jewish inhabitants, red and black among the Kyrgyz and so on.

    UZ online

    House of Wandering Silk’s collection of Uzbek Ikat Scarves

    Ikat Design

    In Central Asia, except in certain field patterns in Turkmen tribal rugs signifying tribal identity, designs do not usually have specific symbolic meaning or significance. Ancient patterns, variants on old themes and designs made up on the spur of the moment are given equal, often arbitrary placement and weight. In general, even traditional, homemade textile arts are extremely creative and individual in design and do not follow specific, set patterns.

    There are many familiar forms in ikat design that appear related to the scorpion and bird shapes found in rural embroidery, or that echo the garden-like constructions of urbansuzani with gigantic floral forms. However, designs that have some significance or meaning in other textiles lose those meanings entirely in ikats. There are no totems or signs of family or tribe. The makers of ikat have rejected identity and value in individual designs in order to embrace formal considerations of composition and colour. Geometry is one means of composing and understanding ikat surfaces. In ikat, ‘geometric’ decoration occurs as a figure repeated regularly. Geometry in ikat design is usually implied rather than explicit, and is often built on curving, vaguely floral forms. The various manipulations and divisions of the warp to increase the number of pattern repeats also bring a more symmetrical structure to ikat composition. Stems, tendrils and blooms are constrained within regular pattern repeats. Tension and variety depend upon the interlacing of other repeating patterns and on scale. The combination of differentikats in a single wall hanging or garment often seems to reflect the layering and blending of patterns found in Central Asian architectural tilework, in which bands of geometric tile end abruptly. Floral patterns are so highly abstracted that they express the burgeoning energy of a spring garden or the feeling that you get when you look into the heart of a flower.

    The clarity, saturation and depth of colour in classical ikats are their greatest artistic strengths. The eye is teased, tickled by the sophistication of the composition and the elegance of the forms. Viewers may become lost in an ikat’s intertwining motifs, but it is colour that truly entrances them. Each unique ikat is the work of an individual who thought deeply about his every choice of colour and form in order to build a harmonious composition.

    There is always a concern with negative and positive space, for the placement of each pattern and its corollary. We can see the risks that the anonymous ikat designers took and trace their response to each step of the dyeing process. In their way, each ikat is a discovery of a new kind of order.

    Kate Fitz Gibbon’s books on Central Asia’s textiles include Ikat: Silks of Central Asia and Uzbek Embroidery, The Nomadic Tradition, both with co-author Andrew Hale.

    On chai: How to make the perfect masala chai

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    How to make the perfect masala chai

    Before getting into my work this morning, I made my umpteenth masala chai to help me settle down at my computer. Despite having enjoyed chai, and made chai, countless times over the last decade and a half, I have to admit that I still don’t get it right every time.

    It’s worth noting that chai (referring to the Indian-inspired masala chai) means different things depending on where you come from. Growing up in Sydney, chai became a big trend in the nineties. All the cool cafes in Sydney’s trendy inner city suburbs, like Glebe and Newtown, began listing chai on the menus. Now chais, chai lattes and their range of derivative beverages are as common as regular tea and coffee. Having lived in India, the source of inspiration for the global chai-trend, I’ve developed a much more mundane view of chai. Most chai in Northern India is simply black tea boiled for an age with milk and a heap of sugar. After getting over the original thrill of finding chai on every street corner, my palette slowly became sensitised to the chai which was made with less milk versus loads of full-cream milk; to chai which had been boiling for hours and was filled with bitter tannin versus a freshly made pot, and I would seek out chai-wallahs who would add ground fresh ginger to the chai in winter and dried cardamom to the chai in summer.

    It’s actually much rarer than you may think to find a real masala chai in India; masala meaning mixed spices and referring to a range of mixes. There are different masalas for different dishes, just as there are different masalas for chai. Masala for chai typically includes: cardamon, ginger, peppercorn, cloves, cinnamon and can also include star anise, nutmeg, fennel, mace and cumin.

    Chai in India

    Cooking is not my forte, and while I may not make the best chai every time, I have picked up some useful tips through trial and error and sampling chai in hundreds of tea-stalls, chai khanas and cafes:

    1. Obvious, but use the best and freshest ingredients. Use cold water to bring to the boil for the tea (it has more oxygen, I believe). Use quality, plain honey (flavoured honey can clash with the spices – and honey generally adds a richer, warmer taste than sugar). Use full cream milk. Use high quality black tea leaves.

