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Taklamakan Desert


A vast and endless sea of sand stretches across the heart of the Silk Roads, posing perhaps the premier danger in all the expansive routes.

The Taklamakan Desert, stretching across the Xinjiang region of northwest China, has earned a fearsome reputation throughout history. Its name is derived from the Uyghur words meaning "once you go in, you don't come out,” and an apt name it is. This ominous meaning refers to the desert's brutally arid conditions, deadly sandstorms, and disorienting dune topography that has doomed countless travelers over the centuries. Even more troublesome, the Taklamakan sat at the heart of the ancient Silk Road trade routes, forcing caravans no other choice but to skirt its arid expanses. Some ventured into the Taklamakan with tragic fates, lost among the sands for eternity. Today, thanks to modern engineering by China, a highway runs bisects the desert.

However, the Taklamakan's barren landscapes have also yielded remarkable archaeological finds. Explorers like Sven Hedin in the early 20th century discovered remains of ancient cities, Buddhist stupas, and fertile lands that had been swallowed by the steadily encroaching desert over thousands of years. Extremely arid conditions have preserved bamboo groves, clothing, documents and other perishables from long-lost kingdoms. One of the most striking finds was the hundreds of remarkably intact 3rd century BC mummies interred in the desert's shifting sands, bearing European physical traits from an ancient Indo-European ethnic group whose legacy was soon vanished. What else awaits to be discovered buried in the sands, to those willing to brave it?

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