The Museum of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, or Xinjiang Regional Museum as it is more commonly called in English, is located on Xibei Lu ("Northwest Road") in the heart of Urumqi, just northwest of the city's "twin parks", People's Park (Renmin Gongyuan) and Red Hill (Hongshan) Park. As an integrated museum, Xinjiang Regional Museum has a dual mission: to preserve, protect and display the historical relics that have either been found here or have a direct bearing on the area such as historical annals relating to the region; and to display the cultural heritage of the region, both current and past, as well as to foster and aid in further research into the prehistory, history and culture of the peoples who inhabit – and formerly inhabited – Xinjiang. These two missions are linked to the museum's two permanent exhibitions: the Xinjiang Historical Relics Exhibit and the Xinjiang Folklore Exhibit, with, in all, some 50,000 articles on display.
Xinjiang Regional Museum was originally established in 1953 as part of nearby People's Park, but was rebuilt and greatly enlarged at its current location in 1962. The current museum, which is built in a semi-modern style that incorporates elements of traditional architecture borrowed from the region's ethnic minorities, especially the ethnic Uyghurs, spans some 11,000 square meters. It is a very solid structure with a dome that stands 30 meters high and which offers one of the best, if not the best, views of the city of Urumqi.
Arguably, the highlight of the historical relics exhibit are the displays of the dessicated remains of the so-called Tarim Mummies of the Taklamakan Desert, the most famous example of which is the "Beauty of Loulan", a female with distinctly Caucasoid features who belongs to the ethnic group that apparently were the first late Stone Age (Neolithic Age), developed-culture humans to inhabit the area (lesser culturally developed Mesolithic-Neolithic hunter-gatherers lived in the area much earlier, evidenced by stone spearheads, or microliths, found here dating from the period BCE 8500-7700 – in fact, the museum's historical relics display includes the fossil of a human head that dates roughly from this same period), a fact that is all the more remarkable given that these late Stone Age people were not only not of "local" origin, i.e., not of Chinese or Turkic origin, but were Caucasians of European origin.
DNA tests conducted by independent (outside of China) laboratories indicate that these earliest Caucasian inhabitants of the Tarim Basin were of European origin as opposed to the later Caucasian "immigrants" to the Tarim Basin who were of Iranian origin (note that, like the English language, the language of the Iranians (Persians), farsi, belongs to the broad Indo-European language family). These earliest Caucasians, according to the DNA evidence, stem from two European sources: Eastern Europe and Southwestern Russia (to learn more about this highly unusual, and still poorly understood, ancient "west meets east" encounter, click here).
The Xinjiang Folklore Exhibit, as indicated, also includes displays related to Xinjiang's current ethnic minority groups, of which there are a dozen: Daur, Hui, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Manchu, Mongolian, Russian, Tajik, Tatar (the original homeland of the Tatars (alternatively, Tartars), a Turkic tribe, was the Gobi Desert, but they were driven out by the Khitans, another Turkic tribe, only to be driven from their second homeland in the Taklamakan Desert by yet another Turkic people, the Mongols, wherefter the Tatars spread to the four corners of the earth, some ending up in enclaves in Poland and Latvia, one of the descendants from the latter enclave being the famous Hollywood star, Charles Bronson... something good almost always eventually comes from something bad!), Uyghur, Uzbek and Xibo.
The displayed items include folk costumes (both everyday clothing as well as dress costumes), hunting and farming implements and various other tools, as well as sundry items that might make up the household of a typical villager in Xinjiang, including items related to religious practices, courtship and marriage, and the celebration of important festivals, the idea being to provide a glimpse into the life – both everyday life as well as festive occasions – of the various ethnic groups that are represented in Xinjiang.