    2. Find a masala recipe that works for you. Plain ginger chai is wonderful for winter. Cloves, cardamom, peppercorns and cinnamon are additional essentials for the mix. Whole spices (as opposed to ground spices) are better. Ground them roughly in a mortar and pestle. You only need a few of each spice (perhaps 4 or 5 peppercorns).

    3. Add ground spices to water and bring to the boil. Let the water simmer for 5-10 minutes, depending on how strong you want the flavour of the spices. On no account add the tea leaves to the boil!

    4. Add milk. It’s best to add the milk before the tea leaves, so you can warm it up. I am a total lactose glutton – the creamier the tea the better – but quantity of milk used is to taste. If you want to get it close to a good, Indian chai, you’ll need to use much more milk than the classic, watery English tea. Be careful – milk will boil over the second you take your eyes off it!

    5. Turn off heat and add tea leaves. Tea does not do well when brewed for too long or too much – tannins are released and make the tea bitter to taste. Yuck. So use around one spoonful per cup, and another for the teapot (if you’re using a teapot – this is wisdom from my Nanna🙂 Let it brew for a few minutes (check the manufacturer’s directions – they know what they’re talking about!).

    6. Strain the concoction into a teapot and add honey/sugar to taste. Tea always tastes better when you drink it from a beautiful tea set. A handmade teapot and teacup have the magical ability to whisk you away to an exotic land. You’ve put in all the effort to make the chai, so you might as well make some effort with what you use to drink them!

    7. Drink and enjoy!

    I’d love to hear any suggestions, thoughts and recommendations from you on how you brew your perfect chai!

    Around the world in 80 textiles: Chintz (story 8 of 80)

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    An intriguing tale of industrial espionage at the hands of the colonials!

    Until this evening, I just assumed that chintz referred to old-lady style floral prints used on faded curtains and dusty sofas. Our Monday Mood Board for tomorrow celebrates the floral prints we use in our kantha scarves, and got me thinking about chintz. After a quick google search, I’ve realised that there is an awful lot of history, and fascinating history at that, to the under-appreciated chintz.

    Chintz and floral prints

    Chintz and floral prints

    I had never realised the link before, but chintz in fact comes originally from the sub-continent, where it was inspired by the floral prints of the Mughals; the rulers of India before the British took over. While the inspiration was Indian, the first designs themselves were European – coloured florals on traditionally light backgrounds. Chintz was manufactured in India as block printed, painted or stained calico (calico being predominantly produced in the South of India) from the early 17th century and imported into England, France and The Netherlands by early Dutch and Portuguese traders. It became extremely popular as bed covers, curtains and draperies, which in turn concerned the European mills who were unable to produce it. Accordingly, France and then England made the import of chintz illegal in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In 1742, a French missionary trying to convert Indians to Catholicism stole the knowhow behind making chintz and brought it back to Europe, and once the European mills were able to copy the fabric, the ban on chintz was lifted in 1759.

    Meet the Makers: Reetu and Sashi make our Knotted Sling Bags

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    At House of Wandering Silk, we value authenticity; most importantly the authenticity of the story behind the label. The story of how we source materials, the story of our artisans, and the story of the production process. One way we share these stories with our customers is to introduce you to the artisans we work with in our Meet the Makers series. This, the first in the series, introduces you to Reetu and Sashi, two of the artisans who work on our Knotted Sling Bags.

    #whomademyclothes

    One of the best things about running a social business is spending time with the artisans, who are so much more than suppliers. They are partners, whose welfare is as important as the bottom line in our accounts. Unfortunately, I find myself increasingly occupied with the accounts side, and less and less do I get to spend time with these talented women, so it was with a happy heart we set out to New Ashok Nagar to the SEWA (the Self Employed Women’s Association) office recently.

    We’ve been working with SEWA since early this year. A few of their members (which number over a million across India) have been working on our sari bead necklaces and sari bangles, and most recently, French knot embroidery for our latest collection – Knotted sling bags which just launched this week. This afternoon my colleague, Maria, and I spent a relaxing afternoon with Reetu and Sashi, two SEWA members living in East Delhi.

    Eleven SEWA artisans have been involved in creating our collection of Knotted sling bags and I wanted to find out from Reetu and Sashi more about their lives and their work with SEWA.

