"The Chinese complain, and the foreigner cannot well deny it," writes Sir Eric Teichman in his Journey to Turkestan that, "caravan-loads of priceless treasures from the temples, tombs and ruins of Chinese Turkestan have been carried off to foreign museums and are forever lost to China." Indeed, China still burns with rage about the loss of so many of its important antiquities in what was really a by-product of the 19th century Great Game.
You remember the Great Game: the British, in their colony in India saw the 2000 miles that existed between the end of their empire and the start of Russia as up for grabs. Sure it was a no-man land of burning deserts and towering, impossibly high mountains, but they weren't picky-- for to them, it was strategically tempting to start aggressively moving north from their northernmost bases in Kashmir and Ladakh. The Russians-- seeing the British encroachments into Central Asia as an obvious threat, began their own encroachments-- south.
With more and more eyes focused on this huge no-man's land, scholars, art-historians and adventurers also turned their attention to Central Asia in a manner which can only be described as extremely competitive. These scholars and adventurers came, discovered and hauled back vast amounts of loot-- which are, in fact, national treasures that probably really should belong to the places where they were found.
Those doing the looting, in their own defense said, "we were saving them from being destroyed" (isn't that what the US army said when it destroyed a village in Vietnam? Something like, they were destroying the village to save it from the Vietcong?) Not to mention that most of the treasures had been preserved for 2000 years just fine before the Europeans got there...!
But, it is true, many, many treasures have been destroyed by iconoclast Muslims (just think of modern day Bamiyan). The ancient Muslims, while they didn't use dynamite, did hack off heads or deface sculpture which they considered an affront to their religion. Still, the Chinese would counter that more art was destroyed-- forever lost to history-- during one night of bombing during WWII than all the Muslims and Chinese tomb raiders in history. That is, when all the "removed" Central Asian art housed in Berlin was wiped out during a nighttime of Allied bombing. Another huge collection of masterpieces also went missing during WWII when Count Otani's looted artifacts disappeared, and Japanese scholars still cannot trace what happened to the collection.
You get the picture-- there were Russians, British, Swedes, Americans, Japanese and French scholars and adventurers who were combing Central Asia for new discoveries in a rivalry that made Egyptian artifact-hunting look friendly. While the Chinese have their problems with them for a myriad other reasons, in this story, the Russians end up looking pretty good.
Our main antagonists, according to Hopkirk (whose book you will remember I am presently re-reading) were (in order of infamy I presume): Sven Hedin of Sweden, Sir Aurel Stein of Britain, Albert von Le Coc of Germany, Paul Pelliot of France, Langdon Warner of the US and the mysterious Count Otani of Japan. (Hedin and Stein are superstars, Pelliot is of the famous museum in Paris, and Warner was the model for-- who else?-- Indiana Jones).
More on the characters, though, later.... as I want to talk about the setting.
I like to call it the desert of death. Have you ever heard anyone say anything good about the Taklamakan? The name itself comes from the Uighur language meaning, "if you go in, you won't come out," and that is just what people have been saying for 2000 years. That while water and food is truly abundant by comparison in the deserts of Arabia or even in the Gobi, in Taklamakan there is nothing. No water and no life.
And, don't forget the infamous sandstorms of the Taklamakan, which are so severe that they have been known to wipe out, not just entire camel caravans of hundreds of people and animals, but of entire cities as well. It's not just the east-west blowing wind either, but being right smack in the center of the continent, not far from Siberia, the extreme cold temperatures truly make this one of the most hazardous places on earth.
No matter how many pictures you see if the desert, you can only think one thing: "this is the kind of place a country dumps its toxic stuff." And, surprise, surprise, this is where China tests its nuclear bombs and long-range missiles (and I have heard some right out in the open.) Sounds like Nevada? Well, yes. The Taklamakan desert is a complete wasteland. However, below the surface (again, surprise surprise) are vast fields of oil and natural gas.
