Taklamakan Desert occupies much of southern Xinjiang. Regarded as most difficult obstacle on the Silk Road caravan route, it embraces the Tarim Basin, places that receive rains only once every ten or twenty years and 50-meter (160-foot) sand dunes. Winter temperatures often fall below freezing; summer temperatures often exceed 120̊ F, with the temperature of sand reaching 150̊F. Storms kick up from time to time that hurl not only sand but also pebbles.

Sometimes called the Sea of Death, the Taklamakan (also spelled Taklimakan) desert is larger than Poland. Its name means "Once you get in, you can never get out." Located in a basin with the same name, it has large deposits of oil and other minerals. Many of the people that live in the region are men working at the oil camps. It was once thought that the Taklamakan Desert might contain as much oil as Saudi Arabia but that now seems to be a gross overestimate.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Taklamakan Desert “is the most typical warm temperate desert in the world. The Taklamakan Desert is located in the largest inland basin in China-the Tarim Basin, which is with an area of 560,000 square kilometers, and surrounded by the Tian Shan Mountains, the Kalakunlun Mountains, and the Kunlun Mountains. The whole length from east to west is 1000 kilometers, and the width from south to north is 400 kilometers, with an area of 337, 600 square kilometers. Taklamakan Desert is the largest desert in China and second largest in the world. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“Taklamakan Desert is a temperate desert, which belongs to typical continental climate. The temperature changes greatly and annual precipitation is low. The average temperature of July is 25, and that of January is about-9 ~-10 . The highest temperature is 45.6 in summer (recorded in 1997), and the lowest below-20 in winter. Diurnal temperature difference reaches over 40 . The annual precipitation is less than 100 mm, while evaporation reaches 2500-3400 meters.

Geology and Sand Dunes of the Taklamakan Desert

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Taklamakan is the drought centre of the Eurasian continent. Influenced by uplifting of the Tibetan Plateau, the Taklamakan Desert plays a special role in the northern hemisphere, for research on circulation systems of land-sea, land-land and environmental effects of the Tibetan Plateau, which is irreplaceable. Strong wind and resourceful sand form various sand dune types and patterns in the Taklamakan Desert. It is the world museum of sand dunes, which is natural laboratory for research into the regulation of environment and mechanics of sand movement. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“Sand movements are frequent and intense throughout the year. The sandstorm days make up one third of a year, and maximum wind speed is up to 300 meters/s. The geography of the sand dunes in the nominated site is complicated and includes many dune types, for example, crescent dunes, dome-shaped dunes, honeycomb-like dunes, beam-like dunes, dendritic sand dunes, composite longitudinal sand ridge, fish scale-shaped dunes and pyramid-shaped dunes etc.

“The average height of sand dunes is 100-200 meters, maximum reaches 300 meters. The mobile dunes cover over 80 percent area of Taklamakan Desert. According to research, the low sand dunes move about 20 m/y. The desert has extended about 100 kilometers southward during the last thousand years. There are high mountain chains that enclose the basin and help to create the extremely arid desert climate in which this most typical warm temperate desert environment has been formed.”

Oases and Rivers of the Taklamakan Desert

The Taklamakan Desert has very little water, and therefore dangerous to cross. Silk Road caravans stopped at its bustling oasis towns. The key oasis towns, watered by rainfall from the mountains, were Kashgar, Miran, Niya, Yarkand, and Khotan (Hetian) to the south, Kuqa and Turpan in the north, and Loulan and Dunhuang in the east. Oases towns such as Miran and Gaochang were abandoned centuries ago and are now sparsely-inhabited ruined cities. [Source: Wikipedia]

Among the great archaeological discoveries made here are sand-buried ruins with Tocharian, early Hellenistic, Indian, and Buddhist influences. Mummies, some 4000 years old, have been found in Loulan and Xiaohe. Traditionally, the Taklamakan was inhabited by Turkic and Tibetan peoples. The Chinese began taking an interest in it in Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) and periodically extended their control to the oasis cities of the Taklamakan Desert in order to control the Silk Road trade routes. The region’s ancient cities. treasures and dangers were described by Maro Polo, Aurel Stein, Sven Hedin, Albert von Le Coq, and Paul Pelliot.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Tarim River is the longest inland river of China, as well as being a famous river that flows into an arid basin. One-hundred-and-forty-four tributaries, attributed to 9 large water systems of the Tian Shan and Kunlun Mountains, converge into the Tarim River. The Tarim River runs through the Taklamakan Desert and terminates at Lop Nur. At peak flow, it has a length of 2179 kilometers and a main trunk of 1321 kilometers, with and drainage area of 0.102 billion hectares. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

