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Sunday Times London
17-09-06, 21:30
Thubron in ancient China - Khotan

In our second extract from Shadow of the Silk Road, Colin Thubron reaches Khotan, once the capital of an ancient and powerful kingdom, now a town being swallowed by the desert

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Khotan is the last of the great Uighur towns, solitary on the desert’s edge in a vast, intricately watered oasis. Now that the railway has reached its sister-city, Kashgar, and the Chinese are pouring in, Khotan has become the stronghold and retreat of Uighur purity. As you approach it, and a pale sun comes out, the poplars line the road ten deep against the sand. Here and there, among the mud-built suburbs, a grander house shades its courtyard with a wooden portico, and mosques with slim-towered gates and crenellated walls stand in the orchards.

In the town centre, the broad Chinese streets soon taper away, and the world belongs to farmers and traders, to women glittering in gold-threaded silk, to gangs of half-employed youths, and cart-drivers with roses behind their ears. Long two-tiered arcades totter above the bazaars, their bright paint fading.

Yet Khotan was once a kingdom. More than 2,000 years ago, after it was settled from northwest India, it grew into a luxuriant and sophisticated city-state, famous for its silks, jade and paper. Its citizens were connoisseurs of dance and music, elaborately courteous, and cunning. Chinese travellers wrote with astonishment how they greeted each other by touching one knee to the ground, and whenever they received a letter would hold it to their forehead in respect. Their women wore girdles and trousers and rode horses like the men; and an unveiled openness, with rumours of promiscuity, touches them still.

This sensuous and tolerant city was a Buddhist paradise. The monk Xuanzang in the seventh century described its oasis gleaming with scores of monasteries, and rife with miracle. Hermits radiated light from its forests, and statues of the Buddha flew magically by night. In the clefts of the Kun Lun mountains, holy men meditated so intensely that they turned almost to corpses; but their hair kept growing, and they were shaved by visiting shamans.

I found the site of all this ardour and ceremony far from the modern city, deep in the oasis, deserted. Only a huge, shallow depression marked its confines, where nothing was left. A morning mist drifted over the rice-fields above it, stilling the mud-banks and water-channels in a soft, unreal light, while all around the horizon was closed by an amphitheatre of poplar trees, as if in memorial. Swarms of tiny frogs teemed at the pool edges. The distance echoed with cuckoos. Here and there some shards of brown pottery had been eased up by the flowing water, and lingered in its runnels.

Only hardy fragments survived: pottery seals and figurines, and the thousands of flakes of leaf-gold which had covered palaces and temples. But these leftovers were startling in their diversity: engraved wind-deities and sun-chariots, griffins and coins bearing Indian symbols on one side, Chinese on the other. Hellenised Buddhist statues mingled with signs of Nestorian Christianity and Zoroaster. Mustachioed Indian heads were washed up alongside Roman intaglios. Strangest, perhaps, were the hordes of lewd little terracotta monkeys — real monkeys were unknown here — which mimicked human activity in all its domestic variety.

But now this strained and sifted earth was at last at peace. The mist never lifted, but hung as if painted, over a painted desolation. It was impossible to tell the limits of the city. But somewhere under my feet, in a 14-day ceremony, monastic floats like rolling temples had once carried their carved Buddhas and devas suspended in gold and silver, and the king and his women had emerged barefoot from the city gate to meet them, and prostrated themselves, and strewed the earth with flowers.

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Perhaps it was the city’s disappearance, mulched by the oasis waters, which turned my mind to the preserving desert. But I knew that, a day’s march into the sands, a lonely relic of the kingdom had survived: a great Buddhist stupa discovered by Aurel Stein over a century ago. I found a jobless guide who had once been there, a Uighur woman who knew where to hire a Land Rover and camels. Gul had once been handsome, and even now, in middle age, her eyes glittered vivid under strong brows, and she dressed for the desert as if for a party.

For an hour we drove over grasslands, until we came to brushwood shelters disintegrating round a well. No one was in sight. A misted sun lit up the desert beyond. Then, from far away, out of the scrub-speckled dunes, a herdsman came driving camels — huge, moulted beasts — and an hour later we were swaying through the May heat into a purer wilderness. Ahead of me the camel-driver rode in silence, and Gul, under a white sunhat sashed in muslin, her skirts overlapping leather boots, sat her beast delicately and fanned herself with a lilac handkerchief.

