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Musical Instruments, Urumqi, China
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China: Urumqi
2019

Erdaoqiao Grand Bazaar Xinjiang Regional Museum
Artefacts from Astana Cemetery, Turpan, China


In the far north west of China, Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region, is home to a very good museum, a great place to start exploring the many different cultures living here. Mummies thousands of years old are amazingly well-preserved.

Erdaoqiao Grand Bazaar


Urumqi
Approaching Urumqi.

Urumqi, in China's far north west, is a modern city, the capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region, which has significant oil and mineral resources. It is large and modern, built on top of much older settlements, home to around 3 million people, about 40% Han Chinese - there has been encouragement of Han Chinese to move into the region. And the time itself is weird - we were operating on Beijing time, though the actual time difference is two hours earlier! The hotels keep to Beijing time but the people who live here, such as farmers, operate naturally on local time, two hours earlier, so when we were at ten o'clock it was only 8 for them.

Xinjiang is home to around 50 different ethnic groups, the Uyghurs and Han accounting for the majority. I was a little concerned about visiting this area because there has been something of a situation with the Muslim Uyghurs. It has been reported that many thousands, along with other ethnic minorities, are held in camps for "re-education", ostensibly to counter terrorism. We very quickly got the impression that being too inquisitive about Uyghur history in the region was not encouraged, and we certainly didn't want to get anyone into trouble, so we didn't ask any awkward questions.

We immediately noticed the huge number of cameras everywhere, including in lifts. Security along roads was also intense and many times we had to leave the car to go through checkpoints. We never had any problems, and the security staff were usually very friendly, but it felt quite oppressive.

Urumqi
Bas relief in the People's Park.
Activities include guarding the border, working the land, oil derricks, traditional dance.
Urumqi
After a lot of discussion dinner was spicy skewered lamb, which was very good, and "buns" - also good but not sure what they were made of. Washed down with black tea and Wusu beer. All for 42 Yuan - about 6USD.

We had a bit of a wander from our hotel near the People's Park. There really isn't much to see. We looked for somewhere to eat but the best place had a lot of people waiting for tables. Other restaurants had helpful pictures of what's on offer but there's not much variety and much that doesn't look very appetising - skewered turkey claws for instance! We ended up going back to the hotel and had a similar problem there, though the staff tried their best, none really spoke English. We soon had about half a dozen people trying to help us and one went off to find someone with a bit of English. She helped us to decide on skewered lamb (we'd been about to order a dish of 1kg of meat!) and "buns". Fortunately we were only staying one night.

Urumqi
Breakfast dishes.

Breakfast was extensive but again very difficult. To us it just looked like a continuation of what was on offer from the restaurants the previous evening: lots of salad-type things, noodles, black bean and black rice broth, stir fried rice dishes. Bizarrely there was a separate "Chinese Corner" with steamed vegetables in lidded baskets. The local people were thoroughly enjoying it though and we had a nice talk with a couple of women who were touring the area; they were very interested in us, there were no other "westerners" here.

Urumqi
Breakfast dishes.
Urumqi
Tambourines
Music and dance play a large part in Uyghur culture.

The hotels don't accept our credit cards, and WiFi access depends on having a Chinese SIM card; with a data package and finding 3G we managed to get online but access is going to be very restricted in Xinjiang we think.

Urumqi
Erdaoqiao Grand Bazaar

We had lunch at the Erdaoqiao Grand Bazaar where we spent a bit of time looking at the various stalls. Housed in a huge new building it has no atmosphere at all.

There are many stalls selling Chinese medicinal remedies, possibly more selling dried and candied fruit. Lots of very bright and gaudy ethnic caps and jewellery. There was a huge hall selling jade "10% real, 90% fake" said our guide. Very bored-looking retailers and nobody buying at all.

Urumqi
Musical Instruments
Urumqi
There are a large variety of raisins in the region.
Urumqi
Lots of, to me, very unusual natural products for use in teas, and traditional remedies - roots, mushrooms, dried flowers, much I couldn't identify.
Urumqi
Though these look like insects I believe they are, in fact, caterpillar fungus, used in traditional medicines.
Urumqi
Walnuts and red dates in the foreground.
Urumqi
Nuts, dried fruits - at least six varieties of raisins,
prunes, figs, candied kiwi, goji or wolfberries (red at the front).
Urumqi
Urumqi
At the front is, I believe, halva made from tahini - a sesame paste - with, naturally, raisins.
Urumqi
Decorative brickwork on the minaret.