The Tarim River is famed for its prominent regional character as well as its environment, including large stands of Euphrates poplar trees Populus euphratica. However, during the past 50 years, because of immoderate utilization of water resources by humans, water flows have been reduced in parts of the Tarim River, causing die-offs of poplar trees. At the same time, desertification has been more intensive, biodiversity has been threatened, the ecological barriers against the desert has been weakened and environmental challenges such as airborne dust and dust storms have become more frequent, with implications for the development of human society and economy. Fortunately, since 1990, steps have been taken to address these problems. Increased awareness of the need for environmental protection, the establishment of nature reserves and the implementation of enhanced water management, have enabled the poplar trees to thrive.

Taklamakan Desert Popular Forests

Taklamakan Desert’s Populus euphratica Forests was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The nominated site has the largest distribution zone of natural euphrates poplars in the world. The Tarim Basin is the world's core area of these poplar trees which cover 352,200 hectares, accounting for 90 percent of their total area in China and 54.29 percent of the global distribution. The largest natural poplar trees in the world occur in the Tarim River drainage area and large areas of undisturbed poplar forests have been preserved in this region. According to the investigations of Chinese scientists, the continuous distribution of natural poplar forest in the Tarim Basin covers millions of acres, and the volume of wood reaches over 1.5 million square kilometers. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“The nominated area has "living fossils" that date back to the Tertiary period. The poplar trees in the vicinity of the Tarim River are the oldest poplar trees in the world, emerging with the upheaval of the Tibetan Plateau. This kind of poplar tree has existed for more than 60 million years. Fossils of this kind of poplar tree have been discovered in the strata of the Tertiary Oligocene located at Kuqa Thousand-joss Cave and Dunhuang Blacksmith Grove. These fossils are about 3-6 million years old. These fossil trees have physiological characteristics that make them very hardy, enabling them to withstand both chilling winters and broiling summers, aridity, waterlogging and high saline-alkali concentrations. Poplar trees are dioecious (self-propagating) plants that produce globular pollen that take root when they meet water. They also have heteromorphism (i.e. the character of the leaves changes with the age of the tree) and an extensive root network with strong ability to absorb water and withstand salt. The trees grow fast when there is enough water and the growth rate decelerates when the water resource is scanty. There is an old saying that poplar trees can thrive for 1000 years, stand firmly for 1000 years after their death and fail to rot after falling down.

“The nominated area records the changing history of the Tarim River. The three main distributional types of natural poplar forests are as follows: the terrace along the river bank, the front edge of the diluvial fan where underground water surfaces, and the regions around lakes and wetlands. The distribution of Tarim poplar trees is mainly discontinuous in a corridor along the river banks. The distribution reflects the temperature, water and edaphic conditions and shows the narrow environmental conditions in which the poplars thrive. There are more than ten belts of poplar forests of differing ages along both the south and north banks of the Tarim River in the nominated site. The belts vary from hundreds of meters to several kilometers in width. The withered poplar forest belts and living poplar belts alternate with each other, reflecting the vicissitudes of the Tarim River.

Taklamakan Popular Forest Ecology

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The plant and animal species within the poplar forest ecosystem are rare and the poplars are the only tall trees in this ecosystem. The companion plants are mainly halophytes and xerophytic plants, represented by Elaeagnus angustifolia L, Tamarix chinensis, Apocynum venetum, Halimodendron halodendron, Alhagi sparsifolia, bullrush and liquorice etc. The Ferruginous pochard Aythya nyroca, Black-necked grebe Podiceps nigricollis, Black Stork Ciconia nigra, Little bittern Ixobrychus minutus, and the Tarim Yarkand hare Lepus yarkandensis are among local species identified in the IUCN red list as threatened species. The big-head fish of the Tarim River is a national first-level protected animal of China and Tarim Red deer Cervus elaphus yarkandensis is endemic to this region. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

The poplar forests can be divided into four formations: young poplar trees on the floodplain, bullrush-jarrah-poplar mix, jarrah-poplar combination, and grass-wild hemp-Halimodendron halodendron,-poplar stands. The poplar forests can be divided into five age-types according to the growth stage i.e. relatively young forest, full-blown forest, excessively mature forest, old forest and withered forest. Poplars are distributed throughout the nominated site with ages ranging up to one thousand years old. The diameter at breast height of poplar trees is between 1 centimeters and 2.7 meters. The poplar trees indicate different forests forms with their different ages.