Around us was utter silence. The camels’ plate-like feet went noiseless over the sand. Only the saddle-packs beneath us creaked in uneasy rhythm with their stride. All about us the dunes were scored with concentric ripples and flowed together in a sculptural peace. But here and there, where water lay deep underground, a red willow blew, or a tamarisk tree sent up a tangle of startling green, clotted by hawks’ nests, and over the lifeless-seeming sands a snake or lizard had left its feathery track. Into this wilderness the camels pushed easily, as if padding back into prehistory.

Suddenly the camel-driver pointed — “Rawak!” — and we all squinted into the glare. A mile away, perhaps, paler than the pale sands around it, a building shone in isolation. The tributary that nourished it had long ago gone underground, and its oasis disappeared, leaving this champagne-coloured sanctuary to disrupt the desert with its tiers of etiolated brick. Even in decay, it was gracefully simple: a circular shrine mounted on a star-shaped base, ascended on four sides by tapering stairways.

As we drew close, a broken drum rose from the debris of its terraces, its cupola crashed in, and the rectangle of an enclosing rampart undulated over the sand. We passed the brushwood hut of its watchman, who had gone, and our camels slumped to their knees.

We walked through the walls by a vanished gate. The whole enceinte was half-drowned under the dunes, which overflowed the ramparts or poured through their breaches. Above me the stupa too was blurred by coagulated sand, and its stairways crumbled; but its upper tiers shook clear in bulwarks of creamy brick, and pushed their bright, domeless cylinder into the sky.

It was along the half-buried courtyard, in 1901, that Stein uncovered more than 90 giant statues. In this stoneless land they had been moulded of stucco around wooden frames: Buddhas and Bodhisattvas looming over life-size from the walls, their heavy heads — many had fallen — gazing downward through sleepy, almond eyes. The drip of their robes, moulded to the bodies’ contours, betrayed the Greek heritage that had emanated out from the upper Indus, conquered by Alexander 600 years before.

But the wood inside them had rotted away; they were thinned to shells, impossible to transport. Reluctantly Stein covered them over again — it was eerily like a human burial, he wrote — but within a few years they had been disinterred and smashed by Chinese jade-diggers, seeking treasure. Since then the dunes had shifted and re-formed, burying whatever artefacts remained.

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As I scrambled beneath the northeast wall, where traces of a parapet eased clear, I glimpsed patches of the white-painted stucco which had once coated the whole shrine; and here against the smoothed rampart I uncovered, with trembling hands, the gutted torso of a statue. Gul and the herdsman were resting near the camels, and nobody shared with me this furtive violation. The figure was startlingly vulnerable. The sand fell from it at my touch, and I saw that its head had gone. It was a curved and fluted husk, in red clay, painted pale pink. I could feel with my fingers the rough descent of its lower robes under the dune’s surface. Then I covered it up again, and heaped sand even over my footprints. The day had cooled. A wind was droning in the stupa’s crevices, and the desert now shimmering with a veil of floating sand.

When I returned to Gul, she was anxious to start back. The camels were busy chewing the thatch from the watchman’s hut. Their prehistoric heads on bald necks, and their long double-eyelashes, proof against sandstorms, gave them the look of seductive reptiles. As we mounted, they stooped forward with odd, whimpering honks, then lurched angrily to their feet. Their poorly trussed packs slithered askew and first the herdsman then Gul were thrown to the ground. For a minute Gul lay doubled up, groaning. I clambered down and stood uncertainly above her. Something soft landed on my shoulder — a gob of green cud spat by her camel — as I bent down to hold her. She breathed, “I’m all right, I’m all right.” She was not hurt, but frightened. And the next moment she had shaken herself free of the sand, ashamed, and was upbraiding the camel.

Gingerly, after tightening girths, we started home through the weakening sunlight, following our own tracks. Behind us the stupa glimmered back into the desert, as if we had imagined it. An hour later the sun had set, and some suffocated stars came out. The wind sharpened and stirred the sand along the dune-crests, and by the time we had returned, all traces of our coming were smoothed away.

Need to know

Extracted from Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron, published by Chatto & Windus at £20. To buy it for the reduced price of £18, with free p&p in the UK, call The Sunday Times Books First on 0870 165 8585

Travel details: this off-the-beaten-track region of China is best tackled using the expertise of a specialist tour operator, such as Steppes East (01285 880980, www.steppestravel.co.uk), which offers a 10-day trip, visiting Bishkek, Kashgar, the Turpan Depression, Jiayuguan and Xian, from £2,630pp. Or try CTS Horizons (020 7836 9911, www.ctshorizons.com), Audley Travel (01869 276217, www.audleytravel.com), or Silk Road and Beyond (020 7371 3131, www.silkroadandbeyond.co.uk).

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