Archive | July, 2011


31 Jul

 I’ve realized this Silk-Road project may well take up the rest of my life! I want it to be something for history to look back on with admiration–and indeed I do! If I’m already past the half-way point of my life (they tell me I am), I’d better get cracking. I’ve begun to see that cursory research is not what’s called for: I’m planning to buy books on each major country on the Silk Road. By researching _heavily_, I will be able to come up with some characteristic scents for each locale I cover; certainly, it will be a matter of my decision as to what scents are in fact characteristic of a given locale. With the right books, historical, cultural, horticultural, etc., I’m certain I’ll be able to sketch out appropriate perfumes. It’s a relatively massive task to set myself to: summarize aromatically my impression of the olfactory identity of an entire country/culture/ethnicity.
 Well, the first few perfumes are already made in advance. The middle east (Turkey) will call for myrrh and frankincense in the base, tuberose and rose (I know much rosa damascena comes from Turkey) in the heart, bergamot and lemon in the top. As we move to Syria/Damascus, we start to get into agarwood/oud, also commonly known as gaharu, jinko, and aloeswood; because agarwood is mentioned in Chinese texts from the 3rd century AD, I assume China was already on the receiving end of some new products by way of the Silk Road. It’s mentioned in one of the world’s oldest sacred texts, the Sanskrit Vedas from India. For Pakistan, I can use juniper and cassie absolute, which I don’t really like (some people adore it), but acacia farnesiana (from which cassie absolute is made) grows widely in Pakistan.
 When I start making perfumes for China, I will certainly use osmanthus, which is one of my favorite extracts (outside Lan Su traditional Chinese garden in Portland, Oregon, there grows a big osmanthus tree; every year, when it bloomed, I would go park my car underneath the tree to soak up the cosmic aroma). One other thing I will try to use is based on five-spice powder, commonly used in Chinese cooking; there are many formulas for the powder, but it’s most commonly made of: star anise, cinnamon, clove, fennel, and “Szechuan pepper,” which has no real western analogue, but it’s zanthoxylum piperitum. I will make two perfumes for China: one for Xi’an, which will based largely on osmanthus; one for Kashgar, which will likely include some of the spicy stuff.
 I looked up Szechuan pepper, and I found that Szechuan pepper is native to China, India, and, for some strange reason, is commonly used in Indonesia, in Sumatra around Lake Toba. My great grandfather, Tassilo Adam, lived around Lake Toba for 40 years, acting as the Royal Dutch Ethnographer (he was doing research, but mainly he was overseeing Dutch rubber plantations); he was a German citizen, but the Dutch still afforded him a 40-year stint on the other side of the world.
 When he arrived, the members of the tribe, the Batak, were cannibals; they believed they honored their dead family members by consuming their bodies. My great grandfather put a stop to that macabre tradition; he pointed out that tribespeople were actually dying from eating their kins’ brains. The Batak also believed they were descended from dogs, so they traditionally filed their teeth to the gums once they hit puberty, and each morning they’d blacken their gums with the coals from the nights fire; Tassilo, I’d imagine, was more than a little shocked to discover in some clearing one day a tribe of people with little black holes for mouths. Tassilo became best friends with the tribe’s chief; I imagine he and the tribe thought Tassilo’s western ways were pretty magical. Tassilo was there for so many decades, that one day it was decided he should take a wife from the tribe; on the day of the would-be wedding, he was shocked to discover a ruckus coming from the village square. He ran to discover various tribe elders about to file his would-be wife’s teeth to the gum. He demanded that they stop; word is, he went back to Germany and looked for a woman with the biggest teeth he could find.


