In an age where adventure holidays to remote parts of the world can be taken by anyone with time and money, you may be surprised to hear that there are still some parts of the planet which are so inaccessible that they have scarcely been mapped, let alone explored. The Tarim Basin in the Taklamakan Desert is one such place, and it is one of the harshest environments on earth.
Consisting of 125,000 square miles of sandy desert, the Taklamakan Desert is located in the Xinjiang Ugyur Autonomous region of China. Yes, I hadn't heard of it either, but my atlas informs me that this is the part of China which shares borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. This means that the majority of people in the Xinjiang Ugyur Autonomous region are Muslims whose culture has more in common with Istanbul than Beijing.
The ancient Silk Road from Xian runs through the region, and there were only two relatively safe ways for travellers and traders to negotiate the Taklamakan Desert. Both involved going around, rather than through it. Even today the routes are littered with the remains of animals, people and vehicles which did not survive the journey from one oasis to the next. The name "Taklamakan" means, in the Ugyur language, "If you go in, you won't come out."
Lovers of fantasy fiction and movies please take note: real life is often stranger and more mysterious than anything Tolkien or Steven Spielberg could ever come up with. There really are lost cities buried under the sands of the Taklamakan - in fact, over the course of four thousand years, the desert has swallowed entire civilisations. There is also the mystery of the lake of Lop Nor. This was a massive saltwater lake which seemed to move and change shape, at times even disappearing completely. If this sounds fanciful, I can assure you I have seen archive film footage taken in the 1930's showing a lake where only a desert existed before. Satellite imaging on the NASA website shows the outline of the lake bed very clearly. The water levels, however, are dependent upon inflowing rivers consisting of snow melt from the surrounding mountains, so this is why the lake appears to move.
Unsurprisingly, the Taklamakan attracted many parties of adventurers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these men, such as the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin (1865-1952), were motivated by the fact that the area had never satisfactorily been mapped. Hedin made two trips to the area, and in the first, he underestimated the difficulties of crossing the Taklamakan and nearly died there. The hand-drawn maps he made during his expeditions to the region are very beautiful, and their accuracy has been confirmed by satellite imaging.
Other explorers, such as the British historian Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943), went in search of archaeological treasures. Stein removed more than 40,000 relics from his explorations in Central Asia, most of which ended up in the vaults of the British Museum. Today very little of Stein's haul is on view to the general public. The Russians, the Germans and the French made expeditions to the area, too, meaning that Silk Road treasures are now scattered in museums around the world.
The motives of some Silk Road adventurers, such as the parties organised by Count Otani of Japan, have never satisfactorily been explained. The Japanese claimed they were searching for ancient Buddhist texts, but after observing them for some time, British military observers could not decide if the Japanese were very incompetent archaeologists or very incompetent spies. Count Otani's men removed huge numbers of texts from various sites, but the collection was later dispersed into private hands and the whereabouts of much of it is unknown.
In more recent times, many sites have been plundered by local treasure-seekers. It has to be said that the Chinese government has been extremely slow off the mark to explore and preserve these sites. Financed mainly by the Japanese TV company NHK, a number of Chinese-led expeditions have been made into the Taklamakan in recent years, but in some locations the archaeological teams found only plundered graves and scattered bones.
However, the most sensational finds have been the remains of Caucasians who had lain undisturbed in the sands for nearly four centuries, making them a thousand years older than the oldest mummies of Egypt. These "Tarim Basin mummies" are also better preserved than the Egyptian ones, as the sand of the Taklamakan is saline. Many of the bodies were buried in boat-shaped coffins with sides and lids but no bottoms, allowing the sand to do its preservation work. This means, incidentally, that the "Tarim Basin mummies" are not really mummies at all, but salted and preserved corpses.
One of the most famous of the Tarim Basin mummies is the body of a young woman known as "The Beauty of Loulan". Dressed in a felt cap and colourful robes, she has a high cheek-boned face and is clearly Caucasian. Her face is so well-preserved that you can see all of her long eyelashes. She was buried with a beautifully-woven basket of grain besides her, as were many other mummies found in the area.
The most famous male mummy, a bearded blue-eyed man nicknamed "Ur-David" by archaeologist Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania, looks as if he might sit up at any moment and shake your hand. His skin and soft tissue is virtually intact, even down to the tattoos on his face, and his colourful clothes look as though they could have been woven yesterday.
This mummy is one of several which Mair "rediscovered" in 1988 in a room in the Museum of Urumqi. Unfortunately, this museum does not have temperature and humidity controls, so that, ironically, the mummies are now starting to deteriorate. Mair and others are fighting to get the mummies properly preserved, but problems abound, and not merely those of technical know-how or financing. The Xinjiang Ugyur Autonomous Province is a politically sensitive area, and the Chinese authorities do not want the mummies to become a rallying point for the non-Chinese population.
There are also the usual disputes of archaeological ownership. China is understandably wary of foreign archaeologists, given how much of the area?s heritage has already been removed to the West. Unfortunately, many Silk Road artifacts in the Berlin Museum were destroyed during World War Two when the building was bombed by the Allies, so Western claims of superior standards of guardianship are extremely hard to justify.
So who were the mysterious mummies of the Tarim Basin? How did Caucasian people come to live in the region in the first place? These are mysteries that linguists and archaeologists are currently trying to solve. But without access to all the evidence, only a fragmented picture remains of the people who inhabited the Taklamakan before the sands moved out to claim them.
*Asst Editor's note: a photo from Elizabeth Wayland Barber's excellent book The Mummies of Urumchi can be seen here: The Beauty of Loulan