Sven Hedin's Account
Of the Takla-makan desert, 1895
On February 17th, 1895, Sven Hedin the explorer set out from the Sand Gate of the city of
Kashgar. He was bound for the town of Maral-bashi, along the course of the Kizil-su or Red
River, and thence into the deep sand desert called the Takla-makan: the western stretch of the
At first, he and his party rode through oasis land with many small towns; then left that, crossing a
dead-flat plain of yellow-grey dust--nothing but dust, so fine that it blew like powder at every
breath of the wind, and so soft and deep that driving over it was like an adventure on a feather-bed. The wheels of their wagons were almost sucked into it, the horses labored endlessly; the
men, walking alongside, saw their feet sink into the dust ankle-deep with every step. The tracks
they left behind were nothing but lines of dimples in the dust. The dust got into everything, the
men and horses and every wagon became plastered with greyish-yellow dust. After this, they
came back to friendlier country: more towns, the Kashgar-daria or River Kashgar, marshes of
kamish or giant reeds, poplar forests and hills covered with tamarisk shrubs . . . and reached
Maral-bashi, 'Deerhead', on the caravan road which led to China, on February 23rd.
This city lay on the Kashgar river, and the caravan route east eventually ended at the Chinese
oasis of Ak-su. Here, at Maral-bashi, Hedin stayed for some days, making short expeditions in
various directions, and exploring the nearby mountains. The Chinese officials in the city told him
that his plan of crossing the desert was quite feasible. If he followed the line of the Masar-tagh
mountains as far as he could go--if he took tanks of water along with him--if he traveled with
camels instead of horses--then, then he would certainly be able to master the Takla-makan.
Also, they said, there once existed a large town called Takla-makan in the desert, midway
between the rivers Yarkand-daria and Khotan-daria (that is, between the tracts of oasis country
along these rivers) but for ages, it had been buried in the sand. Furthermore, in the desert were
abandoned cities with towers, walls, and houses still standing, not to mention treasure of Chinese
gold and silver coins . . . but the whole inner Takla-makan lay under the ban of telesmat. This
Arabic word meant, witchcraft and supernatural arts; and the gist of it was, any man who stole
treasure from the sand would be followed home by the spirits of the desert, and the only way he
would get out alive would be by throwing away his ill-gotten gains.
Sven Hedin gathered other rumors and legends too. He spoke to the local Kirghiz and Sart
nomads, who were Mongolian in origin though governed by Chinese, and they said the Masar-tagh mountains ran south-east far into the desert . . . though how far no one could tell, since no
one they knew had been crazy enough to try to follow them to their end. They said the desert
could be called Dekkan-dekka, because a thousand and one towns were buried under its dunes . .
. and moreover vast stores of gold and silver certainly existed there too, though no one had ever
brought any out. There were men who, too enterprising to work for their money like ordinary
people, spent their lives searching the desert for treasure . . . but somehow none of these men ever
got rich. An old man of eighty came and said that in his youth, he had known a man who got
lost on the Great Road to Ak-su, and stumbled upon an ancient city in whose houses were
innumerable pairs of Chinese shoes; but the instant he touched them, they all crumbled to dust.
Also, there was the tale of a vagabond who set out treasure-hunting from the town of Aksak-maral (or 'the Lame Deer') and discovered a town amidst whose ruins he unearthed gold and
silver Chinese coins. He filled a whole sack with them, and his pockets too . . . but while he was
making his escape, a whole pack of wild cats rushed at him, frightening him so much that he
dropped everything in his flight. And when he tried to find the town a second time, it had
vanished utterly--swallowed up in the drifting sands.
Hedin listened to everyone who would tell him anything about the desert; he considered it highly
unlikely that so many similar legends of lost cities should not have their basis in at least one actual
lost city. (And in fact, he did find just such a ruined city only a few months later, nor was he the
only one to do so; other archeologists did the same, most notably Sir Aurel Stein just a few years
afterward. Chinese travelers wrote of hundreds of thriving Buddhist cities in this area, circa 600
AD; Sir Aurel Stein was of the opinion that these cities did exist, and Gobi was irrigated by
glaciers in the encircling mountain ranges. When the glaciers melted away, so did the lost
kingdoms of the Gobi.)
