Crossing the Tarim Basin is a journey not only across space but also back in time. Travelling on foot and on horseback, Stein had to surmount the formidable mountain ranges between India and China to reach his starting point, Kashgar. Our starting point at Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is nowadays reached easily by plane. But as we moved further away from Urumqi, we moved closer to Stein and other travellers of the past.
At first, the difference remains considerable, with wide roads and a railway now crossing the mountains and skirting the deserts. On the modern road which now bisects the Taklamakan, grids of netting keep the constantly shifting sands at bay. The sites at the fringes of the desert can be reached in some comfort and speed by 4-wheel drives — with skilful driving.
Further into the desert, sand trucks, driven by off-duty oil workers, track a slow and circuitous path, searching for navigable routes through the mountainous dunes. But even they cannot negotiate the deepest sands of the Taklamakan. Here Bactrian camels come into their own and the pace of the journey reduces to that of Stein a century ago and, indeed, to that of Silk Road merchants two millennia past.