Ancient Cities Turned to Sand


Desertification, a screenshot from Meltdown: China's Environmental Crisis"
Desertification in China offers a warning to us all.

There are some places in the world where you don’t want to get a flat tire. The middle of China’s vast Taklamakan Desert—with no cell phone coverage and no hint of civilization—is one of them. So when we got our second flat tire on our trek, we started to worry a little. We were suddenly a wheel short and a long way from help.

Sitting in our now three-wheel four-wheel drive, our chances of reaching our destination were starting to look slim. I started to wish that I had a camel instead of a finicky car. Our driver managed to hitch a lift back into town while my guide and I sat in the silent desert. It wasn’t all bad though. After all, the desert was part of what I had come to see.

China is home to massive deserts, many of which are growing. Desertification, the process of turning arable land into desert, is arguably the most important environmental challenge for China today, affecting food security, transportation and even international relations, as sandstorms originating in China blow through neighboring countries and even across the Pacific to the U.S.

While it has only relatively recently been the cause of alarm, it is a problem with ancient roots: an estimated 40 cities in China have been abandoned due to desertification over the last 2,000 years. Looking back into these ancient cities and routes can help us learn from failed attempts at handling the sands.

The remains of a wooden coffin lie in the intense mid-day heat. Dating of different species of wood used in making coffins has allowed Chinese archaeologists to speculate on the age of the settlement.

Our destination was Yinpan, a ruined city that had been a thriving and diverse city of merchants and traders 2,000 years ago. A stop on the fabled Silk Road, it welcomed travelers from across Asia. Today, Yinpan is approximately 300 kilometers east of the modern city of Korla. Or if you put it another way, Yinpan is 300 kilometers from anywhere. It sits on the edge of China’s most formidable desert, the Germany-sized Taklamakan.

9/18/2013 11:07:53 AM

40 years ago when living in Africa I could pull a wheel, repair a flat, replace the wheel and inflate (by hand, of course) in 20 minutes. Why start an article with such an admission of incompetence?

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