The Xinjiang Historical Relics Exhibit includes: richly decorative silks and damasks, including Eastern Han (CE 25-220) Dynasty silk brocades and the much later, but even more exquisite, Tang Dynasty silks (the inhabitants of Xinjiang – going all the way back to the presumed Tocharians, or the earliest Caucasians to inhabit the area – had a long-established tradition for selling jade to China, in exchange for which they purchased, among other items, elaborate articles made of silk, though the silks from the Tang period could as well have been owned by Han Chinese administrators, or, for that matter, by Tibetan administrators during the period when the area was under Tibetan rule); several original paintings – some on silk, others on paper – by famous Tang Dynasty artists that depict typical Han Chinese social scenes, such as people dancing, women playing weiqi (go in Japanese, a board game which, like chess, requires a well-thought-out, unfolding strategy), children cavorting about, etc.; iron- and bronzewares; various examples of carpentry styles; terracotta tomb figures and figurines (Bactrian (two-humped) camels, plumply muscular Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty period horses, impressively fierce warriors, females in various postures, and a host of other figures, all evidence of a lively Silk Road trade throughout Xinjiang); weapons; pottery; coins and rubbings from ancient stone inscriptions as well as ancient manuscripts, not to forget the Tarim Mummies themselves.
Some of the silkwares on display at Xinjiang Regional Museum are unique, one-of-a-kind items, a few of them representing the earliest extant examples of a given weaving technique or pattern, due surely to the fact that the area was considered something of a political backwater and therefore received little attention of the kind that would have revealed the presence of such treasures until the modern period – yet another example of a silver lining, as it were. Other unique items on display at the museum include: stone stelae; woodcarvings; handicraft articles made of silver; ceramic items; silk ribbon; "books" written on bamboo; "haircloth" (usually horsehair) items such as blankets; felt articles; a number of dry foodstuffs that stem from the Tang Dynasty and which were preserved here thanks to the extremely arid climate; and a plethora of prehistoric fossils.
Of the manuscripts, many stem from the Han Dynasty period, after most of the "Western Regions" (i.e., parts of present-day Qinghai (and perhaps Tibet (Tibet Autonomous Region)), Xinjiang, Gansu, Inner Mongolia (Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region), "Outer" Mongolia and Ningxia (Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region)) came under Han Chinese rule, either directly or as vassal states. The manuscripts, most in Mandarin but some in the script of the local languages cover topics such as economic, political, military and cultural affairs. Many of these manuscripts were originally discovered in the city of Turpan, which was the seat of numerous lesser kingdoms, including the first Uyghur Kingdom to be established in China after the Uyghurs were driven out of their homelands farther northeast by Kazahk invaders (curiously, many of the traditional nomadic herdsmen who live in the steppe areas of this part of China are in fact ethnic Kazakhs).
Besides its two permanent exhibitions, Xinjiang Regional Museum stages special-focus exhibitions as well as traveling exhibitions. Two examples of the former are an exhibition of Buddhist frescoes from the Kizil Caves (or the "Kizil Cave of a Thousand Buddhas" near the village of the same name in Xinjiang's Baicheng County) and an exhibition that showcases the province's steppe, or grasslands, culture, while some examples of the latter include: the Primitive Societies of China Exhibition; the Sinkiang Mummies and Excavations Exhibition; the History of Xinjiang, From the Han to the Tang Dynasties Exhibition; and an exhibition that showcased the extensive collection of paintings that have accrued to the museum over time.
Xinjiang Regional Museum's many regional and national treasures are a testimony to the province's broad cultural diversity, to its ancient prehistory and to its subsequent glorious history as a thriving and indispensable part of China's ancient Silk Road culture. Since many of the ancient Silk Road cities are but ruins today, with most of their interesting artifacts removed for protection (for posterity), the only way to get a full picture of what these ancient cities were like during their heyday is to pay a visit to Xinjiang Regional Museum in Urumqi. Of course, visiting the ruins of these ancient cities is an interesting if not requisite undertaking for any Silk Road aficionado; it's just that such a trip should naturally include a lengthy visit to Xinjiang Regional Museum in order to complete the picture, as it were.