A temple on Crescent Lake at Mingsha Shan (Echoing Sand Mountain) near the town of Dunhuang in Gansu, China. Dunhuang was an important strategic base along the ancient Silk Road, near the entrance to the Hexi Corridor.
“DO YOU BELIEVE the voices are real?”
My Chinese guide and I were standing in the Yardang National Geopark, on the border between Gansu Province and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China’s extreme northwest. The nearest town was Dunhuang, 110 miles to the southeast. Enormous yardangs — curving sandstone and mudstone strata carved by winds — towered over us. Others floated on the far horizon.
“You mean the singing sands?” I asked. On my map, an asterisk marked this strange feature of the Kumtag Desert, three miles from Dunhuang. If you throw yourself down the dunes in that place, the air resonates — sometimes like the lowest note on a cello; sometimes like a crack of thunder.
“Not the singing sands,” the guide said. “I mean voices. Like ghosts. Do people in the West think they exist?”
The Chinese pilgrim and scholar Xuanzang wrote in his A.D. 646 book “The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions” that in this desert region, travellers often heard singing and shouting, shrieking and crying. Disoriented, they would wander, get lost and die of thirst. More than 650 years later, the 13th-century Italian merchant Marco Polo described the same phenomenon; sometimes the voices would even call a traveller by name. “If you’re thirsty enough, and exhausted, and afraid, I guess you might hear things,” my guide murmured. He was looking away from me, into the maze of eroded landforms. We were tiny as pixels on an Imax screen.
The Kumtag is a little desert (9,000 square miles) between the Taklamakan Desert (130,000 square miles) and the great Gobi (500,000 square miles), which covers much of northern China and southern Mongolia. The Chinese have named the giant yardangs here: the Sphinx, the Golden Lion Greeting Guests, the Western Sea Fleet. But the Uighurs, the minority ethnic group who populate this region, know the geopark simply as the Old City, because its sandstone promontories resemble the ruins common throughout China’s western provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang: ancient walls, beacon towers and gateways created not by wind but by conscripted soldiers.
The desert rolled away in every direction, gunmetal grains mixed with golden ones. The day was almost windless. Around the sands and huge yardangs, the air was silent.
Map by Daniel Wagner
A map illustrating the cities that T’s contributors journeyed to for the Travel Issue alongside some of the many routes of the ancient Silk Road.
FOR MORE THAN 2,000 years, a branch of the Silk Road — the 600-mile-long Hexi Corridor — has angled southeast from the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts to the Yellow River loess plains. The Hexi is hemmed in by deserts to the north and west, and by the great Qilian mountain range to its south. It is about 10 miles wide at its narrowest point, with oasis towns every 50 to 100 miles. For most of the Han dynasty, which lasted roughly from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220, no soldier, pilgrim, explorer or trader could enter northwestern China without first passing through the corridor, which was vigorously guarded. In A.D. 123, the imperial secretary Chen Zhong, in a strategic memo to the emperor, translated in 2009 by John E. Hill, wrote that if the Western Regions were not defended, “the wealth of the [nomadic Xiongnu tribes] will increase; their audacity and strength will be multiplied,” and the four garrisons along the Hexi Corridor would be endangered. “We will have to rescue them,” he continued. The great cities of China’s central plain, including the capital, would then be left vulnerable to attacks.
Until the scientific map surveys of the 20th century, one of the best sources on travelling to the borderlands of western China was Xuanzang. The Buddhist pilgrim and scholar left the Tang capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) in A.D. 629 and travelled westward across deserts, then into India through the Tian Shan and Pamir mountain ranges. “The roads are lost in a vast waste, and its limits are unfathomable,” he wrote, as translated in 1996 by Li Rongxi. The ancient literary term for the deserts west of Dunhuang is “River of Sands,” denoting a place where travellers were guided only by the stars and the bones of men and animals; no other landmarks or signposts existed.
