The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 7, Part 2)
Our plane to Kashgar was due to leave at 9 and the Xinjiang museum closed at 7, but they stopped selling tickets at 6. Given the 1 ½ hour drive back to Urumqi from Heaven Lake, that meant we had about half an hour in hand to make it to the museum. We did, comfortably. The museum had three galleries. The first of these was devoted to depictions of the various minorities in Xinjiang – two dozen of them. Life-sized models dressed in ethnic costumes stood and sat around in mock-ups of their natural habitat with accompanying artifacts, each tableau featuring a short write-up about demographics and lifestyle. I walked through this in about ten minutes, but TPB – on a trip of “I will not be rushed” – dawdled (to the extent that I lapped her before she was halfway). She refused to be rushed and I didn’t want to split up in a large, nearly-empty museum, so it was past 6 by the time we reached the second hall – a chronological display of archaeological finds from all over the province. This was absolutely fascinating -– just as an example of its completeness, TPB found a photo of the mural she’d fallen so heavily for on the flight from Xi’an to Dunhuang! Unfortunately, walking round the exhibits we’d only managed to get as far as the Tang Dynasty (7th – 9th century) where we stood entranced in front of several marvelously preserved and colorful two-foot high animal sculptures that had been excavated from the Astana tombs we’d seen the previous day, when Lily materialized and told us that there was only half an hour left till closing time so she strongly recommended we go upstairs to the third and last gallery – the piece de resistance of the museum.
TPB didn’t want to break off from the Tang dynasty exhibits but I insisted, and Lily said we could come back down if there was time at the end. I’m glad we went. The third gallery had mummies on display -– just like the ones we’d seen at Astana, but several more. In fact, there was even the mummy of a general, all of six feet tall, whose tomb we’d been inside at Astana. (That had been the second tomb we’d visited, the one with paintings of ducks inside that Lily had told us was that of a nobleman, and she’d been wrong.) There were six mummies in that gallery, ranging in time from that of the general all the way *back* to the 4000 year old lady known as the Loulan Beauty – buried beside a 3800 year old child who had died when he was four. There they lay, side by side, hair, nails, teeth all perfectly preserved, even large fragments of the clothes that they had been wearing, patterns perfectly visible and clear. I had not expected to see this, and I have never ever seen anything like it.
The English-speaking museum guide who Lily had dug up for us for this gallery was very sweet and well-informed. She explained to us that three of the mummies found at one site, called Qizilchoqa, were buried knees-up since this allowed more bodies to fit inside a single grave. These mummies were fascinating – they were three thousand years old, and clearly Caucasian, with blonde and light brown hair. The guide told us that the textile patterns seen in their tombs were very similar to those found at sites in Ukraine and Central Europe! The possibilities were mind-boggling. Of course, due to the time constraints, we weren’t able to linger over them. She went really fast from exhibit to exhibit, not allowing us to dawdle in the least, and despite that it was past 6:50 by the time we stepped out into the museum store and bookshop. These too looked very large and interesting. TPB as usual went off to look at picture postcards, and before we knew it, it was past 7 and we hadn’t had the time to look around the bookshop or store.
Still, the mummies had been so totally worth it. All you need from something like this, I sometimes feel, is for the spark of knowledge to seed the curiosity within you. The search can continue for long after.
We emerged from the museum into another minor wonder - it was raining! Our driver, who had joined us in the mummy gallery, ran through the downpour to get the van and soon we were stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the airport. There was no time to grab dinner in the city, which meant that TPB would have to try her vegetarian luck either at the airport or in-flight. After checking in, we asked Lily where the airport restaurant was. She said there was nothing on the other side of the security check and instead pointed us upstairs to a "fast food" café. She then walked us there and helped us order from the limited (but English!) menu – tomato noodle soup for TPB and Zhajiang noodles for me. Then, to our surprise, she picked up a magazine from a rack and sat down, back to us, at a different table. I went over to tell her that it was okay and we could take care of ourselves now, to which she replied (a little despairingly, I thought), “But I cannot leave! It’s my job!” I tried to say we could just pretend that she had done her job, but she only smiled wisely and patted me on my arm and said you go eat. So we did, while she waited us out. I ordered a glass of Red Label just because it was available. Yes, I have drunk industrialized scotch in interior China. The flight was at 9 but by 8:15 Lily had seen us through security and waved us good-bye. She would receive us on our way back from Kashgar.