In order to transport this petrol from the new petrol fields back to civilization, China has recently built a huge highway down the length of the Taklamakan! Not only that, but to keep the infamous blowing sands of the desert from covering up the highway (which probably would have happened even before the highway was completed) they had to plant a huge corridor of trees and shrubs-- called the greenbelt-- along the entire stretch of the highway. That, of course, meant that they had to also construct a vast irrigation system to keep the trees alive! Unfortunately this highway was built after our NHK team passed through, but then again it also cuts north to south so wouldn't have been much use to our team anyhow-- as they were headed due West (toward Persia and Rome).
Back on the road with NHK
After their jaunt to Kharakoto, the NHK team had returned back the way they had already traveled-- back to Dunhuang, and from there, they had started traveling west again. After leaving the Jade Gate Pass, they enter the desert proper-- and even after all my reading, still the images of the desert actually stun me. As I watch the desert unfold before my eyes on my television, I recall how the ancient Chinese monk described it. They had, there is nothing soaring above and nothing moving on land below. That is, it is a wasteland.
Our team is now traveling in a caravan of 9 jeeps. It is 18 days of roughing it. Sleeping in canvas People's Liberation Army tents, the winds rips the army tents right off from the stakes. The main reporter-- still in his hat-- says it was 18 days of not brushing their teeth or washing their faces (presumably because there wasn't any water). To be sure, all the men are covered in a layer of white sand-- sand, which their jeeps continually get stuck in. That is on the days when they aren't passing through rocks so jagged they rip open the tires on the jeeps. Watching, all I can think is: If I ever finally get to Western China, I think I will skip the Taklamakan.
Soldiers from the Chinese People's Liberation Army had joined the team for this part of leg and had to generate signals in Morris Code to some Chinese Army Post every night. China was already testing its missiles at that time, so I am assuming this is why. Even today, my guidebook tells me that to visit the region, you will need to get the permission and be escorted by someone from the army. I think the entire area is full of gulags, nuclear waste and other toxic waste. I personally wouldn't go near the place, but our team had a mission: they were trying to locate the famed Lop Nor Lake-- which is another mystery. You always see it on the map-- a huge lake some 10 times the size of Lake Biwa, and yet-- I don't think it really exists anymore.
Of course, the Taklamakan swallows up and devours all the rivers running into it.
Surrounded on three side by the tallest mountains on earth-- just arriving at the desert of doom was incredibly perilous in itself. Can you imagine those ancient travelers had hiked over the Heavenly Mountains, or the Karakorum Mountains or the Kunlun Mountains-- which are the highest mountains on earth. But that was the easy part-- it was skirting the desert that posed the problem.
The mountains, of course, are part of the story (aren't they always?) For the mountains had huge glaciers which fed the deserts with snow runoff that generated several large rivers. Along these rivers were the famed oases of the desert (which I call the Pearls of the Takmalakan).
In fact, 2000 years ago, the rivers were large and numerous an these rivers gave life to a string of great Kingdoms, which flourished along the rivers. However, with climate change, the glaciers have shrunk and the desert basically took back everything into its deathly gripe. Now, there is nothing but sand. But buried beneath these sands are Lost Cities-- many full of treasure (well, by treasure I mean relics of staggering historical worth).
So, there you have it. The Great Race for antiquities.
The Lop Nor Lake was a huge inland salty lake, and located along its shores was the legendary Oasis Kingdom of Loulan.
The man who discovered the ruins of Loulan in 1899 was a certain Swede named Sven Hedin. Like the NHK team, Hedin had actually set out to find out how and why the waters of the Lop Nor kept shifting. It seems that most brilliant men have extreme characters, and Hedin was no different. He was accused of being Pro-Nazi. He was also a genius. Fluent in seven languages, he went about to uncover buried cities in the most hazardous desert on earth as sort of a side-line to his main job: the making of accurate maps. His maps are so accurate that satellite photographs have only just shown how precisely on target they really were. All made when he was still in his twenties too.
Isn't this the stuff of Indiana Jones:
"Over there, on the verge of the horizon, were the noble, rounded forms of sand-dunes which I never grew tired of watching... Beyond them, amid the grave-like silence, stretched the unknown...the land that I was going to be the first to dread."
