June 16 – Cycling Around Hetian, to the Atlas Silk Workshop and the Mulberry Bark Paper Family

This morning, we are still feeling the effects of the disappointing day yesterday, when we learned that we will be unable to visit Tibet as originally planned, and long dreamed.  We drove at 11:00am, to the Post Office, to get another shipping box to mail home, this time filled with the biking clothes we will not need in Nepal, our new destination.

We have our fingers crossed that these three boxes we have sent back to Colorado, each weighing about 10 kg., arrive safely!  There are many items we’ve shipped, including art books that Tali bought in Beijing, and all of our biking clothes, that will be difficult to replace.  We won’t know for two to three months, which is the estimate we’ve been given for delivery.    

We then drove to the White Jade River, on the outskirts of town.  The Hetian area has been a famous source of jade for millenia, as well as silkworm cultivation  and carpet production.  There are still today scores of people walking around this nearly dry riverbed, digging with shovels and by hand, hunting for pieces of jade, although very little jade is found anymore by this approach, just a few kg. annually.  

Jade has been the claim to fame for Hotan and the entire southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert for more than 3,500 years. Until recently, I could have joined thousands of locals hunting for jade in the White Jade River bed.   But due to the enormous increase in the cost of the jade in recent years — reaching 40 times the value of gold for the best ‘mutton fat’ white jade — hundreds of thousands of people came to Heitan to prospect for jade, damaging the ecology of the river system.  Many poor people had gone deeply into debt investing in heavy equipment on the hopes of striking it rich.  Finally, about four years ago, the government put stringent limits on jade prospecting, and today, there are just a few people out in the riverbed, jade prospecting, evidently illegally!

Dozens of jade markets are located along the riverside, making the narrow roads a traffic nightmare.  We began our day’s cycling here, heading to the Atlas Silk Workshop, where the entire silk-making process was at one time done by hand, including boiling the cocoons, reeling the strands, spinning the thread, tying and dying the design, and weaving the fabric.  The cycling, along a poplar lined local road was very enjoyable, as the morning temperatures were still relatively mild.   The Workshop, though, wasn’t much of a workshop at all, just a store attached to a demonstration area for tourists.  

We have found throughout our travels in China that very old traditions of handwork have mostly died out, replaced by machine made goods sold, as at Atlas, next to locals giving tourists half-hearted demonstrations of what used to be done as an honorable livelihood, passed down from generation to generation.  As the elders possessing these skills die out, it seems that these traditions are now disappearing completely.  

We continued to cycle, this time to visit a family compound where, we have been told, paper from mulberry tree bark is still being made by hand, usin a technique that dates back more than 2000 years.  As we continued to cycle, the mid-afternoon sun strengthened, and the temperature rose, finally to more than 42 degrees Celsius!  Once we reached cycling close to 40km in this heat, we decided to go the rest of the way by car, as we were beginning to feel a bit faint.  

As I expected after the visit to the “handmade silk factory,” the handmade mulberry bark paper factory also no longer existed.  We were welcomed inside the family compound, but then the man of the house unwrapped paper that was stored in sacks, to show us, and offer it to us to buy, at 10 RMB per small sheet, a very high price.   There were no signs of any hand work anywhere, though I appreciated being invited into his home, which was interesting, all by itself.  

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About juleslandsman

I live, when not traveling, in Sweetwater, Colorado, located in between Vail and Aspen, and in Kohukohu, a small town on the Hokianga Harbour in New Zealand. I write travelogues, memoirs, and reflections when I'm not skiing, biking, or otherwise outdoors. I retired recently from a career in the financial services industry that spanned more than twenty-five years.
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