When does archeology start to look like rocks?

Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
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Trip End Nov 20, 2007


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Monday, October 15, 2007

Friday, September 28th

In truth, most of this day was spent either in Jiaohe, a long-abandoned city on a plateau above the intersection of two rivers near Turpan or on a small bus between Turpan and Urumqi (pronounced something like oo ROOM chee). However, I had to choose some location for the Travelpod map pin, and this was my only chance to choose Urumqi because we were on a plane for Kashgar before the end of the night.

In many respects, Taher is an excellent guide for western China. He speaks several languages (Uyger, Chinese, English, French, plus a smattering of Czech); he's enthusiastic and good humored; he knows the cities of Turpan, Urumqi, and Kashgar, and he's a strong hiker, in case you're headed into the mountains, and we were. However, a historian he's not, and a historian is what we needed to make sense of the jumble of rocks that constitute the former city of Jiaohe. As with most historical sites and museums in China, captions are few, terse, and ill-translated, and in a city that is exposed to the elements and has been abandoned for something around 600 years, it's difficult to tell the difference between a home and a room for grain storage, or the remains of a wall from an oddly shaped rock formation. Sure, that basement prison (or was it cold storage? a pool hall? ) was still in good shape, but it would have been nice to know more about how many prisoners (or barrels of beer or pool tables) they could fit into the place at one time.

Gary, tour guide and history nerd, was eager to see the mummies at the Xinjiang Uyger Autonomous Region Museum, so we had a quick lunch back in Turpan before dashing off to Urumqi in a mini-bus. If I recall correctly, Urumqi is further from an ocean than any other city on the planet. It's also in the least-populated area of China and is surrounded by desert. Dull and ugly, you might well expect; I did. Somehow, though, a couple of million people have managed to create an oasis that I wish I'd had more time to explore. Other than our brief stop at the museum and another for dinner, we only got to see Urumqi from the bus, but we caught glimpses of bustling streets, outdoor markets, parks, an attractive downtown brimming with imaginative (and, in some cases, gaudily colorful) architecture, and a snow-capped mountain serving as a backdrop for the city as Mt. Rainier does for Seattle.

We also discovered that Urumqi has an exceptional museum filled with ancient artifacts from the region and an exhibit on traditional clothing of the ethnic groups that live in the region. (An exhibit on the Chinese military must have been imposed by the government because it was ridiculously out of place.) As with the other museums we'd seen, the captions weren't great, but we didn't have much time to read anyway because the museum was closing soon, and we had to get dinner before our plane to Kashgar. No matter. The items in the collection were exceptional just as art, so much so that I almost bought the museum catalog, but my reluctance to make full, heavy bags fuller and heavier won out.

Looking at people who'd been dead for three or four thousand years wasn't as gruesome as you might think. They were mostly clothed, and they'd been thoroughly dried out in the desert long before they were discovered, so the little skin that was exposed looked more like medium-brown leather than like human skin. (For more information, see http://discovermagazine.com/1994/apr/themummiesofxinj359.)
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