28 Jul

 Whenever someone talks to me about a would-be Silk-Road perfume project, they always say they want to start in the west, Constantinople (Byzantium) they tend to say. If you ask me, that betrays a western centrism which I want nothing to do with. As China was the source of the silk that the world wanted, frankly I think we should start in China; Chang’an (now Xi’an) is the usual starting point (for the Chinese) [above reads “ancient Chang’an,” “Han Chang’an,” and Modern Xi’an]. I said I wanted to start in China (because that was the locale of origin of silk); Mary pointed out that the Turks make silk too–that’s my whole point! The Turks got silk because an Indian monk who’d been living in China for several years pilfered (smuggled) several silkworm cocoons hidden in a walking stick and brought them all the way back to Rome (he had been sent by the Roman emperor for the exclusive purpose of stealing silkworm cocoons).
 The silk-production technology quickly spread, but the Chinese had thousands of years head start, so their silk is still the best in the world. Other cities I might focus on in the first leg are Dunhuang, Hetian (both in China), Kashgar (in farthest western part of China’s western-most province; home to mostly Muslims), and Tehran (Iran) or Lahore (Pakistan). To simplify my life, I might choose either Kashgar or Tehran. I think I could find out enough about each city, by way of cursory research, to make some sort of a perfume, no matter how whimsical. I’ll use a couple of local fables or legends flesh out more of a story. I’m sure I can find some old fairy tale, which I can get a lot of mileage out of, especially the _right_ fairy tale.
 Once when I was in a city called Wuhan, I hailed a rickshaw to take me to dinner. I asked how much it would cost to take me where I wanted to go; when the rickshaw-peddler told me, I was thinking, “If you’re willing to pedal me all the way there so cheap, I’m more than happy to pay you.” This was the very first rickshaw I’d taken in China. I began speaking with the rickshaw driver some more and he ended up asking where I was from; I said, “New York,” and the rickshaw came to a screeching halt. The driver turned around to look at me for the first time. He said in Chinese, “I thought you were from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The beard threw me, and your text-book perfect Mandarin made me think you were definitely Chinese. They all speak perfect Mandarin out west. The price I quoted you was too low. If I’d have known you were American, I would have said at least four times as much.”
 No wonder it appeared too cheap–he quoted me a Chinese price! That’s the only time I heard Xinjiang referred to when I was in the mainland. Needless to say, from Kashgar, we get into some of the most populous countries in the world; Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, and the largest _land-locked_ country on the globe. I might choose a city called Almaty (formerly Alma-Ata), which used to be the capital of Kazakhstan. A person really gets into the middle of the “huddled masses” in this country. It saw many massive deportations and much ethnic cleansing under Stalin; so the country is quite ethnically diverse. It’s 70% muslim; most of the rest is Christian, but Kazakhstan sticks closely to the ideal of freedom of religion. I never really think about places like Kazakhstan, but I should really start to.


13 Jul

 I haven’t heard back from Richard, so I’m thinking about stealing his idea for the Silk-Road project and going off into the adventure on my (lonesome) own. I aim for it to be a relatively monolithic project, choosing several cities or grand areas along the Silk Road, researching each, and creating a perfume and an incense for each one. So far, I know Chang’an (called Xi’an today) China and Alexandria Egypt, or maybe Istanbul (Constantinople) Turkey may be two of the cities I choose. I’ll have to, of course, research the aromatic/olfactory history of each city/area I cover. Other areas might include the Taklamakan Desert, Kashgar, the Tian Shan mountains, Turpan, Talgar and Almaty (in what is now southeast Kazakhstan), the Alai Valley, Termez (in modern Uzbekistan), Balkh (Afghanistan), Kokand in the Fergana Valley (in present-day eastern Uzbekistan), the Karakum Desert, Merv (Turkmenistan), the Karakoram Mountains/the Karakoram Highway, the Hindu Kush mountains, Mesopotamia, the northern tip of the Syrian Desert, the Levant, Anatolia, Herat through Susa to Charax Spasinu at the head of the Persian Gulf and across to Petra and on to Alexandria.
 From Wikipedia: “A route for caravans, the northern Silk Road brought to China many goods such as “dates, saffron powder and pistachio nuts from Persia; frankincense, aloes and myrrh from Somalia; sandalwood from India; glass bottles from Egypt, and other expensive and desirable goods from other parts of the world.” In exchange, the caravans sent back bolts of silk brocade, lacquer ware and porcelain. Another branch of the northern route turned northwest past the Aral Sea and north of the Caspian Sea, and on to the Black Sea…Extending 4,000 miles (6,500 km), the routes enabled traders to transport goods, slaves and luxuries such as silk, satin, hemp and other fine fabrics, musk, other perfumes, spices, medicines, jewels, glassware and even rhubarb, as well as serving as a conduit for the spread of knowledge, ideas, cultures, zoological specimens and some non indigenous disease conditions between Ancient China, Ancient India (Indus valley, now Pakistan), Asia Minor and the Mediterranean…
 “Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the great civilizations of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia, and Rome, and in several respects helped lay the foundations for the modern world. Although the term the Silk Road implies a continuous journey, very few who traveled the route traversed it from end to end. For the most part, goods were transported by a series of agents on varying routes and were traded in the bustling markets of the oasis towns.” Turns out, I may have my #1 fan, John Reasinger, help me with the gargantuan project. I know him to be perfect as a researcher and conceptualist; I believe he studied in college for a time ancient mythology, like Greek gods, etc. He can talk circles around me about Greek gods; he certainly knows a fair amount, where I know next to nothing. He’ll be a perfect comrade in our quest to discover something of the essence of the Silk Road.