Poplar stands are an ecological barrier against dust storms. They have strong roots and the main roots reach depths of 6-8 meters. Horizontally, the roots may extend for tens of meters. These attributes ensure that enough water can be absorbed by the tree. The root can also absorb salt from the soil to increase the osmotic pressure across the cell wall, which enhances the ability to absorb water and prevents salinization. Even if the main trunk is totally withered, the root can catch hold of the soil and sand firmly. Therefore, poplar trees possess a powerful ecological ability to maintain water and soil, as well as withstanding storms and fixing sand dunes. The lower reaches of the Tarim River are located between the Taklamakan and Kumtage Deserts, which are divided by a green corridor made up of poplar trees. The Loess Plateau, the edge of Taklamakan and the region around the Salty Sea are a huge source of dust for storms in the northern hemisphere. Therefore, preserving the poplar forest will play a key role in alleviating dust storms in the world. The terminal of the Tarim River has receded from the expansive Lop Nur to Taitema Lake, and the latter has shrunk in most recent years. This reflects the environment vicissitudes in the recent hundreds of years, both natural and human-induced, and provides important scientific evidence for research on global climate change and associated human impacts.

Silk Road Route in China

Pipa player from Kizil caves

The overland Silk Road route to the west began in Changan (Xian), the capital of China during the Han, Qin and Tang dynasties. It stopped in the towns of Zhangye, Jiayuguan, Langzhou, Yumen, Anxi and Nanhu before dividing in three main routes at Dunhuang.

The three main routes between Dunhuang and Central Asia were: 1) the northern route, which went through northwest China through the towns of Hami and Turpan to Central Asia: 2) the central route, which veered southwest from Turpan and passed through Kucha, Aksu and Kashgar; and 3) the southern route, which passed through the heart of the Taklamakan Desert via the oasis towns of Miran, Khotan and Yarkand before joining with the central route in Kashgar.

On the southern route through western China the going began getting difficult near present-day Lanzhou, where the "Gate of Demons," marked the approach to an area, which the writer Mildred Cable said featured "rushing rivers, cutting their way through sand...an unfathomable lake hidden among the dunes...sand-hills with a voice like thunder" and "water which could be clearly seen and yet was a deception."

The going started to get really rough around the Yumenguan (Jade Gate Pass, near Dunhuang), traditionally regarded as the frontier of Chinese Turkestan and entrance to the vast and inhospitable Taklamakan Desert. where Cable wrote, the desert "is a howling wilderness, and the first thing which strikes the wayfarer is the dismalness of its uniform, black, pebble strewn surface." From here the Silk Road followed a line of oases to Kashgar or veered north into present-day Kazakhstan.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The routes around the Takla Makan desert in the Tarim Basin connected the Chinese capitals at Ch'ang-an (modern Xi'an) and Loyang with the western frontiers from the Han to Tang periods. The routes divided into northern, southern and central branches around the Tarim Basin at Dunhuang. The northern route started from the Jade Gate outside of Dunhuang and proceeded to the oasis of Turfan, near the Buddhist cave complex at Bezeklik. From Turfan, this route followed the southern foothills of the Tien-shan mountains to Karashahr and Shorchuk (near modern Korla) before reaching Kucha, an oasis surrounded by Buddhist cave complexes such as Kyzil and Kumtura. The northern route continued through Aksu, a junction for routes over the Tien-shan, and Maralbashi, near the Buddhist caves of Tumshuk, to Kashgar, where the southern route reconnects. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]

“The southern route began at the Yang-kuan gate outside of Dunhuang and continued to oases on the southern rim of the Takla Makan desert such as Miran, Charklik, Cherchen, Endere, and Niya. This route followed the northern base of the Kun-lun mountains to Khotan and Kashgar. An intermediate route from Dunhuang led to the military garrison at Lou-lan on Lop-nor Lake, where branches diverged to Miran on the southern route and Karashahr on the northern route. Travelers' itineraries around the Tarim Basin depended on their goals and destinations, the political and physical environment, and economic conditions. *\