Meanwhile Sven Hedin traveled slowly closer to the deep desert. He sent one of his men back to
the large city of Yarkand to buy what they would need: iron tanks to carry water, bread and rice,
ropes and spades and hatchets. Another pair of men set out to buy several camels. To feed
these camels, they also needed sesame oil and the chaff from crushed sesame seeds. The camels
would eat the chaff readily, and as for the sesame oil, about a pint of this a day would sustain a
camel without other food--so long as they did not travel for more than a month this way. In
March and April (Hedin wrote) camels could travel three days without water; but in the winter,
over level ground, they might last six or seven days.
While waiting for his men, Hedin gathered more legends. He heard of the dry river-beds in the
desert, in which one could find raw jade for the taking. He heard of the lost town of Shahr-i-katak or Ktak, which lies twelve and a half miles west of the village of Lailik, but no man from
Lailik could ever locate it. He heard of treasure-seekers setting out from Yarkand, and of how
in Yarkand the people talk of voices heard in the desert, calling travelers by name; but if you
follow the voices, you go astray and die of thirst.
The first man came back, with all their supplies: among them were four iron tanks and six goat-skins for water. The tanks had been originally used to carry honey from India to Yarkand, and
were well-made: each was crated in a wooden grating to protect it from knocks and breakage.
Grass and reeds were stuffed between the grating and the tanks, to keep the water cool. They
held seventeen one-half, nineteen, nineteen, and twenty-seven gallons respectively; the goat-skins
each held about seventeen and a half gallons. The total amounted to 100 gallons, ample for a
march of twenty-five days.
Many days later, on the 8th of April, the other two men returned. They had with them eight
splendid camels, which they had unfortunately had to buy at twice the regular cost; all the people
without reach knew who they had come from and why they wanted the camels, and had
accordingly put up their prices. The camels cost about 6 pounds 10 shillings each, and were all
male, ranging from a fifteen-year-old which Hedin's men named Babai (the Old) to a year-and-a-half camel called Kityick-sarisk, the Little Yellow. The remainder were christened Ak-tuya the
White, Boghra the Male, Nahr the Tall, Chong-kara the Big Black and Kityick-kara the Little
Black, and finally Chong-sarik the Big Yellow. White Ak-tuya was eight years old, and the
remainder ranged from four to two years. All were molting: big shaggy tangles of their thick
winter hair were constantly falling off, leaving them with a patched and shabby appearance.
They were every color from white through yellow and brown to grey, but their skin would be
smooth and grey; another Asian traveler compared the skin of her camels to old tire-rubber!
Hedin picked out one for his riding-camel: Boghra, a patient and good-tempered beast.
Along with them went eleven chickens and three sheep, as well as Hedin's two dogs. There were
four men to handle the camels, and Hedin hired a guide whom he thought lucky to get. This was
a man named Kasim Akhun, about fifty-five years old, who had flitted from his wife and children
many years ago, and had gone treasure-hunting in the Takla-makan for six years now. He went
every spring (because spring was sandstorm season, and many things might be unearthed by the
wind then) for ten to fourteen days, riding an ass and digging in the dunes for his water.
Because another of the men also happened to be named Kasim Akhun, they nicknamed this guide
Yollchi or Kumchi: the pointer of the way, the man of the desert. Nevertheless he was not liked.
He had a violent temper, and thought his experience of the Takla-makan meant he should be
leading the caravan. He was not pleased to find that Hedin had appointed his confederate and
trusted friend Islam Bai instead in that position. But Hedin was adamant: Islam Bai was the
caravan-bashi or leader, and the remaining men (Mohammed Shah, and the second Kasim Akhun)
were happy to obey Islam Bai. As for Yollchi, he sulked. However there was no going back
now, and a man with experience of the desert was a treasure to be cherished.
On the 10th of April, accordingly, they filled their water-tanks and set out.
