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A Day in Urumqi

CHINA | Thursday, 30 August 2018 | Views [450]

Great Minaret at Grand Bazaar

Great Minaret at Grand Bazaar

A Day in Urumqi

 We were flying at dusk as we came close to the capital city of Xinjiang province and were greeted by a spectacular scene off the left side of the plane. The Tian Shan mountains rose in rivets of brown waves to crest in white snow laden glaciers towering higher than the plane was flying.  These mountains are quite simply beautiful, and it is no wonder they are considered heavenly.  When we landed, we literally came back to the earthly reality of a modern city coping with three million people and the associated Friday night traffic jams, honking, and general confusion.  The confusion is mitigated, however, by the ever present security police. Controls are tight in this area.

 In the morning we made our way to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum.  The museum is in a modern building, as most buildings in Urumqi are, and the exhibits are nicely laid out.  Those of the first floor, the ethnological section and the history section, have more or less complete English translations of the Chinese and Uighur placard texts, with the exception of a few rooms that dealt more specifically with trade in the region and the role of the Uighurs. In those cases, there were no English explanations, but there was on each of the labels of the artifacts in those sections. Upstairs it was different.  The Mummy Room was only in Chinese, not even in Uighur.

This museum is fascinating more for what it doesn’t show than what is on display. In the ethnography section there is a large room devoted to the Uighurs, but only to their clothes, saddles, etc. and nothing about their traditions. The exhibit continues in a large circle behind this main room and includes a variety of indigenous Chinese cultures as well as sections on Tajiks, Uzbeks, Krygz, Khazaks, Mongolians, and Russians.  The portrayal gives the impression that as these people have lived in Xinjiang, they are part of China.  This perspective is then further developed on the other side of the ground floor in the History section, where the signs describe how the Han Chinese took control of the region early on and that it has always really been a Han Chinese province.  To lend justification to the movement of Han into the region in recent years, there are plaques stating that the Tang, the Manchus, and the Qing all sent warriors to the region who simply stayed and built their lives here.

What was also missing was almost all religious artwork.  There were a few Buddhist artifacts, including Tang Tomb Demons, a really nice Qing Dynasty three-faced Bodhisattva, and a cave replica, but nothing from the region’s shamanic, Manichaean, Christian (except one Syriac stone), or Islamic traditions.  This, too, I found quite telling. Upstairs are two rooms, one with ceramic and ancient weapons, and the other the famous Mummy Room.  This section houses a number of mummies, including people of all ages from infants to clearly older people.  Some of their expressions were horrifying as they looked like they were seeing Hell. Next to the Mummy Room is a gift store that sells expensive jade jewelry; jade is supposed to ward off evil and bring good luck.  This museum makes a clear cultural/political message, which is how revisionist history starts.

 From the museum we took a taxi to the Grand Bazaar.  There is a security screening area to get in; Paul had his passport checked, but they simply let me in without the extra step. According to Urumqi websites, this is the largest bazaar in the world. I had thought that the one in Istanbul was, so was curious to see how it could be bigger.  It is only because the area the Grand Bazaar encompasses includes a number of mall shops.  The actual, what one could consider normal bazaar products, trinkets, teas, dried fruits and nuts, souvenirs, mostly fairly gaudy jewelry, silk scarves, dressmakers and tailors, take up three large halls of multiple levels, the basement of one just devoted to carpets.  Other than the teas, nuts, fruits and spices, there didn’t appear to be anything unique to the region. Outside the shops and stalls, however, there were a series of local musicians and a dancer giving performances, which lent a regional flair of the ancient Silk Road to the 21st C shopping mall.

 I started to walk back to the hotel from the Bazaar, but ended up taking a taxi instead as the car pollution was too much for my lungs. Dunhuang was peaceful in comparison to Urumqi, but it only has less that 200,000 people.  The highways there were clear and smooth, and in spite of the dust, there was no air pollution. Urumqi is burgeoning crowded major metropolis.  It feels like almost everything is new here. The malls, the highrises, the highways, etc. were all built fairly recently.  Only on Red Hill was there a temple that didn’t look like it had been modernized.   I am looking forward to our excursion to Heavenly Lake in the Tian Shan mountains tomorrow to see how these ancient sacred sites are faring.


Tags: cities, religious sites


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