Archeological Evidence of the Silk Road Trade in China

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Many artifacts demonstrate long-distance trade connections and cultural transmission between China, Khotan (Hotan in present-day Xinjiang, China) on the southern silk route, and the northwestern frontiers of the Indian subcontinent. Fragments of finely woven tabby silk from China reflect long-distance trade or tribute relations with Khotan during the third or early fourth centuries CE. Coins of Indo-Scythian (Saka) and Kushan rulers (see essays on Sakas and Kushans) and an incomplete manuscript of a Gandhari version of the Dharmapada were found near Khotan. Other items imported to Khotan from the northwestern Indian subcontinent included small Gandharan stone sculptures and moulded terracotta figures. Long-distance trade in highly valued Buddhist items (such as manuscripts, small sculptures, miniature stupas, and possibly relics) prefigured later connections between Buddhist communities in Khotan and Gilgit. Khotan was not only a regional commercial and religious center of the southwestern Tarim Basin, but also functioned as a connecting point between China, India, western Central Asia, and Iran. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]

“The Shan-shan kingdom, which flourished on the southern silk route between Niya and Lou-lan until the fourth century CE, benefited from long-distance trade between China and eastern Central Asia. In exchange for luxury items from these regions, Chinese silk was probably used in commercial transactions, since silk was preferred to copper coins as currency. The economic prosperity of agricultural oases and trading centers on the southern silk route enabled Buddhist communities to establish stupas and monasteries. As Marilyn Rhie observes in Early Buddhist Art of China & Central Asia (vol. 1, p. 429), Buddhist sculptures from Miran and Khotan display many similarities with the artistic traditions of Gandhara, Swat, and Kashmir in the northwestern Indian subcontinent. Mural paintings at Miran reflect ties with both the art of western Central Asia and northwest India (Rhie, p. 385). Administrative documents found at Niya, Endere, and Lou-lan written in the Gandhari language and Kharosthi script demonstrate linguistic and cultural ties between the southern silk route oases and the northwestern Indian subcontinent in the third to fourth centuries CE. *\

“Intermediate routes through Karashahr and northern routes through Turfan probably eclipsed the southern route by the fifth century CE (according to Rhie, p. 392). Many of the most important archaeological sites on the northern silk route are clustered around Kucha and the Turfan oasis. Mural paintings in cave monasteries, stupa architecture, artifacts, and other remains from approximately the third to seventh centuries at sites around Kucha show closer stylistic affinities with the northwestern Indian subcontinent, western Central Asia and Iran than with China. Sites located further east along the northern silk route belonging to relatively later dates in the seventh to tenth centuries typically reveal more Chinese and Turkish elements. Mural paintings from the cave monastery of Kyzil demonstrate continuities between the art of the western part of the northern silk routes and the artistic traditions of Swat, Gandhara and Sassanian Iran in the middle of the first millennium CE. Monks and merchants traveling on the northern and southern silk routes were responsible for maintaining commercial, religious, and cultural contacts between India, Central Asia, and China. *\

“Material remains from sites along the silk routes reflect close relations between long-distance trade and patterns of cultural and religious transmission. Demand for Chinese silk and luxury commodities which were high in value but low in volume stimulated commerce. Valuable items such as lapis lazuli, rubies, and other precious stones from the mountains of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir probably led travelers to venture into these difficult regions. Some of these products became popular items for Buddhist donations, as attested in Buddhist literary references to the "seven jewels" (saptaratna) and reliquary deposits (see Xinru Liu, Acient India and Ancient China, pp. 92-102). Long-distance trade in luxury commodities, which were linked with the transmission of Buddhism [see essay on Buddhism and Trade], led to increased cultural interaction between South Asia, Central Asia, and China. *\

Marco Polo Crosses the Taklamakan Desert

Kizil Caves donors

Marco Polo (1254-1324) and his father and uncle traversed the forbidding gravel plains and sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert. They most likely were part of a caravan of double-humped Bactrian camels that traveled about 15 miles a day with a month's supply of food, stopping at infrequent water holes and oases. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

