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Altai: Salvation for Ancient Asians?

A sketch by Sven Anders Hedin in 1901 of the region of Lop Nor and Lou-lan

The Taklamakan desert is one of the world's most forboding places. The largest desert in China, it is second only to the Sahara in area. 13,000 plus square miles of shifting sands have provoked the name "Sea of Death". In the Uigur language, the name means "you can get into it, but you cannot get out". For lost generations, it has been enough to understand the deadly nature of this awesome place, but today archaeologists are beginning to discover new secrets of the mysterious region, secrets that may in fact benefit modern humanity. 

Legends abound in such mysterious and forboding places as the Taklamakan. One story resonates with the people of this part of Central Asia today. According to a story as old as time, supernatural beings gave a golden axe and a golden key to the people livng in this parched region, so as to alleviate their suffering. So, having received the golden axe, the legendary Kazakh cut through the mighty Altai Mountains to divert water to their fields. But ike most ancient legends, those that surrond the Taklamakan come with a twist too. These supernatural gods also gifted the Uigur the golden key so that they could open the door of the treasure-house of the Tarim Basin, but a princess of those people, the youngest daughter of the king, she lost the key. The god was angered so much that he held her a captive in the Tarim Basin and thus the Taklamakan Desert was formed. Mighty indeed, are the gifts and symbols of gods, for as we see today the Taklamakan grows larger still, and the people suffer more. 

Wall painting of "Tocharian Princes" from Cave of the Sixteen Sword-Bearers

Until recently scientist and other experts believe the Taklamakan held no evidence of human habitation, other than artifacts from sojourners along the famous Silk Road. Then in 1896 a Swedish explorer named Sven Hedin made a fascinating discovery at the oasis town of Dandan Oilik, in the heart of the Taklamakan. At first Hedin only found a few houses located in the center of the desert. Then four years later, on his return to excavate the site, the adventurer discovered the ruins of an ancient city called Loulan, buried under the sand. Loulan (also know as Krorän), the capital of the lost Loulan kingdom, which is know to Russian archeologists as Krorayina, was an important 2nd Century BC kingdom based in a fertile oasis along the well traveled Silk Road. 

The Loulan ruins (A Traveler's Blog)

The history of this kingdom remains shrouded in mystery still, but in 1910 a local adventurer uncovered more evidence of this strange civilization. At a creek some 175 kilometers from the capital of Loulan a site now known as the "Creek Tomb" was unearthed. A burial sit consisting of 100 wooden poles an a large sand dune intrigued researchers. Zhang Yuzhong, former deputy director of Xinjiang Archeology Research Institute says the cemetery is from the Bronze Age, as indicated by the 1979 discovery of an early Bronze Age female corpse nicknamed the “Beauty of Loulan”, for her stunning degree of preservation. Since then other corpses and artifacts have been unearthed, including still more mummies and pieces of the civilization's societal structure. Most singificantly, the lost civilitation appears to have been larger than originally theorized. The latest discoveries indicate this empire adjoined Europe and Asia, but the origins and makeup of this kingdom currently rest with DNA studies of the so--called Tarim mummies. 

China, Xinjiang, desert Lop Nur. Satellite picture of the Basin of the formerly sea Lop Nur in the Desert of Lop. In the foreground Kuruktagh, in the background Kumtagh and Astintagh. A duststorm is blowing to the west over the Desert of Lop. Two lakes appear in a break in the clouds covering the Plateau of Astintagh. Visible are elongated (Public Domain)

Referring back to the Taklamakan legends though, it is the place at the center of Loulan civilization that is most fascinating. The capital of this kingdom was located at the northeastern edge of the Lop Desert, a particularly arid part of the larger Tarim Basin. Within this desert there was once a great body of freshwater known as the Lop Nur Sea (image above). This formation brings us to a rather fascinating modern day potential, and a somewhat calamitous situation too. It seems reasonable to assume this region was have been a thriving agricultural area, one dominated by the Tocharians, who archeologists theorize were one of the Scythian tribes that later invaded what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. The sea at the center of this civilization is now hydrologically endorheic, or land-bound, with no outlet for irrigating or supplying other parts of the region. As recently as 1928 the sea covered an area of some 1,200 square miles, but damns built upstream led to the sea drying up totally, and blocking the flow of water into other downstream lakes. 

The most recent geophyscial studies being carrier out point to misuse of the water and soil resources of this region since antiquity, which leads to the most interesting modern feature of this story. Looking at the entire area around Lop Nur via satellite imagery, it's obvious a gigantic sea once dominated this region of Earth. Climate change, and the incursions of human engineering clearly altered human history here. Misues of the oasis systems in from the time of the Tocharians, and the Kingdom of Loulan forward, led to a degradation of the ecosystem. Today we see widespread desertification and massive soil degradation, with the ensuing agricultural and societal effects becoming acute, as China's growth demands more, not less resources. It is with this we see not only a catastrophic problem emerging, but a fascinating potential as well. 

Map of Lop Nur by Folke Bergman, 1935. Kara-Koshun where the terminal lake was found in 1867 is located to the south-west of Lop Nor

News Russia and China are working on a project to deliver freshwater to the drought-stricken Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region via Kazakhstan bears a stunning eventuality here. Central Asia is in a crisis for water, and China is especially vulnerable. With less and less arable land for agriculture, nations to the south of Russia desperately needs solutions. And Russia has fully three fourths of all the usable freshwater resources on Earth. The project outlined by Russian Agriculture Minister Aleksandr Tkachev, tells of diverting water from Russia’s Altai Krai in western Siberia. Of course the announced plan of diverting flows from the Irtysh River would precipitate supplying the extreme northwest closer to Mongolia, additional features of a bigger plan could see inland seas like Lop Nur replenished as well. The advertised plan is a joint venture for development of existing engineering infrastructure of the two hydraulic systems – in Gilevskogo’s reservoir and Alei’s irrigation system, and restarted a chunk from the Ob reservoir which is located in the Kulundinskoye trunk, according to the Russian minister. Diverting the flows into Kazakhstan will also have positive effects there, where drought and desertification also play a huge negative role. 

Even today ill advised engineering projects go forward like the rail project above completed in Lop Nor to take advantage of potash resources

Our team is currently working out the engineering and feasibility for an even more ambitious plan. Russian President Vladimir Putin's greater strategies in the region play into further scenarios as well. I personally find the history of this region fascinating, and ironically parallel with what our forebears in antiquity must have faced. Misuse, and abuse milennia ago may well have set in motion the effects we see devastating large swaths of planet Earth. Later ill advised engineering solutions cleary have played a role in the cirisis we see today. Damming of these river systems for one instance, obviously accelerated a much more incremental process. 

In my next report I will cover the role water is playing in global politics and business. Mr. Putin's and Mr. Xi Jinping clearly have a much bigger strategy for their two countries to be sustained going forward. As for waters from then Altai saving Asians, the ancient legends tell us this is nothing new. 

I leave you with a beautiful Chinese song abtly titled, "My Loulan" with scenes from the sand of time that cover this mysterious part of our human history. 


I've left you with a beautiful Chinese song abtly titled, "My Loulan" with scenes from the sand of time that cover this mysterious part of our human history.