“What a wonderful place to stay this must have been,” wrote the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin during his second visit to the ruins of Loulan, on the eastern outskirts of China’s Taklamakan Desert in March 1901, seeing in his mind’s eye the vanished town on the edge of Lake Lop Nor as it must have looked 22 centuries ago.
He had journeyed earlier to this desolate region in the heart of Asia to solve the riddle of the shifting Lop Nor, and unexpectedly stumbled on the ruins of Loulan — an oasis town founded in the second century B.C. that flourished for 800 years as the capital of the Shanshan kingdom, described in Chinese historical annals by visitors long ago, before it vanished into the sand.
The Tarim River gathers its water from the Kunlun Mountains in the south, the Pamirs in the west and the Tian Shan Mountains in the north, and flows in an eastward arc along the northern edges of the Taklamakan, an ancient inland sea, toward the salt marshes of Lop Nor.
In its lifetime, Loulan was situated on the north shore of Lop Nor. Then, in the fourth century, the Tarim River changed course and Lop Nor moved south into the desert. Loulan, a town on the Silk Road connecting China to Europe, was abandoned in the sixth century and slowly erased from the face of the Earth by centuries of blowing sand.
Chinese silk has been found in the Hallstatt tumulus in Saulgau, Germany, and in the Kerameikos graves of Athens, both of which date to the sixth century B.C. “The Silk Road” is a term coined by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 19th century. Silk must have begun traveling west soon after it was first produced by the Chinese of the Shang dynasty (1700 to 1100 B.C.).
The obstacles were formidable. To the southwest lay the Himalaya Mountains, highest in the world, and the Tibetan Plateau. To the west lay the world’s second-largest desert, the Taklamakan. The northern steppes were controlled by hostile Mongols and Xiongnu.
This geographic and political reality channeled traders from central China along the Gansu corridor to the western extremity of the Great Wall and the oasis of Dunhuang. There, leaving the Chinese cultural sphere, traders began a 17-day trek across the waterless, treacherous Gobi Desert to the next oasis: Loulan — gateway to the Taklamakan.
Archaeologists have found the remains of several human settlements on the northern and western shores of the old Lop Nor. Intriguingly, they have discovered that Loulan and other oasis towns on the fringes of the Taklamakan once were inhabited by people who most closely resemble present-day Europeans.
In past decades, scores of naturally preserved, freeze-dried mummies with European features have been unearthed on the edges of the Taklamakan.
One of the most famous, known as “the Beauty of Kroran,” was found by Chinese archaeologists in 1980 north of the old Lop Nor. Buried about 3,800 years ago, clad in a woolen shroud and leather boots, she was in a very good state of preservation. Her blondish-brown hair, about 12 inches long, was rolled up in a headdress made of felt over a woven base, and topped with two goose feathers. With her in the grave were a comb and a long, narrow straw basket.
In 139 B.C., the Chinese emperor Wudi dispatched his envoy Zhang Qian to seek an alliance with the Yuezhi people, who lived north of the Oxus River in present-day Uzbekistan. Sixteen years later, the envoy returned with news of the riches of Central Asia and “blood-sweating” horses, which the Chinese subsequently acquired to combat nomadic Xiongnu raiders in the north.
On his long journey, Zhang passed through Loulan, where he recorded 1,570 households, and 14,100 persons, of whom 2,912 were soldiers. The land was sandy and salty, and “the people accompany their herds of animals, following the water and grass. They have donkeys, horses and many camels. ”
After Zhang’s return, there were about 10 missions per year from the Han court to Central Asia, and, as traffic on the Silk Road grew, it became imperative for the Chinese to protect the route from the Xiongnu nomads.
The kingdom of Loulan was caught between the warring parties, and its king was obliged to send his sons as hostages to both the Xiongnu and the Chinese. In 77 B.C., at a banquet held in Loulan to greet the Chinese envoy Fu Jiezi, Chang Gui, the king of Loulan, was stabbed to death by the envoy’s guards and his severed head was hung from the tower of the northern gate.
From then on, China asserted greater control over the area. It renamed the kingdom Shanshan, moved the capital to an area southwest of Loulan, and stationed a military commander there. In 55 B.C., Shanshan became a puppet kingdom of Han China.