    Meet Reetu, a talented embroiderer, a Bihari and a mother of three

    Reetu

    Reetu is originally from Muzaffarpur in Bihar State but like many from her area, she migrated to Delhi with her family in the hope of a better life. She arrived in Delhi three years ago with her husband and two boys. Her third son has remained in her hometown where he is completing his BA and hopes to work in a bank after graduation. Her husband works in an export house in Delhi; he has a meagre income but doesn’t want Reetu to work outside the home. Although she herself would also not take a full time job, she does want to work – for her own satisfaction and to bring more cash to the family table. Her work options are limited to doing piece work at home; like so many Indian ladies, she learnt embroidery as a child from her mother and is able to make very fine work. She is one of the lucky ladies who is a member of SEWA and so can benefit from the fair wages and regular work that companies like House of Wandering Silk offer. The alternative is to work for contractors, middle men who exploit the skills of women who need to work. Reetu says of the contractors, ” The are rude, they keep the money to themselves, they play on the women’s needs and are disrespectful. I refuse to work for them.” For the kind of embroidery Reetu does for us, a contractor would pay her INR 5-10 per hour (USD 8 – 15 cents). Working through SEWA with House of Wandering Silk, she gets 16 times this amount.

    Reetu says she has learnt a lot from SEWA – she has learnt about new embroidery techniques and enjoys coming to the center every day to sit and gossip with her colleagues, pick new work and drop completed work, which she does in her spare hours at home. She is proud to be earning her own income, which goes to support the rent of their house in a dilapidated colony on the outskirts of Delhi and of course, allows her to buy new saris and jewelry for herself!

    Meet Sashi, a talented embroiderer, regular visitor to the Taj Mahal and a mother of two

    Sashi

    Sashi hails from Agra, a town in Uttar Pradesh famous throughout the world for one thing: the Taj Mahal! Of course, she has visited it many times🙂 It’s been 18 years since she was married in Delhi and her, her husband, her ten year old daughter and five year old son live with another nine family members in their own home in the outskirts of Delhi. Her husband works in a printing press in North Delhi; similarly to Reetu’s situation, he doesn’t want Sashi to work outside the house. Given the choice, she also would not want to as she has to take care of the children. So it’s a great boon to her that she is able to pick materials from the SEWA office and complete her embroidery work in her own time and own home. She enjoys the work and spends on average about 3 hours a day doing embroidery.

    Sashi’s day consists of her waking up at 6 am (she was embarrassed to tell us because “she got up so late”…. I’d be embarrassed to tell her what time I got up if 6 am is late…!!) and sending her children off to school around 7 am. After she has dropped them at school, she takes care of the household chores – cleaning and cooking. She has to prepare a special diet for herself as she has diabetes. Around midday she drops into SEWA to pick new work and payment and drop her completed pieces. In the afternoon she typically picks her children after she’s finished her lunch, feeds the kids, then sometimes drops back into SEWA to spend some time sitting and working with her friends. She has to prepare dinner early for her father-in-law and then, after watching one or another of the Hindi soap operas that are so fabulously popular, she’ll head to bed around 11 pm.

    In a knot over French knots

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    Just as we like our customers to know the provenance of the products they buy from us, we like to know the provenance of the weaves, patterns and embroidery techniques that inspire us and that we use in our designs – the older the history and richer the heritage, the better! We’ve just launched our collection of Knotted Sling Bags and the highlight of these pieces are front panels full of French knot embroidery. I remember learning how to embroider French knots in high school, but beyond that, I didn’t know the first thing about them when I first started on the design of these bags.

    In a knot over french knots

    In a knot over French knots

    After seeing our women artisans at work, the first thing I understood was how laborious this type of embroidery is. To use our bags as an example; one panel measuring 19 cm X 26 cm requires somewhere between five to six thousand French knots to cover it completely. This number of knots takes one of our artisans around 30 hours to complete. Of course, this differs depending on what thread you are using which in turn depends on what size knots you want. We wanted our patterns to be crisp and clear, so we’ve used fine anchor thread and smaller knots.

    Knotted sling design process

    Knotted sling design process – the patterns

    French knots are made by gently wrapping thread around the needle once, twice or thrice (as in the case of our bags) and then inserting the needle into the fabric, creating a knot-like stitch on the surface of the fabric. In European embroidery, French knots are most often used as single knots or in small clusters, rather than for covering the entire surface of the fabric. The origin of the name seems to be quite cloudy – one can only assume this style of embroidery was used extensively in France – but it is very similar to styles of embroidery used through history in China and collectively known as “seed stitch”. Seed stitch refers to the technique of embroidering small knots on the surface of the fabric which are then stitched down and are often found in Han Chinese costumes, where large pieces of fabric were often covered in these knots.

