Saturday, July 25, 2015

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Kalon Mosque

Kalon Mosque, right (click on photos for enlargements), with the facade of Mir-i-Arab Madrassa on the left
 Entrance to Kalon Mosque
  Entrance to Kalon Mosque
 Courtyard of Kalon Mosque
  Courtyard of Kalon Mosque
Interior gallery of Kalon Mosque

Friday, July 24, 2015

China | Xinjiang | Khotan | Carpet Factory

Wandered by the carpet factory in Khotan. A friendly Uighur woman who spoke a little bit of English explained to me what was going on. Although they made the silk carpets here for which Khotan is so famous, at the moment they were making only wool carpets. They use both Chinese and Uighur designs. A 1.2 x 1.8 meter wool carpet takes two people two months to make. A 3.3 x 4 meter carpet takes five people two months to make. A mammoth 15 by 20 meter (50 by 65 feet) carpet, one of the largest ever made here, and now on the wall of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, took fifteen people four months to make. In the sales room (where, curiously, photography was not allowed) I was shown a 4.3 by 6.8 meter (14 by 22 feet) carpet selling for about $2400). This was wool of course. Silk carpets are much, much more expensive. A four-by-six-foot silk carpet could easily sell for $6000-$8000 even here in the factory. Back in Urumqi, in the carpet store at the Provincial Museum, I was shown a 14 by 22 inch rug (that’s inches, mind you) that was selling for a whopping $5800). This was a 1200 knots per inch with a very special design. Obviously this small piece was intended as a wall hanging, a work of art, and not a carpet to be trod on; it was barely big enough to serve as a door mat.
 Women working in the carpet factory (click on photos for enlargements)
  Woman working in the carpet factory
  Woman working in the carpet factory
 Women working in the carpet factory
Even back in Beijing I had been informed by knowledgeable people that the women in Khotan are renowned all over Xinjiang for their beauty. My friend, a Uighur from Ili, in northern Xinjiang, could not keep a note of envy, even jealousy, out of her voice when talking about the women of Khotan. Such eyes! Like amber and obsidian! Such hair! Like Khotanese silk (of course)! Such eyebrows! Like young willow leaves! Such straight noses! Like carved from jade! Such lips! Like ripe pomegranates! Such breasts! Like Hami melons! she kept raving. All Xinjiang men want a wife from Khotan, she claimed. Xuanzang, the peripatetic Chinese monk who visited here in 644, was noticeably silent on this issue, however. Marco Polo also visited Khotan, in the thirteenth century, and although he had much to say about the women of Hami—another town in Xinjiang—who were renowned for their unbridled sensuality, if not necessarily for their beauty, apparently none in Khotan caught his fancy, or at least none that he cared to write about.
 Khotanese beauty working in the carpet factory. Note the young-willow-leaf-like eyebrows and carved-from-jade-like nose.
Another Khotanese beauty working in the carpet factory. Note the amber-and-obsidian-like eyes.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Iran | Esfahan | Abbasi Hotel

Wandered down to Esfahan, south of Tehran. I was especially looking forward to visiting Esfahan since I had booked a room at the legendary Abassi Hotel, which if not the city’s best hotel is certainly the most historic and picturesque.
Location of Esfahan (click on photos for enlargements).
The Abbasi Hotel was originally a caravanserai built during the time the the Safavid Sultan Husayn (1668—1726). It was restored and remodelled in the 1950s into an upscale hotel. Film buffs may recognise the hotel as the set for the 1974 movie And Then There Were None, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians starring Oliver Reed and German bombshell Elke Sommer. I had read some on-line reviews that groused about the small size of some of the rooms at the hotel. This was certainly not the case with my first floor room, which opened directly onto the courtyard. A troop of dancing girls, had one been available, could have bivouacked in the room with space left over for a camel or two. 
This etching was made in 1840. 
The basic layout of the building itself has changed very little since 1840. The two-story arched alcove near the right edge of the etching now hosts a charming little snack shop. The dome and minaret of the mosque seen looming over the top of the building are unchanged. Oh how I would have loved to have been in that courtyard when it still hosted camels! Note that the camels shown are Two-Humped Bactrians, the most noble of the world’s four-legged creatures, and not one-humped dromedaries. I would have had second thoughts about staying at the caravanserai if they had let in dromedaries.
Lobby of hotel. I took this photo at five o’clock in the morning. During the day and evening the lobby was a madhouse of milling tourists from England, Germany, Italy, Spain, China, and elsewhere. As far as I could tell I was the only American. 
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
Courtyard of hotel
I spent my late afternoons in the courtyard enjoying glasses of refreshing hibiscus tea with rock sugar. Clinically proven to lower your blood pressure!
Hotel lobby coffee shop where I got my morning caffeine fix. In the afternoons it was jammed with Chinese tour groups.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Iran | Yazd | Carpets