Sven Hedin had made careful calculations before starting. He was the kind of man who
measured everything, for he left records even of the girths of his eight camels and the amount of
eggs laid by his chickens; he measured every day's march, the height of every mountain he
encountered, and the size of every wild animal shot by his men. General Przhevalsky, the
Russian naturalist (he of Przhavalsky's horse), had previously explored the Takla-makan and left
maps. Hedin measured these maps, and found that the distance to be crossed was 180 miles from
the town of Merket, east-north-east; given that they marched only twelve miles a day, the journey
should take fifteen days. They could carry enough water for twenty-five days. All would be
Before dawn on April the tenth, the men were up filling the water-tanks and goat-skins. The
baggage was sorted according to camel-burdens: each camel would carry two bundles, one on
each side, but the bundles must be perfectly balanced or else havoc would ensue. Each camel
could carry several hundred pounds' worth, though. And they had to: Hedin planned to go
straight on into the Himalayas afterward, and had packed provisions for several months, heavy
clothing, two heavy boxes of ammunition, his instruments for measuring temperature and altitude,
his photographic equipment along with almost a thousand plates, a stove and tent, books and
rifles and revolvers--and a whole year's issue of a Swedish journal, one number of which he
intended to read every evening of his journey! Add in all the money he needed for several years
away from Europe, and that in silver coins because banknotes were not acceptable. The total
was certainly several hundred pounds per camel.
The local people (they were on hand, thronging the courtyard and nearby rooftops, and shaking
their heads with wise misgivings) said the camels were too heavily burdened and would never
endure. "They will never come back again--never," they said. But some Hindu merchants ran
forward and flung a few handfuls of bronze Chinese coins over Hedin's head, crying, "Good-luck
go with you!"
The camels walked in two strings of four each. Each camel wore a stick through its nose, and
the rope tied to one end of the stick was loosely knotted to the tail of the camel in front. The
knots had to be loose, in case one of the camels fell and jerked the rope. The other end of each
nose-stick terminated in a knob, so that the stick would not slip out of the camel's nose. The
first camel in the first string wore a cylindrical bronze bell with a heavy iron tongue; this was as
had been done in Gobi caravans for time out of mind. The camel-bell rang with a slow mournful
clang. Hedin's two dogs--Yolldash and Hamrah were their names--frisked alongside; they hated
the camels, and liked nothing better than to sneak up and snatch mouthfuls of camel-wool on the
Hedin rode on his chosen camel, and Mohammed Shah walked in front and held the camel's rope
every minute. This was so Hedin need not trouble himself with the mechanics of guiding the
beast; no, he was too busy managing his compass and watch, by which he intended to chart every
step of the way. Every night, the small caravan halted and the camels were unloaded and tied
together in a ring, left to stand for an hour or so lest they lie down and become stiff-legged; after
this, they were set loose to browse upon any greenery they could find. They would not be
allowed to drink until an hour before starting next morning.
"Our camp," Hedin wrote, "with its many packages and animals, made a very picturesque
appearance; and it gave me a feeling of deep satisfaction to think, that all those things were mine."
While Hedin wrote down his day's notes, his men would be busy digging a well in the ground
nearby; usually water started to trickle in once they got far enough down, and Hedin always
measured the depth they dug. The sheep grazed nearby, and the chickens were quite happy to
eat the scraps from the men's dinner. The dogs (who were happy, like the chickens, with the
scraps they were given) would gambol around and chase each other.
Their new guide described the landmarks of the desert: they should go parallel to the Yarkand-daria to a mountain named Chackmak, where there was a large lake and another river flowing
north: eighteen days' travel, he said. From there it was one day to the Masar-tagh mountains,
and from the Masar-tagh to the Khotan River was no great distance. There was a track from
Chackmak which gold-seekers knew, leading to an old sign-post; beyond this point, the desert
was known as Kirk-kishlak or the Forty Towns, by reason of the many ruins of perished cities it
The first and second days' marches were easy.
On the third day, the wind changed. A violent nor'-easter whistled through the camp, and the air
was thick with dust; the whole vicinity was shrouded in a haze of grey. It must have looked like
a thick river-fog, except that it was all blowing sand.
They were now traveling in the true desert. It was a labyrinth of irregular sand-dunes, fifteen to
twenty feet high. They steered between these as much as possible; still while getting over one,
the camels which carried the water fell and had to be unloaded before they could get up again.
