The End of the World

Hedin's illustration of the "Camp of Death" in the Talamaklan Desert.

Super-explorer Sven Hedin (1865-1952) boldly went first where no westerner had been before: to the sources of the Indus and Brahmaputra Rivers, to the uncharted wastes of Central Asia. In this excerpt from My Life as an Explorer, Hedin recounts his discovery of lost cities in Xinjiang’s Tarim Basin.

Actually four and a half months were to pass before we returned to Khotan; and part of this expedition became a veritable Crusoe romance. When I took leave of Liu Darin he wanted to give me two camels, because he though my caravan was much too small. But I refused his kind offer.

My four men were Islam Bai, Kerim Jan, and the two hunters –Ahmed Mergen and his son Kasim Ahun – who had taken part in the expedition of Isalm Bai the year before, after our disaster in the desert. We also took along the two men who had promised to show us the ancient town.

We followed the Yurun-kash, the eastern head-stream of the Khotan-daria, to the village of Tavek-kel, where my Swedish army revolver had been found. Our search for the rest of the outfit was fruitless. In fact it was not conducted at all vigorously, for I had replaced everything that had been lost, except the cameras.

On January 19 we left the river, and again wormed our way into the deadly sandy desert. But this time it was winter. Our water supply, in four goatskins, froze into chunks of ice. At our camps we found water by digging from five to seven feet; and if we had walked eastward we would have been near the Keriya-daria, which runs north, parallel to the Khotan-daria.

The dunes in this part of the desert were not so high as thos in the region where our caravan had been lost the year before. Their ridges were thirty-five to forty feet high.

On the fourth day we camped in a hollow, where a dead dried-up forest provided us with excellent fuel. The next day we went to the ruins of the ancient city, which our guides called Takla-makan, or Dandan-uilik, the “Ivory Houses”. Most of the houses were buried in the sand. But here and there posts and wooden walls stuck out of the dunes, and on one of the walls, which was possibly three feet high, we discovered several figures artistically executed in plaster.

They represented Buddha and Buddhistic deities, some standing, some seated on lotus-leaves, all robed in ample draperies, their heads encircled by flaming aureoles. All these finds and many others relics were wrapped up carefully and packed in my boxes; and the fullest possible notes on the ancient city, its location, sand-covered canals, dead poplar avenues, and dried-up apricot orchards were entered in my diary.

I was not equipped to make a thorough excavation, and besides, I was not an archeologist.

For me it was sufficient to have made the important discovery, and to have won in the heart of the desert a new field for archeology. And now, at last, I felt rewarded and encouraged, after the preceding year’s vain search for traces of a dead civilization. The ancient Chinese geographies, as well as the present-day natives living on the edge of the desert, were now vindicated. My rejoicing over this first find, which was to be followed by similar discoveries in later years, is evident from notes made at the time.

“No explorer,” I wrote, “had an inklin, hitherto, of the existence of this ancient city. Here I stand, like the prince in the enchanted wood, having wakened to new life the city which has slumbered for a thousand years.”

During several successive sand storms I measured the rate at which sand-dunes move, and, guided by that, and by the course of the prevailing winds, I calculated that it had taken about two thousand years for the sand desert to extend from the region of the ancient city to its present southern border. Discoveries made at a later date warrant the conclusion that the age of the ancient city was about two thousand years.

On receiving their well-earned pay the two guides returned over our trail. The following morning we continued on our way through the eternal sand.

The air was laden with the finest dust. In the dense haze we had not even an idea of where the sun was in the sky. The dunes grew in height. We climbed the crest of a sand-wave one hundred and twenty feet high, wondering whether we were headed towards another such murderous labyrinth as that of the year before.

Because of the haze we could discern nothing in the east. It was as though a curtain had been drawn in front of us, and as if we were walking towards an unknown abyss. Yet we went on and nothing untoward happened. The dunes became lower and lower, gradually merging into level, soft sandy ground. One evening we camped in the forest on the banks of the Keriya-daria.

The river was a hundred and five feet wide here, and covered with thick ice. The camels got liberal rations of grass, and drank their fill after the desert journey. No human beings were in sight. There was on ly a deserted shepherd’s hut. We built a big log-fire and kept it burning through the night. The winter cold did us no harm. Sleeping in the open brought nothing but satisfaction.

No European had ever followed the course of this rive to its end in the desert sand, and nobody knew where the last drops of water disappeared after their hopeless struggle with the dunes. I decided, therefore, to follow the river northward to its very end.

It served us as a guide and thus we were independent of men. Not a shepherd was to be seen, and we had killed our last sheep. But there were lots of hares, roe-deer and red deer, so we had no fear of hunger. On the banks we would occasionally disturb whole families of boars, which fled noisily into the dense growths of reed. Sometimes we also surprised a fox, who would dart subtly and speedily into the forest glen.

On our way northward through the river-forests, we met shepherds constantly. In order to get information about the various forest regions and their names, we always took one or two shepherds with us. In this way we got farther north, day by day. The frozen river extended much farther into the desert than we thought.

I measured its width across the ice, and found it to exceed three hundred feet. Farther down, where the Keriya-daria became wider, it frequently appeared majestic between its wooded banks. Every morning brought new excitement. How far would we be ale to go before the river merged into the surrounding sand, which, in some places, extended to the very brink? Finally, I hatched the hazardous plan of crossing the desert as far as to the Tarim River, which must be its northern frontier, if the river flowed far enough.

Near Tonkuz-basse (the Hanging Wild-Boar), a shepherd told me that by striking out into the sand to the north-west we would soon find the ruins of an ancient town, named Kara-dung (the Black Hill).

February 2 and 3 were devoted to it. Here, too, we found houses buried in the sand, the larges of them measuring 280 by 250 feet, and many traces of other structures made by human hands, dating from the period when Buddha’s teachings prevailed in the far interior of Asia. The site of this town, too, was carefully determined, so that archeologists would be sure to find it later on.

Thereupon we continued our journey through forests and field of reed. The river showed a tendency to divide into a number of branches and to form inland deltas. On February 5 we encountered four shepherds in charge of eight hundred sheep and six cows. Two days later Mohammed Bai, an old denizen of the forest, told us that the point where the river died out in the sand was only another day and a half’s journey distant.

He lived in such seclusion that he did not know whether Yakub Bek (died 1878) or the Emperor of China ruled over East Turkistan. He also told me that no tiger had been seen in the last three years. The last one had clawed one of Mohammed Bai’s cows, after which it went northward, but only to return. Finally it struck out across the desert towards the east.

“How far does the desert reach to the north, from the point where the river ends?” I asked. And Mohammed Bai replied:

“To the end of the world. And it takes three months to get there.”

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