The discovery of an ancient vanished civilization on the far reaches of China’s Silk Road raises as many questions as it answers

“There is a beauty in the North, matchless and unmatched; one glance from her felled a city, another glance felled a kingdom” goes “The Beauty Song,” a famous Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) ballad composed by court musician Li Yannian in the second century BCE.

Li, though, seemed to have gotten his location wrong. It was in China’s remote west that, in 1900, the ruins of a kingdom were discovered by Swedish explorer Sven Hedin in the desert—complete with Han-era artifacts, all the signs of a sudden collapse, and even a famous “beauty.”

As Hedin writes in his memoir, My Life as an Explorer, the discovery was a total accident. Since the 19th century, explorers had been traveling to present-day Xinjiang, in search of an immense former salt lake described in Chinese historical records, and a lakeside Silk Road trading post called Loulan (楼兰). When Hedin’s Uyghur guide, Oerdek, loses his way while searching for a shovel, he stumbles upon evidence of buried dwellings and a former stupa (Buddhist shrine). “No explorer had an inkling, hitherto, of the existence of this ancient city,” Hedin recalled. “Here I stand, like the prince in the enchanted wood, having wakened to new life of the city which has slumbered for a thousand years.”

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Riddle of the Sands is a story from our issue, “Curiosities and Quests.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Hatty Liu

Hatty Liu is the managing editor of The World of Chinese, and an award-winning communications researcher. Born in China, and raised in China, Canada, and the US, she leverages her cross-cultural identity to create more empathetic knowledge across national boundaries.

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