There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Urumqi, A By-word for Remoteness: Part 8 of The Chinese Silk Road

At Urumqi Rana greeted us like old friends. Her driver, too, looked a lot happier than at our tentative first encounter at Turpan.

As we drove to our hotel, Urumqi appeared cool, clean and green, with wide boulevards and well ordered traffic. I suspect our first impressions were somewhat skewed by having spent the previous weeks in the desert.

Our hotel was in the city centre, on the twenty-sixth floor of a block that was part hotel, part shopping mall and part nightclub. Getting to our room took some time as a massive wedding party was blocking up the lifts, but it was worth waiting for. We had a corner room, but instead of a corner, a floor to ceiling window afforded a magnificent view of the traffic wheeling about the roundabout below and the night market beside it, the barbecues firing up for a 9 pm start.

Urumqi from our hotel window

We took a walk to establish our bearings, replenish our stocks after the Hotan airport episode and get a second, perhaps more realistic, impression of the city. Urumqi is, without doubt, a place of contradictions: its name is a by-word for remoteness, yet a city of over two million can hardly feel remote; it is further from the sea than any other city in the world, yet every corner seemed to sport a seafood restaurant; it is the capital of the Uigher Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, yet the population is 90% Han Chinese. The architecture is Han too; Urumqi is built entirely in the style I think of as ‘Chinese brutalism’. It is also the gateway to Kazakhstan, and for the first time in China we saw signs in Cyrillic and heard Russian spoken in the streets.


'Chinese Brutalist' architecture

The day finished with barbecued pigeons and draught beer in the night market, and then a nightcap watching the flashing neon and whirling traffic from our glass-plated eyrie.

Next morning our trip east to Tian Chi, the Heavenly Lake, took just over an hour. We drove through the residential and industrial areas of the city and then out through the agricultural belt until we seemed to be returning to the desert. Turning off the main road, we rose quickly into the mountains. The air became colder and the surroundings greener, and we passed several outbreaks of yurts, the homes of Kazakh nomads – another of China’s vast selection of ethnic minorities. Unlike the well-spaced gers of the Mongolians, which are almost randomly pitched wherever their owners fancy spending the summer, these were substantial organised encampments, each tent standing on a circular concrete base.

Kazakh yurts

We made our way upwards through Alpine scenery until we arrived at a commercial village that might have been in Switzerland or Austria, but for the curly Chinese roofs. Here we left the car and braved a metal detector (Lynne’s bag was carefully passed round the outside) before boarding a bus for the next stage of the journey upwards. At the terminus we transferred into a vehicle resembling a ten-seater golf buggy for the final short pull up to the lake.

Tian Chi - yes this is China, even if there are no curly roofs in shot
Heavenly Lake is the most beautiful teardrop of water.

Tian Chi - a most beautiful teardrop of water
Tamed for tourism and swarmed over by hundreds of Chinese trippers, each group obediently following its flag-waving leader with ovine dedication, it easily retains its picture postcard perfection. The lake lies in a bowl in the mountains and we found ourselves looking down on cold, blue green water that lay like silk gently riffling in the breeze. Beyond the lake, the mountains rise behind a series of interlocking spurs to soaring snow covered peaks over 4000 metres high.

Obedient Chinese tour groups, Tian Chi

We made our way down to a landing stage where boats sat ready to take the hordes for a cruise. There was no metal detector here, but it was deemed necessary to search Lynne’s handbag. Either the Chinese authorities believe terrorists use different techniques for attacks on buses and boats, or the main purpose of security is to give the appearance of doing something.

Boats at the landing stage, Tian Chi

Rows of seats had been set out on the roof of the boat and we sat in the scorching sunshine waiting for the other chairs to fill up. In due course we cast off. The coolness of the slight breeze and the drop in temperature as the boat’s superstructure placed us briefly in the shade were sharp reminders that we were at a almost 2000 metres.

Our first stop was at a Taoist temple on a low rise at the corner of the lake. It is much visited, we were assured, by Taiwanese pilgrims coming to pray. Clearly there were few Taiwanese about that day as only one person got off and nobody got on. The rest of the trip was merely a trip around the lake; a simple and elemental pleasure that crosses boundaries of race and temperament with ease.

Taoist temple, Tian Chi

We returned to Urumqi for lunch. ‘Would you like Uigher or Chinese?’ Rana asked. We thought we might give lambkind a rest for a day and opted for Chinese. ‘Veggies!’ said Rana with a distinctly Un-Uigherlike enthusiasm for green food.

Later, full of veggies, not to mention chicken, peanuts, tofu, chillies, mushrooms and rice we made our way to the Urumqi museum.

