Ancient Cities Turned to Sand

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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.

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.

While we waited for help, my guide told me ghost stories about the town. “People hear strange noises around the city,” he said. “Objects move in the night.”

I started to worry that I would join the ghosts of Yinpan, but hours later, just as the light was dying, our driver returned in a borrowed car with a triumphant grin on his face. With an embrace, he exclaimed, “This is what traveling is all about!”

Two thousand years ago, Yinpan was situated in an oasis, with rivers flowing nearby. But 1,500 years ago, the once-prosperous city was mysteriously abandoned. Today, all that is left is mounds of sand almost undistinguishable from the surrounding desert.

Chinese archeologists hypothesize that two things happened. One was that the route of the Silk Road changed, reducing trade in the area. The other is that the oasis turned to desert as the river courses shifted and local water supplies were exhausted.

After thousands of years, nature is still assaulting the city. Spring sandstorms and summer flash floods batter what little structures remain, sometimes exposing the bones and belongings of former citizens.

While it’s been left alone for much of history, the Taklamakan region is suddenly in the limelight: oil has been found under the desert. And so new towns of oil rigs and oil workers are popping up along with a new global trade route to usher the precious black gold to market. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the desert, the ancient Silk Road and one of its large trade towns, Yinpan, wastes away.

The ominous question lingers in the desert air: What other cities and trade routes of today will end up like old Yinpan, wiped off the earth by sandstorms and floods?

Photos by Sean Gallagher, from Meltdown: China’s Environmental Crisis, produced by the Pulitzer CenterDownload a copy of the book free today at

Top: A screenshot from Meltdown: China’s Environment Crisis.

Center: 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.

Bottom: Ancient artifacts can be found lying around the city, as wind and water erosion has exposed both graves and buildings, releasing their contents. Here, at the bottom of the screenshot of “Meltdown”, you can see a 1,500-year-old coin, a reminder of that the area was once wealthy.

Interactive map of Sean’s route:

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