There is something about deserts -- the promises they hold, the threats they contain, their emptiness and silence -- that captures the imagination. They are realms of mystery, myth and legend. So it is with the Taklamakan, the mighty desert that sprawls across the northwestern corner of China. At 337,000 square kilometers it is almost half the size of Turkey, a vast realm of lost cities, jewel-like oases, trade routes and rivers that trickle out in the sand.
Hotan, lying on the southern Silk Road that once saw trade in precious goods passing between China and the Mediterranean, is an important agricultural town at the edge of the Taklamakan. Near the meeting point of the Karakaş and Yurungkaş rivers, Hotan was the capital of a Buddhist kingdom until 1,000 years ago, when the Karahanlı arrived. It is now populated by a mix of Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
The highway to Hotan curves like a narrow thread across the desert. Parallel to it, power lines march across the sands, and the Kaşgar-Hotan railway runs arrow-straight raised above the desert floor. There are occasional patches of scrub, but no trees. Every now and then groups of two-humped camels wander casually and nuzzle in the sand.
For much of the year this is a parched domain, but it is clear that not all seasons are waterless. Deep, dry and stippled with stones, great stream beds, which run briefly with snowmelt from the Kunlun Mountains every spring, crisscross the desert. To the south beyond tumbling rows of powdery dunes, it's possible to make out, through the heat haze, the mountains rising in a purple blur on the horizon.
While the desert is a forbidding location it is not un-peopled. Travelers driving along the highway will notice figures in the distance. Shepherds with their ambling flocks, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone, sometimes apparently young boys, appear in the landscape, seemingly without possessions, water, shelter or vehicle, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, well beyond a reasonable walking distance from settlement or habitation of any kind.
There are many legends associated with the desert. It is claimed that at night you can hear the caravans of old trundling past with the jiggle of bridles and the cries of the cameleers. One legend has it that a great army once disappeared when the desert sands rose up to consume it. Marco Polo, when traveling this way, heard tales of merchants being panicked by the sounds of an army moving in the darkness, and others being led into the wilderness by the voices of spirits.
Approaching Hotan from the west, the first signs that a settlement is nearby are the plantations of poplars that appear in the distance. These trees grow bolt upright, bursts of emerald green, able to tap into sources of water deep under the desert. Soon the highway passes through orchards of almond, apricot and walnut trees. The land here is worked by hardy Uyghur villagers, who wield picks and mattocks to create neat rectangular plots. They go about their labor with weather-beaten faces and strong forearms, men and women alike.
A farmers' market on the outskirts of Hotan is a bustle of color and movement. Stalls are set up under colored umbrellas. Villagers crowd in to buy the plump fruits and vegetables grown in the market gardens around Hotan oasis. There are bright peppers in twisted profusion, grapes, onions, beans and mighty watermelons. Peddlers push barrows of household needs: soap, matches, shoelaces. Plumes of tangy smoke rise from outdoor ovens at a row of restaurants, where hungry locals line up for bowls of laghman (pulled noodles), polo (pilaf) or skewered lamb.
The market is where the community gathers in the late afternoon. Elders with white beards and blue canvas jackets share local news; local children run errands and chatter with friends. Men in white skull caps and green embroidered doppa caps haggle for sheep on a pebbly side road. Raising clouds of dust, traffic comes and goes: mopeds, three-wheeled farm vehicles, horse-drawn carts.
The town of Hotan itself, despite its antiquity and legacy as a stop on the Silk Road, does not feature a lot of historical buildings. However, it's possible to explore aspects of the history of the desert.
First off, just west of the town square, is the Hotan Cultural Museum, home to a range of ancient artifacts retrieved from the desert and more recent ethnographic displays. There are costumes from the Han dynasty dating to the second century, as well as carpets, jewelry and musical instruments that reveal the intermingling of local peoples over centuries. Most fascinating are two 1,500-year-old mummies. Wearing burgundy tunics, the female mummies have delicate features and protruding teeth. These women were Tocharians, a Buddhist people who spoke an Indo-European language. The Tocharians were active traders and cameleers on the Silk Road, wandering the desert for millennia and establishing now-ruined cities before the arrival of the Uyghurs and the Chinese.
For as long as there has been trade along the Silk Road, Hotan has been famous for its jade. Some jade artifacts from the city have been dated to 5000 B.C. and it was jade that first drew Chinese traders into this corner of the desert. There is still a lively trade in the gem, with a bustling market taking place each morning near the Yurungkaş River to the northeast of the town center. Stalls on a promenade above the river feature an array of jade stones in various colors, shapes and sizes. Some traders pull a handful of gems from their pockets, some sell enormous rounded nuggets and others offer neatly worked amulets and charms. Translucent green is the most famous of the jade colors, but clear white, known as “mutton fat,” is most valuable.
Also to the northeast of the town is the gillam karakhana (carpet workshop). Hotan has a long history of carpet making; in fact, carpets dating back almost 2,000 years have been found near Hotan. At the workshop women work together creating hand-knotted carpets in wool or silk to specific patterns. Many of the designs and motifs of Hotan carpets will be familiar to carpet lovers in Turkey, evidence of the historical links and cultural ties the Uyghurs of Xinjiang share with the Turks.
Beyond the outer reaches of Hotan, past some irrigated agricultural hamlets, on the very fringe of the Taklamakan, lies the village of Jiya. A sandy path runs from the village, leading to several burial mounds on the edge of the dunes. These are the tombs of Imam Asim and his companions, Sufi mystics who arrived with the Karahanlı a millennium ago and converted the local Buddhist population.
Legend has it that Imam Asim chose this for his final resting place as it was already a holy place for Buddhists and the burial site of a Buddhist mystic. The tombs certainly resemble Buddhist shrines. Each is topped with totemic lengths of wood that have silvered in the desert heat, and all bristle with a profusion of flags in blue, white and yellow, bending in the wind.
Every Thursday there is a market at the small mosque here. But on any day there is a steady trickle of pilgrims. They come in family groups. Duly reverent they crouch in the sand at each tomb, their prayers rising heavenward. The wind whips the colorful flags into a frenzy. And beyond, the mighty dunes of the Taklamakan roll on forever.
Abdul Wahab Tours (www.abdulwahabtours.com), based in Kaşgar, can tailor make tours to Hotan and the Taklamakan.
Where to stay:
Yudu Hotel (on the main square, 86-903-202 9999)