According to a seventh-century biography of Xuanzang written by two of his disciples, Huili and Yancong, on his journey, Xuanzang survived an attempted kidnapping, several murder attempts and, while deep in the Gobi, the loss of all his water. In these stories, he crossed the deserts and mountains alone and once hallucinated that an army appeared in the wastes: “Sometimes they advanced and sometimes they halted. … The glittering standards and lances met his view; then suddenly fresh forms and figures changing into a thousand shapes appeared, sometimes at an immense distance and then close at hand, and then they dissolved into nothing.” The scholar Jeffrey Kotyk has pointed out that these accounts (cited here from a 1911 translation by Samuel Beal) are likely imagined or embellished; Xuanzang probably travelled with a merchant caravan. The stories, however, convey the potential perils of such a trip.
After studying in India for almost 14 years, Xuanzang returned to Chang’an, bringing sutras, works of art and knowledge about the world beyond China’s borders. So thorough was his “Record of the Western Regions” that dozens of 19th- and 20th-century explorers — Russian, British, German, French and Japanese — used it to find forgotten settlements more than a thousand years after the Taklamakan Desert had swallowed them. When foreign archaeologists found an ancient town, they defined it by longitude and latitude, and then tried to match its site with one of Xuanzang’s vanished cities: Khotan, Kucha, Agni.
The sandstone landform known as “the Louvre” in the Binggou (Ice Valley) scenic area of Zhangye Danxia National Geopark in Gansu.
IN THE 2015 history “By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia,” the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe described how medieval Central Asia was a region “like no other in the world.” Here, the cultures of China, Persia and India mingled with one another and with the world of the steppe. Nomadic raids and invading armies brought down kingdoms while the Buddhist monasteries provided a measure of stability amid the turbulence. “A kind of unstable equilibrium prevailed,” Cunliffe wrote. I knew these landscapes from classical Chinese books; I had fallen in love late but hard with the poets of China’s Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), especially Wang Wei, Du Fu and Li Bo. Li Bo is one of China’s most beloved poets, even though he may not even have been Han Chinese, as the scholar Paula Varsano noted in her 2003 history “Tracking the Banished Immortal: The Poetry of Li Bo and Its Critical Reception”: Some theories suggest he was born of mixed ethnicity on the borderlands or in the nomadic regions beyond them. China’s northern and northwestern frontiers have a unique place in its classical literature, the scholar Stephen Owen explained in his 1996 book “An Anthology of Chinese Literature”: “There was the awareness of a clear division between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Frontier poetry often speaks of the crossings and incursions such divisions create.”
The Tang poets were writing when China’s empire was at its most powerful and the Silk Road networks at their most vibrant. I hoped to find remnants of that world in remote Gansu. Among the poorest of China’s provinces and autonomous regions, Gansu has largely been spared the overdevelopment that blights the country’s richer districts. Roughly the size of California, Gansu arcs from Mongolia at its northernmost point down to Sichuan Province in the south. The geographical centre of China is near the city of Lanzhou, in the province’s southeast, while to the far west it borders the Xinjiang region, a place that under the Tang marked the extreme frontier. (Today, Xinjiang is the site of hundreds of mass internment camps, where more than a million individuals from China’s Uighur and other Indigenous ethnic groups are being held indefinitely without trial by the government.)
In classical Chinese literature, the boundaries existed not just between peoples and geography but between order and chaos. I had mapped out a route: I would begin where Xuanzang had begun his own journey, in Xi’an, China’s capital during the Tang dynasty. I would travel northwest through the Hexi Corridor’s former garrison towns: Zhangye, Jiayuguan and Dunhuang. After Dunhuang, I would cross into Xinjiang and end my journey in the northwestern city of Turpan, on the northern Silk Route.
XI’AN IS AN inland city about 800 miles northwest of Shanghai. From within its walls, caravans once set out carrying silk, perfumes, bronze mirrors and jade — goods and artistry that would eventually make their way to the great cities of Samarkand, Damascus and Constantinople; other caravans arrived from the West, bringing grape seeds, glassware, horses and gemstones. The Tang poet Bai Juyi compared the city’s layout to “a great chessboard.” Chang’an’s greatest avenues were 482 feet wide — three times the breadth of New York City’s Broadway. Later dynasties preferred more sober palettes, but under the Tang, civic architecture shone with colour. Writers and artists celebrated the bluish stones of the capital’s winding Dragon Tail Way, the brilliant shades of the flower gardens of its mansions and the vermilion walls and flagstones studded with precious gems of the Palace of Great Luminosity.