 

We were unable to go into the mosque, it was closed, even to the local people.

Urumqi
Minaret of the mosque, usually used for the call to prayer.
Urumqi
Urumqi
Cakes, no doubt sold in slices, with walnuts, candied fruits (apricots, cherries?) and lots of raisins. The base looked like it could be some form of rice.
Urumqi
No doubt very skilful but I find this huge jade (?) sculpture completely hideous.
Urumqi
Different varieties of nang. The stack of rolls could be onion nang. On the walls are recipes for different types of nang.

 

Urumqi
A nang "pit" - the bread is slapped onto the interior wall to be cooked.

 

 

There was a very interesting museum/bakery making a very traditional Xinjiang Uyghur specialty: Nang. This is a disc-shaped bread cooked on the inside of a large "pit" at very high temperature.

There were recipes for different types of nang on the walls of the small museum: sunflower seed, meat, sweet, brown - it seems they can be flavoured with all kinds of things. Meat nang, for instance, is made with minced mutton, salt, ground cumin, ground pepper and onion.

Urumqi

The nang in the attached shop looked gorgeous, it would have been nice to try some but our guide was anxious to get us to lunch - we had a flight to catch and, because of high security, needed to be at the airport well in advance.

 

Urumqi
Lunch!

 

Urumqi
Without a translator we would have been reduced to pointing at the plov and kebabs which were all being cooked in the body of the restaurant.

He took us to a local spot famous for its plov (pilaf) - rice cooked in broth with a few lumps of lamb and vegetable strips. It was very good and a small dish was quite enough for us, along with some excellent spicy lamb kebabs.

The single westerner we saw while in Urumqi was outside this restaurant, wondering whether to try it. We were able to recommend what we'd had and he decided to give it a go. He'd been in Kashgar where, he said, it was very hot.

Urumqi
Plov in its cooking pot.
Urumqi
This small "salad" of vegetable strips in a spicy, slightly vinegary, sauce was a bit overpowering.

 

Xinjiang Regional Museum

Urumqi Museum
Uyghur home.
Music and dance are a big part of the culture.

 

There is one very good reason for coming to Urumqi, apart from transit to other places, and that is this museum. Colin Thubron was intrigued by the mummies 1 and I was very keen to see them, but the museum has a great deal more, housed in a brand new, purpose-built building.

Urumqi Museum
Uyghur doppa caps.
These traditional caps are beautifully embroidered. The conical caps were worn by the women, the smallest worn by the wealthiest.

On the ground floor are a series of dioramas illustrating the ways of life of the major ethnic groups of the region: Uyghurs, Uzbeks - apparently of the same ethnic background as the Uyghurs but coming from the area of the great General Uzbek, Tatars, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols, Manchu Chinese, Han Chinese, and many more. Our guide was very knowledgeable and gave us a huge amount of information, which I tried desperately to remember, writing down as much as I could later.

There is no information in the museum about the traditional way of life, at least not in English; nothing on how some of the cultures arrived in this region, how the people survived in the conditions, though many were obviously nomadic herders. They seemed quite idealised views. We were fortunate that our guide was able to explain much about each of the different ethnic groups.

The first of the dioramas was a Uyghur family home with a courtyard covered with shady vines and a wide entrance for carts. A large bed served for eating meals, any chores that could be performed sitting down, or just relaxing. It was where the men slept at night, the women slept on the roof which was probably cooler.

Urumqi Museum
A beautifully decorated Uyghur saddle and heavy stirrups.
Urumqi Museum
A vibrantly coloured piece of carpet cushions this Uyghur saddle.
Urumqi Museum
A very famous painting of a Uyghur Muqam, mostly the musicians are playing stringed instruments but also some wind and percussion and even one man playing the spoons! The most famous Uyghur traditional music are the centuries-old Twelve Muqam, each a suite of songs about two hours long.2 If you want to hear how it sounds I recommend a BBC programme: The Uyghur People and the Muqam I have read that the government has prescribed what can and cannot be sung within the songs, so for instance, religious references are forbidden.

Horses feature strongly in many of the cultures. A rich man's saddle would be finely painted whereas a poor man's saddle was only covered in leather and maybe a blanket or rug.

