The Taklamakan Desert, China – September 13th, 2008
The Taklamakan Desert, also known as Taklimakan, is a desert in Central Asia, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. It is bounded by Kunlun Mountains to the south, and Pamir Mountains and Tian Shan (ancient Mount Imeon) to the west and north.
Taklamakan is known as one of the largest sandy deserts in the world, ranking 15th in size in a ranking of the world’s largest non-polar deserts. It covers an area of 270,000 km² of the Tarim Basin, 1,000 km long and 400 km wide. It is crossed at its northern and at its southern edge by two branches of the Silk Road as travellers sought to avoid the arid wasteland. In recent years, the People’s Republic of China has constructed a cross-desert highway that links the cities of Hotan (on the southern edge) and Luntai (on the northern edge).
Taklamakan is the paradigm of a cold desert. Given its relative proximity with the cold to frigid air masses in Siberia, extreme lows are recorded in wintertime, sometimes well below −20 °C (−4 °F) . During the 2008 Chinese winter storms episode the Taklamakan was reported to be for the first time covered in its entirety of a thin layer of snow reaching 4 centimetres (1.6 in) in some observatories.
Its extreme inland position, virtually in the very heartland of Asia and thousands of kilometres from any open body of water, accounts for the cold character of its nights even during summertime.
There is no water on the desert and it is hazardous to cross. Takla Makan means “go in and you’ll never come out”. Merchant caravans on the Silk Road would stop for relief at the thriving oasis towns.
The key oasis towns, watered by rainfall from the mountains, were Kashgar, Marin, Niya, Yarkand, and Khotan (Hetian) to the south, Kuqa and Turfan in the north, and Loulan and Dunhuang in the east. Now many, such as Marin and Gaochang are ruined cities in sparsely inhabited areas in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of the Peoples Republic of China.
The archeological treasures found in its sand buried ruins point to Tocharian, early Hellenistic, Indian and Buddhistic influences. Mummies, some 4000 years old, have been found in the region. They show the wide range of peoples who have passed through. Some of the mummies appear European. Later, the Taklamakan was inhabited by Turkic peoples. Starting with the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese periodically extended their control to the oasis cities of the Taklamakan in order to control the important silk route trade across Central Asia. Periods of Chinese rule were interspersed with rule by Turkic and Mongol and Tibetan peoples. The present population consists largely of Turkic, Uyghur people.