Then of course they had to be completely reloaded. Nevertheless the camels were clever at
sliding down the slopes of the dunes. At midday, the caravan had to make a long detour to
avoid chong-kum, 'big sand'--dunes so high, it was better to go entirely around them. All day
long the north-east wind blew, and all the distance they made was thirteen and a quarter miles.
But they halted where they could find some withered poplars to burn, and clumps of shriveled
reeds on which the camels could graze; and they dug a well between two dunes and found
brackish water just under the surface.
That was April eleventh. On April twelfth they traveled nearly fifteen miles, partly across dunes
and partly across steppe; there were also more plains of dust, as soft as wool, and sometimes so
deep that the camels dropped into it up to their knees. When they camped that night, no water
filled the hole they dug, so they left it alone for several hours and then found a small pool in the
bottom; by next morning, this was seven inches of unsavory and strong-tasting water. Hedin
writes that the dogs and poultry always gathered and watched with deep interest when the men
started digging; they knew that water was in the offing.
Yollchi the guide pointed out the tracks of herds of antelope going south-east. He said there was
a large lake that way, fed by natural springs and unlinked with any river; it was called the Green
Lake, but no one he had ever met had actually seen it. Hedin however looked through his oldest
maps and found a lake of that name listed; not south-east of their camp, but south-south-west by
They marched on. Poplar trees flourished among the sand-dunes they traveled through; these
were perfectly healthy and beginning to burst into spring greenery. The dunes lay in circular
walls round these trees. The camels snatched the leaves off the poplars, and the panting dogs lay
down in their shadows to cool off before leaping up and running onward. That night both dogs
were so thirsty that when a well was dug, they had to be tied up to keep them from flinging
themselves bodily into it.
The guide, Yollchi, quarreled bitterly with Islam Bai the caravan-bashi. Then Yollchi came to
Hedin, saying that he was being interfered with in his task and would quit and turn back; besides,
he claimed, Islam Bai was close-fisted with the bread for the men's rations. He was taken aback
when Hedin agreed immediately; then his face fell, for Hedin went on to remark that Yollchi was
free to go, but must first give up the money Hedin had given him . . . a month's wages, paid in
advance. Twenty-two shillings and sixpence, all told. After this Yollchi begged forgiveness and
asked to be kept on. But Yollchi kept himself aside from the others ever after, never mingling
with the other men.
"Were they right," Hedin wrote in his account of the journey, "in suggesting that Yollchi
purposely led us in the wrong direction? If so, he paid the penalty; for he died of thirst in the
April 14th, Easter Day, came and passed. They traveled on, and upon April 17th they sighted a
mountain in the distance. Hour after hour they rode toward it, but it never seemed to get any
nearer, and now they were struggling over dunes sixteen feet high. Between the dunes, though,
were reed marshes, and there were pools of fresh water and even a few hares frisking around.
They crossed two dried-up river beds, and then the mountain vanished in the dust-laden
atmosphere, as if it had never been. On April 18th, they found themselves surrounded by sand-dunes branching away irregularly in every direction, and growing all over the dunes was a large
forest of poplar trees. The ground was covered with leaf-litter and fallen branches. It was
impossible to see anything but trees, ahead and behind.
They steered around marshy areas, found the prints of horses and traces of camp-fires, and then
knew they were in the woody land where local shepherds drove their flocks to graze. Just a little
further on, they arrived at a lake of deep blue water surrounded with green reeds and poplars, all
shrouded in the grey haze of floating dust.
This was the course of the Yarkand river, in the vicinity of the Masar-tagh mountain range; this
lake, Hedin thought, had been fed by the river at some earlier period, and then the river had
changed course and the lake had been isolated. So it was as Yollchi the guide had said, they
were in the right place. In the course of the next few days, they discovered abandoned reed huts,
and a road with cart-tracks, and finally a lonely salt-gatherer who said he had come from Maral-bashi and would soon go back there again. But he knew nothing about the desert to the south,
or any road through the deep sand-dunes.
They marched along the shore of the lake. Come April 22nd they reached the furthermost end of
it. The Masar-tagh range now loomed over them, and while the men rested, Hedin climbed the
nearest mountain and looked onward into the desert.