Urumqi Museum
Beautiful Uyghur calligraphy.
Urumqi Museum
Han Chinese sitting on a traditional heated wide brick stove, carpeted, and also used to sleep on if you can stand the heat. This has no use for cooking. Presumably the door at ground level is to tend smouldering coal or wood.

Urumqi Museum
Wrestling is a traditional Mongolian sport.

The Great Wall was built to protect China from outside attack, and to a large extent this meant keeping out the Mongols. Their leader, Genghis Khan, breached the Wall to invade in 1211. Now the region of Inner Mongolia is part of China and Mongols are one of the ethnic minorities present in Xinjiang. Inner Mongolia is one of the largest autonomous regions, Han Chinese forming a large part of the population.

 

Urumqi Museum
The Mongols had a vast empire under the leadership of Genghis Khan. Their lifestyle is traditionally based on the land involving crop growing and reindeer, sheep and goat herding.

 

Many of the ethnic groups traditionally lived in yurts, round tents which here are beautifully decorated.

Urumqi Museum
Just a few examples of the beautiful clothing. The garment on the right is fur-lined.

Their best clothing is also very beautiful, usually featuring tunics and distinctive caps, again exquisitely embroidered, often in individual personalised styles.

Urumqi Museum
A very narrow saddle, probably less comfortable - Mongol/Kazakh/Kyrgyz? The flat plate stirrups make it easier to stand.

 

Many of the peoples - Mongols, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz - were consummate horse riders, a skill learned from long hours in the saddle herding their livestock. They can sleep in the saddle and Mongols in particular were fearsome in warfare as military cavalry, able to fire a bow in almost any direction by standing in their stirrups. The central Asian horse, though small and not particularly fast, had great stamina and could survive on a very poor diet of foraged grass and other plants.

 

 

Urumqi Museum
Musical instruments and a typical Scythian style of bow.
The musical instruments I believe are Kazakh. The Scythians were a collection of tribes that occupied central Asia from around 700 BC to 200 AD.

 

Urumqi Museum
The beautifully carved horse's head on the neck of a Kazakh (?) musical instrument exemplifies the people's love of, and reliance on, the animal.

 

Urumqi Museum
Beautifully embroidered Kazakh clothing.
The women wear their hair in long braids.

 

 

Urumqi Museum
A Kazakh yurt with an opening at the peak.

Some, such as the Kazakhs, even do their courtship on horseback, in a race between men and women - the women wielding a whip!

Urumqi Museum
Exquisite Kazakh clothing.

Fermented mare's milk was a popular traditional, very alcoholic, beverage. It was made by pounding the milk over many hours, taking turns of about 15 minutes each. The resultant potent brew is so strong that a little will make a man so drunk that he will not be able to walk, though it is said of the Kazakhs that they are such good horsemen they can still ride.

Urumqi Museum
Through the entrance of the Kyrgyz yurt many bolts of colourful fabric can be seen.
Urumqi Museum
A Kyrgyz yurt showing structural detail on the left. This doesn't look as if it would be quick to dismantle and reassemble but yurts like this have been used for centuries by nomadic peoples. The trelliswork sides are in sections which, once removed collapse to take up much less space.
Urumqi Museum
Tajik musicians.
Urumqi Museum
Manchu
Note the traditional platform shoes. These would be worn by noblewomen.

 

 

Many of the ethnic minorities have much in common: a traditionally nomadic lifestyle, a love of and skill with horses, the love of music and dance, a highly developed skill in the artistic decoration of clothes and textiles. Distinctive hats differ greatly from group to group, and even, in some cases, from person to person, though some costume elements are common such as a tunic or embroidered jacket. Probably the embroidery style is unique to each ethnic group too.

 

Urumqi Museum
The ancestors of the Daur people were brought to China by the Qing government in 1764 to be officers and soldiers.3 A cradle hangs from the ceiling.

On up to the first floor of the museum and the famous mummies. The introduction to the mummies states that their extremely well-preserved state of preservation is due to the very dry and saline conditions in which they were buried. These aren't really mummies, in the sense of the wrapped mummies of Egypt, but rather desiccated corpses.

