by Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell
The size of Germany, the Taklamakan and its shifting sands have swamped whole towns and civilizations, leaving archaeologists able only to guess where they once stood. A lucky few have been discovered, along with mummies naturally preserved in the salty, arid sands. Carbon-14 dating has placed some of these ﬁnds as far back as the early Bronze Age, 4,000 years ago. Remarkably, the mummies have proven to be of European descent, giving silent testament to the antiquity of the Silk Road. The ruins of two such sites, Rawak and Niya, were our next goal.
Besides goiters, the Uighurs have another particular physical deformity. It begins when they’re young, getting more pronounced with age, and only affects men. They have a habit of pulling their thick felt hats down so far on their heads as to bend the tops of their ear cartilages horizontally. Years of this abuse leaves the hat wearer permanently disﬁgured, with the distinct look of one of the Seven Dwarfs.
Derdingiz and Alim were no exception, their ears jutting out from under their hats. The brothers stood barely ﬁve feet tall, with identical white beards. They wore the standard Uighur uniform—black karakul coats and hats, covered in dung and desert dust, over knee-high boots and suspenders—which only enhanced their fairy-tale appearance. They looked so similar that the only way we could distinguish them was by their dispositions. Alim was miserable, sour, and hard, and didn’t want much to do with us. Derdingiz was as sweet as they come and very hospitable. We started calling them Grumpy and Happy.
With a caravan of camels carrying tents, food, and enough water to last a month, we left the camp with them and a few of their sons, descending a rocky escarpment that had been carved out annually from melting snow in the Kunluns. Rushing headwaters had created a wide ﬂoodplain, depositing boulders and stones carried down from the mountains. Polo, with his merchant’s gaze, observed, There are rivers here with stones of Jasper and Chalcedony . . . which are exported for sale in Cathay and bring a good proﬁt. To this day, the Karakash (Black Jade) and the Yurungkash (White Jade) rivers meet in Khotan, making it China’s richest source of a mineral most precious to them, jade, or as they say in old Persian, jasper.
We followed the conﬂuence of the rivers until it meandered into smaller streams and creeks, the water disappearing under their stones. We were now in a rock-strewn path, sunken and carved among the small dunes, its high banks ﬂanked with dried vegetation. Hours later the stony passage gave way to sand, as the banks came down to meet us in the great desert. Happy explained that the line of dried brush entering the wasteland in a crooked line toward the horizon was the river running underneath the sand. “If we ever get lost,” he said, “we follow the vegetation out of the desert.”
That night Hajji’s cousins showed us how they can survive winters in the land of no return. They dug pits and ﬁlled them with the embers of our ﬁre. A layer of sand was thrown on top, with a carpet rolled over that. On this we made our beds and stayed toasty through the freezing night.
All photographs © Denis Belliveau. All rights reserved.