The slope of the mountain range led south-east into the sand dunes like a cape into the ocean, he
wrote. There was one peak standing high; then it sank into the sand and vanished. Hedin had
read in his maps that the Masar-tagh range ran right through the Takla-makan, all the way across,
and terminated in the mountains also called Masar-tagh on the other side of the desert. But no
European map-maker had ever reached this point before; their drawing of the range was only a
guess, and a guess that had gone wrong.
But Hedin's party knew where they were, and from this point, according to Yollchi the guide, it
was four days' travel to the Khotan-daria. The best Russian maps showed a distance of about
78 miles. Given twelve and a half miles at a day's march, Hedin calculated it would take six
days. Two days distant from the Khotan river, it would become possible to dig wells in the dunes
and find water.
He was cautious about his calculations. He ordered the men to fill the tanks half-full--giving
them ten days' supply of water--but no further, so as not to overtax the camels. Yollchi the
guide and Kasim, one of the other men, went off to fill the tanks at the lake. "They were at it a
long spell in the evening," Hedin wrote, "and all the time I heard the precious fluid pouring into
the iron vessels. All the loads were got ready that night, so that we might start early in the
They had killed two of their three sheep already, and the men had enjoyed a feast of the mutton.
Their chickens were still with them, along with a rooster which delighted in escaping its cage atop
a camel; when it did this, it always flew down and landed with a cackle of triumph. The chickens
had laid three eggs the first day of travel, two weeks before; then two eggs the next day; then one
egg, and no more. But when Hedin threw them a handful of corn, they scurried around happily
and enlivened the evening campsite.
The camels were still rested and well-fed. That first day of their real journey, they made a whole
The dunes the little caravan climbed now were twenty to twenty-five feet high, and oriented every
which way. They were disorderly, like a chaos of ripples in an ocean. Climbing them was as
hard as walking on water; it was better to steer a way through their troughs. The men had names
for them: chong-kum (big sand) and ighiz-kum (high sand) and yaman-kum (hateful sand). There
was a word for the crest of a dune: this, they called a beles or pass . . . as if they were speaking of
mountains, not sand-dunes. But when two systems of sand-dunes collided, the result piled
double the original height and towered over the neighboring dunes--exactly like a tall peak
looming over lesser mountain ranges. Right across the caravan's path was a ridge of gigantic
dunes, stretching as from north-east to south-west as could be seen. From their crest, Hedin
gazed across the face of the desert.
The poplar woods were far behind them, as were the reed marshes and tamarisks. All he could
see were billows of yellow sand, miles upon miles of them. There were no animal tracks, no
grass, no growth or life; not even a leaf blowing on the wind. Their last glimpse of the Masar-tagh mountains had vanished into the dust-haze on the horizon. And by the time they made
camp that evening, the height of the dunes around them was eighty to a hundred feet.
Three times the height of a house, that is. The lee side of each dunes was very steep, the
windward side a long slope of soft sand; the camels had to climb each long slope, ploughing deep
into the sand with every step. Then at the summit, the lead camel would drop to its knees and
skid all the way to the bottom, breaking a trail which all the other camels solemnly followed.
They braked with their hind-legs, and they must have been deft at tobogganing, because they were
still all linked together by the lines strung from their noses. Each time one fell, it would have to
be unloaded and coaxed up, then reloaded.
The dogs with their thick hairy coats whimpered in the heat. Hamrah the dog in particular
howled and whined, and lagged behind many times. It took almost an hour at dusk to find a
patch of bare clay with two withered tamarisk trees, where a camp could be set up and a well dug;
the camels instantly stripped the trees of every trace of foliage, and the well came up bone-dry.
Hamrah the dog was missing. They whistled and called for him, but he never reappeared. None
of them ever saw him again.
The men said he had died of sunstroke. Sven Hedin was of another opinion. He wrote that he
thought Hamrah was too intelligent to go on; the dog had turned back, and made his way to the
lake. There, having drunk and rested, he would soon find his way to the town of Maral-bashi or
other human habitations. This was the manner in which the Gobi caravan-dogs existed: they
hunted for themselves, found their own water, went from camp to camp and master to master,
earning their keep by playing watchdog--but always attached themselves to men. "When I got
back to Kashgar," he wrote, "I made inquiries after the dog; but I could learn nothing of him.
