Friday, May 8, 2009

The modern day Silk Road

These 'adras' and 'atlas' silk textiles are from Margilan, Uzbekistan in the Fergana valley. 'Abr,' which means 'cloud' is the term used to describe the process of hand dyeing the warp threads prior to weaving in order to create a blurred effect. This technique is known in the West by the Malay name 'ikat.' My close friend Farhod Mahmadkhanov is an ethnic Uzbek from Osh, Kyrgyzstan. He and I both have young daughters so we've been brainstorming about possible ways to provide for our families. We decided to try our luck at importing traditional Uzbek silk. His father sent a friend to Margilan to buy the silk and bring it back to Osh. From Osh, Farhod's brother carried the silk to Urumqi where Farhod's wife Zulfia and daughter Kamila are staying temporarily. Uzbek speakers can understand the Uighur language so day to day life is easier in Xinjiang than in the rest of China for someone who doesn't speak Mandarin. From Urumqi Zulfia gave the silk to Ulan, a friend from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, who was catching a train to Xi'an to visit his little brother Nurlan. All in all, it took about 5 days from the time I paid Farhod for the silk to be delivered to my door, and we never used the post office once! Proof that the Silk Road is as alive as ever in the 21st Century.

Power outage

We were without electricity for a few consecutive days last week. We stocked up on candles and 'nan,' a Uighur made flat bread. Hen hao chi (very tasty).

tu zi (rabbit)

Kalila chased this poor rabbit all over campus. It is our Russian neighbor Kate's pet. Spring in Xi'an has been glorious and very comfortable. It only recently began to get hot. In the picture Kalila is wearing a goat skin vest made by the Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Lotus Cave

Guangxi was once an ancient seabed. The region is rich in limestone. The karst limestone peaks make Yangshuo an international mecca for rock climbing. There are also many limestone caves like this one near Xingping. These formations, caused by drops of water falling in a shallow pool, resemble lotus flower blossoms.
Stalactites and columns.

Spelunking toddler.

Traditional Zhuang Housing

Unlike Guizhou where cedar wood is easy to come by, timber is not as readily available around Yangshuo. Consequently, most of the traditional housing in Zhuang villages are made of stone and adobe.

Big Banyan Tree

This huge banyan tree was in a Zhuang village outside of Yangshuo.

Year of the Ox

'Sui Niu' or water buffalo are common in southern China. They are used as plough animals in the rice paddies and are also butchered for meat. Some villages even organize buffalo fights during festivals. On our way through the mountains our bus was stopped by a scuffle between two buffalos butting heads for dominance. In China the ox is a symbol of strength, stability, and hard work. 'Niu' (literally 'cow') is also slang for 'cool.' 'Niu nian zui niu de!' means 'The year of the Ox is the coolest!'

Yulong Qiao

This bridge on the Yulong River was originally built in the early 1400s. The story goes that a scholar had to go to the city to take the State examination. On his way he had to cross this river but there were no ferry boats and he couldn't swim. He sat on the bank of the river and cried for three days. Finally a dragon heard him and carried him safely to the other side. 'Yu long' means 'encounter dragon.' As a way of giving thanks the scholar had this bridge built.
Building a bamboo raft.
Fire is used to bend the bamboo.

Cormorant fishing. Although you can see a few people with their birds during the day, most of the good fishing is done in the evening and at night.

The Zhuang ethnic group makes up 75% of the population in Guangxi. The Zhuang have their own language although Zhuang dialects differ from place to place and are not all mutually intelligible. This young woman is singing a song for us. Traditionally, improvised singing was used for courting. A girl might sing to the boy, 'Which village do you come from? Hey niao niao luo' The boy would respond in song, ' I come from such and such a place, Hey niao niao luo.' In this way the two can get to know each other and decide if they like the other's singing voice.
Cormorant birds. In Guangxi cormorant birds are trained to do a man's fishing for him. The birds are natural fishers. The fishermen tie a cord around the base of the bird's neck so that it can't completely swallow the fish. The birds return to the bamboo raft with a fish stuck in their throat and the fisherman has easy pickings.

The Li River (from Guilin to Yangshuo)

From Guilin, the capital of Guangxi Province, we took a riverboat trip south to Yangshuo. For the better part of a day we got to see some of China's most incredible scenery from the water. Guilin and Yangshuo's karst mountains make this one of the most painted and photographed places in China.

Bamboo raft. Many small rafts like these hook onto larger tourist boats in an attempt to sell local trinkets like jade lions and quartz crystals.

In winter the Li River's water level drops considerably. In the Spring the water level should return to the tree line on the bank of the river.

