Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Story of Uzbek Silk Production: Step by Step

Rosemary Sheel
California-based photographer Rosemary Sheel specialises in photographs and stories from far-away places. She travelled through Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan with Uzbek Journeys in 2012. In this piece she weaves a pictorial story of ikat silk production. 

Do take a moment to view her wondrous images of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.  If you have been to Central Asia her photographs will evoke memories of your journey. And if you are travelling there soon you will be inspired by her work.

Silk production in Uzbekistan has been practiced for a thousand years. Today, Uzbekistan is the world’s third largest silk producer, behind China and India. Its silk centre is the fertile Ferghana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan.

Step 1: Silk worms

It all begins with the tiny but voracious silk worms which grow to 70 times their original size on their diet of mulberry leaves.

When the silkworm larvae are received (a box of 30 to 40 grams of larvae) into the homes where silk worm raising is mandated by the Uzbek government, the worms in the box eat about 2 kilograms of mulberry leaves per day.

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Feeding frenzy of silk worms, image © Rosemary Sheel

At their peak, the worms are eating 270 kilograms of fresh mulberry leaves per day. The worms must be fed around the clock with one person in the family awake 24/7. The worms start to die if the feeding is even 45 minutes late.

Step 2: From cocoon to thread

The silkworms spin their cocoons when they are about a month old. Each cocoon is formed of a single thread about a kilometer long.  The cocoons are boiled to release the filaments.

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How the cocoons are scooped from the boiling vat, image © Rosemary Sheel

The filaments are scooped from the boiling cocoons with a stick. About six filaments are twisted into one thread. The silk filaments are then wound onto spindles.

The silk threads are bundled and knotted in preparation for the dyeing process that will produce Uzbekistan's famed ikat design.

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A young apprentice looping threads over the rack, image © Rosemary Sheel

Step 3: The dyeing process

Then comes the dyeing process: dye is dissolved in a cauldron over a wood fire. When the dyer is satisfied the dye has dissolved completely, he and a helper dip the rack of knotted silk into the cauldron, raising it now and then to check the depth of the color.

Dyes at factories such as Yodgorlik in Margilan use natural dyes like madder root, cochineal and indigo.

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Checking the dye,  image © Rosemary Sheel

Step 4: Weaving

The dyed silk is threaded onto looms and woven into narrow strips of silk fabric to be made into filmy scarves or more substantial fabrics to be used in the home or for clothing. Most ikat is between 35 - 50 cmd wide. The silk fibers, unwoven, can be sent to rug weavers who knot it into fanciful carpets.

Looms at the Yodgorlik ikat factory,  image © Rosemary Sheel

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A young woman prepares silk threads on her loom,  image © Rosemary Sheel

Step 5: Ikat fabric

The variety of colours and the infinite patterns of Uzbek ikat are astonishing. Today there is a revival in old patterns from the 19th century as well as ikat design in digitally-printed fabric.

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A rainbow of ikat fabrics, image © Rosemary Sheel

Related posts:
Rosemary Sheel's Images of Uzbekistan & Kyrgyzstan
Ferghana Valley Silk Ikats: Tying the Clouds
Uzbek Ikat as Interior Design Element
Feruza's Ikat Store, Bukhara
Oscar de la Renta's Love Affair with Uzbek Ikat
Basso & Brooke Meet Ikat on the New Silk Road Project

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Yurts of Central Asia Part #2

Lilya Kas'yanova
Last week, Lilya Kas'yanova, one of Kyrgyzstan's finest guides, provided an overview of the yurt and how it is used in Kyrgyzstan today. 

This week she describes how Kyrgyz age-old yurt traditions are still practised and how to assemble a yurt step-by-step.  Lilya, who regularly leads Uzbek Journeys tours in Kyrgyzstan, will contribute occasional articles about her areas of interest.

Yurt makers of Issyk Kul

Yurt frame manufacturing became a specialised occupation of craftsmen.  In the Kyrgyz language, the terms uichu or usta (for men) and uzdar (for women) designate "master". That these terms are applied to yurt makers indicates the regard in which they are held in Kyrgyz society.

The most renowned and skillful yurt makers reside in the Issyk-kul region of Kyrgyzstan. Their expertise is recognised all over Central Asia.

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At yurt maker Mekenbek's home, image Rosemary Sheel
For instance, gifted Mekenbek Osmonaliev, who lives in Barskoon village, is the director of a one-of-a-kind workshop. Why is it so unique? Because in addition to distinctive yurt frames, Mekenbek and his talented team of 15 handicraft workers produce kiyiz (yurt cover felt), a variety of gorgeous felt carpets and interior design items, and even cane furniture.

