One of Khotan’s best assets is the chance to see the whole process of silk production, from grub to garment.
To see the nurturing of the silkworms – only possible in summer – you’ll need to explore Jiya Xiang (吉亚乡, jíyà xiāng), northeast of the city, a tiny Uyghur settlement specializing in atalas silk, made in small, family-run workshops; get here by minibus (9am–9pm; ¥2.5) from the east bus station on Taibei Dong Lu. If you are able to explain your purpose to people (a drawing of a silkworm might do the trick), they will take you to see silkworms munching away on rattan trays of fresh, cleaned mulberry leaves in cool, dark sheds. Eventually each worm should spin itself a cocoon of pure silk; each cocoon comprises a single strand about 1km in length. The hatching and rearing of silkworms is unreliable work, and for most farmers it’s a sideline.
At the small workshops near Jiya you will also be able to see the rest of the silk-making process – about 5km down the Jiya road Atlas Silk (daily 9.30am–8pm) is a good place to aim for. Inside, you’ll be able to see the initial unpicking of the cocoons, the twisting together of the strands to form a thread (ten strands for each silk thread), the winding of the thread onto reels and finally the weaving and dyeing. There are also a few shops along the road where you can pick up a vivid scarf or shirt of atalas silk as a souvenir.