Out West (again)
Urumqi this time. I’ll fill things out a little when I get a chance (more for my own sake than under any pretence of communication).
That Baijiu holocaust problem I worried needlessly about in Kashgar? Urumqi is a very different city …
ADDED: After arriving yesterday we took in the International Bazaar, a more mall-sructured, and thus rather less atmospheric version of the Kashgar Grand Bazaar, trading similar goods. The most distinctive items were chunks of fossilized wood, so precisely metamorphosed that the minutiae of organic structure were clearly discernible. It’s hard not to be impressed when examining the fine-grained organization of a thing that died 150,000,000 years ago.
Next stop was Hong Shan Park, situated at the north-east edge of the city in 1947, but now enveloped. It’s high, and gives a vantage point from which to get oriented. Better still, the viewing pavilion there also serves as an urban development museum, including scale models (1947 and today), lots of photographs, and basically everything needed for a firm space-time fix. Finally, there was dinner with the local officials — our hosts — which was great fun (even though I’d been horribly sick the day before and still felt shaky). The Baijiu onslaught then unfolded (my travel companion from work turned out to be crazily lihai, and probably saved me by deflecting some of the white death torrent onto herself). Maybe I wrote some scraps fished from the gulfs of shadow? Then oblivion.
Next day: Tarim Mummies, the Urumqi version of Shanghai’s M50 (art hub), and the city’s massive new industrial park called the UETD.
The mummies — dessicated accidentally by the arid environment — are very well known, for good reason. Their state of preservation is incredible — you could still wear their clothes (after almost 4,000 years). The whole anthropo-ethnographic backstory is enthralling too, and I need to try and get my head wrapped around it. The oldest mummies are ‘Europoid’ and really look as if they could have been Cornish. (Scientific consensus, as I understand it tenuously, identifies them as ‘Tokharian’.) This throws the Uyghur-Han ethnic elbowing into disconcerting perspective, but it’s just too out there to be truly politically sensitive (I’m hoping). If the Welsh start claiming chunks of Xinjiang based on ancestral rights I guess that could change. The old mummies come in two pairs, two 3,800-y.o. females, both ‘Europoid’, then a pair from a thousand years later, a Europoid male and a mixed Euro-Mongoloid female. Both of these later mummies are tattooed, and for reasons not yet understood were buried with non-matching boots. Then the exhibition throws in a mummified Han official from AD500, but if you folllow the exhibition around in a disciplined counter-clockwise circuit, there’s no reason to be thrown off by this bizarre and crudely-motivated non sequitur.
The art space had some OK stuff, and reflected the guiding Urumqi attitude: well-meaning, relentlessly multi-cultural, driven by Han, and extremely tame. If you like art that drags you into extra-cosmic abysses of shock and dread, there wasn’t much there to set the pulse racing. Lots of pleasant, (unthreateningly) intelligent, traditional, craft-based stuff though.
The industrial park was really something. Pure China, in the sense that it was mostly a (truly immense) construction site, from which some slender threads of raw potential had tumbled backwards into the present. It already has a population of 270,000, and looked roughly 10% complete. This ‘Park’ — an entire urban district until a few years ago, when it was re-purposed — is programmed to become a glstening science-fiction entity that would over-awe 70%+ of the world’s cities (with most of the remaining 30% being Chinese). We saw a truck plant and the local Coca-Cola operation — full of clattering robotic bottling machinery — and got to ask some questions about the bases of Xinjiang growth. The impression we got is that serving the wider Central Asian market is the cornerstone of everybody’s plans.
ADDED: Six hours on the road and — just to keep things moving forwards smoothly — a two hour visit to a baijiu factory in the middle (plus a lot of other stuff). Two bottles of sample (non-retail maximum strength) rocket fuel in my bag, and four hours sleep to cling onto. Beyond the lesson that Shariah isn’t exactly calling the shots in northern Xinjiang, analysis and reflection is going to be delayed.