This romantic vision is the midst of seeing one of his men lose BOTH feet to frostbite in the desert can be the only way to explain what made men like Sven Hedin keep going. But keep going he did. In what is another priceless image, he had a wooden boat built and sailed through the desert along the Keriya (Tarim?) River-- as far as the river would take him. From there, he traveled further east (yes east again) to the very edge of the desert on foot.
And there, he stumbled on the wooden carvings that so distinguish the Lost City of Loulan. A myriad of minutiae from daily life in Loulan was uncovered, first by Hedin and then by Stein-- who after uncovering a trash heap which would give all kinds of clues to what life in the ancient city was like, then carted vast quantities back with him to Britain. In what was a 2000 year old town, they found houses, government offices, post offices (!) and gardens, which had once been full of apricot, apple and poplar trees. Oh, and of course, pagodas and temples-- for this too had been a thriving Buddhist civilization.
Beautifully colored felt carpets and cartloads of documents-- written on small wooden planks or on leather were uncovered, as well as silk and glass. There were textiles with ancient Greek patterns and coins from northern India. How was it that this once prosperous and cosmopolitan trading town got swallowed up by shifting sands? The Chinese call Loulan the Vesuvius of the East...
Since we know the changing environment most probably was what caused its ruin, it gives pause, doesn't it? A researcher in China, who has devoted her entire life to Loulan studies, remarked that, "All the research achievements of Loulan have touched the inner fears of modern people, because it was the common aspiration of mankind to avoid a recurrence of the Loulan tragedy." Yes, we are talking about the environment.
People, when they talk about Loulan, don't talk as much about its ruin as about its glories. In fact, most people mainly talk about two things: the wooden carvings (which decorated homes and offices in what is quite reminiscent of what can be seen in Nepal)-- and the mummies.
Yes, mummies-- well not really, but that is what they are called. Most people are probably aware that very, very ancient mummies of Caucasians have been found in Western China. It is hard to track down all the facts since the Chinese didn't really advertise that they had found Caucasians mummies in Western China. An American scholar stumbled upon them in the famous museum in Urumqi and with that, the secret was out.
These mummies, first of all are not really mummies-- but get ready for this: many are over a 1000 years older than those in Egypt. The Takmalakan Desert is located in the great Tarim basin which is one of the lowest places on earth. Extremely dry and extremely salty, the bodies were basically preserved in the dry saline of the sand. They are phenomenal (and I will devote an entire post to them later) but they are most famous for their textiles . Not only are the colors and textures pristine but it was these textiles which first placed these people as Caucasians.
When the NHK team pulled the mummy of a perfectly preserved woman out of the ground (you could see her eyelashes!), She was dressed in colorful robes and had a felt hat on. Buried beside her was a beautifully woven basket with barley grains inside, and she was lovingly draped in a camel skin blanket-- to keep warm. The team said, "she must have been a queen or an aristocratic lady." Even at almost 4000 years old, she was beautiful.
Here is an artist rendition of what she might have looked like-- our beauty of Loulan. Many of the mummies had blue eyes and blonde or red hair. It is their clothes, however, that attracts the most attention, for they are woolens like you don't see anywhere but in Europe: we are talking of stripped leggings in 1960s colors and very tailored looking pants, with conical felt hats and capes. The "beauty of Loulan," such was her fate that she has been held up a banner for everything from the Uighur separatist movement to modern Aryan-type movements in Germany. She is most likely of Russian or Ukrainian stock-- though the American scholar who found the first mummy in the museum in Urumqi believes them to hail further west yet-- in Germany or Austria.
Poking around on the Internet last night for interesting information on the Tarim mummies, I became increasingly disappointed at the racial slant. To me, I would have been equally fascinated if they had been Japanese or Africa for, like Hattori, what is fascinating truly is all the connections and interactions that happened between humans at what was a remarkably early period of history.
This is an interesting read from a Japanese Silk Road project site.