Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

China: The Tour That Keeps On Giving

A headline in the November 18, 2008 New York Times caught my attention: "The Dead Tell A Tale China Doesn't Care to Listen To." Depicted was a mummy known as the "Loulan Beauty" on display at a museum in Urumqi, China. I had seen mummies such as this years ago, and I suspected that the article might reference the work of our past Study Leader.

On September 22, 1988, our group of intrepid Smithsonian travelers were on a tour tracing the ancient Silk Road through the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (then part of the USSR) and across China from west to east. We were deeply enthralled with the legends and lore of the Silk Road when we reached Urumqi in China's western-most province.

The roads leading west of Urumqui pass through Kazakistan, part of the Ancient Silk Road. Photo: Flickr user Robert Thomson.

The roads leading west of Urumqi pass through Kazakhstan, part of the Ancient Silk Road. Photo: Flickr user Robert Thomson.

I was the tour manager for the group, and my notes remind me that I used some of my funds to pay for my group's entrance into the "special exhibition" at the museum. If my memory serves we saw the Loulan Beauty among the few mummies displayed in a dark, unadorned back room. Preserved by the relentless dry of the desert sand, these small, somewhat shriveled bodies lay in glass cases with skin and hair remarkably intact.

But as impressed as we all were, it was our Study Leader Victor Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, who was the most affected. We knew he was enthralled, but we didn't know that these Tarim-basin mummies would become the subject of his scholarly research for years to come. As the Times article states, "Mr. Mair first spotted one of the mummies, a red-haired corpse called Cherchen Man, in the back room of a museum in Urumqi while leading a tour of Americans there in 1988, the first year the mummies were put on display." That would be us! Victor had lectured to us on the movement of peoples throughout history, and to him the features of these mummies, perhaps the earliest settlers of the region, indicated that they may have come from afar. The article continues: "Since then, he says that he has been obsessed with pinpointing the origins of the mummies...” and “has assembled various groups of scholars to do research."

This isn't the first article I've seen about Professor Mair's research with these mummies, and it probably won't be the last. Every trip heightens awareness, making subjects in the news and in our reading more relevant and memorable. This is just one very exciting example!

How have your past travels changed the way you look at the world? Share below.

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