RID­DLE OF THE SANDS

The dis­cov­ery of an an­cient van­ished civ­i­liza­tion on the far reaches of China’s Silk Road raises as many ques­tions as it an­swers

The World of Chinese - - Cover Story -

T “here is a beauty in the North, match­less and un­matched; one glance from her felled a city, an­other glance felled a king­dom” goes “The Beauty Song,” a fa­mous Han dy­nasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) bal­lad com­posed by court mu­si­cian Li Yan­nian in the se­cond cen­tury BCE.

Li, though, seemed to have got­ten his lo­ca­tion wrong. It was in China’s re­mote west that, in 1900, the ru­ins of a king­dom were dis­cov­ered by Swedish ex­plorer Sven Hedin in the desert—com­plete with Han-era ar­ti­facts, all the signs of a sud­den col­lapse, and even a fa­mous “beauty.”

As Hedin writes in his mem­oir, My Life as an Ex­plorer, the dis­cov­ery was a to­tal ac­ci­dent. Since the 19th cen­tury, ex­plor­ers had been trav­el­ing to present-day Xin­jiang, in search of an im­mense for­mer salt lake de­scribed in Chi­nese his­tor­i­cal records, and a lake­side Silk Road trad­ing post called Loulan (楼兰). When Hedin’s Uyghur guide, Oerdek, loses his way while search­ing for a shovel, he stum­bles upon ev­i­dence of buried dwellings and a for­mer stupa (Bud­dhist shrine). “No ex­plorer had an inkling, hith­erto, of the ex­is­tence of this an­cient city,” Hedin re­called. “Here I stand, like the prince in the en­chanted wood, hav­ing wak­ened to new life of the city which has slum­bered for a thou­sand years.”

After a se­cond ex­ca­va­tion in 1901, Hedin an­nounced his dis­cov­ery to the world as the lost Loulan, a king­dom first men­tioned in the Han Records of the Grand His­to­rian. Known as Kröran, or Kro­raina, in the Kharosthi script of this re­gion, Loulan was de­scribed as one of the states con­quered by the Han’s arch­neme­sis, the Xiongnu, in 126 BCE. It wasn’t long be­fore the cen­tral em­pire de­cided to seize the oa­sis king­dom for them­selves: Loulan had a prime lo­ca­tion at the junc­tion of the Silk Road’s north­ern and south­ern routes, and a third road that led straight to the Han cap­i­tal at Chang’an.

For the next 30 years, the Han and Xiongnu strug­gled over con­trol of Loulan, be­fore it fi­nally be­came a vas­sal state of the for­mer, known as the Shan­shan, though it re­tained de facto in­de­pen­dence for most of the cen­tury af­ter­wards. Ac­cord­ing to the Book of Han, the king­dom was lo­cated in an oa­sis by the lake, Lop Nor (“Vast Lake”), and “pro­duces jade, with an abun­dance of reeds, rose wil­low, poplars, and white grass. Res­i­dents raise live­stock and for­age aquatic plants. There are don­keys, horses, and many camels.” These Ar­ca­dian vi­sions came to an end in the sixth cen­tury CE, when Loulan to­tally van­ished from the record. Bud­dhist pil­grim Xuan­zang, re­turn­ing from In­dia via this re­gion in 644, saw only an eerie ruin: “A fortress ex­ists, but not a trace of Man.”

Such are the bare facts of the story. Al­most noth­ing is known, though, about the ac­tual peo­ple who in­hab­ited this king­dom, where they came from, and why they van­ished so quickly and ut­terly.

Loulan is as des­o­late to­day as when Xuan­zang found its re­mains. Vis­i­tors are not al­lowed at the ru­ins; re­searchers who ob­tain spe­cial per­mis­sion to go must drive 250 kilo­me­ters from Ruo­qiang, the near­est county seat, to Lop Nor, and then go off-road into to­tal desert. In mod­ern times, the lonely lo­ca­tion has be­come the set­ting of many un­canny tales. China used to test nu­clear weapons at the spot, and the basin per­fectly re­sem­bles a hu­man ear in satel­lite im­ages. The area has also be­come no­to­ri­ous for strange

AL­MOST NOTH­ING IS KNOWN ABOUT THE AC­TUAL PEO­PLE WHO IN­HAB­ITED THIS KING­DOM, WHERE THEY CAME FROM, AND WHY THEY VAN­ISHED SO QUICKLY AND UT­TERLY

dis­ap­pear­ances: It is the last known lo­ca­tion of, among other things: two buses; an air­craft that van­ished en route from Chongqing to Urumqi in 1949 (it was dis­cov­ered, nearly a decade later, al­most 180 de­grees off its charted course); a PLA of­fi­cer, whose re­mains were even­tu­ally found 100 kilo­me­ters away; and Peng Ji­amu, a se­nior Chi­nese Academy of Sciences re­searcher who went look­ing for wa­ter dur­ing an ex­pe­di­tion in 1980 and was never seen again.