In the early 880s, Chang’an was sacked and the palace burned by an army rebelling against the Tang. The Sinologist Edward H. Schafer, in his 1963 paper “The Last Years of Ch’ang-an,” recorded how soldiers pillaged the city and occupied it for more than a year before being driven out; they looted it and left, “dripping gems along the road.” By 904, Schafer wrote, Chang’an was nothing but earth heaps and wasteland. A hundred years later, the palace would not appear in Song dynasty gazetteers. The old capital had disappeared everywhere but in ancient poems.
Left: At Matisi (Horse’s Hoof) Temple, about an hour south of Zhangye, a series of Buddhist grottoes, dating approximately to the fifth or sixth century, are connected by tunnels and stairways that have been carved into the cliff. Right: A view from what is called the Overhanging Great Wall, originally built in 1539 during the Ming dynasty, about five miles from the Jiayuguan Pass. Situated on the eastern slopes of the Heishan (Black Mountains), the wall was hidden to travellers coming from the west.
My first night in the city, I wandered through the districts near Wenhua (Culture) Alley. Every building was concrete, but salvaged stone fragments heaped outside shop fronts recalled a more elegant past: white bas-relief panels carved with blossoms, deer and flaming pearls of wisdom; seal script characters chiselled into scattered blocks; and guardian lion sculptures, some so eroded that they had no eyes. A boy on a Segway floated past me, its wheels glowing an intense blue. I tasted ashy grit in the air. An old man from the Hui Muslim community was exercising on a metal cross-trainer: Public gym equipment filled a small park. Outside a market nearby, a sign warned, in Chinese and English: “Warm Prompt: You Have Been Into Video Surveillance Area.” Everywhere cameras tracked people moving through streets and rooms and markets, eating, talking, shopping, crossing streets, scrolling through smartphones.
I thought of “The Tower of Myriad Mirrors,” a 1640 novel by Tung Yueh, who later became a Buddhist monk and Chan (Zen) master, translated in 2000 by Shuen-fu Lin and Larry J. Schulz: “The four walls were made of precious mirrors placed one above another. In all there must have been a million mirrors.” The main character, Monkey, becomes disoriented. An old friend appears and explains: “Each blade of grass, each tree, everything moving and still, is contained here.”
Over the course of my three weeks in China, I saw cameras shaped like black teardrops, or clustered together like grapes on a trellis; there were lenses locked like Janus heads facing away from each other, and others shaped like starbursts. Some cameras had triple eyes; others resembled mandalas or Marvin the Martian. The most elaborate, which I noticed near high-value objects or in especially sensitive areas, looked like a spider missing an eye.
The best cameras were invisible — the ones I knew were there but could not see.
“XINJIANG!” CALLED THE speaker at noon the next day. His voice echoed through the glittering vaults of Xi’an’s railway station. “Xinjiang!” I was travelling to Tianshui, a city with roots in the Neolithic era, near one of the oldest archaeological sites in northwestern China, where remains dating back to 5000 B.C. have been discovered. The bullet train took a little under two hours to go about 200 miles. I passed scarps and junkyards glinting with shattered plastics and glass, graveyards on hills, a giant iron woman cradling a gilded sheaf. There were dry riverbeds and golden poplars, pomegranate trees and pylons. On the hills, radio towers; smoke from distant fires floated over the terraced fields.
I arrived in Tianshui an hour before sunset. Here was a city of flyover walkways and half-built skyscrapers that ran mile after bleak mile along the dirty waters of the Jie River. Tianshui was once surrounded by high gateways and spectacular city walls, whose lines followed the river. Modern Tianshui has lost those walls: Only the very oldest residents remember they once existed. As evening fell, I explored Nanguo Temple in the southern hills above Tianshui. The mountain air was clear and very cold. Over the doorways to their bedrooms and kitchen, the Buddhist monks had tacked up calligraphy written on thick paper, enigmatic jokes and prayers. One read: “At night there is no place to stay.”
The rainbowlike mountain range in the Zhangye Danxia National Geopark, in the northern foothills of the Qilian Mountains in Gansu. The unique shapes and colors are the result of deposits of sandstone, iron and other minerals, as well as shifting tectonic plates.
