ON THE SILK ROAD: Tourists ride along the desert near the Tarim Basin on October 2, 2007. The unique scene in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region attracts visitors from home and abroad (WANG FEI)
China is always full of surprises. My foreign friends who come here discover things that shock and startle them, but they all agree that their wonder and respect for China never cease. The country has been a home to many cultures, languages, ethnic groups and ancient civilizations. Because Chinese culture is very old, new findings are always cropping up. For example, a few years ago, archeologists made a major discovery in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, located in China's far northwest. These digs show that China has not only been home to the Chinese people, but also the region seems to have been inhabited for some time by a type of ancient European as well.
When I first came to China in 2004, I lived in Xinjiang for almost a year, working as an English teacher. The romance and adventure associated with the Silk Road appealed to me more than the cosmopolitan cities and urban areas. In Xinjiang, winters were windy and cold but the people were warm and generous. Living in Hami, I felt somehow connected to the past; I studied the caravan routes and traced them on a map hung in my living room. The areas they crossed were and are inhospitable, to say the least: vast deserts and high mountain ranges. Silk Road travelers dared not enter the Tarim Basin region due to severe temperatures—cold and hot—and an appalling lack of water.
As I was engaged in my studies one morning, some friends from Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, stopped by and invited me on a field trip. They took me to Hami's museum to see two strange red headed mummies that had been found in the desert reaches of the Taklimakan Desert. Then we went by train to a large museum in Urumqi and saw more mummies and relics.
These mummies and their grave artifacts seem regularly to be popping up all around Xinjiang. A few years ago a herder around Urumqi found the arm of a mummy sticking out of the ground where he would graze his livestock. Interestingly, these remains, like the others, did not seem to be Chinese. The unearthed bodies all had reddish hair and long noses; they were large boned, like Europeans. The dry desert climate had kept them well preserved; some mummies had significant remnants of skin and clothing.
Chinese archaeologists started excavating more mummies from an extraordinary cemetery in the Tarim Basin, located inside and around the Taklimakan Desert. They call this graveyard Small River Cemetery No. 5. This site had been excavated in 1934 by the Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman. It was forgotten for many years until a Chinese expedition using GPS navigation relocated it. From 2003 to 2005, the scientists dug and made extraordinary finds.
The Tarim Basin is not hospitable, but thousands of years ago a sea had existed there. The area supported human life. Excavators found mummified bodies buried in upside-down boats made of wood and leather. Instead of tomb markers, archeologists discovered poles. They thought at first these were oars for the boats, but later decided that they were phallic symbols. This culture must have been intensely interested in fertility, as infant mortality must have been common.
Archeologists found 200 poles, each 13 feet tall; many had flat blades, painted black and red, like galley oars from an ancient boat. At the foot of each pole they found upside down boats and then the mummified bodies. Some still had remnants of their clothing, even hats with feathers—just like a Swiss alpinist! Some mummies wore wool capes and leather boots. These boats were graves; inside, next to the bodies the scientists found beautifully woven grass baskets and exquisitely carved masks. They even found bundles of ephedra, a Chinese herb still used as a medicine.
The Tarim River mummies are 3,980 years old. Their bodies are relatively intact, thanks to the lack of human traffic and the dry air. A team of Chinese geneticists analyzed the mummies' DNA. Scientists believe that these people were of mixed ancestry, having both European and some Siberian genetic markers, and probably came from outside China. Li Jin, a famous geneticist at Fudan University, reported that their DNA contained markers indicating an East Asian and even South Asian origin. Other geneticists concluded the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.
Boat burials were common among the Vikings. Were these people Northern Europeans on a long journey? No settlements have been found to indicate that they had actually settled in China. No one knows their language, although some speculate that it could have been Tokharian, an ancient Indo-European language.
In addition to delighting and surprising modern guests, China has also been hospitable to past visitors. Many different kinds of people have made homes here.
The author is an American living in Beijing