Urumqi Museum
A Bronze Age cemetery - poles mark the grave of a male, paddles that of a female.
Urumqi Museum
Cherchen Man
The remains of tattoos can be seen on his face.
Urumqi Museum
Urumqi MuseumBraided hair and the hands held in place with a cord. She too had facial tattoos.
Urumqi Museum
Urumqi Museum
Urumqi Museum
The "Beauty of Loulan".
Urumqi Museum

The Tarim Basin and Turpan-Hami Basin were the site of ancient cemeteries, many thousands of years old. Xinjiang was central to the ancient Silk Road stretching from Xi'an to the mediterranean and saw travellers and traders from both east and west passing through over millenia. DNA analysis of mummies has indicated origins from both the east and west - even European.4

Colin Thubron describes "Western giants with blond and reddish hair, high-bridged noses and heavy beards"1 pulled from the sand that protected them for up to 4,000 years.

Urumqi Museum
Cherchen Man
Found on the plateau of Cherchen, this 3,000 year-old mummy is 1.8m tall and wearing very fine clothing.

Ancient cemeteries have been excavated in the Peafowl River in the Lop Nor region in south west Xinjiang. Graves are often marked by a pole, for a male, or a wood paddle-shape for a female. Coffins at Xiaohe cemetery were formed with curved long sides, end boards and a long lid, with no base - in the shape of an upturned boat, along with many grave goods such as straw baskets, wool fabrics, bronze and wooden items. The clothing of felt hats, woollen cloaks, leather boots are just as well-preserved.

Urumqi Museum
This female mummy was found close to Cherchen Man, along with two other females. Her robe and his are dyed the same deep burgundy.
Urumqi Museum
Baby found near Cherchen Man.

 

 

Buried near to Cherchen Man and the women buried with him was the body of a baby, wrapped in the same red cloth, bound with a red and blue cord, the same as found around the wrists of Cherchen man. Blue stones were placed on the eyes, red hair escapes from a bright blue bonnet. One is inescapably drawn to the conclusion that this was their child.

Urumqi Museum
Urumqi Museum
This mummy of a baby, although of the same age as the previous one pictured above, around 3,800 years old, is of quite different status. Found in Gumugou Cemetery it was wrapped simply in a woollen shroud, fixed with wooden sticks to completely envelop the body, leaving only the face visible.

The most celebrated of the mummies, also around 3,800 years old, is the "Beauty of Loulan". Again extremely well-preserved her high cheek boned face looks very Caucasian.

Urumqi Museum
What the "Beauty of Loulan" may have looked like.

It might be thought that it is rather macabre to gaze upon these millenia-old mummies, and there is no doubt that some are a fearsome sight; but some are so lifelike and I felt only compassion and curiosity about these people and their lives, and imagine that they were probably not so very different from ourselves.

 

Urumqi Museum

 

 

 

Several information boards declare the multi-cultural development of China, but there seems to be some form of control of the Uyghurs going on in Xinjiang at the moment at the very least.

 

 

Urumqi Museum
A very beautiful head of Buddha.
Wei and Jin dynasties (220 - 420 AD).
Unearthed from Rewake pagoda yard in Lop county.



Urumqi Museum

 

Urumqi Museum
Red overcoat, 750 BC.
Zaghunluq cemetery, Qiemo county.

 

 

Back down on the ground floor we took a look at the exhibits tracing the history of Xinjiang and of the Silk Road in the region.

 

Urumqi Museum
Replica of one of the Kizil 1,000 Buddha Caves.
Urumqi Museum
Urumqi Museum
Painted tomb guardian with a man's head.
Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).
Unearthed from Astana cemetery in Turpan.

 

There is a wonderful series of painted figures unearthed from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) Astana cemetery in Turpan. Some are of clay, others carved from wood, but they all seemed individually made.

 

Urumqi Museum
Unearthed from Astana cemetery in Turpan.
Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD)
Urumqi Museum
Painted mounted warrior figurine.
Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).
Unearthed from Astana cemetery in Turpan.
Urumqi Museum

 










Urumqi MuseumPainted female dancer figurine.
Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).
Unearthed from Astana cemetery in Turpan.

 

 

Urumqi Museum
Painted civil official figurines riding a horse.
Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).
Unearthed from Astana cemetery in Turpan.
Above carved wood, below modelled in clay.
Urumqi Museum

References

  1. BBC Radio: The Uyghur People and the Muqam
  2. Shadow of the Silk Road, Colin Thubron, Vintage Books, 2006
  3. GBTimes - Ethnic Minority Waxworks in the Xinjiang Museum
  4. Analysis of ancient human mitochondrial DNA from the Xiaohe cemetery: insights into prehistoric population movements in the Tarim Basin, China