Urumqi: a place where Han China meets Xinjiang. A relatively young city by Chinese standards, Urumqi was established in the Tang Dynasty- the same time period that Xi’an was in its prime and the Dazu Caves and Leshan Buddha were carved. Urumqi is a primarily Han Chinese city because the government has been promoting many Han Chinese people to move west to prevent Xinjiang from seceding. For example, my roommate Jia Lin is originally from Shenzhen but moved to Urumqi for her dad’s career in real estate development.
Xinjiang has a tumultuous political past. The province has been a part of the Chinese empire on and off, varying with the power of each dynasty. After the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Xinjiang claimed that its allegiance was to the emperor, not the Chinese republic. The Uighur population was not ethnically Chinese, did not speak the Chinese language and had no interest in Chinese nationalism. However, under the control of the CCP, Xinjiang is once again part of China. This union has not always been a peaceful one. There have been terrorist attacks, protests and bombings. My roommate told me about a recent protest in 2009- the government shut off her internet for a year and she could only make phone calls on her cell phone. I can’t imagine living my senior year of high school without internet, texting and reliable news! I was shocked when she told me how she had to call her friends in Shenzhen to let them know that she was alive but wouldn’t be available online or through text messaging. While I heard about the conflict on the news, I never imagined that China would put those sorts of restrictions on a whole province- especially a cosmopolitan, primarily Han city like Urumqi.
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We arrived in Urumqi in the evening, around 7pm. We were met by our lovely 20-year-old tour guide who, thankfully this time, did not try to explain to us in broken English that Uighurs are black. We headed up the stairs into the hotel and Joe warned us, “Don’t go to the Karaoke place here”. When we asked why, he told us that it wasn’t a very upstanding establishment. Confused, we made our way to the elevator and went up to our rooms on the 22nd floor. Margo and I squeezed into our tiny corner room, complete with a bathroom with one of those giant awkward windows. That’s 3/4 hotels in Xinjiang in case you were wondering. Unfortunately, the door to the bathroom wouldn’t close and Margo didn’t make that fact any better by trying to pull up the blinds while I was in there.
As I was washing my hands I heard a gasp from the room, “Oh my god Richelle you HAVE to check out these beds”. I ran out and saw Margo sprawled out on her bed surrounded by pillows. I threw myself on my own bed and sank into a fluffy cloud. After months of sleeping on rock-hard beds this bed was even better than the cloud bed in Ikea. (Our Field Trip to Ikea).
While the cloud bed was tempting, even more pressing was our desire to explore the bustling night market that had appeared over the course of a half hour. From the 22nd floor we could see a large traffic circle. Directly below us was a parking lot that had transformed into an outdoor dining plaza with stall after stall cooking food and hundreds of tables. Margo was exhausted, but the boys and I went downstairs to check out the scene.
Right outside the hotel were stalls selling perfume, accessories, jewelry, and small items like lighters and bottle openers. We then wandered through the tables, avoiding the stall selling stinky tofu. When we reached the end of the tables, we came upon another large area with racks of clothing and blankets laid out with sparkly hair accessories, bags, shoes, etc. One vender, however, caught my immediate attention. On the stairs were a few young Chinese people selling kittens! There were a few kittens and bunnies in small cages with a crowd of people hoping to buy or pet them. At first it made me very sad that these animals were in such small cages, but after talking to the young man selling them, he told me that he wanted the people who bought them to be able to take them home, hence, the little box cages. My favorite was a little white kitten, and I have to say, it took a lot of strength not to bring him home with me.
After enjoying some chuar and purchasing some perfume (I’m still not sure if it’s fake or real), it was time for us to return back to our rooms. It was fairly late, so we were very surprised when there was a small crowd of 40-something year old men waiting for the elevator. We squeezed into the elevator and it stopped on the fourth floor. The door opened into a brightly lit karaoke club with about twenty young women in skimpy, sparkly uniforms who, in unison, chanted ‘welcome! welcome!” to the older men who pilled out of the elevator. As the door was about to close, a young Chinese woman and older man threw themselves into the elevator, obviously tipsy. The woman pulled out a compact mirror and began hastily wiping her nose to rid herself of any white power that might still be there from her night at karaoke. “What floor do you live on?”, She asked the older man. He grunted and pointed to our floor. Welcome to the seedy underworld of Urumqi.
The next morning at breakfast, we had a lively discussion about what we had seen. The hotel had to know about it right? Maybe the hotel didn’t own that floor? Nevertheless, it made for an entertaining night.
Joe texted us early that morning to tell us that our flight had been delayed, so we would have an extra two hours in the morning, and then we would head to the museum. The four of us took this time to wander around Urumqi. The city looked so different with the night market as a parking lot!
Finally we pilled into our van and made our way to the museum. We stopped for a quick lunch of chicken and rice, and made our way into the museum. Our guide told us that no cameras, cell phones or bags were allowed, so we left everything in the bus. However, this didn’t stop her from bringing in her cell phone and a medium-sized purse.
If I had to come up with a name for this museum, I would call it the “Most Interesting, yet Most Poorly Designed Museum in the World”. I would say that out of all of the museums I’ve ever been to, the only place that tops the museum in Urumqi as far as items and artifacts go, would be the museum in Cairo. And what do you know? Both have mummies. The problem with the museum in Urumqi is that the government makes it purposely confusing to obscure the prominence of Western artifacts, as well as the caucasian mummies. It groups artifacts by place found, not by date; so any average visitor would think that the Western objects were found in conjunction with Chinese objects. Thank god we had Daniele to set us straight.