A queue outside was waiting for the museum to open. I expected the car to drop us off so that we could join it, but instead we drove straight up to the expanding gates blocking the entrance. One word from Rana and the gates folded themselves up and we swept into the courtyard and right up to the doors of the museum, leaving everybody else standing in the hot sun.

I try to enjoy VIP treatment on the rare occasions it happens, but I cannot quite ignore the nagging little egalitarian socialist sitting inside me fuming about the privileged classes and demanding I get back in the queue immediately. Even further inside is the voice of my Cardiganshire ancestors, a people renowned for depth of pocket and shortness of arm, saying ‘You’ll have to pay for this, you know. They’ll want money; they will, they really will.’

Urumqi museum is a fine ethnographic museum, devoted to the life of the Uighers and all those who made Xinjiang their home before them. What makes it exceptional is the mummy room containing bodies and treasure unearthed from the lost settlements that pre-date even the Silk Road. The bad news was that the mummy room was closed, the good news was that it would be opened especially for us and there would be a personal guided tour by a member of the museum staff. ‘I’m warning you,’ said a Cardie voice in my left year.

Sterile desert sand is a wonderful preserver of human remains. Unlike the Egyptian examples, those of the Taklamakan were naturally mummified and did not undergo the processes Egyptian corpses were subjected to. Those that survive are remarkably well preserved.

The best known is the ‘Loulan Beauty’, a slender, flaxen haired lady some four thousand years old. Her ‘beauty’ is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, but her clothing is so well preserved it is possible to say that she was not rich, as they are her everyday clothes, and that her shoes have been repaired not once but twice.

The Loulan Beauty
As they did not allow me to take photographs this one comes from

Another woman, buried in new clothes and a pointed felt hat decorated with feathers, is deemed less beautiful, but richer. What is clear about both of them, rich or poor, beautiful or plain, is that they are not Chinese. ‘Look,’ our Chinese guide said, ‘they are European,’ and she turned to Lynne, ‘she has a big nose, like you.' I said nothing about the guide’s eyes.

Their DNA suggests these people may have originated in west Eurasia, possibly from what is now Ukraine. The weaving has been compared to that found on the mummies of Austrian salt miners of roughly the same period. If this merely led to a twinning arrangement between Kiev, Salzburg and Urumqi everyone would be pleased, but the mummy’s ethnicity is more politically charged than that. The Chinese are reluctant to admit that anyone other than them has ever ruled in what is now Xinjiang, but even they cannot explain away the round eyes and yellow hair. The Uighers claim that Xinjiang has always been theirs and these mummies prove it, but they are clearly not Uigher either. Claiming eternal sovereignty based on the earliest known inhabitants is, surely, a futile game. Except for a few families in the Rift Valley, we are all migrants and it seems that Bronze Age Xinjiang was a melting pot; some of the early inhabitants were Eurasians, others Indian and some Chinese.

The museum authorities try to play a straight bat by displaying all their mummies together. Alongside the Caucasians is a high ranking Chinese army officer, his bowed legs suggesting he spent much of his life in the saddle. There is also the reconstructed burial pit of a wooden effigy; archaeologists speculate the actually body was, for some reason, unavailable for burying.

Afterwards our guide took us into a back room. ‘All the articles in here,’ she said 'are less than a hundred years old and the government has given us permission to sell them.’ It is strange how Chinese museums always seem keen to sell their exhibits to casual visitors.

‘This is where you pay,’ whispered the Atavistic Cardie. We sat down with several members of the museum staff and drank tea while they showed us a selection of resistible jade jewellery. ‘Actually, I’d quite like a silk top,’ Lynne said, pointing at the racks of clothing. ‘Now they’re ganging up on you,’ AC hissed.

Lynne found a top she liked, and the museum curator, turned salesperson, named a price. It was too small a number to be Yuan, so the next job was to discover which currency she intended bargaining in. It seemed the Euro was her coin of choice so we haggled for a while in a currency I did not have and anyway she could not accept. Eventually we agreed on a figure, and then on an exchange rate into Yuan, and soon Lynne became the proud owner of a deep pink embroidered blouse of real silk. I had to admit it was very attractive and, considering we had a personal tour of the mummy room, good value for 30 Euros. In West Wales the sound of rotating corpses filled several graveyards.

We spent the rest of the afternoon happily looking round the ethnographic section and the evening looking through the night market for something appetising.

Disappointingly, the most wholesome offerings were the inevitable mutton kebabs, but eventually we settled for a fish on a stick - a charred-looking but pleasant tasting bass-shaped creature with firm white flesh - along with some aubergines, mushrooms and bamboo shoots.

Barbecued fish, Urumqi night market

In the morning, we headed north to visit the Kazakh nomads. If the road to Tian Chi had been mercifully free of security hassles, this trip made up for it, with a succession of officials keen to write down the registration of every car that passed. The final check point seemed rather different and money changed hands. I realised that we were paying the Kazakhs to visit their village.