In A.D. 759, the poet Du Fu took refuge in the area after resigning from his government post near Chang’an. Du Fu, translated here by Stephen Owen, excelled in describing the human cost of the Tang dynasty’s imperial ambitions, the suffering of individual soldiers who protected the Silk Road and defended the country’s distant borders: “Already gone far from the moon of Han, / when shall we return from building the Wall? Drifting clouds journey on southward at dusk; / we can watch them, we cannot go along.”
The next morning, I left early to climb up to the former Buddhist monastery complex Maijishan (Wheat-Stack Mountain), 30 miles south of Tianshui, to see the art of its temple caves. Sited midway up sheer vertical cliffs, Maijishan was founded in the Later Qin dynasty (A.D. 384-417) as an isolated retreat where Buddhist monks from Chang’an might meditate. When I visited, the contrast between Tianshui and these ancient ruins — between industrial wasteland and classical landscape — was extreme. Maijishan was remote enough that its paintings and sculptures were spared during wars and revolutions, when other cultural relics were destroyed; they still record what the art historian Michael Sullivan in his 1969 history “The Cave Temples of Maichishan” described as “the metropolitan style of [the sometime capital] Luoyang in its brief glory.” Certain statues resemble the art of sites in Xinjiang; others are more closely related to styles found in India. In the third volume of her magisterial study “Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia” (2010), the scholar Marylin Martin Rhie traced links between Maijishan’s sculptures and the artworks of other Silk Road monastic centres. In some of the figures’ flowing drapery, and in the “delicacy of the linear outlines and contours of the features of the faces,” she found the influence of Greco-Buddhist artists from Gandhara, a region that once straddled the modern border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the waving hairstyles, Rhie found similarities to the sculptures of Tumshuk, a site near Kashgar. Connections between Maijishan and the ancient centres of what is now Xinjiang were particularly strong: Some bodhisattvas wore three-sided jewel crowns that also adorned paintings and a wooden statue at the Kizil Caves of Kucha, the ancient Buddhist kingdom north of the Taklamakan, while a distinctive pearl-band design also occurred in one of Kizil’s earliest caves. Near Maijishan were roads leading not just west through the Hexi Corridor and on to Central Asia but also south to Chengdu and east to Chang’an. Maijishan was secluded, Sullivan wrote, but “open to influences.”
The monastic community here was in a remote, wild place set among green mountains, bamboo groves and cornfields. Many frescoes have been exposed to the elements, and as a result, the paintings are poorly preserved. Buddhas are set into Maijishan’s cliff face; they resemble smaller versions of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. The sixth-century poet Yu Xin recorded how a military governor “had a path like a ladder to the clouds constructed on the southern face of the rock,” and commissioned a series of Buddha sculptures as a temple offering in his father’s memory: The cave — Scattered Flower Pavilion — still exists, although the entire front section was sheared away in A.D. 734 during an earthquake, a temblor that also divided Maijishan’s west side from its east. Other caves that Yu Xin described — the Moon Disc Palace and the Hall of Mirrored Flowers — may have disappeared altogether. But the surviving Buddhas and celestial beings carved into the mountain look out over a spectacular view that cannot have changed that much in the last thousand years. “For a hundred li,” Du Fu wrote, “you can make out the smallest thing.”
Maijishan also contained some of China’s most beautiful sculptures. In the Cave of the Steles, a Buddha stretched his hand down toward a smaller figure who might be a young monk or — according to my local guide — the historical Buddha’s own son. Specialists are uncertain whether the two figures were created during the Tang dynasty or later, in the Northern Song period of A.D. 960 to 1127. Whatever its age, the Buddha had the most beautiful hands of any sculpture I had ever seen, and the space between the statues — the Buddha’s outstretched fingers, the crown of the boy’s head — was electric. Whether the two were greeting or leaving each other, I did not know; perhaps they did not belong together at all but had been brought here from separate caves. I crouched at the foot of the small statue, looking into its face. At the outer edge of another cave, a statue of a bodhisattva smiled slightly, her right palm raised in the gesture that means “don’t be afraid.” During the 734 earthquake, the mountain collapsed a few inches past her right shoulder; on the jagged wall behind her, where the cliff met the sky, I could see a flying apsara and the curve of a halo — all that remain of some greater whole. Beyond rolled a green line of mountains, the dark blue sky and, jarringly, a cluster of security cameras and loudspeakers. Far below the wooden walkways that linked painted cave to cave, the bells on a donkey’s harness sounded: Local touts had set up replica caravans for tourists to ride. Polo and his co-author, Rustichello da Pisa, wrote of the men travelling the Silk Road, here in Ronald Latham’s 1958 translation: “Round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path.”
