Beads, I can’t get enough of those shiny little things. There is something about them that has always fascinated me, and that fascination is what narrowed my hundreds of crafting hobbies into making jewellery, and to eventually turn in into a business. They are beautiful, perfect, they sparkle or add depth, and they are everywhere.
Beads have been around for as long as man has known how to put something on a bit of string, our desire to decorate and adorn ourselves seems instinctive, every culture has beads in their history. So finding beads whilst traveling is one of my favorite things.
So let’s start with the find that inspired this post.
Istanbul, a city that fills every sense, the smell of spices, the sounds of prayer echoing off the walls of the buildings, the soft feel of handmade carpets, the taste of lahmajoun and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and the gorgeous colours and patterns of the walls of the Blue Mosque or the sight of hundreds of coloured lamps.
I think the connection with this city was love at first sight, even if the taxi ride to the hotel did make me think I was going to die before I got there. It was Ramadan when we arrived, so people were fasting during the day, but the city became a different place at night, that was when the celebrations hit, food stalls in the park near the blue mosque, lights everywhere, families gathered in the park and children playing. The celebrations added a whole new depth to my love of the city.
And then, of course, there is the shopping, those infamous bazaars, stalls everywhere, people trying to sell you things on every street corner. The most famous of them all is the Grand Bazaar, a huge disorientating whirl of colour and noise. 4000 shops crammed into this enormous building. Most of them selling the usual touristy stuff, then there are lamps everywhere, traditional tea sets, belly dancing outfits, and oh so much more, but near here whilst wandering around exploring other alleys in the city I found Kürçü Hanı street filled with haberdashery shops, trim, fabrics, ribbons, wool and, of course, beads.
The beads I am talking about were 1/2 kg bags filled with rough seed beads and bugles, one shop was filled to the brim with them, walls covered in bags and all those colours. I wandered into one shop and the the shop keeper gave me a dismissive look and told me a price in Turkish, (I double checked with hand gestures and coins), by now I had learned the importance of checking around, even if the price did sound great I still wanted to check places that maybe had a little more stock. The next shop I wandered into told me four times that price, but checking the quality of the beads I was not getting anything better, at all, think I was getting ‘tourist prices’ after the 3rd shop I realised that nothing was getting cheaper than the first place. I headed back to the first shop and rechecked the price again and, once I was sure, began to enthusiastically pull out beautiful, bags of beads.
It was not long before I attracted the rest of the staff over, who were all helpfully pulling out more bags of beads and suggesting colours. 10 bags later and an extra discount for buying so many, I left saying thank you in Turkish. I have no idea what he said back, but he seemed pleased. The rest of the walk back to the hotel was me clutching 5kgs of bags of my chest and grinning inanely. Let’s just not talk about getting them through customs and getting some very strange questions.
This multicultural, modern city, is a bustling metropolis, with mega malls, interesting temples, and amazing food. I have been to this city quite a lot now, as my parents used to live in Penang. I always made an effort to stop in this city for a little bit of a shop and an explore. Once I had seen the sights my visit there was mostly filled with shopping and eating. Even if I only spent one night there in a cheap China Town hotel, wandering around this now familiar city, always inspired me.
There are the stunning Petronas Towers, built to reflect the dominant Islamic culture in Malaysia. The water show at night near the towers is worth a stop and look, and if you are into designer goods, the Mall there is for you. For me the main attraction in that mall was the huge book shop, always worth a stop to increase my Manga collection.
Another mall, that I have to admit dominated a lot of my time, is the Berjaya Times Square. It is enormous, full of so many interesting shops and has a great food court at the bottom of it. Combine this with a mini theme park inside, which by the way has a full sized roller-coaster in it, and a huge, very reasonably priced, cinema, and I was in mall rat heaven, but we are not here for the malls, no we are here for the beads.
For beads, head to China Town and explore. At night China Town is filled with stalls, full of knock off handbags and tourist tat, have a browse and have a barter, but my advice, look to the shops and explore off the main strips away from the stalls, go later in the day, but not yet at night. You will find shops selling gemstones, strings of reasonably priced Chinese crystals and faux pearls, shop around and get prices, get to know the products. I found more than a few places to get reasonably priced Swarovski crystals also, high quality and reputable.
Head over to the Kenanga Wholesale Center and go up to the wholesale bead shops that are there and have a look around. They do discounts for bulk purchases and the shops themselves are worth it for the colours and variety. As I said before, compare and browse before purchasing.
At night in China Town graze your way through the various food stalls, you will not regret it. A small piece of advice, if you are staying in a China Town hotel looking over the markets getting a room without a window may actually be better for you. The stalls clear out late at night and the streets are noisy until morning.
This beautiful city is another city of new sounds and interesting sights. The colour palate of muted pinks and the surrounding hues of browns and oranges of the desert give this city an other worldly feel. Grabbing a tagine in a local restaurant, whilst practicing your French is one of the high lights of this wonderful city.
Make your way out into desert for a day trip and really get a feel for life outside of the city, or add some colour to your day by wandering around the Menara gardens.
But for me the real highlight here were The Souks, a maze of shops and stalls reminding me a little of the grand bazaar, and giving you the feeling that you enter with a wallet full of money and leave with bags of goodies, dazed and blinking into the sunlight. I found beautiful embroidery threads and eventually down one of the side alleys I found a bead shop that sold beautiful Berber jewelry and also African trade beads.
These beautiful beads were brought into Africa for trading via Portuguese trade ships and were used as a sort of currency in West Africa by the Europeans, sadly their history is not a great one as they were used to buy slaves, but they also have an interesting history of use. The beads were highly valued there as decoration was seen as a form of status, and glass beads were not a common thing. It got to the point that certain producers would create beads specifically for trading, and the Venetian’s were one of the biggest producers. These are the beads that are sought after so avidly by collectors.
I ended up purchasing a couple of the cheaper options as I did not have the money to buy more, but the sight of so many beads in such a variety of shapes, sizes and materials will stay with me for a while.
Beads have been an essential part of our history since mankind first realised they could hang something from a string and wear it. Cultural significance, historical significance and they are still an important part of our life today. These small shiny things have never lost their place in our hearts and as I travel I am reminded every time of just how much these tiny baubles have influenced the history of our world.