Second Century, BCE. The Han Dynasty in China has perfected the art of silk and managed to keep its secrets hidden from the rest of the world, which is desperate for this luxury. Rome wants it. Greece wants it. Egypt. It's time to take silk on the road.
The Han move out from China into the Central Asian steppes, trading with tribes there to obtain peaceful passing - and not just silk but spices and fruit, livestock, tools, precious stones. Before long, an enormous network laces from China to India to Africa - a true Afro-Eurasia exchange, one might say. The Silk Road.
Caravanserai begin to populate the routes - roadside inns of a sort where traders rest their camels and, around a roaring fire in the central courtyard, exchange goods - but more importantly, ideas. Into the night, conversations light up with religious and philosophical dialogue from these diverse lands - inspiring, enlarging, shaping all who warm themselves under the open sky.
Culture, language, science, values, beliefs. This is the Silk Road Exchange. I've always wanted to hang by that fire.
So, I'm headed this week to Samarkand. Buhkara. Bishkek. Tashkent, the city of stone, along with my friend, Monica Seeger (Ibu Hunter and Gatherer, par excellence) and Central Asian textile expert/new friend, Chris Martens.
Uzbekistan is in the thick of all things silk and beautiful. Before the Russians overtook the area, colorful ikat coats were woven for the rulers of each city-state. Under the Soviets, the workshops of master and apprentice were closed, factories built, and the ikat patterns became standardized, predictable.
In 1991, when Uzbekistan achieved a state of independence, people returned to their looms. The Old Ways began to revive and creativity bloomed - and so successfully, the Soviet factories have closed. The Fergana Valley is again rife with the hand-woven color for which it is known. Even though the Silk Roads shut down 600 years ago, the craft they carried is alive and vibrant again.
On the way, we're stopping in Istanbul, where the ikats of the Fergana Valley are made into our Ibu slides you love. And did I mention Kyrgyzstan, where our felted beauties on silk are born? I may not find any more Silk Road inns with roaring fires, or camels to carry my finds. But I have plans with adventerous women all along the way, artisans reviving their tales in cloth and commerce. That is the new caravanserai. That is the new exchange. That is a fire I'm happy to gather around.
All the Best,
Susan Hull Walker