The Tallest Natural Arch in the World
Note: An abridged version of this post appears on Atlas Obscura.
Eric Shipton (1907-1977), the famed British mountaineer, was well-known for a quip he once made with his climbing partner, Bill Tilman, that they could “organise a Himalayan expedition in half an hour on the back of an envelope.” In 1947, when he was the British consul in Kashgar, he used to take hikes around the area and that was when he first spotted the largest natural arch in the world.
“At last, emerging from one of these clefts, we were confronted with a sight that made us gasp with surprise and excitement. The gorge widened into a valley which ended a quarter of a mile away in a grassy slope leading to a U-shaped col. Above and beyond the col stood a curtain of rock, pierced by a graceful arch.”
Eric Shipton “ Mountains of Tartary” (1947)
Winter Vacation – 2013-2014 – Thailand
Bangkok is an excellent place to buy gems and jewelry tools and a trip to Silom road is a great excuse to stop by the Afghan and Pakistani antique shops near the river. In addition my son had just finished the Diamond Appraising section of the GIA Graduate Gemologist course and he asked me to pick up some diamond tweezers if I could.
I took the Skytrain to Saphan Taksin station, right on the river, and from there it was but a short walk to Silom Road and the shops I was looking for. Winter in BKK is one of the most pleasant seasons, sunny, but low humidity. Among the ‘wholesale’ gem and jewelry stores there were several Afghan and Pakistani shops that I regularly like to peruse. Those, plus the shops in Pratunam Market and in the Chatuchak Weekend Market, provide a selection of old and new antiques, ancient beads, bronze knickknacks, and other odds and sods unseen outside of Chowk Yadgar in Peshawar and Chicken Street in Kabul, often at even cheaper prices.
But first the gems and tools. I continued up Silom Road to the Jewelry Trade Center. This is home to AIGS – the Asian Institute of Gemological Science, probably the best gem school in Asia. Several of my friends have graduated from there and I have taken their corundum seminars in the past. As I walked in I saw a shop on my right that had some very nice ruby specimens on display. One large specimen from Vietnam caught my eye and I had to take a picture. Still on my list of ‘things to do’ is to take a dirt bike ride around Northern Vietnam and visit the gem mines and markets near the Laotian border.
Thomas “Tom Bol” Guta and his Japanese wife, Nariko, were some of our best friends when we lived in Kathmandu Valley in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1970s he revived the natural -dyed Tibetan carpet industry and in the 1980s and early 1990s he turned his artistic talents to reviving Chinese silk tapestry-woven Thangkas. While doing all this, and practicing the Dharma, and brewing chang, and working on his Ph.D at Tribhuvan University, he also wrote poetry. The following example is one of my favorites and especially relevant to the theme of this website.
Tom Bol, his wife and three children were on the ill-fated Thai Airliner that crashed into a mountain on its approach to Kathmandu through monsoon clouds in September of 1992. Next to the manual typewriter in his home office sat a neat pile of papers…random poems, articles, and essays. One of his close friends had a few copies printed and bound, and I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this rare cache.
August 2012 – Bokhara, Uzbekistan
The One that Got Away!
I had finished reading Travels into Bokhara: The Narrative of a Voyage on the Indus Being an account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia. (1834) by Sir Alexander Burnes not long before I reached the Amulet Hotel. It had originally been built as a madrasah for Islamic students to study philosophy and religion in the early 19th century by the famous merchant, Sayed Kamol. Now the student’s cells made quite adequate hotel rooms.
I was there for the usual reasons, Arabian Nights tales of the fable covered bazaars filled with ikat silks and aromatic spices and the magical Bokhara carpets; that and to see the “Bug Pit” at The Ark Fortress, where Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly had been imprisoned for so long before word of the disastrous British Retreat from Kabul in the 1st Afghan war reached Emir Nasrulla Khan. After that the British officers were no longed deemed necessary pawns in the Great Game – which, coincidentally, was a term coined by the unfortunate Captain Conolly several years before they beheaded him in the main square.
Bokhara is the generic name applied to carpets produced by several different Turkoman tribes, since that was the Silk Road city where they were sold. Probably the most common Turkoman tribe to be associated with the term Bokhara was the Tekke. The field had a very distinctive gul design.
This was a very nice carpet, maybe late nineteenth century, very tight and the warp threads were white wool, unlike the modern carpets, which use gray wool. I already had a Tekke in my collection and this was was a bit big to carry overland to Afghanistan. I was sure I could find something equally nice in Kabul. As it turned out, this one was one of the better carpets I saw on the trip…but not the best. That’s the one that got away,
When did humans first start wearing beads and why did they start? According to Lois Sherr Dubin, in the The History of Beads (2009, p. 19):
“… the earliest known beads are associated with Middle Paleolithic people. They were discovered at Skhul Cave on Mount Carmel and have been dated to approximately 108,000 B.C., at about the time Homo sapiens populations were replacing the Neanderthals and developing new and more complex cultures.”
Both those beads and some found at the nearby Qafzeh Cave dating from 92,000 B.C. were either naturally pierced or pierced by predators. But a group of 32 beads from Grotte des Pigeons in eastern Morocco, dating from 82,000 B.C., were intentionally perforated.
What is the significance of this? Anatomically, homo sapiens evolved to their current state approximately 200,000 years ago, but, for the first 100,000 years they exhibited little culture difference from their forbearers. Then, suddenly, between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago, something changed. They started using syntax as well as symbols for communication; they started using complex weapons like slings, bows and the atlatl; and they started to utilize adornment, painting themselves with ocher and wearing beads. Thus beads are one of the earliest, overt signs of the emergence of a new degree of mental complexity and human culture.