Secrets of the Silk Road: The Tarim Basin

As we prepare to host an exciting exhibit on Western China, one of the main attractions will be two mummies found in the Taklimakan desert. I anticipate that a lot of attention will be showered on the Beauty of Xiaohe and on a child mummy. In this blog I would like to talk about the Tarim Basin and the Taklimakan Desert, backdrop to the mummies and the artifacts in the exhibit.

Now, imagine a place far, far away….

Creative Commons License photo credit:Kmusser
Map of the Tarim Basin in Western China

The Tarim Basin is located in China’s far western the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and measures 400,000 km2 (150,000 sq mi). This makes it similar in size to Germany and Switzerland combined or 57 % of the size of Texas.

Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang Uyghur
Autonomous Region.
Creative Commons License photocredit:Pravit

Geography buffs will know that it borders on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India and China-administered Tibet. It is home to the world’s third lowest point below sea level, with Lake Assal in the Afar Depression making up the second lowest) and the Dead Sea being the lowest point on Earth.

The Talkimakan (or Taklamakan) desert makes the area one of the driest in the world as well, with an annual rainfall of 0.5 inch. The Taklimakan has an arid continental climate with long cold winters and short hot summers. This is the result of its location in the interior of Asia and near enclosure of the basin by some of the highest snow-covered mountains on Earth.  The satellite image below illustrates this point well.

Among these mountain ranges we find (starting in the south and moving clockwise on the first map shown in this blog): the Kunlun Shan, the Pamir and Tien Shan Mountains. The Kunlun Shan mountain range counts four mountains higher than 7,000 m, the Pamir range counts two such mountains and the Tian Shan mountains has one. In comparison, the tallest mountain in the Rocky Mountains is Mount Elbert, at 4402 m above sea level. The tallest mountain in the US, Mount McKinley, is 6193 meters high.

The basin gets its name from the Tarim River, the longest inland river in China and the second largest inland river in the world (second only to the Volga River). Fed by the melting snows from the mountains, the river never reaches any ocean, instead disgorging its waters in the Taklimakan Desert itself . About a century ago, the river reached as far as Lop Nor, now a dry lake and home to the Lop Nor salt works.

Given the remoteness of this area, Lop Nor also served as China’s nuclear weapons testing grounds. Our upcoming exhibit, Secrets of the Silk Road pre-dates the nuclear age by several millennia. In a next installment, we will tackle the topic of the Silk Road, starting with “what does Silk Road mean?”