My journey on the Karakoram highway, described in previous posts, ends in Kashgar and on the edge of the great Taklamakan desert. Crossing this vast expanse of dead, sandy nothingness was a nightmare for earlier travellers along the Silk Roads. The origins of the name is unclear, it may mean “To abandon”, or “Place of no return”, while some say it may derive from Turkish “taqlar makan” or “Place of ruins”, which made a lot of sense to early 20th century explorers and archaeologists here.
The Taklamakan is the world’s second largest sand desert, 1 000 km long and 400 km wide. Historically, two Silk Road routes ran along its edges to the north and to the south. They both started at the Jade gate in the Great wall of China at present Dunhuang to the east, which was for most of history also the western rim of Chinese empires. Along these routes were series of petty city states and then the two Silk Road branches met again in Kashgar to the west.
Xuanzang, the famous Chinese traveller, went on the northern Silk Road route in AD 629, describing the oasis kingdoms of Turpan, Karasahr and Kucha. He visited Kashgar on his way back and wrote about the whole thing in a remarkable travel book. His book is the basis for the much later Ming dynasty novel Journey to the west, published in 1592 and a classic of Chinese literature.
Marco Polo went on the southern route in the 1270s, passing the oasis kingdoms of Yarkant, Khotan and Lop. Among other things he noted the production of jade in Khotan, where the most precious white jade was collected and caravanned east to China proper.
The histories and legends of the Taklamakan are endlessly rich. One of the most significant periods here were the hey days of desert exploration and archaeology which all started with Swedish explorer Sven Hedin.
This was the time of the Great Game of empires competing for control of Central Asia but the Taklamakan area was unexplored, its history little known, which soon attracted men like Hedin, who was the first to explore the desert ruins archaeologically. Arriving in Kashgar in 1894 he set out on an expedition trying to cross a part of the desert, which ended in disaster. After resting he set out again in 1896 and investigated two ruined cities to the north of Khotan with spectacular results, finding ancient buildings, wall-paintings and manuscripts. Most importantly, he wrote a bestselling book about it, Through Asia (1898), speaking about “a Pompeii of the desert”.
This alerted explorers, archaeologists and collecting European museums and the race was on to explore the ruins of the Taklamakan. Orientalist and archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein was soon around, excavating cities sponsored by the British Museum. Albert Grünwedel and Albert von le Coq of the great ethnological museum in Berlin made large excavations of Turpan to the north of the desert, stunning emperor Wilhelm II. Sven Hedin was also back a few times, most famously investigating a place called Loulan and all this went on until the 1930s, filling up museum collections in the West.
Reading their reports today, their motives and methods seem steadily more questionable in the light of new understandings of the age of colonialism and debates on repatriation.
The finds from the Taklamakan ruins of Khotan, Turpan and Loulan are still to be seen in museums in London, Berlin and Stockholm, exciting new generations, while names such as Stein, Hedin and von le Coq perish like echoes in the desert wind.