Silk Money from the Silk Road

Silk Currency Bolts, 4th C. ACE
Silk Currency Bolts, 4th C, ACE
From cowrie shells; and iron, copper and silver coins; to various kinds of paper, many different materials have been used by merchants and customers as credit or legal tender. Bolts of silk measuring roughly 22 inches wide and 41 feet long were also used as a form of currency by the Chinese, especially in foreign trade or as gifts to foreign lands. The silk used as currency was of lower quality than that used for luxury goods or tribute. Generally it was a plain basketweave (one thread above, one below) and both undyed and undecorated, as in this photograph of a silk bolt used as payment for the expenses of soldiers at a garrison in Loulan (Korla) in the 3rd or 4th Century ACE.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century, that people actually began to print money on small pieces of silk and use them as banknotes. This use of silk money was usually a temporary thing, fueled by a local or regional government’s need to raise money quickly, or by a shortage in paper, or both.

In 1918, Khorezm (now in far western Uzbekistan) was seized by Junaeed Kurban Mamed when he invaded Khiva. Mamed executed the legitimate ruler Asfandiyar, set Asfandiyar’s younger brother, Seyeed Abdulla, up to rule in his place. This invasion and coup threw the economy of the state into chaos, and the new government started printing banknotes to raise money. Lacking sufficient paper resources, they started to print and circulate currency on small pieces of silk.

Silk Money, Khorezm, UZ
Silk Money, Khorezm, UZ

Unlike the presses used to print paper money, the designs and official seals on the silk currency were applied by hand with wooden (probably elm) stamps, with separate stamps used for each color. The dyes used were traditional and derived from local plants and fruits with oak-apple (dark brown to black), pistachio leaves (green), madder root (red), and the Japanese pagoda tree flowers (cream to yellow).

The notes were printed with Arabic, Uzbek, and Russian text. The notes were issued in 200, 250, 500, 1000, and 2500 tanga denominations. At the time of issue, the value of 5 tanga was approximately equal to one Russian ruble, so the 250 tanga note was valued at 50 Russian rubles.

April 1920, on the territory of the Khiva khanate the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic (KPSR) was established, and more silk money was printed. In 1923 an even exchange of the silk banknotes and soviet currency was established. Despite this, many people held on to the silk banknotes and up until the 1950s and 1960s homemade quilts and suzani in the Khiva region could be found incorporating codeine online.

A little Silk Road History for a warm January day. . .

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Silk Currency Bolts from the British Museum (Collection Image AN00009/AN00009325_002_l.jpg); Photo of Silk Money, Khorezm, UZ by Laura Kelley.)

The Silk Road History of Rhubarb in Zester Daily

Everything you wanted to know about rhubarb’s Silk Road history, from its origins in Tibet and early use as medicine to its adoption as a food, in Zester Daily. A great recipe for savory lamb and rhubarb stew included! Read all about it HERE.

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Cooking with the Kazakhs

Home Sweet Yurt
Home Sweet Yurt
While still in Uzbekistan, I had a yurt homestay with an extended family of Kazakhs. Ever since I was a child, dreaming of Central Asia and Mongolia, I have wanted to stay in a yurt. A wooden frame wrapped in skins and decorated with colorful fabrics. The sometimes elaborate carved or painted wooden doors. Simple on the outside and dark and mysterious within. All of the life is within. People talking, sharing stories, singing, or playing instruments for each other to pass the time. It was all that and more. So, I am happy to report another childhood dream realized.

The camp was perched on a mesa next to the ruins of an ancient fortress called Ayaz Kala that was inhabited between the 4th Century BCE and the 7th Century ACE. In its heyday, Ayaz Kala stood guard over an oasis and a fertile farming plain that existed in the first millennium BCE. It also provided refuge for the inhabitants when the countryside was under attack by invaders. Today, the seemingly endless Kizylkum Desert lies below the fortress, with its shifting sand, scrub vegetation and dried salt lakes. Even with the unusually wet rainy season that just passed, the Kyzylkum is a hot, dry and foreboding place.

Ayaz Kala from the Yurt Camp
Ayaz Kala from the Yurt Camp


When I arrived, I was welcomed by the enthusiastic matriarch of the family. It was afternoon and blazingly hot in the desert, with no shelter except for the yurt – so I hunkered down for a nap to await the cooler weather that comes with the setting of the sun. Inside the yurt was indeed dark, but it was a lot less hot than outside. As I drifted off to sleep, I gazed at the beautiful woven and printed fabrics that hung from the roof or were draped around the yurt shutting out the harsh climate and decorating the inside all at the same time.