I listened to that distant jangling and thought of the vast spaces ahead.
The awe-inspiring and hostile landscape of the Binggou area at Zhangye Danxia National Geopark.
THAT EVENING, I got on another high-speed train to travel more than 400 miles west to Zhangye, which was once an ancient commandery — essentially a fortified administrative centre — on the Hexi Corridor. The train carriages were spray-painted with advertisements for the popular Wangyuan-brand camel milk. Security guards wearing modular utility belts and flak jackets followed the women checking train tickets. The Han Chinese heartlands were receding; we were entering regions where minority populations make up a higher percentage of the population. The farther west we went, the stricter the security protocols became.
The desert was closer: The train passed roads white with dust. A scattering of sheep. Thorny apple trees. A crumbling Ming-era watchtower. Beneath the hills, the hollows were white with unmelted snow; in an abandoned garden near the tracks, fallen pears lay scattered around an ancient tree. A thin telecom needle. A temple. An earth-coloured mosque. Razor wire and pylons. Ruined hilltop forts.
The Qilian Mountains appeared, white, distant and dazzling. The entire carriage let out a collective cry of enchantment, cut short as we went into a tunnel; then again, the intake of breath, the cries, as the mountains appeared, closer this time, shattered prisms radiant with light. We went back into a tunnel, and I wondered if the train was climbing or diving. As we gained altitude, my pen oozed beads of ink; blood beat at my temples. The train was passing through Qilianshan No. 2 Tunnel, 11,834 feet above sea level. The Qilian Mountains, whose highest peak stands at 19,055 feet, mark the edge of the Tibetan plateau.
The train passed grasslands where Han dynasty emperors bred their horses. The earth was dark and the rivers already half frozen. The Chinese first conquered this region in 121 B.C., by driving out the nomadic Xiongnu tribes, and the Tang historian Sima Zhen (A.D. 679-732) recorded an old nomad song lamenting that defeat: “Having lost our Qilian Mountains, our animals have no place to breed; having lost our Yanzhi Mountains, our women marry without splendour.”
Dunhuang, ancient Shazhou — City of Sands — was still several hundred miles away. I would reach it the following day after crossing through the Jiayuguan Pass, the great gateway that during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) marked the end of China. In stories and songs, Jiayuguan represented the boundary between civilisation and chaos. In 1942, the British missionaries Mildred Cable and Francesca French wrote in their memoir “The Gobi Desert” that scholars and disgraced officials, en route into exile, had covered the fortress gateway with farewell poems written in calligraphy: “Anyone with sufficient knowledge to appreciate Chinese penmanship could see at once that these were the work of men of scholarship, who had fallen on an hour of deep distress.” When I finally visited it myself, I saw that the long archway had been painted clean, and security cameras tracked everyone going in and out. Chinese tourists stood against the walls, posed for selfies and moved on.
Left: The monochromatic sand dunes of Mingsha Shan near Dunhuang, with a modern reconstruction of a Ming-era temple complex that was destroyed in 1968. Right: Climbing the dunes at Mingsha Shan, outside the town of Dunhuang in Gansu.
THE TOWN OF Dunhuang has a population of only about 190,000, but it is one of western China’s most cosmopolitan centres, as visitors from all over the world arrive to see the Mogao Caves (also called the Thousand Buddha Grottoes) 15 miles to the southeast. According to legend, a fourth-century monk called Le Zun carved out the first cave by hand. Le Zun had planned to travel to India but stayed after he saw a vision of dazzling light, brighter than 10,000 suns, shining over the land. When I arrived at Mogao the next morning, the day was bright and cool; the leaves of ancient poplars and willow trees were just changing colour, their golds reflected in the shallow waters of the Dachuan River.
