“DO YOU BELIEVE the voices are real?”
My Chinese guide and I were standing in the Yardang National Geopark, on the border between Gansu Province and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China’s extreme northwest. The nearest town was Dunhuang, 110 miles to the southeast. Enormous yardangs — curving sandstone and mudstone strata carved by winds — towered over us. Others floated on the far horizon.
Get For You, a personalized daily digest with more stories like this.
“You mean the singing sands?” I asked. On my map, an asterisk marked this strange feature of the Kumtag Desert, three miles from Dunhuang. If you throw yourself down the dunes in that place, the air resonates — sometimes like the lowest note on a cello; sometimes like a crack of thunder.
“Not the singing sands,” the guide said. “I mean voices. Like ghosts. Do people in the West think they exist?”
The Chinese pilgrim and scholar Xuanzang wrote in his A.D. 646 book “The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions” that in this desert region, travelers often heard singing and shouting, shrieking and crying. Disoriented, they would wander, get lost and die of thirst. More than 650 years later, the 13th-century Italian merchant Marco Polo described the same phenomenon; sometimes the voices would even call a traveler by name. “If you’re thirsty enough, and exhausted, and afraid, I guess you might hear things,” my guide murmured. He was looking away from me, into the maze of eroded landforms. We were tiny as pixels on an Imax screen.
The Kumtag is a little desert (9,000 square miles) between the Taklamakan Desert (130,000 square miles) and the great Gobi (500,000 square miles), which covers much of northern China and southern Mongolia. The Chinese have named the giant yardangs here: the Sphinx, the Golden Lion Greeting Guests, the Western Sea Fleet. But the Uighurs, the minority ethnic group who populate this region, know the geopark simply as the Old City, because its sandstone promontories resemble the ruins common throughout China’s western provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang: ancient walls, beacon towers and gateways created not by wind but by conscripted soldiers.
The desert rolled away in every direction, gunmetal grains mixed with golden ones. The day was almost windless. Around the sands and huge yardangs, the air was silent
FOR MORE THAN 2,000 years, a branch of the Silk Road — the 600-mile-long Hexi Corridor — has angled southeast from the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts to the Yellow River loess plains. The Hexi is hemmed in by deserts to the north and west, and by the great Qilian mountain range to its south. It is about 10 miles wide at its narrowest point, with oasis towns every 50 to 100 miles. For most of the Han dynasty, which lasted roughly from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220, no soldier, pilgrim, explorer or trader could enter northwestern China without first passing through the corridor, which was vigorously guarded. In A.D. 123, the imperial secretary Chen Zhong, in a strategic memo to the emperor, translated in 2009 by John E. Hill, wrote that if the Western Regions were not defended, “the wealth of the [nomadic Xiongnu tribes] will increase; their audacity and strength will be multiplied,” and the four garrisons along the Hexi Corridor would be endangered. “We will have to rescue them,” he continued. The great cities of China’s central plain, including the capital, would then be left vulnerable to attacks.
Until the scientific map surveys of the 20th century, one of the best sources on traveling to the borderlands of western China was Xuanzang. The Buddhist pilgrim and scholar left the Tang capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) in A.D. 629 and traveled westward across deserts, then into India through the Tian Shan and Pamir mountain ranges. “The roads are lost in a vast waste, and its limits are unfathomable,” he wrote, as translated in 1996 by Li Rongxi. The ancient literary term for the deserts west of Dunhuang is “River of Sands,” denoting a place where travelers were guided only by the stars and the bones of men and animals; no other landmarks or signposts existed.
According to a seventh-century biography of Xuanzang written by two of his disciples, Huili and Yancong, on his journey, Xuanzang survived an attempted kidnapping, several murder attempts and, while deep in the Gobi, the loss of all his water. In these stories, he crossed the deserts and mountains alone and once hallucinated that an army appeared in the wastes: “Sometimes they advanced and sometimes they halted. … The glittering standards and lances met his view; then suddenly fresh forms and figures changing into a thousand shapes appeared, sometimes at an immense distance and then close at hand, and then they dissolved into nothing.” The scholar Jeffrey Kotyk has pointed out that these accounts (cited here from a 1911 translation by Samuel Beal) are likely imagined or embellished; Xuanzang probably traveled with a merchant caravan. The stories, however, convey the potential perils of such a trip.
After studying in India for almost 14 years, Xuanzang returned to Chang’an, bringing sutras, works of art and knowledge about the world beyond China’s borders. So thorough was his “Record of the Western Regions” that dozens of 19th- and 20th-century explorers — Russian, British, German, French and Japanese — used it to find forgotten settlements more than a thousand years after the Taklamakan Desert had swallowed them. When foreign archaeologists found an ancient town, they defined it by longitude and latitude, and then tried to match its site with one of Xuanzang’s vanished cities: Khotan, Kucha, Agni.