A selection of more than fifty yurts stood in a compound next to the main road. After some negotiation with an older woman, Rana led the way into the compound and then into one of the yurts. Although of similar design, there were several obvious differences, apart from the concrete base and the mains electricity supply, between the yurt and Mongolian gers we had stayed in previously. The two supporting poles of a ger divide the space in three, the left for men, the right for women, and the centre for Buddha. All the furniture is placed around the edge and Buddha’s space contains the stove, its chimney rising through the central hole. A yurt manages to stand without the supporting poles, allowing the space to be divided in two. The back two thirds containing a raised wooden platform for sleeping and eating, whilst the front contains the cooking equipment, the chimney going through a second opening in the roof. 

Kazakh yurt village
In the yurt a girl in her late teens was being plagued by a couple of smaller boys. The boys were persuaded to remove the overloud, depressingly westernised pop music from the CD player, and then they brought bowls of sweets, a heap of what seemed to be fried dough balls and bowls of tea. The tea was very like the Mongolian, a touch of salt, a great deal of tepid milk and virtually no tea.

Inside a yurt
There was some conversation between the girl and Rana and then the three Kazakhs disappeared. I asked Rana what language they were speaking. She said she was speaking Uigher and the girl was speaking Kazakh. ‘And you understand each other?’ I asked. Rana pulled a face, ‘sort of’ she said.

With that she left us, perhaps to clarify a point in the conversation. We were left alone for rather longer than it takes to drink a bowl of milky tea and discover the fried dough balls were blandly unappetising. We would have liked to have a poke around, but we were in somebody’s home and it seemed rude, so we just sat and waited.

Me and a rather pensive Rana, some milky tea and fried dough balls

In time Rana reappeared with the girl who had slipped Kazakh national costume over her jeans and tee-shirt. She put on a CD of traditional music and danced a couple of folk dances. We were a small audience, but she threw herself into the performance, and earned as generous a round of applause as six hands can manage.

Dancing Kazakh

Walking back to the car we watched two large hawks flying just above head height, quartering the area in a search for mice, voles or small Kazakh children. Down by the road a few stalls supplied daily needs and several battered snooker table supplied entertainment. A group of boys were pushing balls around with bent cues rather than playing a proper game, but it was nonetheless a somewhat surreal sight.

Snooker among the Kazakhs

Lunch back in Urumqi would be our last meal in Xinjiang, so it had to be Uigher fare and Rana was determined that we would have every Uigher delicacy on the table at once. There was laghman (mutton with noodles), pilaf (mutton with rice), pie (mutton with pastry) and kebabs (mutton with skewers). No messing with green food here, though some pumpkin dumplings provided light relief.

After that there was nothing else we could do but leave. We were well prepared after the Hotan airport incident and this time had no difficulty with the x-ray zealots. That was not true of a Chinese man at a nearby check-in desk. As the altercation went on his voice became louder and louder. He clearly had no level-headed wife telling him to shut up and the last we saw he was being marched away by the police, still shouting and now struggling as well.

We were starting our journey home, so we flew back to Shanghai, five hours in the wrong direction. Approaching the coast we skirted a dramatic thunderstorm but by the time we had landed and the doors were opened it was right on top of us. There was a minor passenger revolt as we refused to disembark until the rain had eased.

Such rain cannot last long and by the time we were through the airport it was eleven o’clock and a warm, dry Shanghai night. The taxi queue would have stretched halfway back to Urumqi had it not been wound around metal barriers. A taxi tout approached us and offered his services. He was scornful of our refusal, ‘well if you want to queue all night…’ he said and stomped off. In fact, the queue moved quickly, the taxis were arriving five abreast and a group of men with the inevitable armbands were marshalling proceedings with efficiency. As we left the airport we saw the line of incoming taxis stretching several miles down the road. We were right to ignore the tout, if he was prepared to cheat his fellow drivers then he would have had few qualms about cheating us as well.

We spent the next day in Shanghai doing a little shopping. A fair part of it was spent in a teashop, tasting and buying. Tea in China is like wine around the Mediterranean, it is plentiful and most of it is cheap but the rare and special cuvees demand special prices. Like wine there is almost no upper limit to what you can pay, so a little preliminary tasting is well worthwhile.

Tasting tea in Shanghai

It was strange, but after the wilds of Xinjiang, Shanghai seemed comfortable and familiar. We wondered what London would feel like.

and finally....
Thanks are due to TravelChinaGuide who supplied drivers and guides and made all the land arrangements from Xi'an to Urumqi. Their efficiency and their ability to reply to every email within 24 hours regardless of the time of day or week they are received is awe-inspiring.

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