The only reason to go to Margilan is its silk factories. Take a tour. They are fascinating. And the man speaks good English (even if he does over- and mis-use the word ‘distance’).
It all starts with the worms. We did not see where they come from, but they eat mulberry trees. So I guess somewhere out there in Uzbekistan there are some farmers with serious quantities of mulberry trees and for a few months every year they go crazy picking silkworm cocoons off the trees and sending them to the factory.
There they get boiled. The worms don’t survive. No one was clear on whether they have feelings or not. Either way the women who stir the cauldrons do not seem too concerned.
Boiling them allows the silky coating to come off a bit. They stir the water with a stick and use it to pick up the threads of silk and unwind them from the cocoons. They they are threaded onto a wheel and rolled into a spindle. The silk threads must be quite sticky at this point because they join together into a single thread really easily.
The cocoons actually get boiled twice. The first time is for the best quality silk. The second time is for lower quality stuff. And then the leftovers are fed to animals.
For the record, the worms are small (about a centimtre long) and brown in colour.
Then they take the raw thread and spin it to make it same thickness (raw thread is made up of a varying number of filaments) and to twist it (which makes it a lot stronger).
Stage three (actually there are lots of different steps, but this is just a quick tour) is a machine worked by hand that combines the threads together into long lengths. It looks like thin white rope coming off this machine.
Then comes the dying and boiling. The silk is laid out on a frame and designs are pencilled on, one colour at a time. Start with light colours. Cover the bits that are not to be dyed that colour with tape. Dye the silk. Then boil it, sometimes for several days. Then dry the silk, put it back on the frame, and pencil on the design for the next colour. Tape up all the bits you want to protect and follow the process again.
Repeat as often as necessary to get all the colours you want. Given the apparent Uzbek penchant for seriously colourful (not to say garish) silks, this might be quite a long process.
Once the dying and drying is done, the silk is quite crusty and hard. So you take the tapes off and massage it back to its normal softness. At this stage you get to see the full effect of the colours, which probably helps to compensate for the boredom intrinsic in this job description.
The next people have it worse though. Their job is to take the silk threads and make them weaveable by threading them onto big comb-like devices that are used on the loom. This requires them to take each individual strand and thread it through a tiny hole in the comb. I remember him saying how many trillion strands there were to thread, but I have forgotten. And there are several (up to six) combs. So even just threading one set of silk threads would be a big day.
Then come the weavers: the people who take the dyed silk in the combs, attach it to the looms, and then do the weaving, producing up to 10 metres of thread each day.
Making silk like this takes around 30 days from cocoon to fabric. There are 300 people employed at the factory we visited. Once you have seen what they do all day, it makes you a) grateful for having a desk job and b) think twice about bargaining over the price of silks in the market (which is, by the way, around NZ$5 a metre for the good stuff).
I am travelling with a bunch of other people just now, since we just all happened to be going in the same direction at about the same time.
There are five of us in total. It makes travelling slower (the speed of every activity is set by the slowest person, but that person is not always the same, so it can take ages to get even the simplest things organised) and far easier (you can split travel costs, let someone else do the bargaining, and just go with the flow rather than making all the decisions yourself).
And it is really excellent to be travelling with long-termers who have been everywhere and done everything already. The fact that we could all happily travel alone makes me more confident that we can happily travel together.
It is interesting to travel with others after being alone for a while (and preferring to travel alone). I do like to meet other people, of course. For all that, though, I think the organisational side of getting five people to the same place at the same time will split us up before terribly long. Or we will have to find somewhere to hide the bodies of the slowpokes.
I have now officially abandoned the idea of exiting from Central Asia into China. The borders are not open and show few signs of reopening at this point, although new Sars cases are encouragingly (suspiciously?) low.
Going through Russia to Mongolia present a few opportunities, including the chance to meet up with a friend in Moscow, and to take the trans-Siberian the other way along its length. But it does make the journey a whole lot longer. I fear I will not have much time for Kazakstan. But I think that is okay. Everyone says that there is nothing much there anyway. I guess I would expect more from the world’s ninth biggest country. Still.