In  Mekenbek's Ak-Orgo workshop, they made three yurts for the president of Kazakhstan, the largest of which is 10 meters in diameter.  Another yurt is in Saint-Petersburg and was a present from Kyrgyzstan for Saint-Petersburg's 300th  anniversary.  Other yurts are in Great Britain and the Mingei International Museum, San-Diego, USA

At the South Shore of Issyk-Kul Lake, there is another remarkable place – Kyzyl-Tuu – a village of yurt makers.  There are 1500 people (430 households) who live in this village and almost all the adult residents are engaged to some extent in yurt making as well as the production of yurt interior decorations.

Yurt structure

Yurts are generally manufactured during summer.  Tal (willow) wood is used for the frame. This willow variety is considered to be solid and durable and less susceptible to decay. Yellow wood is preferred as it is the colour of the sun.

The cupola is usually made from elm or swamp willow. Willow is also used for the special poles, which are joined by leather riveting-nails to form kerege (expandable trellis wall).  Trellis walls are made up of several sections,  called kanats (wings)

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Kyrgyz yurt tunduk, image: Lilya Kas'yanova
Kazakh people size their yurts by kanats and tend to say: three, five, ten or twelve kanats yurt. The walled circle, which is built up by the kerege is linked by the bosogo – the door frame.  The eshik (folding door) is hinged onto the door frame.   usually said: that it is sixty uuks yurt, etc.

The major part of the yurt is the tunduk – the round, central, roof element. Tunduks can be hung with chachyk  - colorful tassels – and garlands that anchor uuks and assure a balance weight.  The tunduk is a symbol of Kyrgyz statehood and adorns the distinctive flag of the republic.

One more component of the nomadic dwelling is chii , the reed screen that covers yurt walls. Chii create an insulation layer that makes the yurt livable in the cold season and it also adds a decorative element. In the Mongolian yurt, however, reed screens are usually not used.

In winter,  Kazakhs apply two and sometimes three layers of chii,and fill the space between them with straw. Kiyiz (thick felt) is used as an outside, protective yurt layer.  Kiyiz, depending on the type of livestock bred in the region, can be of different colours. The kiyiz of Turkic yurts is usually grey or white, rarely black, as the Turks use sheep wool generally. In Mongolia, it can be sheep, yak or camel wool, thus yurts vary in color also.

Kyrgyz shyrdak carpets, image Rosemary Sheel
For interior insulation and decoration special mention should be made of ala-kiyiz  (felt carpets with rolled-in patterns) and shyrdaks (mosaic, thick, felt stitched carpets). Both carpet types both pave the yurt floor.

Yurt living space

According to long-established traditions, the living space of a yurt was divided as follows:
  • the left of the entrance is the er jak – the men’s side that is marked by horse harnesses, hunting equipment, craft tools, hunter’s trophies, etc.
  • the right side (epchi jak) was reserved for women. It represents the household area and is richly decorated by sophisticated carpets, wall hangings, containers and embroidery pieces. Hers is also the kitchen, formed by the ashkana chii, which separates the cooking area from the rest of the yurt).

The space opposite the entrance is the warmest in a yurt and on special occasions honoury guests and the most respected people are seated.   The sacred kolomto (fireplace)  is located at the very centre.  Cleverly, the yurt's circular shape ensures draught formation, and any smoke from the kolomto rises towards the tunduk (central opening).

Yurt Positioning and Assembling

With this knowledge of a yurt's constituent parts, we can now consider the steps of yurt installation.

Different nomads set the yurt's entrance based on one the following directions: south, south-east or east.  The easterly direction prevails in the Kyrgyz culture, however, a yurt door can be oriented southward, according to the Mongolian tradition. A yurt is placed on an elevated spot to observe the locality and keep an eye on livestock. In days gone by, the yurt served as calendar and clock: time was determined by the point of the sun beam that came in through the roof opening.