We found the gate listed on our boarding passes and sat down, but it just seemed awfully deserted for a gate that was supposedly hosting a soon-to-depart flight. Just to recheck I went off to take a look at the monitors. Thankfully the Urumqi airport is brand spanking new and all the information was readily available – it took me no time to figure out the updated gate number, and we were there having scarcely missed a beat. The flight was uneventful, except for a Han gentleman sitting next to us who insisted on trying to practice his English on us. Poor guy – much of it consisted of him clenching his eyes shut in frustration while looking for a word, and ending up saying, “My English is bad”. His wife works in Kashgar, and he, a major in the Chinese army, has been based all over the place. Anyway, after a bit he gave up trying to communicate, and soon we were walking across the tarmac at Kashgar airport, away from the solitary plane parked near the terminal. This was it – the last major stop on our cross-country voyage.
I found my preferred location near the head of the baggage carousel but as it started up I found it was going in the opposite direction to that I'd anticipated so I ended up being at the tail instead (a consequence of the Arabic script going the other way?) TPB mock-commiserated with my frustration “at losing out on 15 important seconds of my life”. It was more than 15 – I timed it. It was 45.
On the plane we’d laid a bet about whether our guide here would be Chinese or minority, and male or female. TPB had said Chinese male, so of course I’d gone with minority female. Past the carousel, past the guards checking baggage tags, out into the reception area, we met Abdulwali. A slim, athletic, clean-shaven young man with Turkish features and slightly elongated eyes – slim-fitted light blue formal shirt hanging outside formal grey trousers. “In case my name is too long you can call me ‘Ali’,” he said in excellent American-accented English with a slight recurring dash of Borat, “You know, like Mohammad Ali?” I indicated I was familiar with the name.
Inside the sleek black Hyundai Elantra, Abdul gave us a brief overview of the vital statistics of Kashgar – population 450,000, oldest, largest, most important city on the Silk Road, etc. He didn’t hold back in his positivity, every thing that he said was a superlative of some sort. He even cracked a joke or two. As we checked in at the Bangchen Hotel (naturally, by far Kashgar’s best hotel), he asked what time we wanted to start for Lake Karakuli the next day. “We have a small car, it’s fast, it will take a little more than three hours to reach the lake.” He suggested 10 or 10:30. Having had a full week of 7:30 and 8 am starts, this seemed a little lackadaisical to us. But then we hadn’t factored in the fact that Kashgar, the furthest west we’ve been so far, would run far more stringently on Xinjiang Time. Anyway we asked why we couldn’t leave a little earlier, say, 9:30? He agreed reluctantly, suggesting in part that the driver, the jolly Mr. Ma Xiao, would have preferred something after 10. They didn’t seem all that put out, and after all our time was quite limited, so I didn’t give any ground. I shook hands with the two of them – both smiled broadly as we said good night. We stepped towards the lift. Abdul called us back. He’d forgotten to give us his card and a couple of local maps. With these in hand, we followed the bellhop up to our room.
TPB was first into the allotted room and she immediately said – this room smells of cigarette smoke. I want to change the room, she told the bell-hop. The guy didn’t understand a word. She mimed a cigarette. The guy looked at her. I tipped him and let him go. TPB said – I’m going to get them to change the room. I said – let’s call Abdul and ask him to translate; he couldn’t have gone too far anyway. She said no, and called the front desk. A minute and brief conversation later she put the phone down and said, they’re sending housekeeping over. I asked – what’s housekeeping going to do? One look from her silenced me. Housekeeping showed up, a sweet simple-looking middle-aged Uyghur lady. TPB went through her first-spoken-then-mimed routine again, with as much success this time as well. Housekeeping decided it was best to call the front desk. I said, let’s just go down. Another look, relapse into silence.
We went down behind housekeeping. A more refined, self-assured lady walked up. TPB started explaining; she interrupted and said yes yes yes we have your problem under control, then started walking towards a nearby cafeteria. I followed, muttering: she’s going to give you a pack of cigarettes. TPB wheeled round and hissed, “Listen…” so I quickly shut up again. Behind the counter of the cafeteria, a lady had already opened a drawer and was displaying cartons of cigarettes (I wish I had noted which brands). TPB finally cracked. She turned in desperation to the manager and said, “No! No! I want a non-smoking room! The smell *bothers* me!” The manager smiled sweetly and said, “I understand,” and walked away to the front desk. Wonder of wonders, within seconds we were given the key to a different room. Housekeeping, the manager, and the two of us went up to the old room. We got our luggage and went up a floor to the new room which lay right at the corner, at the end of the corridor. TPB’s spirits lifted (like evaporating alcohol?) the moment the door closed. We slowly deposited our materials and started to unwind on our again separate beds. I spent some time trying to write. She watched local TV again, an Anil Kapoor-Sridevi movie dubbed in Uyghur except for the songs.