The Story of Chinaboss Chili

Dig site in the Tarim Basin

In the Tarim Basin in northwestern China, there is a large depression where Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman discovered Bronze Age mummies in 1934. These mummy findings stirred Chinese authorities into action at the turn of the millennium. I, too, had a reason to visit that place - just a bit before of the Chinese archaeologists.

The Beginning

In the early 1990s, waves of bankruptcies swept through Finland, and my own business had gone under as well. However, I had managed to save some money, and in the summer of '95, I went on a vacation to Sweden. I visited the traditional flea market in Södermalm, where, on a whim, I bought an old wooden chest filled with old papers. The chest contained important-looking documents that irresistibly drew me in.

At home, I carefully examined my purchase which turned out to be the legacy of the explorer and archaeologist Folke Bergman (1902-1946). The documents included, among other things, Folke Bergman's will as well as his narratives about the excavations in the Tarim Basin.

One piece of Folke Bergman's legacy was a map of the Tarim area drawn by himself, along with an old and cracked piece of parchment-like paper. This contained ancient Chinese writing, detailing a recipe for sauce. Folke had translated this into Swedish. After studying it for a while, I came to the conclusion that this investment would be worthwhile if I could find the missing part of the recipe.

There were other old papers in the chest as well, among them one where Folke recounted his journey to the Tarim Basin. In the writing, Folke lamented that he had buried a wooden box and forgotten half of the old parchment paper inside it. Being an adventurer by nature, it was clear that I wanted to find that missing piece.

In 1934, Folke Bergman, along with his Uighur guide Örderek, discovered an entire graveyard of mummies. Initially, the area was marked by a forest of hundreds of stakes pounded into the earth, serving as markers for the graves.

Folke referred to the mummies as “ancient western knights”. Later, Chinese researchers have indeed proven through DNA tests that the mummies date back to the Bronze Age and have European origins.

We still aren’t completely certain why the knights were buried thousands of kilometres away from their homeland. However, it's certain that I was led on this exciting journey by the half of the recipe I acquired.

The Journey to Tarim Basin Begins

I began my journey to the Tarim Basin in early 1997. The trip to the Xinjiang region was challenging, as the closely monitored Uighur people lived there. Nowadays, it's difficult for westerners to access the area without strict scrutiny.

However, western political pressure on the issue was not very significant yet in 1997, so, to my fortune, I managed to sneak from Beijing to Ürümqi quite easily. My flight went smoothly, and I had booked accommodation in the city centre at Urumqi's oldest operating hotel, The Aksaray.

The hotel was my base of operations, and my plan was to visit several of the city's traditional tourist destinations and food markets during the first few days. This ensured that the authorities' interest in me would be as minimal as possible.

After spending five days at The Aksaray, I proceeded as planned and contacted a local photographer, Mr. Huan. Mr. Huan was a landscape photographer, and the Tarim Basin area was familiar territory to him. Huan had trained as a pilot at The British Aviation Academy and spoke excellent English, which facilitated our collaboration considerably.

I arranged to meet Huan the previous evening before setting out in the morning, with the intention of going through the travel plans in detail.

Mr Huan’s Cessna and the Tarim sky

The morning of our departure was foggy, and Huan was somewhat sceptical about the weather. After the Cessna 152 light aircraft had been refuelled and inspected, Mr. Huan skilfully steered us into the high skies. The flight to Tarim would cover nearly 2,000 kilometres.

First, we flew to Aksu City, where we made a refuelling stop. After that, the journey continued to Maralbexi, where we would be staying. The trip to the Tarim Basin would begin the very next morning.

The Questioning and the Suspicions of the Officials Made My Heart Race

As we were about to depart for the Tarim excavations in Maralbexi's small airfield in the morning, we encountered our first official inquiries. We were directed to an old, run-down building that seemed to serve as the area's airport. In a stuffy and gloomy, yet distinctly Chinese, room, two presumably local officials began Mr. Huan's interrogation.

I noticed that I was frequently pointed at. After an hour of intense questioning, the men gave up and left the room briefly. Soon, the smaller of the two men returned and said to me in broken English: “You can fly now.” We quickly boarded the plane without further questions.

The flight weather was favourable. I had packed drinks, food, and warm clothing. The stark yet beautiful Tarim Basin unfolded beneath us, and Mr. Huan diligently captured it with the camera mounted under the aircraft.

At the same time, he narrated the history of the Tarim area. Huan had flown several archaeologists to the Tarim region in recent years. These visits were brief as the authorities no longer granted excavation permits to outsiders.

The Tarim Basin is a mysterious area. Our understanding of its history is still incomplete. The lush Tien Shan mountain range rises beyond the basin, but the Tarim depression itself is nothing but a sandy desert. In this desert, Folke Bergman discovered the famous "Tarim mummies", estimated to be around 2,000 years old. Artifacts such as pottery, food, and other remnants of the era have also been found in the area. These "remnants" had brought me, too, here now.

The Excavations in Tarim Basin and the Historic Discovery

We disembarked from the plane and made our way towards the excavations. After a short walk, we reached the dig site where Folke had made his discovery. I immediately got to work. I dug out an old map from my backpack and positioned it in what I took to be the correct orientation in relation to the excavation. The contours of the land and Folke's markings on the hand-drawn map seemed to match.

I grabbed a small steel shovel and began to dig. After an hour of work, it was time to take a break. I noticed that Mr. Huan had decided to take a nap under the protective fabric he had set up.

I took a sip of water, bit into a piece of jerky, and took out Folke's map again. I realised I was on the wrong side of the excavation site. I took about 30 steps south and double-checked my position. I couldn't have been wrong. I noticed that the stones Folke had left as markers were still in place. “Unbelievable!” I thought.