Fixing the uuks with uuk tangych, image: Lilya Kas'yanova
Here are the steps:
  1. Yurt assembly begins with orienting and installing the bosogo (door frame), 
  2. Next the kanats trellis wall sections are set up and fixed by cords. 
  3. The upper part of the assembled kerege (trellis walls) is adjusted by a special cord, the kerege tangych. 
  4. Then the tunduk (central roof-piece) is raised up by means of the ala bakan (special pole).  Immediately upon tunduk raising, the roof assembling is started. The top part of uuks (cupola beams) are set into small holes on the sides of the tunduk, and the bottom of the uuks are fastened on the trellis wall. 
  5. On completion of the cupola beams installation, they are securely fixed by uuk tangych (narrow bands).
  6. The jabyk bash (a broad decorative piece) is attached  inside at the bottom of cupola. 
  7. Kanat chii (reed screen) is placed on the trellis wall. 
  8. Tuurduk felt is laid on the kanat chii, and uzuk felt covers the yurt's cupola. The felt coverings are fixed by woven stripes - tuurduk boo and uzuk boo
  9. The final stage is covering the tunduk by a rhombus-shaped piece of felt, known as tunduk jabuu.
Finishing touches, image: Lilya Kas'yanova
You are now ready to assemble your own yurt!

On an Uzbek Journeys tour to Kyrgyzstan you will visit Mekenbek's workshop as well as the yurt-making village of Kyzyl-Tuu.

There are also opportunities to lunch in yurts.

Contact Lilya on: lolya.87(at) mail (dot) ru

Related posts:

Yurts of Central Asia Part #1
Kyrgyz Chii - Yurt Screens and Mats
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Yurts of Central Asia Part #1

Lilya Kas'yanova
Lilya Kas'yanova, one of Kyrgyzstan's finest guides, is passionate about the history, art and craft of her country. A graduate in Linguistics and Intercultural Communications from I. Arabaev Kyrgyz State University, she is also a keen photographer and hiker. Lilya, who regularly leads Uzbek Journeys tours in Kyrgyzstan, will contribute occasional articles about her areas of interest.

In this article Lilya provides an overview of the yurt and how it is used in Kyrgyzstan today. Part #2 will describe Kyrgyz yurt traditions today plus how to assemble a yurt.

One of the greatest and most wonderful inventions of humanity, the yurt is the main type of dwelling of Central Asian nomads. According to archeological accounts, the first yurt prototype appeared more than three thousand years ago. This dwelling made it possible to lead a nomadic way of life, roam around the immense territories and reclaim new lands.

During the summer, cattle graze on the lush jailoo (alpine pastures) of the Tien-Shan mountains. Before the winter season starts, the herds of cattle are moved back to the lowlands where snow cover is quite thin and cattle graze.  A yurt is indispensable to sustain this seasonal routine.

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South shore of Son Kul, image Lilya Kas'yanova
In Kyrgyzstan, a yurt is known as a boz ui  (grey house). In earlier times there were others: ordo (khan's yurt) and ak orgo (luxurious white yurts).

Yurt types

Yurts used as homes are the most widespread. The second type is a ceremonial yurt, for parties. These yurts are usually quite large with gorgeous ornamentation. “Khan’s yurts” can be more than 20 meters in diameter.

For example, a large mobile yurt of the early 20th century Mongolian Bogdo-khan had a capacity of 500 people. Camp (marching) yurts were small enough and were carried by one camel or even a horse.  The Mongols transported yurts on carts: mobile dwellings for nomadic trips and military marches.

The size of a yurt depends on its function. For instance, an ordinary nomad's yurt consists of three or four trellis wall parts, therefore its dwelling capacity is equal to eight to ten people. An enormous yurt-palace of a khan could be based on ten, twenty and even more trellis wall components with capacity that could vary from 50 to 100 people.

The approximate weight of a nomad's yurt, with its furnishings, is 200-300 kilograms, which is the carrying capacity of one camel. The yurt's average diameter is 4 – 6 meters and its assembly takes 2 – 2 1/2 hours. Dismantling is around 1 hour.

Family assembles yurt in backyard for summer, image Lilya Kas'yanova
Mongolian yurts have a cone-shaped roof, whereas the Turkic type can have a semi-spherical housetop. Traditionally, the Turkmen use the Turkic type of yurt; the Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kara-Kalpaks and Bashkir have both types – Mongolian and Turkic yurts.

The manufacturing and assembling of the Mongolian yurt is less complicated than the Turkic variety. However, because it has quite low walls it does not withstand snow loads as well as the Turkic yurt, which is lighter, but more solid.

The advantages of yurts

Yurts respond with extraordinary subtlety to temperature fluctuations: in summer it protects from intense heat (at times 40C - 45 C +) and in winter from extreme cold (minus 30 and even lower). On the steppe, winds and windstorms prevail.  The yurt is made of trellis panels and felt, which has an air-entrapping structure, that regulates the inside temperature.

