CN-3: Urumqi

The capital of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Urumqi is now a massive Chinese city. The books report a population of 2.3 million but it is surely double that and growing. Although its skyscrapers and wide streets are certainly much more pleasant than the mud-filled tracks I saw when I spent a night there in 1987, Urumqi is really just a cookie-cutter modern center.

It does have one interesting museum, however. We had tried to visit the Xinjiang Regional Museum a week before when we arrived on the train from Almaty, but it was closed on Monday. This time we went straight there when our train arrived, and we found it again closed for lunch. But at 3pm, it opened and we were able to flood in with a crowd of locals who were taking advantage of free admission.

In any Chinese museum, one must get a large dose of ideological spin and packaged ethnic color. The “strong and brave Hui people” were given prominence because the Hui minority sides with the Han Chinese against the Uighurs, who historically oppressed them. Dozens of early Chinese inscriptions tried to prove that the Chinese have had a presence for over 2000 years, even though most of that time they had tenuous links at best.

But the museum has a remarkable collection of local artifacts, in particular a set of 4000-year-old mummies discovered in Loulan, a Silk Road town now in the heart of the desert. These bodies and their clothes were preserved remarkably well by the desert sands, and their faces and fabrics are still clear. The ideologues allowed the museum to admit that these people were of Caucasian origin.

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