An Expedition Into Vast Lop Nur
It was in the Lop Nur that I came to understand what the word "driving" means.
The 16 jeeps of our motorcade dashed and competed with each other in the vast Gobi desert, where there was not a single way, path or track but only a direction. Tiny pebbles flew in all directions as the wheels scrunched over them. Alas, this spectacular racing didn't last long. Five hours after entering the desert, the no 13 jeep broke down.
In the no-man's land of Lop Nor, mobile phones or intercoms are useless. The exact longitude and latitude of the site of the broken-down jeep had to be measured with the help of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
"Leave them with food and water, and let the rest go on." Man Lin, 41, the lady leading our exploration team, decided to abandon both the jeep and its team, and to inform the rescue squad after crossing the desert.
"Don't worry. There are no wolves. Not a single fly can survive in the Lop Nor," Wu Shiguang, our guide, tried to comfort a frightened young woman journalist abandoned on the jeep.
Lop Nor, covering 3,000 square kilometres, has been called China's Bermuda Triangle. It has been a forbidden land since the area's waters dried up more than 100 years ago.
Recorded in "Shanhaijing (Classic of Mountains and Seas)," a Chinese geological document written before the third century BC, what is now the Gobi was then the largest lake in China and around it were populated oases. For a millennium after the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD), the Lop Nur area was the centre of China's western regions and the hub of communications on the Silk Road, which linked the East with the West.
Historical documents show that many kingdoms existed in the area in that millennium. Explorers - including Sven Hedin, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, Huang Wenbi and Wang Binghua - found remains or made trial excavations of remains of the Loulan (Kroraina) Kingdom, the city of Milan, the Xiaohe site and the city of Haitou.
"Contemporary explorers have yet to set foot in most areas of Lop Nor," said Wu.
Having come together in an expedition to learn about the local ecology and the protection of the rich historical sites, we were trying to travel from east to west through the desert.
Our exploration was organised by the Chinese Society of Cultural Heritage, the Chinese Great Wall Society and the Bayingolin prefectural government. Team members included explorers and experts on the preservation of cultural heritage.
We set off at the end of June from Dunhuang in Northwest China's Gansu Province, and entered the desert from the legendary "ghost city" (vast territory of giant wind-eroded rocks five to ten metres tall) about 200 kilometres northwest of Dunhuang. We were well equipped with GPS appliances, cell phones, an oil truck and 16 Toyota jeeps.
We also had the best guide in the desert. Wu, independent explorer, was the leader of the rescue team that found the body of Yu Chunshun, a leading Chinese explorer, in Lop Nur in 1996.
Yu died naked in the Gobi at a spot that was within 20 minutes' walk of a water source that had already been prepared. Yu, who had completed 72 explorations around China, turned west at a point where he should have gone south, said Wu.
The difficulty in telling one direction from another is the main reason why Lop Nur has swallowed many explorers over more than a century, said Wu. And we met that very same difficulty on our first day in the desert.
At half past midnight, our lead jeep stopped yet again, with the entire motorcade following suit.
No one in our exploration team was in the mood to get out and stretch their legs, even though we had been sitting in the jeeps for 15 hours. Since 9 pm our motorcade had stopped and changed direction seven times already.
It had seemed as though we were running to and fro like a shuttle bus, as we were always seeing what looked like the same stretch of Gobi desert covered with tiny bits of gravel, with 5-metre-tall stone hillocks about 20 metres away, without a single blade of grass in sight.
However, even the hillocks had now disappeared from sight. Outside the jeeps there was nothing but a suffocating darkness. The only beams of light came from the dramatically beautiful starry sky, through which the Milky Way ran like an arch.
"Maybe we are really lost this time, like Peng Jiamu," whispered one of the team members.
Peng, an internationally influential chemist and geologist and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, hit the headlines in 1980 after disappearing at the southeastern route into the Lop Nur part of the Gobi desert in Xinjiang's Bayingolin Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture.
