The most famous of them, the Beauty of Loulan, was unearthed in 1980 by Chinese archaeologists who were working with a television crew on a film about the Silk Road near Lop Nur, a dried salt lake 120 miles from Urumqi that has been used by the Chinese for nuclear testing.
Thanks to the extreme dryness and the preservative properties of salt, the corpse was remarkably intact — her eyelashes, the fine hair on her skin, even the lines on her skin were visible. She was buried face up about 3 feet under, wrapped in a simple woolen cloth and dressed in a goatskin, a felt hat and leather shoes.
But what was most remarkable about the corpse — believed to date to about 1,800 BC — was that she appeared to be Caucasian, with her telltale large nose, narrow jaw and reddish-brown hair.
The discovery turned on its head assumptions that Caucasians didn’t frequent these parts until at least a thousand years later, when trading between Europe and Asia began along the Silk Road. And it added another bone of contention to the raging ethnic conflict in Xinjiang, where Uighurs, a Turkic speaking people, consider themselves to be the indigenous population and the Han Chinese foreign invaders from the east. Since Uighurs themselves often resemble Europeans rather than Chinese, many were quick to adopt the Beauty of Loulan as one of their own.