Having arrived back in China, we flew back to Khotan and the Taklamakan Desert. We were close to here in late September, when we took buses from Kashgar to Yarkand and Karghilik, but we didn’t have enough time to go the five more hours to Khotan. Now we would pick up where we left off and continue overland on the Chinese Silk Road.
Khotan is legendary as the place where the earliest ancient city excavations were made. Around 1900, following up on local reports of cities buried in the sand, Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein discovered and excavated a series of early Buddhist ruins. Most of these are now reburied or off-limits, but we were able to visit a few.
One of the most impressive was the 3rd-century stupa at Rawak. Although technically off-limits, it is possible to visit it by paying a substantial fee. The 9 meter (30 foot) structure now sits in the middle of the desert with sand dunes washing over it, but 1700 years ago it was the center of a thriving Buddhist community. The 100 fragile Buddha statues that Aurel Stein unearthed are shattered and gone, however, victims of treasure hunters looking for gold.
Another impressive ruin was Melikawat, a huge city that was the capital of the Yutian kingdom about 2000 years ago. Although most of the structures have melted back into the desert, it was astonishing to think of a 2000-year-old desert city that covered an area of 10 kilometers by 2 kilometers.
Next to this ruin was the White Jade River. Khotan has been the source of China’s jade for over 2000 years, most of it found in rivers such as this. The deposits are now scarce, but some people still make a living looking for it.
Khotan is also a center for silk making and carpet weaving. The manual process was the same as what we saw in Margilon, but we were able to see some different steps, such as these people untying the bundles of silk after dyeing. A child slept in the local equivalent to a daycare center.
Khotan has a wonderful Sunday market that hasn’t been turned over to tourists. Although we were not there on the largest day, the market was still lively with sales of textiles, hardware, and sheep. A store attached to the bazaar had the town’s display of major appliances. There were few other stores in town.