Marco wrote, of oases that "have great abundance of all things” but there are places where "nothing to eat is found" and "you must always go a day and night before you find water...It often seems to you that you hear many instruments sounding and especially drums. The old people believe they are hearing devils speak...One night I heard, three times, a terrible noise, like crying, like someone dying...Beasts and birds there are none,because they find nothing to eat. But I assure you that one thing is found here, and that a very strange one...When a man is riding by night through this desert and something happens to make him loiter and lose touch with his companions...the spirits begin talking in such a way that they seem to be his companions. Sometimes, indeed, they even hail him by name. Often these voices make him stray from the path, so that he never finds it again. And in this way many travelers have been lost and have perished." **

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “When the Polos arrived the Taklamakan desert (or Taim Basin), this time they skirted around the desert on the southern route, passing through Yarkand, Khotan, Cherchen, and Lop-Nor. Marco's keen eye picked out the most notable peculiarities of each. At Yarkand, he described that the locals were extremely prone to goiter, which Marco blamed on the local drinking water. In the rivers of Pem province were found "stones called jasper and chalcedony in plenty" - a reference to jade. At Pem, "when a woman's husband leaves her to go on a journey of more than 20 days, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband, and this she is fully entitled to do by local usage. And the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way." Cherchen was also a noted jade source." [Source: Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo]

Aksu Area Silk Road Sites

Silk Road Sites in the Aksu Area: 1) Buddha Subash Temple Site-Aksu Area (Coordinates: N 41 51 20-41 51 40, E 83 2-83 3); 2) Kizil Grottoes-Aksu Area (Coordinates: N 41 46 59-41 47 11, E 82 30 03-82 30 32); 3) Kumtula Grottoes-Aksu Area (Coordinates: N 41 41 25-41 42 95, E 82 40 59-82 41 59); 4)Simsem Grottoes-Aksu Area (Coordinates: N 41 51 50-41 52 05, E 83 08 31-83 09 55); 20)Bedel Pass (Coordinates:N41 23 58 E78 23 40);

Bedel Pass is a mountain pass in the Tian Shan Mountains range between Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang. It reaches an elevation of 4,284 meters (14,055 feet) and linked China to Barskon, a settlement on the southern shore of lake Issyk-kul. Bedel Pass served as a Silk Road trade route between China and Central Asia. The Bedel Beacon Tower is located along the path in the foothills on the Chinese side. It was built during the Han dynasty and renovated during the Tang dynasty.

During the Sui and Tang dynasties, the pass was the main trade route linking Tarim Basin and Western Turks in Central Asia. Many scholars believe (but some do not) that Xuanzang used this pass in the 7th century on his journey to India. Xuanzang used a passage northwest of "Kingdom of Baluka", modern day city of Aksu. Other argue that it was Muzart Pass. The pass is currently closed to traffic. Kumtor Gold Mine is located down the road on the Kyrgyz side. Along the path on the Chinese side is also the ruins of a KMT era sentry post which is a local cultural heritage site.

Muzart Pass is a high mountain pass that crosses the Tian Shan mountains in Xinjiang, China, connecting the city of Aksu in the Tarim Basin with the city of Yining (Kulja) in the upper Ili River valley. The route over Muzart Pass is more commonly referred to as Xiate Trail, Xiate being the name of the village in Tekes River valley at the base on the northern side of the route.


Kuqa (500 kilometers southwest of Urumqi and 600 kilometers northeast of Kashgar) is former Silk Road oasis town popular with foreign tourist who come to view Buddhist caves in the outskirt of the city. It also has a big bustling market, a large mosque with a green onion dome on its roof and minarets as well the ancient Resten mosque, which has mud walls and attracts a small but loyal group for daily prayers. It is a government sanctioned mosque. Web Site: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Kuqa (also spelled Kocha, Kuchu, Kuchar, Kuchi, Kucha and K'u-ch'e) was the home of the ancient Buddhist Kingdom of Kucha. In 630, the famous Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler and translator Xuanzang spent some time there (See Below). Situated in northeastern Aksu Prefecture, the city lies at the southern periphery of the Tian Shan range, the northern portion of the Tarim Basin. [Source: Wikipedia]

Kuqa city is the second largest town of Aksu Prefecture, with a population 470,600. It is thriving town of oil and natural gas development of the Tarim Basin. About 90 percent of the population of Kuqa County are Uyghur, with most of the remainder being Han Chinese. The city is served by China National Highway 217, China National Highway 314 and the Southern Xinjiang Railway.