I continued digging, and before long, the shovel hit something. I continued digging by hand and with a small planting trowel. There it was: an old wooden box that had been buried in the earth for ages!

The box was red, or at least it had been. The inscriptions on the lid and sides were in an ancient language that I couldn't decipher. I took a photo of the box with my camera and carefully opened the lid. The box appeared to be empty, but following Folke's instructions, I knew it had a false bottom. I took a knife and gently lifted the bottom of the box, revealing a dark, fragile-looking piece of paper.

Folke's story was true! I carefully placed the piece of paper into a small plastic pouch and put the wooden box back into the pit. I covered my tracks meticulously because nothing should be taken from the excavation site.

I returned to Mr. Huan just as he was waking up. “Ready, Mr. Saimen?” he asked. “Ready,” I nodded. Mr. Huan had a crafty plan for our flight back: we would not return to Maralbex but head straight to Aksu City.

As we touched down at Aksu's small airfield, the fuel indicator light started flashing. Huan wiped sweat from his forehead, and we both burst into laughter

The Return to the Hotel

I returned to Hotel Aksaray in the early hours of the morning. I wondered if I had caused any trouble for Mr. Huan. Mr. Huan was unaware of the true reason for my trip to the Tamir Basin excavations. I had claimed to be a distant relative of the archaeologist Folke Bergman. My intention was to fulfil Folke's final wish as stated in his will. Folke had commissioned a memorial plaque which he had hoped would be installed at the Tamir Basin excavations.

And I had done so! I had had a metal plaque prepared in Finland, bearing the inscription: “Folke Bergman found what he was looking for here.” I screwed the plaque onto a wooden cross, which I planted in the spot where I had buried the wooden box. The plaque still stands there today at the Tamir Basin excavation site. The hotel porter didn't pay any particular attention to me as I entered the lobby of Hotel Aksaray. After all, I had only been gone for a couple of days. I headed straight to bed and fell asleep immediately.

The next morning, I went to the reception to inquire about trivial matters. Then I went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. While waiting for the food, I looked at the chili jar on the table and smiled.

The Journey Back Home Started Off More Precariously than Anticipated

After lunch, I took a taxi to the airport and headed to the China Airways counter. I explained that I wanted to switch to an earlier flight. The attendant inquired if I didn't enjoy Ürümqi. I used the excuse of a personal family issue. The young and pleasant attendant apologised and provided me with evening flight tickets to Beijing.

Upon returning to the hotel to retrieve my belongings, I walked to the reception and requested the final bill. The usually bored receptionist seemed tense now, as if someone was observing him. I settled the bill and briskly made my way to my room.

When I opened the door, I noticed that the room had been turned upside down. I realised then that I had been exposed. “But how was it possible!” I wondered. I carefully went through my belongings. Nothing was missing as far as I could tell. My passport, money, and the treasured possession had been with me the whole time.

I quickly left the room and pretended to be unaware of what had happened in the hotel lobby. I asked the receptionist how to get to Tianshan Lake for fishing. The receptionist looked at me angrily and snapped that they didn't know. “Ask somewhere else,” he said, gesturing towards the street outside. I thanked him and headed for the nearest available taxi. To the airport, please!

At the airport, I was anxious. I felt like a criminal. Even though Folke had left a part of his discovery in the ground in 1934, it didn't justify me digging up “the missing part”. But what's done is done. There was no turning back now.

To Beijing with Trembling Hands

The fragile old piece of parchment was in my wallet. I had cleverly tucked it behind an icon picture of the Christ, as if it were part of the back of a photo paper. Now, my only concern was whether I could leave Beijing for Finland safely or if I would be apprehended for the theft of the “ancient relic”.

My flight to Beijing appeared on the board. I walked to the gate as the flight attendants checked the passengers’ tickets. I tried to play it as cool as I could. When it was my turn, the flight attendant glanced at me and then at my passport. “Just a moment,” she said and glanced at two men standing to the side.

There they were. The same “officials” who were at the Tumxuk Airport! “Laurel and Hardy,” I chuckled to myself. The shorter man approached me and said they wanted to talk to me.

They pulled me aside from the other passengers and inquired about the purpose of my trip. I told them the story I had devised beforehand. I mentioned the plaque I took to the excavations and emphasised that I knew nothing about archaeology. The tall official took notes of what I said and remained mostly silent. “Laurel” asked the questions.

After a while, I was allowed to board the plane. I felt relieved, but I doubted whether I was still in the clear. Ahead of me was a long flight to Beijing and then the return flight to Helsinki only a couple of days later

Nearly There

My flight went better than expected. Upon arriving in Beijing, I went straight to a two-star hotel. As usual, bedbugs skittered on the ceiling and floors, the bed was as hard as a rock, and the receptionist was suitably brusque. In other words, everything seemed to be in order.

My return flight was still two days away. I decided not to try to switch to an earlier flight. Two days of sightseeing, and then to the airport to wait for the Finnair flight. As I waited at Beijing Airport on the day of departure, the word “delayed” appeared on the display next to the Finnair flight. I couldn’t keep my nerves in check. It wasn't until two hours later that the plane was ready for departure. The airport official stamped my boarding pass and wished me a good journey. I still couldn't relax. The boarding process seemed unusually long to me.

Finally, the plane started to taxi towards the runway. When the Finnair DC-10 plane took off, I finally began to relax and chuckled to myself. I had blueberry juice and slept the entire flight.

Even after all these years, it still feels as if my journey to the Tarim Basin happened yesterday. The trip is so vivid in my memory. This is because I still continue to work with the old recipe I found every day. I make and sell this fantastic product, which I have named “Chinaboss Chili”.

And I believe Folke would be quite satisfied with my journey and its fruit.