One of the most interesting things to do on a trip to Uzbekistan is to visit a carpet factory. Central Asia has a long history of carpet making and selling. Merchants have showcased their best products in the Tim Abdulla Khan trade dome in Bukhara for centuries, and carpet sellers and workshops still exist in all the major cities of modern Uzbekistan. Like Uzbek cuisine, each city also has variations in technique and design. The finest carpets do all share one thing in common no matter where they’re produced, and that is the fine silk that gives the great silk road it’s name, and established Uzbekistan as the crossroads of this world famous highway which spans half the globe.
Near the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis in Samarkand we highly recommend paying a visit to the “Samarkand-Bukhara Silk Carpet” factory. It was established immediately after independence in 1992 as a joint venture with the stated goal of reviving the ancient tradition of carpet weaving in Central Asia. With more than 400 skilled artisans, this workshop cranks out top quality carpets at the rate of thirty to forty every month. This might not sound like much, but when you consider that each carpet can take up to 6 to 12 months to complete with upwards of a million hand-tied knots per square meter, from silk and natural dyes which are also produced in house, each and every carpet is an epic undertaking.
Uzbekistan is the world’s third largest producer of silk, outdone only by India and China. Third place in this case means 15% of the world’s total production, despite being outdone by China and India, total production per capita is actually the world’s highest. The essential secret to making silk is for the country of origin to have both silkworms and mulberry trees, of which Uzbekistan has both. The worms (actually caterpillars) eat only the leaves of the mulberry, which is cultivated in order to facilitate maximum silkworm feasting, which lasts 20 days from hatching until harvest.
When the worms are nice and full, they build themselves cocoons which are woven out of the raw silk excretion produced by tiny glands. Unfortunately for the little caterpillars, once fully cocooned, they are harvested, and boiled alive in order to extract the silk fibers used in silk production. The worms dissolve, but boiling loosens the fibers which are then spun onto spools using a spinning wheel so they can be combined into threads used for carpet weaving, or textile manufacturing. One cocoon contains enough fiber for 1,000 meters of thread, but a typical thread used for weaving is combined with seven or more others before it’s thick enough to be usable. It takes millions of cocoons just to make one carpet.
At the carpet factory, workers are treated very well. Not only do they have steady jobs in a country known for high unemployment, but the skills the workers are developing also help preserve the craft for future generations. Workers have excellent benefits, receive a generous salary, and work a standard 40 hour work week. Tourists who visit the factory are given a tour of the entire production facility before being shown the showroom, not only to better understand the production process, but also to give buyers the guarantee that the craftsmanship that goes into each piece is the result of an ethical, supportive, and high morale work environment.
Tourists aren’t the only ones who visit the factory. The high standards for working conditions combined with the quality of the product have attracted the attention of diplomats, dignitaries, and heads of state. The previous President of Uzbekistan was a frequent visitor. Among the photos of VIP visitors proudly displayed in the halls of the factory are Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
When the factory tour is complete, visitors are given the royal treatment in the showroom. Tea is served, snacks are laid out, and carpets are presented one after another until one piques your interest. There are no tricks or pressure tactics. It’s perfectly okay if you just want to examine the merchandise up close with no intention of buying. But if you do choose to buy, Uzbekistan is a great place to splurge. Prices are clearly marked on every carpet so there’s no mystery. This isn’t the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, this is the “Samarkand-Bukhara Silk Carpet” factory. Buy direct from the source, from the country of origin, having personally met the workers who hand crafted every square inch. That’s quite a story to go along with what’s sure to become a family heirloom.