Kumtura Thousand Buddha Caves (25 kilometers west of Kuqa) is a Buddhist cave site with 112 cave temples.ome with murals, dating from the fifth to the eleventh centuries. Damaged during the Islamic conquests and subsequently by occasional habitation after abandonment of the site, the site is was among the first to be designated for protection in 1961 as a Major National Historical and Cultural Site. In 2008 Kumtula Grottoes was submitted for future inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List as part of the Chinese Section of the Silk Road. [Source: Wikipedia]

Subashi Temple (near Kuqa) is a ruined Buddhist temple partly excavated by the Japanese archaeologist Count Otani. A sarira, a Buddhist relic box of the 6th-7th century, discovered in Subashi shows Central Asian men in long tunics, reminiscent of other friezes which have been called Tocharian. The "Witch of Subashi" is another famous archaeological artifact, the mummy of a woman with a huge pointed hat, thought to be a representative of early Caucasian populations who lived in the region around the beginning of our era.

Xuanzang in Kucha in Present-Day Western China

In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Chinese dynasty capital for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to Central Asia and then south and east to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip inspired the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” by Wu Ch'eng-en, a 16th century story about a wandering Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit. It is widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf); See Separate Article on Xuanzang]

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “ From Turfan the pilgrim and his now large caravan traveled to Kharashahr Yanqi) and thence to the flourishing kingdom of Kucha. Xuanzang was impressed with the wealth and cultural richness of its civilization as well as its size. A Kuchan orchestra had been introduced at the Chinese court and during the whole of the Tang period took part in imperial fetes. An authentic portrait of the King and Queen of Kucha, originally from the Kizil monastery, reveal an elegantly dressed royal pair and a king with red hair and light skin like most of his subjects, clearly someone of Indo-European origin. The king, not a very prudent man eventually renounced Chinese suzerainty in favor of an alliance with the Turks. In 648 C.E, long after Xuanzang's stay, the Chinese invaded his country and took the king prisoner. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, mongolianculture.com \~/]

Xuanzang reported: “Going south-west from this country 200 li or so, surmounting a small mountain range and crossing two large rivers, passing westwards through a level valley some 700 li or so, we come to the country of K'iu-chi (Kuchê. Kucha in Xinjiang anciently written Ii uei-tzu). [p.19]. The country of K'iu-chi is from east to west some thousand li or so; from north to south about 600 li. The capital of the realm is from 17 to 18 li in circuit. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]

The soil is suitable for rice and corn, also (a kind of rice called) keng-t'ao; produces grapes, pomegranates, and nu- merous species of plums, pears, peaches, and almonds, also grow here. The ground is rich in minerals — gold, copper, iron, and lead, and tin. The air is soft, and the manners of the people honest. The style of writing (literature) is Indian, with some differences. They excel other countries in their skill in playing on the lute and pipe. They clothe themselves with ornamental garments of silk and embroidery. They cut their hair and wear a flowing covering (over their heads). In commerce they use gold, silver, and copper coins. The king is of the K'iu-chi race; his wisdom being small, he is ruled by a powerful minister. The children born of common parents have their heads flattened by the pressure of a wooden board." |:|

Xuanzang on the Buddhist Activity in Kucha

Xuanzang reported: “There are about one hundred convents (sangharamas) in this country, with five thousand and more disciples. These belong to the Little Vehicle of the school of the Sarvistivadas (Shwo-yih-tsai-yu-po). Their doctrine (teaching of Sutras) and their rules of discipline (principles of the Vinaya) are like those of India, and those who read them use the same (originals). They especially hold to the [p.20] customs of the "gradual doctrine," and partake only of the three pure kinds of food. They live purely, and provoke others (by their conduct) to a religious life. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]

“To the north of a city on the eastern borders of the country, in front of a Dêva temple, there is a Great dragonlake. The dragons, changing their form, couple with mares. The offspring is a wild species of horse (dragon horse), difficult to tame and of a fierce nature. The breed of these dragon-horses became docile: This country consequently became famous for its many excellent horses. Former records (of this country) say: "In late times there was a king called 'Gold Flower,' who exhibited rare intelligence in the doctrines (of religion). He was able to yoke the dragons to his chariot. When the king wished to dis- appear, he touched the ears of the dragons with his whip, and forthwith he became invisible." |:|