Chengyang Qiao

The Dong build elaborate timberframe bridges. This one in Chengyang is the biggest of its kind. It was constructed without the use of nails, bolts, or fasteners. In front of the bridge's pilings you can see one of the many bamboo waterwheels used for lifting water into the fields. We also saw several men using long bamboo spears for spearfishing.
Exploring a hilltop garden.

Veggies drying in satellite dishes.

The bamboo dance is done by various tribal peoples in southern China including the Li of Hainan. The men holding the bamboo play two beats with the poles separated, and two beats with the poles together, so the dancers have to jump down the line to keep from getting their ankles caught.

Monday, March 2, 2009


Learning to weave from Granny. This family invited us in to snack on dried radish and pickled radish, both quite tasty. Their baby was too curious about the loom to let the grandma do much weaving. Chengyang, Guangxi.
A lusheng player leads a song in front of a drum tower in Chengyang. We heard some excellent singing here. The Dongzu have a reputation throughout the country for being great singers.
A carpenter lines up a cedar post in order to carve connecting joints for a future timberframe house.

Chengyang, Guangxi

Dongzu Grandmother in the Dong village of Chengyang, Guangxi Province.
The Dong have a locally made four string instrument that resembles a mandolin or ukulele.

A waterwheel in Chengyang, Guangxi. This waterwheel, made of bamboo with cedar bark for the paddles, lifts water from the river up into the fields

A river crossing at Gao An on our way to Sanjiang, Guangxi. The roads between Guizhou and Guangxi were pretty bumpy but the river culture was good to see.
Stone used for pounding fabric after its been dyed several times, coated in egg whites, then soaked in yam juice and ox glue. The final product is a shiny water resistant cloth.
Pounding cloth to make it smooth and shiny.

This foot operated mortar and pestal makes short work of smashing up tubers. Watch those fingers!


Indigo is a perennial plant with medicinal properties although it is most often used as a natural dye. This woman is retrieving a length of fabric from a vat full of indigo dye.
Indigo stained hands.

One of Zhaoxing's many drum towers reflected in the river at night.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Saturday, February 28, 2009


Hiking in the terraced mountains surrounding Zhaoxing
Shades of blue. The more you dunk the cloth in the indigo solution the darker it gets. People also have different recipes and methods of preparing the indigo for a change in hue.

This local gunsmith makes guns from scratch. From a block of wood to the functional finished product. The Autonomous Dong Tribe are allowed to make and own simple one shot firearms for hunting purposes.

Drum tower

The Dong have a local variety of boardgame, different than Go, that is played with stones and bits of wood. This board is carved into a bench at a drum tower in Zhaoxing. I don't understand the game but it seems from the picture like the old man is winning!

Friday, February 27, 2009


Terraced gardens outside of Zhaoxing, a Dong village in Guizhou.
The Dong tribe lives in close proximity but has a completely different language than the Miao. The Dong also produce much of what they need locally. This Dong man uses strips of bamboo to weave a horseshoe shaped satchel used for carrying things to and from the fields. The crescent shaped basket at his right is for carrying a locally smithed hook knife. The circular bamboo trays are for drying and sifting. The tubs behind him are full of natural indigo dye used to color the local clothing. Zhaoxing, Guizhou

Above a front door in Zhaoxing, Guizhou

These were some lively troublemakers, I mean sweet old ladies we met in Zhaoxing. If you go to Zhaoxing say hello to these two friends. They had a good sense of humor and made us feel welcome.

The Dong tribe is numerous in Ghuizhou and Guangxi Province. This is one of many drum towers in Zhaoxing, a Dong village in Southeast Guizhou. The drum tower serves as a central meeting area and is usually filled with people relaxing around a fire, playing cards, or a local board game that uses stones whose diagonal board is carved into the benches. To the right of the motorcycle you can see the dark indigo fabric produced in the village. The Dong tribe has a well deserved reputation for being wonderful singers. The drum towers are also centers for singing and playing lusheng.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bei dai (baby carrier)

Our host Jiaojiang at the National Gun Club in Basha rents out rooms in his timberframe and is an excellent cook. He is a local guide and said he could use some of our camping gear so we traded for this traditional papoose.
This one is a traditional Dong Bei Dai (baby carrier). Tie the kid on and keep on working. All the Miaos that we met were super industrious - building rock walls and cedar lodges, working the fields, raising animals, making textiles. I feel like they've found a lucky balance between the old and new. They have modern things like cell phones and motorcycles too but they still attend to their own primary needs like food, shelter, and clothing.