Aurel Stein: A hundred years on

Travel

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.

Truck stop on cross-desert road, November 2008.
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Sand control on the cross-desert road, November 2008.
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Beginning of the desert near the entrance to Niya site, November 2011.
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Camels at Gaochang, 1999.
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Motorbike at petrol station outside Khotan, 23 November 2011.
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Lorries loaded with cotton at Lunnan, on the desert road across the Taklamakan, November 2011.
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Vehicle stuck in the sand on way to Rawak, November 2008.
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4WD at garage in Kucha, November 2008.
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IDP Field Trip: Poplar-lined road between Keriya and Khotan, November 2011.
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Urumqi street, November 2011.
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Through car window on the highway between Khotan and Aksu, November 2008.
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Loading camels at Daheyan, November 2011.
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Korla railway station, November 2011.
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Supplies for the journey and sand vehicle, November 2011.
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Camels returning to Daheyan guesthouse from Karadong, November 2011.
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IDP, XJIA and locals at Yotkan, site of ancient Khotan, November 2008.
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Camels in the Taklamakan, November 1913.
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Yusuf with pony on Cherchen River, January 1914.
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Cases starting from Miran with Emin Ali and Sher Ali Khan, February 1914.
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Unpacking the ferry boat on Yurungkash (White Jade River), Khotan, September 1906.
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Old track and new road below Shitkharw, on the Upper Amu-Darya, September 1915.
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Tarantass carriage on road at Dafancheng, January 1915.
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Traveller on donkey near Kurgan, March 1931.
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Packing of carts, Yangi-chilan, April 1931.
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Mountain path below Gircha, June 1931.
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Ferry on Konche River, March 1931.
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Caravan at halt, with camels and ponies, 1915.
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Camels in Taklamakan, October 1913.
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March in snow on desert crossing, January, 1908.
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Hassan Akhun with camel at Sujiquan, July 1907.
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Kirghiz on baggage ponies above Rattim, August 1915.
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Muhammadju's farewell on Victoria Lake, with a Marco Polo sheep head, August 1915.
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Goatskin raft ready for crossing Bartang River at Nussur, August 1915.
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Yaks fording Kashkal Glacier stream, August 1906.
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