While in Yazd I wandered by a complex of shops selling pottery, brass and copper work, fabrics, clothes, carpets, and other items of interest to tourists, gadabouts, and pilgrims, both domestic and international. 
Courtyard of the shopping complex (click on photos for enlargements)
Pottery for sale at the complex
I was most interested in carpets. Stepping into one store I was surprised to see a selection of carpets very much like some that I already had in my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi. I had bought mine in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, however. “Where are these carpets made?” I asked. I fully expected the salesmen to say “Yazd”, since most visitors are interested in buying locally made products. Instead he answered, “They are made in Serakhs.” “Serakhs, Iran, or Serakhs, Turkmenistan?” I wondered. The salesmen smiled, “Probably both.”
Salesmen in carpet store
I have of course been in Serakhs, Turkmenistan, since it was one of the cities trashed by Chingis Khan’s son Tolui in 1221. I did not have an Iranian visa at the time, so I could not visit Serakhs in Iran, which is right across the border. Nor did I have time to check out carpets stores, as my Turkmenistan visa was expiring and I had to get back to Ashgabat.
Ruins of the ancient city of Serakhs, destroyed by Tolui. The modern city is nearby, with a sister city just across the border in Iran.
Serakhs carpets in Yazd
Serakhs carpets  in Yazd
Serakhs carpets  in Yazd
Serakhs carpets
Serakhs carpets  in Yazd
These kind of carpets, single knotted silk, with emphasis on the color red, are often called “Bukhara Carpets” or “Burkharans”, after Bukhara in Uzbekistan. They were given these names because they were commonly sold in Bukhara, one of the great Silk Road emporiums, not because they were made there. Even today dealers in Bukhara will try to tell you that they are made in Bukhara, but even the most cursory investigation will prove this not to be true. The salesmen in the stores adamantly stick to this story, however. Someone else in Bukhara, a salesman in a store selling hand-woven fabrics who had a grudge against the carpets guys, warning me not to believe a word they said about anything, told me that it was common knowledge among local merchants that the carpets in question came from Serakhs, in Turkmenistan.  I seem to have found proof of this assertion here in Yazd. 
Carpet Store in the Abdullah Khan Tim in Bukhara 
“Bukharan” carpets in the Abdullah Khan Tim. In all likelihood they were made in Serakhs.
“Bukharan” carpets
“Bukharan” carpets
A “Bukharan” carpet, probably made in Serakhs, on the floor of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi, Mongolia.
Regardless of where they are made, they are gorgeous carpets. I showed one to some Carpet Guys In Istanbul and they grudgingly admitted—they are not big fans of single-knot carpets—that they were of excellent quality. One dealer even offered me cash for one. The profit would have covered my plane ticket to Ashgabat, but I passed. I certainly do not want to become even a part-time carpet dealer, a profession which on the social scale is only slightly above pimps, prostitutes, bartenders, and lawyers. 

China | Xinjiang | Khotan | Silk Factory

Wandered by Khotan on the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert in western China. I was following the footsteps of Chinese Buddhist pilgrim and inveterate gadabout Xuanzang who visited Khotan circa 644 A.D. during his 17-or-so-year sojourn from China to India and back.  He left the following account of what was then the kingdom of Khotan:
This country is about 4000 li in circuit; the greater part is nothing but sand and gravel; the arable portion is very contracted. What land there is, is suitable for regular cultivation, and produces an abundance of fruits. The manufactures are carpets, haircloth of the highest quality, and fine-woven silken fabrics. Moreover, it produces white and green jade. The climate is soft and agreeable, but there are tornadoes which bring with them clouds of flying gravel. They [the residents of the country] have a knowledge of politeness and justice. The men are naturally quiet and respectful. They love to study literature and the arts, in which they make considerable advance. The people live in easy circumstances, and are contented with their lot.
 Location of Khotan (click on photos for enlargements)
To this day the products of Khotan have not changed much. Silk, carpets, and jade remain the city’s chief attractions. First I checked out the Silk Factory.
 Graybeard at his loom in the silk factory 
Silk worm cocoons
Closer view of the silk cocoons. Now about 40% of the raw silk cocoons are imported from Pakistan. Each cocoon, when unwound, contains about a one-kilometer-long length of silk filament.
The cocoons are heated over fires to kill the worm within, and then boiled to loosen the filaments. Then a mass of filaments are gathered together and twisted into one silk thread.
The silk thread runs from through the gadget in the middle to the foot-trundle powered spindle run by the woman on the left.
Spindle of pure silk thread
Skeins of pure silk thread
The main product of this factory is so-called atlas silk. The silk is tie-dyed using either chemical dyes or natural dyes made from local plants and minerals and then woven into four-meter-long lengths which can be used to make dresses, etc. The loom above is using chemically dyed thread.
Naturally dyed atlas silk
Naturally dyed atlas silk
 Naturally dyed atlas silk
Huge skeins of dyed silk in the factory showroom. The naturally dyed silk is much more expensive than the chemically dyed version. One four-meter-length of chemically dyed atlas silk costs about $30, while the naturally dyed version cost about $72.
These are the prices at the factory. Even the stores in Khotan, like this one, itself charge much more, and in Urumqi the price is typically doubled, although of course hard bargaining can knock the price down considerably.
It might be added that Khotan, and the Taklimakan Desert in general, has been posited as One Of The Physical Locations of the legendary kingdom of Shambhala. However, Lamas in Mongolia staunchly maintain that Shambhala can be found only in the Seventh Dimension, and not in the mundane three-dimensional world that most—but not all!—of us know and love.
 Superimposed here on the Taklimakan Desert is Kalapa, the capital of Shambhala.