We should have come with a guide, we realized in hindsight. Nobody spoke English. My partner Coen and I had been convinced our taxi driver had understood we wanted to visit a silk factory but when we walked through the doorway we realized we had ended up at a carpet factory. I can’t even tell you which factory it was as we were sort of dumped somewhere in the outskirts of Hotan. Traveling in Xinjiang, in the far northwest of China, was a constant challenge as we spoke not a word of Chinese and very few locals speak English.
A carpet factory? Our curiosity was aroused and we decided to give it a go. It was a regular factory and not a tourist attraction: We could tell, because the place wasn’t surrounded by a zillion stalls selling souvenirs, which typifies China’s tourist attractions. This was to be an authentic experience, if you’d like to put it that way.
All the women – not one man was sitting behind a loom – were smiling amicably enough but our questions were met with giggles, as they had no clue what we were asking. There there was nothing to be done: We didn’t have a guide or a translator so we relied on our eyes and senses to get a feel for the place
In Your Bucket Because…
- You love carpets and want to buy a hand-knotted one.
- You are interested in traditional crafts that have been passed on from generation to generation, and in Hotan that is exactly what they do (not just about carpets but also silk).
- Good for anybody interested in carpets and/or traditional handicrafts.
The Southern Silk Route through Xinjiang
More than 2,000 years ago important trading routes led through Xinjiang, China’s most northwestern province. Later they would become known as the Silk Route. There has never been just one Silk Route; branches came and disappeared depending on seasons and safety.
One branch of the Silk Route followed the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, connecting Central Asia with Kashmir and Tibet. Over time cities came into existence, flourished and disappeared; some buried by the desert. Yarkand and Hotan are two of the most remarkable towns that survived the heyday and both are worth a visit.
Throughout the centuries Hotan has been famous for its carpets as well as for its jade and silk. The carpet industry no longer is as prominent as it used to be but there are still a couple of factories and family-run businesses in and around Hotan (which is also known as Khotan).
The Knotting of Carpets
The women sat alongside each other on low wooden benches with cushions in front of looms several meters high. The first impression we shared was how relaxed the place was. It appeared the women were working in groups, some focusing on their work whereas others were sipping their tea while chatting away.
As far as I knew, woolen carpets were woven, but now I saw that in fact they are not woven at all: short pieces of colored wool were knotted around the vertical threads of the loom after which they were trimmed with some type of small machete. Some of the women were working on age-old patterns, which reminded me of Persian carpets, while another group was working on a carpet for Mitsubishi.
On the other side of the grounds was a room where a woman was preparing dyes. She added wool to a jar with colored liquid, which was boiled on a stove until the wool had the right color – she was making color samples. The bundles of wool got a tag on which she wrote the percentage of each ingredient so when somebody wanted a large quantity of that particular color, they could produce it on the spot.
In another room bundles of wool were stacked by color. Every once in a while somebody came from the factory to buy the wool on the spot, which made us assume that each group of women had their own project, rented the loom and bought their own wool. Obviously, this was not a factory with fifty employees run by one boss.
Later that day I did meet an English-speaking guide and he enlightened me with some facts and figures:
- The oldest carpet made in China is some 2,000 years old and was excavated in this region.
- A 1.2 by 1.8 meter carpet takes 2 people 2 months to produce.
- Men do have a role in the carpet industry: they set up the looms and sell the carpets.
This man also told me that there are several agencies that organize tours to these factories with guides. I suppose both ways have their advantages: with the presence of a guide/translator you get to learn much more about what you’re watching. On the other hand, our trip had been adventurous and we appreciated very much having seen something of China’s daily life without being ushered along rows of souvenir stalls before or afterwards.
- Hotan is connected by plane with Urumqi and by bus with Kashgar, Urumqi and several other surrounding cites.
- Apart from carpet factories you can visit, among others, a silk factory, a winery (production of rice and pomegranate wine), and archeological sites. Another attraction of Hotan is its Sunday Market.
- There are several tour agencies downtown with whom you can decide on a package for sightseeing for one to multiple days.
Photos by Coen Wubbels