My stay in Beijing was an alternation between tourist attractions and factories. I visited the government-run jade, pearl and silk factories. While I absolutely adore pearls and jades, what impressed me the most was to see the process that creates the silk, from the silk worms cocoons to the finest bed sheets.
I knew China has always been famous for its silk, that throughout the centuries they have exported it all over the world, decorating palaces of kings, emperors, presidents, shaping dream dresses for queens and empresses, evoking art, femininity and the obsessive attention to the smallest detail, but when I stepped in the factory I wasn’t particularly excited.
I thought it was going to be some kind of “technical” visit, but instead I immediately found myself immersed in a modern replica of the legendary Silk Road, the most famous trading route of ancient China, that saw the mysterious and adored fabric being exported to Western countries over the span of centuries.
The silk trade saw its heights during the Han dynasty, when it crossed two Continents, from China to Europe, passing through the Indian Sub-continent, the Persian Empire, the Middle East, the Mediterranean region and finally the Roman Empire and Europe. The routes ancient traders took were hostile and claimed the lives of more than one pioneer.
Either choosing to cross the Taklimakan desert, known at the time under the name of “Land of Death”, or passing through the Himalayas, travelers constantly faced the risk of not arriving to destination or not being able to go back home.
The Taklimakan desert is China’s largest and driest desert. Nestled in the Tarim Basin between the Kunlun Mountains and the Plateau of the Tibet on the south and the Celestial Mountains on the north, it was one of the harshest regions travelers in ancient times had to face. With a temperature range that dramatically drops from 50°C during summer to -20°C winter time, and the common sand storms particularly dangerous due to the power of the wind, Taklimakan desert was one of the most inhospitable areas through which the precious material had to pass by in order to reach the far-flung destinations it was aimed to.
If travelers were not to pass through the Taklimakan desert, they could choose among other options, but truth be said, they were as bad as the first one: on the north east there is the Gobi desert, almost as tough as the Taklimakan, while on the south there are the Himalayas, Karakorum and Kunlun mountainous chains, that still today are a barrier between China and the sub-continent.
The Chinese traded silk for medicines, perfumes, precious stones and apparently slaves. When the secret of the silk was not Chinese exclusivity anymore, the trade along the legendary Silk Road started its decline.
At the silk factory in Beijing I saw how the silk is made today, but within the tour they managed to give me a hint of how the precious material was made once upon a time, which is not much different from today’s process.
Silk worms produce their own cocoons out of a single silk thread, and once the cocoon is ready, they are hand-picked one by one and put in an oven, where the heat will kill the worm without damaging the silk thread. When worms are dead, the cocoons are left to soak in water so workers can easily find the end of the thread in order to place it in the spinning machine that will untangle many of them per time. A single thread is too thin, and usually the finished silk strand used to make the fabric comprises of eight raw threads.
When the silk thread is untangled from the cocoon, the dead worm is left in the water, and the thread is ready to be worked.
At the end of the explanation, our guide brought us to the last step of our mini “silk road”, the store where we could buy all silk products made in that factory at convenient prices. I wanted to buy a beautiful set of bed sheets but for the sake of “traveling light” I left it there. Still now I regret not having bought it, and should I go back to Beijing, that would be my first stop.
Admittedly, the journey through the process that makes the silk has proved more fascinating than expected, and since China boasts such a long tradition of silk making and trading, leaving the country without visiting any of the silk factories is like missing out on a crucial part of Chinese history and culture.