That said, I was extremely impressed by many of the artifacts that we saw in the museum. Full blankets and pieces of cloth in a scottish plaid from thousands of years ago are perfectly preserved. It’s amazing what a dry, desert climate can do!
Our last stop was to see the mummies, or “preserved corpses”, as they are not mummies in the traditional sense. For a little back story about the mummies, around 4,000 years ago, there were Proto-Celtic, Indo-European speaking people that migrated along the Eurasian Steppe. They lived in small villages, farming and trading with Mongols. At that time, the people who we now call Uighurs did not exist, and Han Chinese people were far from the Xinjiang area. They wore celtic plaid wool clothing and wove their blonde and red hair in long braids. They also covered their bodies in intricate tattoos, which can be found on some of the corpses today. These people were well aware of the natural preservation caused by the desert, so they aided the process by raising the bodies up off the dirt floor of their underground tombs. They are not, however, traditional mummies because the organs have not been removed.
Why is this a problem for China? Many Uighur separatists use these mummies to claim that Xinjiang has never traditionally been a part of China. Just because Xinjiang was an autonomous territory of the last empire of China, does not mean that Xinjiang belongs to China. This history of the Proto Indo-Europeans definitely explains the presence of blond and red haird, blue eyed people in Xinjiang, but of course, China can not have the public thinking that Xinjiang was not always Chinese. So what do they do? They throw in a Han Chinese mummy from a few thousand years later. See! There are Han Chinese mummies too!!
While I wasn’t allowed to take photos of the mummies (not that the signs stopped the fifty or so Chinese tourists taking photos with flash), I found some photos online.
When we couldn’t deal with the crowd any longer, we continued on to the minorities section of the exhibit. This was a whole portion of the museum dedicated to the many minorities of Xinjiang. Some of these minorities only have a few thousand people living in Xinjiang, but had their own rooms with mannequins dressed in traditional clothing, weapons, art, etc. There is something that always bothers me about the Chinese presentation about their minorities. It may be the blunt English translation, but one sign stated that a particular minority practiced ancestor worship, a “primitive” form of religion. Don’t many Han Chinese families pay homage to their ancestors through burning (fake) paper money and having family shrines?
While we were wandering the exhibit, our tour guide started to get anxious, telling us to hurry so we wouldn’t miss our flight. We still had a full SIX HOURS till our flight. We told her that last time we had to wait for hours before we were even allowed to check in. She paced the museum anxiously, waiting for us to finish. We took our time anyway, annoyed that she was rushing us. I’d much rather wander around a museum than play two-person card games for five hours.
Eventually we made it onto the bus. We were going to kill time for an hour or so at another bazaar. I was excited to pick up a few more souvenirs from Xinjiang, however, our guide, panicked at this point, told us we needed to head straight to the airport. NOT AGAIN. We explained to her that we weren’t allowed to check in until an hour before our flight, however, she told us that traffic was awful and we wouldn’t have time to stop anywhere. Angry, I put in my headphones and settled in for the ride to the airport. About ten minutes from the airport, I heard a barrage of rapid Chinese between the tour guide and Joe. Apparently, our flight wasn’t delayed after all, and there was no record of it ever having been delayed. What?! What kind of airport un-delays a flight an hour before the plane is about to take off?
We ran into the airport with our things, letting Joe and the tour guide go ahead while we waited in the preliminary security check. Apparently we had missed the 30 minute check-in deadline by about ten minutes and we wouldn’t be allowed on the flight. Really? Our tour guide looked like she was about to cry when she told Joe the news. I can’t help but think this might have been her first tour? Or maybe her first tour with a Western group? Regardless, it all worked out and we were able to get on a flight at 7:30, which was much earlier than our “delayed” flight time of 9pm anyway. We came to the conclusion that our tour guide must have checked the wrong flight or maybe the wrong day and thought that our flight was delayed when it wasn’t. I’ve never even heard of a flight being delayed a full day in advance! Our teenage tour guide refused a tip, and left us at the airport with a hurried wave goodbye. At least we only had to wait an hour!
The group of us entertained ourselves for about forty five minutes by spotting unusual airport sights such as a mannequin in a mini dress with a headscarf as well as a full family wearing teal tracksuits with “Lucky” written across the backside of their capris pants. Poor little boy.
While our ten day trip was amazing, I was excited and nervous to be heading home. Margo and I had realized over the course of our trip that this next weekend would be the last weekend we would have to go to Shanghai. Poor planning on our part. We asked Joe to convince Lu Laoshi to move our trip presentations to Monday, rather than this Friday so that we would be able to head to Shanghai Thursday evening. We were arriving back in Xi’an Wednesday night around 10pm. Ahhh! However, we didn’t know if we would be able to go since I was in need of a passport renewal. (I almost got arrested in Dunhuang because the hotel thought my passport had expired).
While these posts are a little out of order since I didn’t have time to write them all while I was in Xinjiang, refer to my earlier post “So Apparently I’m Crazy” to hear about my INSANELY last minute trip to Shanghai.
And I thought seven months was plenty of time to fit in everything that I wanted to do. Whoops.