It is possible to create circular airing by ensuring the felt at the yurt's foundation be raised slightly. Note that high-quality yurt felt withstands three days of pouring rain; after that dampness starts penetrating inside.

kyrgyz hyurt decoration, kyrgyzstan art craft textiles
Yurt interior, image Lilya Kas'yanova
The yurt, therefore, has a number of exceptional qualities that make it perfect for a nomadic lifestyle:

  • quick assembling and dismantling, 
  • reasonably low weight, 
  • seismic safety (provided by structural flexibility of walls), 
  • all season habitation, 
  • the internal space can be varied by means of adding or removing trellis wall sections, etc.
The second part of this article will focus on Kyrgyz yurt makers today. Certainly on an Uzbek Journeys tour to Kyrgyzstan you have the chance to visit yurt makers and opportunities to dine in yurts.

Contact Lilya on: lolya.87(at) mail (dot) ru

Related posts:  Kyrgyz Chii - Yurt Screens & Mats
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan
6 Quirky Things About Kyrgyzstan
Unforgettable Rano Yakubova, Ayaz Qala Yurt Camp

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Glory of Uzbek Bread

uzbekistan cuisine, uzbekistan tours samarkand
Suzanna Fatyan

Suzanna Fatyan, one of Uzbekistan's finest tour guides, has contributed several pieces on this website about Uzbek cuisine. In this article she describes the glory of Uzbek bread.

When travelling, people usually visit a country’s highlights, approach the local culture and experience traditional cuisine. Through food the traveller frequently understands the country even more than through sightseeing.

Because experiencing cuisine supposes communication, dialogue, history and ethnography references. Why? Because in many countries food is not only a way to fuel your body with energy, food is a cult and a reflection of a nation’s lifestyle. I would even name food a sacred ceremony.

Therefore, besides architectural landmarks, music, literature, poetry, and textiles, each country has its own gastronomical landmark, such as schnitzel in Austria, jamon in Spain, pierogi in Poland, plov in Uzbekistan.

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Market bread stall, image: Berry King
You learn about the landmarks even before you plan your trip. Nevertheless, there is always something important in local cuisine that we discover only after arriving, something that accompanies every meal and serves as its pillar in some way. For Uzbekistan one such pillar is bread, or non – a gift from God - common for all humanity. There is no meal served in Uzbekistan without non.

First, what amazes you about Uzbek bread, even before you try its wonderful flavour, is its shape! It is round! Round like the hot Uzbek sun that makes this country so fruitful. Its shape is unrepeatable and perfect.

Second - it is decorated. Each piece of bread has beautiful and intricate patterns made with the help of special wooden and metal stamps known as chekichs, which you find at our bazaars.

Third – variety. Flakey bread, with onions, butter, fatty tail; substantial Samarkand bread (tip for those who travel to Samarkand, the best place to buy Samarkand bread is near Ulughbek’s Observatory), kulcha (small cute bread based on milk), Andijan bread, chapchak (soft bread) and dozens more.

Fourth - the incredible colour. It is golden.

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Uzbek bread stamps - chekichs, image: Richard Marshall
Our bread is baked in a clay, wood-fired oven – a tandyr. When the oven has reached a very high temperature – around 400 degrees C, the prepared dough is placed on the internal oven walls. That explains its shape: it is more convenient for baking and also for taking it out of the oven. If you have time, please visit one of the bakeries in Samarkand’s old quarter and have a look at the baking process. To me it is a true art!

Curiously, in Soviet times, there was an attempt to mechanise non production: bakeries were frequently closed and bakers persecuted as entrepreneurs. Happily this plan did not work. Only non from the tandyr has the proper flavour of the flame and unforgettable taste!

In Uzbekistan, the attitude towards bread is reverential. There are many reasons for it. Bread has sacred features; it is connected to certain rituals signifying life’s major events such as weddings, childbirth and the departure of a son for military service.

Among numerous marriage ceremonies where the presence of bread is important, the most common today is nonshikanon, or non sindirish which means ‘breaking bread’. This ceremony signifies the engagement, the treaty between two families that cannot be broken. Its major attributes are prayers, bread breaking and sharing pieces of the bread along with sweets among family members, friends and neighbours.

While sharing bread we share our joy that our children are engaged. We also acknowledge that from that moment two families are united and we eat one bread. At the bazaar you always find colorful wedding bread. If you have a chance to try a piece of bread from the nonshikanon ceremony you become fortunate and will soon meet your special someone!

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Baker at Urgut, image: Wendy Relf
Bread is prepared for guests for childbirth celebrations. Moreover, along with a little knife, a mirror and other amulets, bread is placed into the cradle, under the pillow of a newborn baby. This ritual is to ensure a fortunate future for the baby.

