Friday, July 21, 2006

China | Xinjiang Province | Urumqi

As our plane approached Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Province, I keep gaping out the window in hopes of seeing glacier-sheathed 17,946-foot Bogdo Ula Peak, part of the Tian Shan Mountains, which provides a dramatic backdrop to the desert-like environs of the city itself. Today I was disappointed; clouds obscured the entire southern skyline. It was 91ºF in Urumqi, with a scorching wind blowing off the tarmac. I took a taxi downtown and was soon ensconced in the brand-spanking-new Taipai Hotel, located on the site of the old Hong Shan Hotel near Hong Shan, the hill which loams above the downtown part of town.
Hong Shan, near the old Hong Shan Hotel
The old Hong Shan, where I had stayed numerous times, was a classic budget travelers’ haunt. On any given night there were probably travelers from fifteen or twenty different countries here, most lugging backpacks, and sitting in the hotel’s breakfast room once could hear reports from the all the great Silk Road cities: Kashgar, Bishkek, Bukhara, Samarkand, Peshawar, and back then even places like Balkh and Bamian in Afghanistan. It was here that I first heard the expression that there are only two paths in Life: the Silk Road and the Milky Way; very roughly speaking, this means the exoteric path and esoteric path. And there was always a few huddled conversations among people trying to figure out how to sneak into Tibet via the then-closed Kashgar-Yecheng-Ali-Kailash route over the Kun Lun Mountains. The steps leading to the hotel lobby were always jammed with young women working for tourist companies who touted various excursions around Xinjiang and arranged for bus and train tickets, many of them students using this summer job as an opportunity to polish their English.

The long-gone-and-sorely-lamented Hong Shan has turned to dust from whence it came, replaced by the Taipei Hotel, actually a three-star businessmen’s hotel but with still fairly reasonable rates since it has just recently opened and does not seem to have a lot of business. The hallways are hushed and lit by discreet indirect track lighting; some vague New Age-ish Silk Road music plays in the background twenty-four hours a day. The rooms have enormous beds with acres of snowy white sheets and free high speed internet via Ethernet. One odd feature is a long narrow window opening from the room itself into the bathroom. This is certainly convenient if you want to watch someone taking a shower, but the toilet is also in clear view, which must appeal only to people with very specialized tastes. There is no curtain on this window and no apparent way to block the view. And finally there’s even a restaurant serving “American” food. For background music they play a tape of American classics, including Patsy Cline’s “Stand By Your Man.” I didn’t have to nerve to try the American food; I stuck with the Chinese buffet.
Street performer near the Taipei Hotel. This guy is standing on the edges of razor-sharp meat cleavers.
As soon as I had fired off a few emails and checked the news for any signs of the imminent arrival of the Apocalypse I caught bus #7 over to the Xinjiang Regional Museum. I had been in the old museum building six years ago, but the last time I was in Urumqi the old building had been torn down and new one not yet completed. Now it turns out that the new building opened the previous October. The half of the first floor was devoted to dioramas and exhibits of all the Xinjiang’s numerous ethnic groups: Uighurs, Mongols, Khazaks, Kyrgyz, Tazhiks, Manchus, Russians, etc. The other half covers Xinjiang from the Paleolithic up to the present-day. There are some excellent manuscripts in both Sogdian, on which the old Uighur vertical script was based, and manuscripts in Uighur itself dated for the twelfth and thirteen centuries. It was of course the Uighur script on which the Mongolian vertical script was based, adopted by Chingis Khan after the capture of the Uighur scribe Tatatunga in the very early thirteenth century, after the defeat of the Naiman.

Must folks hurry through the downstairs displays, however. The museum’s star attractions are upstairs in the Mummy Room. Here the famous Tarim Mummies, three and four thousand year old bodies uncannily well-preserved in the arid conditions of the Taklamakan Desert where they were found. As always, there is a passel of local teenagers in this room, mostly girls, apparently attracted by the ghoulishness factor. The room is like a scene straight out of the movie “The Mummy Returns.” There are a number of mummies from different places in the Taklamakan but three stand: the so-called Cherchen Man, the Loulan Beauty and the Cherchen Baby.

The 3000 year old Cherchen Man, found near Cherchen on the southern rim of the Tarim Basin, is a stunner. He is six feet six inches tall and has blondish-gray hair, a goatee, and decidedly European features. The last time I was here, six or seven years ago, I caused quite a commotion when I was viewing this mummy. At the time I had shoulder-length blonde hair, a hipsterish goatee (yes, I was once hipsterish), with the same thin build as the Cherchen Man, only two inches taller, and the same European (in my case Euro-American) features. There was a large Japanese tour group viewing the mummy. They stared at it, then at me, then started whispering among themselves. Soon the whole group was staring at me wide-eyed. Some even took out cameras and took my photo, although photography is strictly prohibited in this room. It was as if a descendant of the Cherchen Man had suddenly materialized in the Museum; indeed, the Mummy Had Returned.

The mummies are fully-clothed and what immediately strikes the observer is the design and quality of the several thousand-of-years-old material. There are tartans which could easily pass for modern productions. The Cherchen Man is dressed in a robe of finely woven wool exactly the same burgundy color which Mongolian monks wear today. For a detailed account of the fabrics worn by the mummies and much else about them see:
For even more on the mummies see:
So what the hell where these tall, lanky blonde-and-red haired, tartan-wearing proto-Europeans doing in the Tarim Basin three or four thousand years ago? Needless to say, this question has Sparked A Lot Of Controversy.