Buddha from Kizil caves

“From very early time till now there have been no wells in the town, so that the inhabitants have been accustomed to get water from the dragon lake. On these occasions the dragons, changing themselves into the likeness of men, had intercourse with the women. Their children, when born, were powerful and courageous, and swift of foot as the horse. Thus gradually corrupting themselves, the men all became of the dragon breed, and relying on their strength, they became rebellious and disobedient to the royal authority. Then the king, forming an alliance with the Tuh-kiueh (Turks), massacred the men of the city; young and old, all were [p.21] destroyed, so that there was no remnant left; the city is now a waste and uninhabited. |:|

“About 40 li to the north of this desert city there are two convents close together on the slope of a mountain, but separated by a stream of water, both named Chau-hu-li, being situated east and west of one another, and accordingly so called. (Here there is) a statue of Buddha, richly adorned and carved with skill surpassing that of men. The occupants of the convents are pure and truthful, and diligent in the discharge of their duties. In (the hall of) the eastern convent, called the Buddha pavilion, there is a jade stone, with a surface of about two feet in width, and of a yellowish white colour; in shape it is like a sea-shell; on its surface is a foot trace of Buddha, 1 foot 8 inches long, and eight inches or so in breadth; at the expiration of every fast-day it emits a bright and sparkling light. |:|

“Outside the western gate of the chief city, on the right and left side of the road, there are (two) erect figures of Buddha, about 90 feet high. In the space in front of these statues there is a place erected for the quinquennial assembly. Every year at the autumnal equinox, during ten several days, the priests assemble from all the country in this place. The king and all his people, from the highest to the lowest, on this occasion abstain from public business, and observe a religious fast; they listen to the [p.22] sacred teachings of the law, and pass the days without weariness. |:|

“In all the convents there are highly adorned images of Buddha, decorated with precious substances and covered with silken stuffs. These they carry (on stated occasions) in idol-cars, which they call the "procession of images." On these occasions the people flock by thousands to the place of assembly. On the fifteenth and last day of the month the king of the country and his ministers always consult together respecting affairs of state, and after taking counsel of the chief priests, they publish their decrees. |:|

Xuanzang on the King of Kucha

Xuanzang reported: “ “To the north-west of the meeting-place we cross a river and arrive at a convent called 'O- she-li-ni. The hall of this temple is open and spacious. The image of Buddha is beautifully carved. The disciples (religious) are brave and decorous and very diligent in their duties; rude and rough (men) come here together; the aged priests are learned and of great talent, and so from distant spots the most eminent men who desire to acquire just principles come here and fix their abode. The king and his ministers and the great men of the realm offer to these priests the four sorts of provision, and their celebrity spreads farther and farther. |:|

“The old records say: "A former king of this country worshipped the 'three precious' ones. Wishing to pay homage to the sacred relics of the outer world, he entrusted the affairs of the empire to his younger brother on the mother's side. The younger brother having received such orders, mutilated himself in order to prevent any evil risings (of passion). He enclosed the mutilated [p.23] parts in a golden casket, and laid it before the king. 'What is this?' inquired the king. In reply he said, 'On the day of your majesty's return home, I pray you open it and see.' The king gave it to the manager of his affairs, who intrusted the casket to a portion of the king's bodyguard to keep. And now, in the end, there were certain mischief-making people who said, 'The king's deputy, in his absence, has been debauching himself in the inner rooms of the women.' The king hearing this, was very angry, and would have subjected his brother to cruel punishment. The brother said, 'I dare not flee from punishment, but I pray you open the golden casket.' The king accordingly opened it, and saw that it contained a mutilated member. Seeing it, he said, 'What strange thing is this, and what does it signify?' Replying, the brother said, 'Formerly, when the king proposed to go abroad, he ordered me to undertake the affairs of the government. Fearing the slanderous reports that might arise, I mutilated myself. You now have the proof of my foresight. Let the king look benignantly on me.' The king was filled with the deepest reverence and strangely moved with affection; in consequence, he permitted him free ingress and egress throughout his palace. |:|