For almost a thousand years, artists added new caves until the cliff face was honeycombed with painted corridors and recesses. Some caves are niches, while others can hold more than 50 people. Patrons commissioned caves as acts of piety, and the art reflected the hopes of those living in or passing through Dunhuang — to cross the desert safely, or to be reborn in paradise. Other caves might have helped the devout to meditate. Open to the sun and the winds as late as the 1940s, they are now protected behind metal doors and preserved in climate-controlled environments. Gansu is a province remote from any great city, and its landscapes — green mountains, eroded karst cliffs, empty deserts — amplified the ancient artwork. Left in their original settings, Buddhas and flying apsaras, demons and monsters, are still numinous.
Nothing prepares a traveller for the frescoes. No book, no photograph, can ever capture the colour-saturated details, or the strangeness, of the art there. Visiting the Mogao Caves was an intensely sensual experience: Painted dancers’ shadows moved, floating instruments made sound, incense billowed from the walls. The ninth-century Japanese monk Ennin, in a diary of his travels through the Tang empire, translated by Edwin Reischauer in 1955, remarked on the three-dimensional, illusionistic effect of one sacred painting: “We looked at [the image] for quite a while and it looked just as if it were moving.” The Qing dynasty writer Pu Songling (1640-1715), in his book “Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio,” translated by John Minford in 2006, described a visitor to a Beijing monastery who went even further: He entered a painting and had a brief love affair with one of its flying apsaras. “He was wafted bodily up onto the wall and into the mural itself. He felt himself pillowed on clouds, and saw stretching before him a grand panorama of palaces and pavilions,” wrote Pu. The man’s senses were “suffused with the heady perfume that emanated from her body, a scent of orchid mingling with musk.”
Mogao’s artists, most of whom were anonymous, painted not just Buddhist paradises but riots and the fall of cities. All life is depicted here, from the movement of stars to competitions between philosophers; wedding scenes, slaughterhouses, wandering storytellers. Markets, brawls, women putting on makeup. Magicians, hunters chasing animals. A house burning down, swimmers splashing through the sea.
I went from cave to cave, intent on remembering every line, every colour. In the last cave, I saw a recumbent Buddha, half asleep; the statue’s eyes were full of sand.
An arched tunnel looking onto Rouyuan Tower, the west gate of the fortress at Jiayuguan Pass, which, during the Ming era, marked the northwestern boundary between China and the lands beyond. Right: A couple walks down the steps in the Binggou scenic area in Gansu.
I LEFT DUNHUANG the next morning by taxi, heading for Turpan — 500 miles away. An hour into the journey, a distant city floated. I looked at the map, then out my window again, dazed. I wanted to follow the shining line of trees, to walk through the shimmering gateways, to climb those towers.
“Haishishenlou,” said the taxi driver, indifferent. He didn’t even glance out the side window but just looked at me in the rearview mirror. “Illusion.”
My map showed nothing to the east for several hundred miles. In his 1926 memoir “Buried Treasures of Chinese Turkestan,” translated two years later by Anna Barwell, the German archaeologist Albert von Le Coq wrote that the Uighurs called this phenomenon azytqa, “misleader,” adding that the mirage “is so lifelike that many inexperienced travellers may very easily follow it.” I would, too, if I had been driving. The nameless city looked far more alluring than the blank asphalt road. The vision travelled alongside the car, as if it were painted on the window glass. I knew, but did not want to believe, that it was unreal.
Here, the Gobi changed from rosebud pink to black with rare streaks of ivory. The British-Hungarian explorer Marc Aurel Stein, in his 1920 piece for The Geographical Review titled “Explorations in the Lop Desert,” described the towerlike mesas near Dunhuang as quivering “phantom-like in the white haze,” and from a distance, the white bands among dark strata looked like mist rising over a river. But there was no water, just salt scattered along the dunes. In this region, Stein once wrote of “nature benumbed.”
The British diplomat Eric Teichman pointed out in his 1937 “Journey to Turkistan” that those traveling in the caravans called this area the Four Dry Stages: This road was among the most ferocious, the most fatal relays not just in Central Asia but on the entire Silk Road network. Beyond, springs of bitter water were the only landmarks: Wild Horse Well, Clear Water, One Cup Spring, Muddy Spring, the Well of the Seven Horns.