Some of the designs on the woven yurt straps had clear Scythian roots, while the printed fabrics were still geometrics, but were more modern looking. I fell asleep with visions of Scythian warriors, roaming the steppes on horseback, and hordes of their hidden gold filling my head.

Yurt textiles
Yurt Inside


When I woke up I could already smell the wood fires burning, someone was beginning to prepare dinner. I headed out to find the cook. I found a pair of women, sisters-in-law, getting ready to make bread. The older woman was stirring and stoking the tandyr oven to warm it up, and the younger woman, putting the finishing touches on the form and size of the bread and getting ready to stamp designs on it with a checkish bread stamp.

Kazakh Woman Stoking the Tandyr
Kazakh Woman Stoking the Tandyr


Now, most people in Uzbekistan, regardless of their ethnicity, use two different types of tandyr oven. One that is vertical for samsas – small meat-or-potato-stuffed pastries, and one that is tilted as you can see in the photograph, for the ubiquitous Asian flatbread, called “non” or “naan”.

The sisters-in-law were laughing and joking and generally having a good time and allowed me to join in. We all had enough Russian to communicate, so it worked out fine.

They allowed me to help with the tandyr, which I must say is a hot job. It was probably still in low 90s or high 80s F, and standing in front of the oven and feeding the fire is tough, with the flames sometimes blazing up outside the mouth of the stove. When the fire was ready, the older of the pair covered the hole you see in the oven on the bottom left with stones, to help the fire settle and keep the heat inside. When the oven was ready, the older of the pair excused herself to go get something.

Kazakh Woman Stamping Bread
Kazakh Woman Stamping Bread


The younger sister-in-law started to stamp the bread with the checkish using very quick strokes so that the bread didn’t stick to the tines of the tool. When she was done with each bread, she simply started to pile them on top of some bread forms she had. She allowed me to try my hand at a few breads with the checkish and having watched her carefully, I did just fine. The designs were in good form and no sticky mistakes, and ready for the oven.

Stamping the Bread - Closeup
Stamping the Bread – Closeup


The older sister-in law reappeared with a sweater and a heavy jacket on and a re-wrapped headscarf that also covered her lower face – looking something like a wild bandit. She placed oven mitts on her hands and was ready to bake some bread. One by one, she took up the breads that we had stamped and sprinkled water on them to help them adhere to the side of the oven. One-by-one, she slapped them – by hand – on the side of the oven. No tools were used, just protected hands. SLAP, another bread in the oven, SLAP another, and so on.

What surprised me most about the process was that, 1.) she didn’t turn the bread, and 2.) total baking time didn’t exceed 4-5 minutes, maybe less.

When the bread was done, she grabbed it with, again with her hands, and tossed it on a bread mold to cool. They offered me a piece of bread when it was just a minute or two out of the oven and it was hot and slightly crisp on the outside, but soft and airy on the inside. In other words, it was perfect. Our evening meal was simple but delicious. A salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, plov and and of course “non”.

After dinner, a went out to one of the areas laid with carpets on the edge of the mesa to watch the sun set and the stars emerge from the firmament. One by one they came . . . so many stars. I laid down just to get a better look at the sky and heard a strange vibrating sound from a distance. In all honesty, I thought it was someone’s ring tone when I first heard it, but it kept on going.

Jaws Harp - A Tradtional Khorezem Instrument
Jaws Harp – A Tradtional Khorezem Instrument


I went into the main tent to find a man playing what I would have called a, “Jews Harp”. He held the main part of the instrument between his teeth and in large, gorgeously graceful strokes, caressed the tongue of the instrument to produce its characteristic twang. It was magical to hear out there in the middle of desert.

What I learned that night is that the, “Jews Harp” is actually a traditional musical instrument in the Khorezem area of Uzbekistan where we were. The player hypothesized that perhaps, the term, “Jews Harp”, and been confused with the more descriptive term, “Jaws Harp”. Another Silk Road legacy reclaimed.

I stopped to look at the stars again before making my yurt – so many stars – and could still hear the sound of the jaws-harp as I drifted off to rest. (All Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)

Uzbek Homestay in Paradise

I’ve just returned from a homestay in a small mountain village in Uzbekistan’s Nurata mountains.  For a couple of days, I was welcomed into the life of a family in a small house perched amongst steep rocky hills.  Sitting on the porch of the house, one can hear a symphony of birds with occasional accompaniment from barking dogs, lambs calling for their mothers and donkeys braying in the valley below.