A young man, leaving his family for army service, should bite a piece of bread before departure and finish the rest upon returning back home. The presence of his bread during the absence from the family somehow guarantees his return.

There are many reasons for bread being so sacred. One of them is the lengthy process of its production. Analyzing it we observe that symbolically it represents the stages of human existence from birth through death. In different cultures, including the Orient, bread serves not only as food but also as a sacrifice for gods and ancestors. 

Bread has a uniting power. Better than anything else it represents the hospitable nature of the Uzbek people. Visiting friends on certain occasions you are given homemade specialties locked between two breads for family members who could not join the event.

While travelling around the countryside you are always offered freshly baked bread, butter, yoghurt or milk. Certainly every baker has his own bread recipe and his own secret leavening agent. For that reason you should try breads everywhere in the country, because even the design can make its flavour different and special.

Roaming around Tashkent you frequently hear the expression ‘Tashkent is the city of bread’! I suggest this expression applies to Uzbekistan in general. These words are very important. They appeared in the most difficult times for the world, in particular World Wars I and II.

uzbek cuisine, uzbek bread, uzbekistan art textile tours
Wedding bread, Samarkand, image: Richard Marshall
Both wars caused deportations, exiles, and persecutions. And Tashkent, the city of bread and indeed the whole of Uzbekistan, kindly helped everybody in need by sharing generously their bread, by adopting orphans, by providing shelter. These words reflect the kindness of Uzbek people, their high spiritual features and willingness to open their souls and hearts.

Thus Uzbek bread is a symbol. A symbol of supreme spirituality, compassion, generousity, hospitality and beauty.

Related posts:
Chekichs - Uzbek Bread Stamps 
Tashkent - City of Refuge
All Suzanna's restaurant reviews and Uzbek cuisine articles

Contact Suzanna via email:              
contact suzanna fatyan uzbek guide samarkand

Monday, March 10, 2014

100 Experiences of Kyrgyzstan

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Roadside kumys stall - made from fermented mare's milk. Image: Silk Road Media
New York Times journalist Steven Kinzer once wrote that "Kyrgyzstan is arguably the world's least-known country". Perhaps it is. Yet this tiny, alpine nation in which there are still more horses than cars, is well-worth exploring for its stunning panoramas, gentle people and strong nomadic traditions.

Silk Road Media has recently published a delightful book - 100 Experiences of Kyrgyzstan.  Written by Ian Claytor, who has lived in Bishkek since 1995, this compact edition (16.25 cms x 15.5 cms) is crammed with 220 pages of stunning photography and informative snippets about, well, 100 different aspects of Kyrgyzstan.

The grandeur of Kyrgyz nature is inspiring. The Tien-Shan mountains run northeast to southwest through the country. Even touring in summer the mountain range remains snow-capped. Famed for its peaks, the Karakol region in particular is a base for serious mountain climbers. The sections in Mr Claytor's book about mountains, lakes and valleys are gorgeous. I look forward to exploring more canyons and gorges when I am back in spring.

Image: Silk Road Media
Kyrgyz landscape, Son Kul. Image: Silk Road Media
From the book I learned more about Kyrgyz cuisine and traditions. I had seen pieces of Kyrgyz patchwork - kurak. But did not know how the kurak items were imbued with mystical significance such as bringing good luck and prosperity and guarding against the evil eye.

For example, the kyrk koinok - a shirt for babies to wear after 40 days - is made from 40 pieces of fabric that the mother traditionally collected from neighbouring yurts and sewed together.

I have tried kumys, the drink made from fermented mare's milk. I had not, however, heard the proverbs about kumys such as "Who drinks kumys will live a century" and "Kumys is man's blood, air his mind". I also learned that when preparing the kumys, it is beaten with a wooden stick known as a bishkek, from which the capital city derives its name.

kyrgyzstan tours, kyrgyzstan craft tours, kyrgyz holidays
Kyrgyz kurakImage: Silk Road Media
Anyone who has been to Kyrgyzstan will swoon over the splendid photographs in this book. If you are planning to visit Kyrgyzstan, then this may just be the book for you. Not as a guide book, but as a pictorial companion.

I am smitten with Kyrgyzstan and will spend another 2 months there in 2014.  If indeed "Kyrgyzstan is arguably the world's least-known country", I'd probably like it to stay that way...

You can pick up a copy of 100 Experiences of Kyrgyzstan at Amazon.

Related posts:
6 Quirky Things abut Kyrgyzstan
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan
Silk Road Media: An Uzbek Entrepreneur in London

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Image: Silk Road Media