“"After this it happened that the younger brother, going abroad, met by the way a herdsman who was arranging to geld five hundred oxen. On seeing this, he gave himself to reflection, and taking himself as an example of what they were to suffer, he was moved with increased compassion, (and said), 'Are not my present sufferings the consequence of my conduct in some former condition of life?' He forthwith desired with money and precious jewels to redeem this herd of oxen. In consequence of this act of love, he recovered by degrees from mutilation, and on this account he ceased to enter the apartments of the women. The king, filled with wonder, asked him the [p.24] reason of this, and having heard the matter from beginning to end, looked on him as a 'prodigy' (khi- teh), and from this circumstance the convent took its name, which he built to honour the conduct of his brother and perpetuate his name." After quitting this country and going about 600 li to the west, traversing a small sandy desert, we come to the country of Poh-luh-kia. |:|

“The kingdom of Poh-luh-kia (Aksu, border of China and Kazakhstan, formerly called Che-meh or Kih-meh) is about 600 li from east to west, and 300 li or, so from north to south. The chief town is 5 or 6 li in circuit. With regard to the soil, climate, character of the people, the customs, and literature (laws of composition), these are the same as in the country of g'iu-chi. The language (spoken language) differs however a little. It produces a fine sort of cotton and hair-cloth, which are highly valued by neighboring (frontier) countries."

Kizil Caves

Kizil Caves ( northern bank of the Muzat River 65 kilometers west of Kuqa) are a set of Buddhist rock-cut caves said to be the earliest major Buddhist cave complex in China, with development occurring between the 3rd and 8th centuries, making them a century or so older than the caves in Dunhuang. The Kizil Caves complex is the largest of the ancient Buddhist cave sites that are associated with the ancient Tocharian kingdom of Kucha, as well as the largest in Xinjiang. Other cave sites in the Kucha region include the Kumtura Caves and Simsim Caves. [Source: Wikipedia]

There are 236 cave temples in Kizil, carved into the cliff stretching from east to west for a length of about two kilometers. Of these, 135 are in reasonably good condition. The oldest caves, based in part on radioactive carbon dating, are estimated to date to around A.D. 300. Researchers say the site was likely abandoned in the beginning of the 8th century when the Tang Chinese began exerting their influence on the area. reached the area. Documents written in Tocharian languages were found in Kizil, and a few of the caves contain Tocharian inscriptions which give the names of a few rulers.

There are three other types of caves: square caves, caves with large image, and monastic cells (kuti). Around two-thirds of the caves are kutis which are monks' living quarters and store-houses, and these caves do not contain mural paintings. Many of the caves have a central pillar design in which pilgrims would circle the a central column which represented a stupa. A large vaulted chamber is located in front of the column. A smaller rear chamber is behind. Two tunnel-like corridors on the sides of the column link the front and chambers. A Buddha statue would been situated in a large niche in the front chmabers. Butat Kizil none of these sculptures have survived at Kizil. The rear chamber may have featured the parinirvana scene in the form of a mural or large sculpture.

Murals in Kizil Caves

Kizil Caves, Cave of the Musicians

In 1906, the German expedition team of Albert von Le Coq and Albert Grünwedel explored Kizil Caves. Von le Coq removed many of the murals. Most of the fragments removed are now in Museum of Asian Art (formerly Museum für Indische Kunst) in Berlin. Other explorers removed some fragments of murals and may now be found in museums in Russia, Japan, Korea and United States. Despite this and other damage and looting around 5000 square meters of wall paintings remain. These murals mostly depict Jataka stories, avadanas, and legends of the Buddha, and are an artistic representation in the tradition of the Hinayana school of the Sarvastivadas.

According to a text found in Kucha, the paintings in some of the caves were commissioned by a Tokharian (Thogar) king called "Mendre" with the advice of Anandavarman, a high-ranking monk. The king ordered an Indian artist, Naravahanadatta, and a Syrian artist, Priyaratna, with their disciples to paint the caves. The neighbouring Khotanese kings Vijayavardhana and Murlimin sent artists to work on different caves.

One notable characteristic of the murals in Kizil is the extensive use of blue pigments derived from lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Another feature of the Kizil murals is the division into diamond-shaped blocks in the vault ceilings of the main room of many caves. Buddhist scenes are depicted inside these diamond-shapes in many layers on top of one another to show the narrative sequences of the scenes

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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