View from the House to the Southwest
View from the House to the Southwest

When our car pulled into the village the eldest son of our host greeted us and led us to the house up a narrow and sometimes steep unpaved road.  When the road became too difficult to drive, we walked the rest of the way up to the house.  Trees dripping with mulberries and young walnuts – the cash crop of the village – hung over a swift running stream fed by a mountain spring.

Our Host
Our Host

The entire village is made up of a few Tajik families who emigrated together from Bukhara a few hundred years ago to the Nurata mountains. Since then the village has pretty much kept to itself. People are born and die within the confine of these peaceful hills, they marry people they grew up with and expect their children to do the same. Now added to their centuries-old culture are mobile phones, sometimes electricity, wealth from local gold extraction, and thanks to the UNDP, homestay tourism.

Our host met us and ushered us across a planked bridge and up some steep steps to his home. When we arrived, his wife was busy already preparing dinner and met us later.

Most of the meal was cooked on an outdoor wood-fired stove with a pot inset into the stove. The pot was generally shaped like a wok, with steeper sides. In the photo below you can also see an Uzbek tandyr oven used for baking bread and roasting meat. Like the cylindrical, vertical tandoori ovens, it gets blazingly hot. There was also a smaller indoor stove – also wood fired – used for heating water, steaming and boiling foods.

Cooking Dinner
Cooking Dinner

As with all Uzbek meals, it began and ended with an endless pot of green tea. Accompanying the tea were small dishes of red-skinned peanuts mixed with local walnuts and raisins; and a selection of cookies and candy. We ate outside, which is done whenever weather allows. Breakfasts tend to be eaten inside because of the chill in the air, but lunch and dinner are taken au plein air.

Just before dinner, our host pulled out a small bottle of medicinal vodka and poured us all a glass – for our health. Bread and salads came first. The naan was different from city bread and made from a coarsely ground flour with no yeast. Hot and delicious, no meal is complete in this country without it. One of the salads was the usual chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with dill, salt and just a hint of dilute white vinegar. Another salad had rice noodles and with just a few diced tomatoes and onions and similar seasoning. Uzbek tomatoes are large, flavorful and meaty and lack the acidity often found in tomatoes in the west. They are also very juicy, but it is contained by the flesh of the fruit and it is easy (and not messy at all) to eat them on the fly like an apple as I love to do.

Cooking Dinner - Closeup
Cooking Dinner – Closeup

Uzbeks do love their yogurt and it is served with every meal. This being no exception, there was a medium size bowl of watery yogurt flavored with green onions, garlic and salt. This can be a community bowl for dipping naan or one can pour it into a tea bowl and sip it along with the meal. Another type of yogurt on the table was a yogurt cream with lots of dill, garlic and salt in it for a great blast of flavor. The yogurt was homemade and although wonderfully sour was also creamy and many degrees more gentle than the now popular-in-the-west Greek yogurt. The center of dinner was a type of Dimlama – large hunks of beef on the bone, stewed with chunks of potatoes and sliced carrots and onions. Seasoning was mild: a little fresh dill, a little pepper, a little ground cumin and coriander and salt. This dish had a thin, brothy, sauce that was delicious with the naan.

When we were nearly stuffed to the brim, our host’s brother sent his daughter up with a large plate of pilaf – or plov – rice with lots of carrots and onions topped with a bit of beef dripping off the bone. We tucked into it and finished about half before settling back in our chairs to watch the stars come out overhead.

We were treated to some sweet, sad songs on one of Central Asia’s stringed instruments the rawap* by our host. He sang an old Tajik song to remind us to appreciate what we have in life – when we have it. In a repetitive verse, he sang that when you have children, you don’t appreciate them. It is only when they are grown and gone that you realize what a wonder they were. In turn, we were also reminded to savor love, health, and life. Something that is easy to do under the stars in paradise.

(All words and photos by Laura Kelley)

* If you’d like to know more about the rawap and other Central Asian instruments, click here for my post on my trip to the Uyghur instrument maker’s shop in Kashgar last year.

A new company called, “Responsible Travel Along the Silk Road,” can arrange Nurata homestays, Yurt-camp experiences, as well as a variety of other eco-tour excursions.