He left the camp one morning when his team was running out of water and petrol, with a note saying: "I have gone to find water." There was speculation that Peng set out for the location of a well marked on a map drawn in the 1940s.
Inch by inch, more than 100 rescuers searched the whole area where Peng could have walked, centred on the camp, but the scientist was never found, neither alive nor dead.
Now, more than 20 years later, we had got lost in the same area where Peng disappeared.
Our motorcade changed direction for the eighth time. Half an hour later, some dim light appeared on the horizon. We headed towards it for an hour without seeming to approach it even a little.
Finally, more than two hours later, we reached that place.. It turned out a small factory producing sylvite, the key landmark for explorers in Lop Nor. Tents were set up on the pebbles. We got up only four hours later at 6 am, alert but freezing, and moved on.
Hillocks disappeared as we entered deeper into the desert, and still there was only the Gobi covered by grey, tiny pebbles. The scenery was amazing, but just too monotonous. Our eyes soon got unbearably tired, and all we could do was to look at each other in the jeep most of the time, as we felt dizzy even at another glance out of the window.
It was impossible to make any fun in the jeep, e.g. to sing a song, not to mention playing cards. We had been jumping like kangaroos all the time, as the "plain" Gobi was filled with holes and ditches.
At 1 pm, our motorcade stopped and all the photographers rushed out of the jeeps and propped up their tripods. Away on the horizon a white two-storey terrain had appeared.
"Why is there a building in the Gobi?" I asked Yan Yan, driver of our No 12 jeep.
"It's the mirage. I saw it the last time I was in the Lop Nor," said Yan.
The excitement at the mirage passed as we got into the territory of the ancient Loulan Kingdom two hours later. The drivers tried hard to find a way across the dilapidated humps of rammed soil, which might have been houses about two millenniums ago.
It took us five hours to cover the 15-kilometre-long route into the centre of the kingdom. We walked for most of the way, as 14 of the 15 remaining jeeps got stuck in the half-a-meter-deep dust. Two of the jeeps that had better
equipment had to pull the rest out of more than 50 holes along the route.
Ten of the jeeps finally arrived at the centre of the ruins of the kingdom at 8 pm, with the other five having become firmly stuck in the dust.
The art works, which had maintained their brilliant colours in the dry weather, were in the Grandhara, traditional Chinese and classical Greek styles.
Why did that prosperous land fall into oblivion so abruptly? Was it abandoned on purpose or what was the reason? The only significant remaining piece of architecture is a tower made of rammed soil that is hard to recognise.
At the site, there is also a wall made of rammed soil, which was once part of a house. Dozens of wooden shafts, about 2 meters tall, stand in an orderly fashion beside the wall.
Scattered everywhere are ancient pot shards and animal bones left by tomb raiders. Bent on the ground are also the dried trunks and branches of dead variform-leaved poplar trees.
Looking far into the horizon, we could see continuous giant mounds of rammed soil, a magnificent sight in the sunset over the Gobi.
"It is difficult to protect the ruins of Loulan, as people cannot stay in the desolate site to guard the relics," said Luo Zhewen, a member of our team and head of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage architecture preservation committee.
Meng Hangao, an archaeologist from Bayingolin, frequently patrols the site. He and two of his colleagues lived in Lop Nur most of last year, and built the Loulan Cultural Heritage Administration out of two vehicles.
Apart from Loulan, we also investigated the ruins of the ancient city of Yixun about 500 kilometres southwest of the Loulan ruins and 80 kilometres east of today's Ruoqiang County seat. Legend has it that Loulan residents moved to Yixun after a palace coup, but all that is left of the ancient city are the remnants of a rammed earth city wall.
During the three-day trip, nan1 was our main food. That round crusty bread2, an everyday staple of the Uyghur and Kazak people, can be preserved for months in the heat of Xinjiang and Central Asia.
The nan was still important when we drove out of Lop Nur towards Ruoqiang County in the Kumtag Desert. Our motorcade had to stop again as flooding from the Altun Mountains had swept away a road bridge.
"Never mind. We still have some nan,"said a member of our team, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.