    I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with the end result. From afar, the French knots give a consistent and bold pattern. Up close they have a rich texture. And – very importantly for us and our customers – they give a major source of employment and income to our artisans.

    Reverse side of French knot embroidery

    Reverse side of French knot embroidery

    French knot - possibilities

    French knot – possibilities

     

    Video

    Hey, House of Wandering Silk, why this name?

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    Ok, House of Wandering Silk is a mouthful. It’s true. I came up with the name some years before actually starting up the business; I had it in my mind and somehow it stuck, outlasting the other names that appealed to me. It’s a very, very difficult thing to come up with a name that will appeal and stay with customers, that adequately represents the concept of the brand and that sounds catchy and new!

    These are the ideas behind our name:

    House: (1) the concept of a fashion house; (2) the idea of a physical location where our women artisans work, where they are safe, comfortable and are happy to be; (3) most of the work done by our artisans is done in their own homes.

    Wandering: (1) representing the journey made by the textiles we work with which are sourced from all over India and beyond, worked on by artisans from far and wide and then sent to our customers across the world; (2) the idea that much of the inspiration for our work comes from my personal travels through Asia.

    Silk: (1) reflecting the fact that HOWS works exclusively with textiles; (2) silk in particular was chosen as it is especially luxurious and vibrant, and most of the textiles we work with are silk.

    And there you have it, the jigsaw of ideas that came together to create House of Wandering Silk. Summed up here in a short video made in 2013:

    Around the world in 80 textiles: ‘Malkha’, the sustainable cloth (story 6 of 80)

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    Malkha cotton, queen of sustainability

    Malkha cotton, queen of sustainability

    As a prologue, I have to say that my research into malkha has been an eye opener! The entire concept behind this fabric and its exceptional sustainability have made it my new favourite fabric. Anyone who is interested in textiles will be fascinated by today’s post!

    For a textile addict who has somehow managed to build a business around the activity of sourcing and designing textiles, the highlight of any work day is being immersed in said textiles. As House of Wandering Silk grows, I find myself able to spend less and less time immersed in textiles and more and more time typing away at my computer. So it was a wonderful afternoon today when I stopped by the DAMA exhibition in the Aga Khan Hall in the new part of New Delhi. DAMA is the Dastkar Andhra Marketing Association; it was created in 2001 to promote the cotton handloom industry of Adhra Pradesh. Household weavers, organised into cooperatives, are supported by DAMA through gaining market access.

    The cotton handloom industry is the largest employer in India after agriculture; in Andhra Pradesh state alone there are 200,000 weaver families. Organisations like DAMA have been established – sometimes by NGOs directly but more often by state governments – to strengthen the industry and the capacity of weavers to access the market. Such organisations have heralded innovations in textile weaving, as well as a return to traditional methods and fibres. India has seen a revival in the appreciation of hand spinning and hand weaving; this benefits hugely the artisans involved in the laborious process as they no longer depend on middle men and receive more income directly. It also benefits the end user; after all, as Ghandi said, “there is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.”

    During my afternoon sojourn at the DAMA exhibition, I discovered “malkha” fabric – “mal” coming from the Hindi malmal (lightweight fabric) and “kha” come from khadi (meaning hand spun and hand woven). The difference with khadi is that malkha is not handspun; the difference between malkha and cotton is that malkha is made entirely locally, from raw cotton next to the cotton fields, unlike mill-made cotton which is transported hundreds of kilometers. Malkha represents a return to the age-old carbon neutral cotton processing practices of India.

    What's so special about malkha?

    What’s so special about malkha?

     

    The fabric wallahs cut up my order

    The fabric wallahs cut up my order

    Malkha stands for a decentralised, sustainable, field-to-fabric cotton textile chain, collectively owned and managed by the primary producers – the farmers, the ginners, the spinners, the dyers and the weavers.

    The Malkha initiative, started in 2003, includes at present spinners, dyers and weavers engaged in understanding and evolving the practice of collective working. Once ginning is introduced, farmers and ginners will also be part of the initiative.

    The idea of Malkha comes from the history of cotton cloth making in the Indian subcontinent, the history of a robust and resilient industry embedded in diverse local cultures and customs, a history stretching over millenia. A pattern of textile production that was subverted by the Industrial Revolution model that respects neither nature nor society.