The desert has slowly given up some of its se­crets over the years, though of­ten these clues raise more ques­tions than they an­swer. Hedin, like his col­league and suc­ces­sor Aurel Stein, re­ported com­ing across the oc­ca­sional des­ic­cated body in the dunes dur­ing his vis­its. Over 200 of these so­called “Tarim mum­mies” have since been un­earthed, dat­ing from the Bronze Age to 200 BCE. The old­est, nick­named the “Beauty of Loulan,” was dis­cov­ered by a team of Xin­jiang ar­chae­ol­o­gists in 1979, and is be­lieved to have been a woman in her 40s who lived some­time around 1800 BCE.

As­ton­ish­ingly, this beauty and many of her fel­lows bore typ­i­cally Cau­casian fea­tures—deeply-set eyes, chis­eled faces, tall noses, and hair that ranged from blond to red to rus­set, their col­ors im­pec­ca­bly pre­served by the sand. This ac­cords with a leg­end in the Book of Jin, which stated that, in 326, the king of Shan­shan ended a war against Zhang Jun, the war­lord of Dun­huang, by of­fer­ing Zhang a golden-haired, blue-eyed “Loulan beauty.”

These dis­cov­er­ies sent arche­o­log­i­cal in­ter­est into over­drive; re­searchers from around the world, and across dis­ci­plines, came to have a crack at the mys­tery. The ear­li­est ex­pe­di­tion led by Vic­tor Mair sug­gested that these Bronze Age in­hab­i­tants were a sub­group of Indo-euro­peans of the (now ex­tinct) Tochar­ian lan­guage branch, later joined by other Cau­casians from the Eastern Mediter­ranean. Other stud­ies us­ing cran­iom­e­try, tex­tile com­par­isons, and DNA have sug­gested con­nec­tions be­tween the early or later set­tlers of the re­gion with the Celts, Aus­tria, or non-euro­pean civ­i­liza­tions of the In­dus and Oxus river val­leys.

What’s also still de­bated is whether these early peo­ple were mi­grants from west of the Cen­tral Asian steppes—or if Cau­casians were, in fact, the indige­nous peo­ple of this cor­ner of Asia, an ex­pla­na­tion which would surely add more fuel to the sep­a­ratist move­ments brew­ing in the re­gion to­day.

In 2015, re­searchers from Jilin Univer­sity ten­ta­tively of­fered the most neu­tral (if least ex­cit­ing) an­swer to this po­lit­i­cally charged mys­tery: Ac­cord­ing to phys­i­cal and DNA ev­i­dence, Loulan’s ear­li­est in­hab­i­tants were Western Euro­peans from var­i­ous points of ori­gin, who later showed signs of in­ter­mix­ing with Asi­atic pop­u­la­tions from Siberia and Mon­go­lia. It seems, the Belt and

WHAT’S ALSO STILL DE­BATED IS WHETHER THESE EARLY CAU­CASIAN PEO­PLE WERE MI­GRANTS FROM WEST OF THE CEN­TRAL ASIAN STEPPES—OR IN FACT, THE INDIGE­NOUS PEO­PLE OF THIS COR­NER OF ASIA

Road Ini­tia­tive pos­si­bly had ori­gins sev­eral mil­len­nia older than any­one had imag­ined.

It’s hard to pic­ture what Hedin, wan­der­ing in the desert over a cen­tury ago, would have made of all the squab­bles. Claim­ing to be “no ar­chae­ol­o­gist,” he left the ques­tion to the ex­perts and oc­cu­pied him­self with Loulan’s other great mys­tery—its dis­ap­pear­ance. Tang dy­nasty (618 – 907) records stated that the city was fre­quently in­vaded by no­madic peo­ples and was re­lo­cated east to Qu­mul (Hami) in 630, where most of the silk trade had al­ready been rerouted. Other the­o­ries posit ir­ri­ga­tion fail­ures, plague, or a cricket pesti­lence. None of these, though, ex­plained why the lake, Lop Nor, had also van­ished—an event which Hedin be­lieved to be con­nected to Loulan’s de­cline and fall, as “the last drops of wa­ter dis­ap­peared after their hope­less strug­gle with the dunes.”

Widely ridiculed for his the­ory, which would re­quire the Tarim River to al­most com­pletely re­verse its course, Hedin was sud­denly vin­di­cated in 1921 when the Tarim changed course again, reverting to its orig­i­nal riverbed be­fore ex­plor­ers’ in­cred­u­lous eyes. Re­vis­it­ing the desert in 1936, Hedin took a joy­ful ca­noe trip to the re­stored Lop Nor, pad­dling down the same path he had tra­versed by camel 36 years ago.

In his mem­oir, Hedin de­scribed the en­chant­ments of this “wan­der­ing lake”: “I felt my­self in fairy­land out on the wa­ters of that lake sanc­tu­ary… ducks were swim­ming; gulls and other sea-birds ut­tered their cries of warn­ing.” Here, fi­nally, was the real desert “beauty,” an elu­sive at­trac­tion which held the power of life and death over civ­i­liza­tions. – HATTY LIU

IN 1921, THE TARIM CHANGED COURSE AGAIN, REVERTING TO ITS ORIG­I­NAL RIVERBED BE­FORE EX­PLOR­ERS' IN­CRED­U­LOUS EYES

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