These stretches took weeks to cross even in the 20th century: From ancient times until the 1960s, camel and donkey skeletons marked out the route. The poet Wang Wei, translated here by Stephen Owen, wrote a little verse to honour a friend who was leaving for these empty spaces. The poem ends: “I urge you now to finish / just one more cup of wine: / once you go west out Yang Pass, / there will be no old friends.”
If a traveler falls asleep in this desert, Polo wrote, when he wakes, he will hear invisible spirits talking to him as if they were his companions. They may even call him by name.
I listened. I could hear nothing.
Yardang formations in an area free of tourists near Dunhuang.
FROM THE HIGH mountains to the lowest point in China: The city of Turpan lies on the northern edge of a geological depression that drops to 500 feet below sea level. It’s at the heart of a region that Le Coq described as “a gigantic bowl filled in the centre with moving sand.” The evening I arrived, the city radiated neon: hotel arches shimmering, boulevard trees sheeted in blue fairy lights, LED icicles gleaming from lampposts. Las Vegas in Xinjiang. Chinese tourists like to visit Turpan for the city and its sights but also for the nearby desert, where in the summer ground surface temperatures can rise above 150 degrees Fahrenheit, for “sand therapy” — they are buried in burning hot sand to treat conditions such as rheumatism. One participant in a 2018 sand-therapy study in Xinjiang said, “I suffered pain, so it will work.”
The Brutalist concrete architecture of downtown Turpan could be anywhere in China, but in certain districts, an older city still survives, if barely, on side streets lined with ancient poplars. The gateways of houses are painted with Persian flowers or hand-carved with abstract geometric patterns: This is the architecture of Central Asia, of the minority Muslim Uighur population. In his 1995 book “Frontiers of Heaven: A Journey to the End of China,” the travel writer Stanley Stewart described Turpan’s old town bazaar: “Bathed in a ruby light filtering through the coloured awnings which span the lanes, it was crowded with carpets, rolls of silk, coils of rope, saddlebags and endless piles of green grapes. The men wore tall boots, long coats, daggers and embroidered caps.” Stewart especially loved the 18th-century Emin Minaret, which stands “beyond the town, its feet in a green sea of vineyards.” In its adjoining mosque, “columns and arches receded like a trick of mirrors.” The day I visited, the mosque was echoingly empty, the only noise the wind flowing through the grapevines. The Uighurs emerged as a regional power around A.D. 750 in what is now Mongolia. Turpan has been a Uighur city since the ninth century, when the Uighurs migrated to the area and started the kingdom of Qocho. It was a kingdom, the archaeologist J.P. Mallory and the Sinologist Victor H. Mair wrote in their 2000 book “The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples From the West,” that once “combined, apparently harmoniously, a myriad of different ethnic groups, religions and languages.”
At night, in my hotel in Turpan, I rinsed sand from my skin, sifted it from my clothing and brushed it out of my hair. But always a few grains remained. Wherever I went, the desert came with me. Earlier that day, in the Putaogou district, or Grape Valley, I had watched Turpan’s famous grapevines being “put to sleep” for the winter, their canes cut back and the central trunk coiled around its root. All over the city, farmers were tamping earth and leaves lightly over the vines; what was left looked like graves. I remembered lines from one of my favourite poems, written by Li Bo and translated by Rewi Alley: “We who live on the earth / are but travellers; / the dead like those / who have returned home; / all people are as if / living in some inn, / in the end each and every on / going to the same place.”
I had travelled nearly 1,500 miles from Xi’an, but western China’s spaces were so great, its mountains and deserts so vast, that I felt I had barely moved, that my journey had been a single stitch on an infinite bolt of cloth. I felt restless and hungry. I wanted to follow the sands toward Kashgar, or go deeper into the mountains, where the Ili River flows into Kazakhstan.
The Tang poets were always searching for a way back to the centre, for a return to Chang’an. In Turpan, I left the Tang poets. Samarkand lay beyond the horizon: I wanted to go not back, but on.
Anna Sherman is the author of “The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City” (2019). She lives in Oxford, England. Zhang Xiao is a photographer based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. Production: PSN Production. Photo assistant: Shi Hanwen.
Subscribe to our newsletter