Tamarisk cones are a ubiquitous and striking feature of the Taklamakan — mounds formed where the dense roots of this plant have prevented the sand from blowing away. It is remarkable how little these have changed since Stein’s day: many of our shots were matched using these natural landmarks. Even though water courses have changed, flash floods from summer melt in the surrounding mountains sometimes cause long dormant seeds to sprout, as in the ancient riverbed at Niya. Over many seasons the receding waters leave behind clay layers which, like the tamarisk cones, stand proud of the surrounding sand.
Around the existing rivers there are still forests of white and black poplars, while their desiccated ancestors emerge from the desert dunes. The wood continues to be used for building, while leaves and sap have many other uses, including as a yellow dye, a medicine and soap. The reeds growing in the riverbeds are also harvested and used as fences for the animal pens. Around the abandoned desert settlements, the dried remains of mulberry trees attest the former fertility of these now arid regions.
Tamarisk cone left in middle of Keriya river after it has changed course, with Tokhta Pawan, February 1908.
Ancient vineyard seen from foot of a tamarisk cone at Niya, January 1931.
Ancient defensive wall smothered by tamarisk cones north of Dunhuang, April 1914.
Niya, panorama from top of tamarisk cone, which Stein marked as his 'Photo Station', from left to right showing farmstead with tank, then bridge, old river bed and another farmstead with ancient vineyard, October 1906.
Niya, panorama from top of tamarisk cone, Stein's 'Photo Station', from left to right showing farmstead with tank, then bridge, flowering tamarisk in old river bed and another farmstead with ancient vineyard, November 2011.
Ancient trees among tamarisk cones to the northeast of N.XXXIX. at Niya, December 1913.
Mulberry avenue south of farmstead N.XVIII. at Niya. Stein's dog Dash and Ram Singh standing beside tree, October 1906.
Ancient tree next to farmstead N.XX. at Niya during excavation, October 1906.
Keriya river with Ibrahim Beg and labourer with cyclometer, June 1908.
Conglomerate cliffs below which route passes to Chong-tokai, September 1913.