AsiaQuest is an interactive expedition developed by Classroom Connect. For
five weeks a team of scientists and explorers will take a journey of
discovery, following Marco Polo's footsteps along China's Silk Road. Follow
along here for daily reports on the Quest.
In Search of Rawak
The team's camel handler prepares himself to pray. Muslims must face Mecca and pray five times each day.
October 19, 1999
Web posted at: 1:42 p.m. EDT (1742 GMT)
By John Fox
As our caravan makes its way over the dunes to the ancient city of Rawak, the old camel handler stops, removes his leather boots, kneels toward Mecca and begins to pray.
He seems as old as the desert itself and his prayers to Allah make me feel safer as we venture into the unknown. He bows one last time, slides on his boots and runs after the caravan. His high leather boots, perfect for the deep sand, look strangely familiar to me. I'm sure I've seen them somewhere before.
Asia Quest - Report: Day 12
From the moment we first climbed onto our camels and followed Marco Polo into the emptiness of the desert my eyes were scanning the ground. Ever since I was a kid I've had my eyes on the ground, not out of shyness, but in the hopes of discovering something special. Now, while the rest of the team takes in the sights, I count the pottery shards being crushed under my camel's hooves. These scraps of evidence tell me we're on the right track to Rawak.
Almost a century ago an archaeologist named Sir Aurel Stein first heard tales of ruined cities in the middle of the desert. Over the next several years he and his team risked their lives in the Taklamakan to discover the remains of civilizations long forgotten. He uncovered sculptures, paintings, columned halls, copper coins and ancient manuscripts, all perfectly preserved in the dry desert sands. Many of these remains were from 1,500-year-old Buddhist kingdoms. Others were much older and shrouded in mystery.
Among Stein's great finds were 3,000-year-old mummies, perfectly preserved by the dryness of the desert. I saw some of these mummies in a museum in Urumqi and was amazed by their brightly colored clothes, their reddish hair, and the skin that still clung to their bones. The one I remember best had long red hair and a sun symbol tattooed near his right eye. His red woolen tunic reached down to his cracked leather boots. The label confirmed what was plain to see:
"GENETIC EVIDENCE SHOWS THAT THIS MAN IS OF EUROPEAN ORIGIN."
This mummy was found by Sir Aurel Stein while he was exploring the ruined cities of the Taklamakan.
When the Uighurs first arrived in Xinjiang a thousand years ago, they encountered a people called the Tocharians. The Tocharians were fair-skinned, fair-haired Caucasians who spoke a language closer to German and Celtic than to any Asian language. Their woolen clothes are woven in a style identical to textiles found in ancient burials in Germany. They made a living on the edges of the desert for thousands of years and then vanished without a trace.
We finally arrive in Rawak where a Buddhist temple stands in the middle of a once grand courtyard. The desert spills over its walls, ready to consume it once and for all. Over a thousand years ago, this was a great Buddhist monastery, lined with statues of Buddha and paintings of far-away India. Descriptions of the time speak of elaborate ceremonies attended by kings and queens. Now all that remains are crumbling walls and shattered fragments of the past.
When Marco Polo crossed the Taklamakan, Rawak had already been abandoned for almost 500 years and the mummies of the desert had been buried for over 2,000 years. Might he have looked on these same ruins, or others like it? What were his experiences of the desert? What's strange is how little he has to say of what must have been a grueling month-long trek. Did he ever, like Dan, fear getting lost? Did he suffer the same 50-degree temperature swings that we went through? We'll never know because he summarizes that epic journey in only 500 words and none of them reveal the true experience of crossing the desert.
After four days in the desert I have more to say than Marco Polo did after a month -- and he didn't even have Power Bars to keep him going! It makes me wonder whether Marco Polo ever crossed the Taklamakan at all. His description of China so far reads more like a refrigerator list than the account of a man who experienced the wonders of the Silk Road.
As we leave Rawak, the old camel handler trudges past me in his ragged boots. Just then it comes to me where I'd seen those boots before. They were identical to those worn by that tattooed mummy in the museum!
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