    The Malkha way of making cotton cloth is an alternative to the present industrial model where ghettoization of the worker and pollution of nature is the norm. Malkha is an attempt, the first in modern history, to make yarn specifically for the handloom, to rid the artisanal textile chain of its dependence on large spinning mills that distort the small-scale, village-based nature of handloom cloth making.

    The Malkha process explores technology that responds to the needs of primary producers, does away with unnecessary and wasteful processes in its journey from plant to cloth, is ecologically sensible, and least damaging to the intrinsic properties of cotton.

    The Malkha fabric reflects its heritage in its distinctive texture, drape and feel as the contemporary standard bearer of the Indian handwoven cotton textile tradition.

    Source: http://www.malkha.in

    Not only is this rustic, slub cotton beautiful to the touch and to the eye, but the entire concept of processing cotton to maintain its intrinsic properties and respecting the needs of spinners and weavers is beautiful as well as meaningful.

    To put malkha into context:

    Status of conventional cotton textile industry

    At present, both the cotton farming and handloom weaving sectors in India are in crisis. Over the past century, Indian farmers were compelled to abandon desi (local) cotton varieties, which had evolved over thousands of years to resist local pests and withstand droughts, in favour of the long-stapled American cotton, which was more suited to machine processing and hence in greater demand. Consequently, almost all the cotton grown today is derived from American varieties. However, the American cotton requires irrigation and is vulnerable to pests. As a result, farmers are caught in the trap of high input costs, with no safety net if the crop fails.

    At the other end of the loop, handloom weavers get yarn in hank form only at the whim of the spinning mills, so there are often unexplained shortages of particular counts. The huge variety of handloom fabrics, with each region contributing its particular weaves, is a great advantage in the market; and precisely this diversity is lost when handlooms everywhere have to use the same mill-spun yarn.

    The malkha alternative

    The situation described above raises the question: could we bypass large-scale mill-spinning and view the huge number of small cotton farmers and handloom weavers as a great potential and strength of our rural economy? After all, their presence offers the basic building blocks for a widespread, sustainable, decentralized, ecologically sensible rural industry with all the benefits of dispersed production and distributed returns.

    This thought-process led to the emergence of malkha with the maxim “local production for local use”. As a first step, malkha excluded baling and unbaling, processes that not only damage the cotton fiber, but also engender centralization of spinning and sever the link between cotton farmers and handloom weavers. This facilitated the use of small-scale pre-spinning machinery, which could be set up near farmer’s fields and handloom weaving centers.

    All fabrics produced by this setup are handoven. At present, malkha uses cotton grown by local farmers. As the farmers shift to organic cultivation, hopefully the desi cotton varieties in future, malkha will move along with them.

    Source: DAMA

    The entire concept of malkha appeals to me greatly – after all, the main ideal behind House of Wandering Silk is sustainability, and malkha embraces sustainability in all its forms:

    1. Ecologically sustainable as the energy-intensive processes of baling and unbaling are taken out, along with the fuel costs of transporting raw cotton to the mill and the mill-cotton to the market. It is a carbon neutral process and is increasingly organic. Moreover, local varieties of desi cotton (as opposed to American long-stapled cotton) are favoured, which are traditionally intercropped with pulses to maintain the nutrient level of the soil, require less irrigation and less expensive inputs and are drought resistant.

    2. Socially sustainable as the entire value chain is kept within the village; weavers don’t need to migrate to ghettos around the mills but are able to practice their skills in their villages.

    3. Economically sustainable as the profits are distributed amongst the artisans directly, bypassing mills and middle men. Moreover, it is economically sustainable in the market as 60-70% of the actual costs of mill-made cotton are due solely to the transport to and from the mill.

    4. The end product is also durable, practical and comfortable. Because the inherent properties of cotton are maintained, the fabric breathes beautifully, keeping you cool in summer and warm in winter.

    WOW!!!

    The available range today was limited, but as I was one of the earliest visitors to the exhibition (it’s often a mad rush of Delhi-ite ladies trying to get to the best bargains!), I picked up some outstandingly beautiful vegetable dyed, hand block printed yardage which will be introduced into our range in the coming months, so keep your eyes on this space, folks!

    IMG_0030

    Two of the vegetable-dyed, hand-block printed prints I picked up today.

    For more details on the beauty of this system, please visit the malkha website. I’m also pasting in a couple of interesting newspaper articles which were shown at the exhibition today. If you’re interested to know more about malkha, they are definitely worth a read!

    Malkha details-001 Malkha details-002 Malkha details

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