China’s Wild West
Knowing Urumqi is no longer the Silk Road oasis stop it once was, its still kind of a shock being greeted by today’s vast urban city of over 2 million. By my rough estimate, arriving here marks the 10,000 km mark I’ve traveled in the last two months. Its also supposedly the furthest city from an ocean at 2,250 km.
The city is ultra-modern with all the parks, skyscrapers, and transportation similar sized Chinese cities have. It’s always cool to be in places where signs have to be written in two or more languages, and in Urumqi its Chinese and Uighur. Uighur is in an entirely different linguistic family as Chinese and looks like this:
ھەممە ئادەم زاتىدىنلا ئەركىن، ئىززەت-ھۆرمەت ۋە ھوقۇقتا بابباراۋەر بولۇپ تۇغۇلغان. ئۇلار ئەقىلغە ۋە ۋىجدانغا ئىگە ھەمدە بىر-بىرىگە قېرىنداشلىق مۇناسىۋىتىگە خاس روھ بىلەن مۇئامىلە قىلىشى كېرەك
The city lies in the gigantic (bigger than Alaska) sparse province of Xinjiang, meaning “New Frontier.” The history is rich with Silk Road routes and nearly 50 ethnic minorities lending a feel I’m in another country than China.
There are few travelers in the province but I’ve found some in the only youth hostel in this city. I’ve seen more adventurous Chinese and other Asians than anyone, the travelers being decked out with rain gear and backpacks sporting labels like North Face and Mountain Hardware. The Westerners I’ve seen tend to be more rugged than the usual South East Asia first-time wonder-struck kids you see elsewhere in Asia. The guys have beards of some rapport and the girls have no shame drying their underwear in the hallway. They’ve been around, some coming across from Europe and tend to keep their heads down and not say much. We’ve been through the “Where are you from?” routine too many times and know the road goes on.
Even so, I met a nice group of people and we went to a hot pot restaurant. This delicious dish is a Chinese staple (similar to Japanese nabe) and for some reason I have yet to sample it in my time in China. I think part of the reason is eating this seems to be a very communal activity, and I’m usually alone.
In the center of the table is a large pot, divided in two parts, on a burner. One side is spicy broth and the other plain. You peruse a large wall of skewered vegees and meets to bring back to the table and stick them into the pots to be cooked. Not for chopstick beginners.
You pay by the amount of skewers you eat, and six of us ate 152 sticks of food, though pricier items like shrimps have more than one skewer. Including beer and a couple plates of meat to throw in, we each payed 26 RMB (~US$3.80). Super good since it is quite chilly here and I saw the first snow of the year the day I arrived, signaling an end to some of the markets.
The breads (pan) here are also cheap and delicious. You can get bagels and plate-sized sesame covered breads for one or two RMB and they make great resting places for kebabs.
The main thing I wanted to see in Urumqi is it’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum, a newly renovated attraction for “Silk Road aficionados” (LP China). Sounds good. The only problem was navigating the draconian entrance requirements: closed Mondays (first day here), ticket dispensing times, entrance times, and limits on how many can enter. I felt like I was trying to see the Tonight Show and not some 4,000 year old mummies. Finally, Wednesday I got in but had to change my bus ticket to a day later to see it. To my surprise entrance is free!
The museum was well done with exhibits following the history of the Silk Road, ethnic minorities in the region, carpets styles, and the main attraction: mummies!
The desert mummified Caucasoid bodies include the famous Loulan Beauty. The 45 year-old’s face has been reconstructed from her remains, and she is (was!) considered quite attractive. The several on display and other Tarim Basin mummies are valued for their amazing state of preservation due to the desert conditions. Braids of hair, teeth, and clothing lie in remarkable condition for being up to 4,000 years old. No photos allowed but I managed to get a couple anyway. The light was very dark so the Loulan Beauty is blurry with a tripod.