In Uighur, one of the Turkic languages, it is commonly believed that Taklamakan carries the meaning of “You can enter, but you can never leave.” This evocative name has earned the desert several metaphorical designations, such as the “Desert of Death” and the “Place of No Return”. The term “Taklamakan” is thought to originate from the combination of two Turkic words, namely “taglar” and “makan,” which collectively connote the notion of a “place of ruins.” Furthermore, the similarity between the Uighur word “tark” and the Arabic word “tag” contributes to the connotation of abandonment or desertion, further reinforcing the desolate and unforgiving nature of the desert.
While the absolute accuracy of this translation may be challenging to ascertain, these descriptors indeed capture the essence of Taklamakan as a vast, arid, and perilous expanse, presenting significant challenges to human travelers and most forms of wildlife. The desert’s harsh conditions and formidable reputation make it a place of great intrigue and wonder, symbolizing the epitome of an inhospitable and untamed environment.
Geography of the Taklamakan Desert
Over the span of a millennium, the major lakes within the Taklamakan Desert, including Kara Buran (meaning sandstorm) and Kara Koshun (meaning region), have dried up, contributing to the desert’s expansion. At present, the Taklamakan Desert covers an area of approximately 1000 x 500 kilometers, ranking as the 16th largest desert in the world. Its location, far removed from any ocean, renders it a scorching, arid expanse with extreme temperature variations. On the hottest days, temperatures can soar to 40 degrees Celsius, while at night they can plunge to freezing point. In fact, the lowest recorded temperature in the desert was a chilling -32 degrees Celsius in 2008. Remarkably, during the winter, the entire Taklamakan Desert gets blanketed by 3.8 centimeters of snow.
The desert’s landscape primarily comprises shifting sand dunes, which cover around 85% of its surface. The relentless force of northern winds and sandstorms constantly reshapes these dunes. As the winds collide with the higher dunes, they dislodge portions of sand, causing it to cascade down onto the lower dunes. This natural phenomenon generates a distinctive sound that resonates throughout the vast desert. Interestingly, during his journey to China, the renowned traveler Marco Polo heard these sounds in the Taklamakan Desert and mistakenly attributed them to the presence of demonic spirits. The eerie sounds even instilled a sense of fear in him, making him contemplate abandoning his journey entirely.
The Taklamakan Desert’s immense size, harsh conditions, and haunting sounds truly create an awe-inspiring and enigmatic landscape, contributing to its allure as a place of both wonder and trepidation.
The Taklamakan Desert experiences an extremely arid climate, evident by its annual average rainfall of less than 40 mm. The central region of the desert receives even lower precipitation, hovering around 10 mm, whereas in the mountain foothills, the rainfall slightly increases to approximately 100 mm. For comparison, the central part of the Sahara Desert, another renowned arid region, receives around 25 mm of rainfall, highlighting Taklamakan’s even drier conditions.
Situated at an elevation ranging from 1200 to 1500 meters above sea level, the Taklamakan Desert’s topography contributes to its distinct climatic features. The elevated position plays a role in shaping the desert’s climate, further adding to its hot and arid nature while also impacting the temperature variations experienced across the region.
Wildlife in the Taklamakan Desert
The unforgiving conditions and arid climate of the Taklamakan Desert indeed present challenging circumstances for diverse animal life. In regions where the terrain is relatively flat and some vegetation exists, certain animal species have adapted to the harsh environment. Among the wildlife that can be found in such areas are gazelles, wolves, wild boars, desert foxes, wild camels, Siberian deer, rabbits, gerbils, field mice, and jerboas. Additionally, insect-eating animals like long-eared hedgehogs and bats can also be encountered in the desert’s ecosystem.
Bird species that can withstand the desert’s conditions include the hoopoe and the Tarim redstart. These avian inhabitants have adapted to the arid landscape, showcasing their resilience in this challenging environment.
The limited availability of water in the Taklamakan Desert has influenced the evolution of these animal species. Many of them possess remarkable abilities to survive for extended periods without drinking water, and some have even adapted to go entirely without water.
In the realm of vegetation, the plants that manage to thrive in the desert’s arid terrain include tamarisks, nitraria, sea buckthorn, and saltwort. Some of these plants have developed unique features, such as hairy surfaces, which aid them in withstanding the relentless winds that sweep across the desert landscape. The ability to adapt to the harsh conditions of the Taklamakan Desert allows these resilient plants to endure and perpetuate their presence in this seemingly inhospitable environment.
The Taklamakan Desert Was Once a Forest
Around 4000 years ago, the inhabitants of the Taklamakan Desert were leading a comfortable life, and archaeological findings provide intriguing insights into the early civilizations that once thrived in this challenging environment. The discoveries suggest that the first known inhabitants of the desert were Caucasians who spoke an Indo-European language. The evidence for this conclusion primarily comes from the remarkably well-preserved mummies found in the region, thanks to the arid climate conditions that have helped maintain their integrity over millennia.
Among the most famous mummies is the “Beauty of Loulan,” the oldest mummy found in the Taklamakan Desert. This mummy’s facial features exhibit characteristics more akin to European traits than those typically associated with Asian populations, raising the possibility that the individual may have belonged to a European civilization.
Further evidence of ancient settlements in the Taklamakan Desert comes from the discovery of the extraordinary Xiaohe cemetery. Archaeologists unearthed this significant site between 2002 and 2005, located on the northeastern edge of the desert. Radiocarbon dating places the cemetery’s origin as far back as 2000 BC. This 25-hectare oval-shaped sand dune was once a forested area where the graves of unknown people were marked with the erection of 140 wooden posts.
The archaeological site at Xiaohe contained wooden coffins and wooden statues with distinctive nose features. The presence of wooden artifacts and evidence of poplar tree forests suggests that the area was once much colder and experienced more significant rainfall than the present-day desert environment. The transformation of the region’s climate and landscape over the millennia has likely contributed to the unique preservation of these ancient sites, shedding light on the early civilizations that inhabited the Taklamakan Desert in the distant past.
The Taklamakan Desert’s Silk Road Relation
Around the periphery of the Taklamakan Desert, there are oases (oasis) that served as vital trade points along the ancient Silk Road. These oases offered crucial resting spots and sources of sustenance for merchants and travelers making their arduous journeys across the desert.
The Silk Road had two main routes that encircled the Taklamakan Desert. The northern route passed through the imposing Tian Shan Mountains, while the southern route traversed the Kunlun Mountains of the Tibetan Plateau. UNESCO has noted that, during ancient times, the southern route was more commonly used by merchants and travelers.
The southern route would merge with the northern route in Kashgar, an important city along the Silk Road. From Kashgar, the trade route continued through regions such as India and Pakistan, Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan), and Bactria (located in modern-day Afghanistan), facilitating the exchange of goods, ideas, and cultures between different civilizations along its extensive and diverse path.
The significance of the Taklamakan Desert and the ancient Silk Road cannot be overstated, as they shaped the course of history, fostering connections and interactions between distant regions and leaving a lasting impact on the cultures and societies that flourished along their trade routes.
- Jarring, Gunnar (1997). “The toponym Takla-makan”, Turkic Languages, Vol. 1, pp. 227–240.
- Baumer, Christoph (June 30, 2008). Traces in the Desert: Journeys of Discovery Across Central Asia. B. Tauris & Company.
- Sun, Jimin; Lou, Tungsten (2006). “The Age of the Taklimakan Desert”. Science. 312 (5780): 1621. doi:10.1126/science.1124616.
- Featured Image: Flickr.