Yolldash struck to us faithfully; but poor beast! his fidelity cost him his life."
That night a hurricane-like gale swept out of the west. It blew all day, and they had to travel in
it; clouds and columns of sand whirled madly across the face of the desert, the travelers were
often completely swallowed by whirlwinds of spinning sand. At the crest of every dune, a tassel
of sand streamed away in a frenzied dance--whirling madly up the windward side of the dune, then
quietly settling in fine crumpled folds along the slope of the leeward side. The sand was so fine
that it drifted into the mouth and nose and every layer of clothing. Nevertheless, this was not a
sand-storm--those always blew from the east, shrouding the world in dust. These sand-spouts
were no more than twelve feet high, the sky above remained clear and blue. Throughout, the hot
sun burned down on Hedin and his men.
Each time they emerged from a whirl of sand, they halted and shook themselves clean; they were
literally caked with pounds of sand and dust. Hedin had brought along snow-spectacles, which
had a fine mesh of black wire across them. Even these got clogged up with fine grains of sand.
The caravan was trying to steer south-east, in order to discover where the Masar-tagh range
cropped up again through the dunes. But they saw no trace of mountains, and at last veered
eastward in the hopes of taking the shortest course across the desert.
Hedin's men trudged speechlessly through the sand, barefoot. Time and again they halted to
drink; but the water in the tanks was hot (Hedin measured it: 86 degrees Fahrenheit) from
washing against the heated metal tank-walls. The reeds which had cushioned the sides of the
tanks were long gone, fed to the camels. The dog Yolldash and the last of the three sheep
followed steadily along. They ran up whenever the water-tanks were tapped, and the men did
give them something to drink. Yolldash in particular was dying of thirst, and went wild whenever
a water-tank was tapped. As for the sheep, it was as docile as a dog itself, and the men patted it
and swore they would rather die of hunger than kill it.
But the camels were visibly tiring. They fell more often, and when they took a tumble on a steep
slope, they were now unable to get up without help. One stumbled and went down near the
summit of a slope, and the men had to unharness it entirely, even the saddle coming off; then all
five human beings together rolled the poor beast seventy feet down to the hollow between two
dunes. Only at the bottom could the creature regain its feet. And the caravan made only eight
miles that day, before giving up in exhaustion.
The next day, Hedin made a horrible discovery.
He had noticed, earlier, how noisily the water slapped the sides of the iron tanks. Now he looked
into the tanks, curious. There was less water than he expected . . .
. . . only enough to last two days!
It was two days since they had filled the tanks. He had given orders for ten days' worth to be
brought along. When he reproached his men with not following his orders, they said Yollchi the
guide had filled the tanks; when he asked Yollchi what had happened to the water, Yollchi said
nothing was wrong. There was no need to worry. It was only a four-day journey from the
desert lakes to the place where one could get water by digging . . . and so, he had filled the tanks
with enough water for four days.
Hedin's maps agreed with him. They were halfway across the Takla-makan now, equally far
from either side; water was equally close whether they marched west or east. That was obvious.
No one said a word about turning back--but they all agreed to husband their water. Hedin
secretly told Islam Bai (whom he trusted implicitly) never to let the water-tanks out of his sight
for a single instant.
That day, Hedin traveled on foot beside his men, to encourage them and to spare his excellent
riding-camel Boghra. Meanwhile the oldest camel, Babai, was weakening. He stopped short
every few moments, and then the nose-cord would break and the camel's nose would be jerked
and chafed. At last, he lay down and refused to get up again. They had to unload him before he
would stand; then as he did stand up, they fastened the load on again. But he kept stopping and
had to be dragged bodily by one of the men, and finally they unloaded him again and divided his
load among the other camels.
His legs were trembling and his tongue was white. There was an open sore on his back from the
saddle. They gave him a little water and a few handfuls of the dried grass which formed the
stuffing of his pack-saddle; then they left Mohammed Shah to look after him, and went on--leaving them behind. The man and camel would come along as best they could. For a long time,
Hedin writes, he could hear Babai crying after his caravan-mates.
The dunes now rose 150 to 200 feet. There was nothing but sand in their troughs, nothing
living, nothing that grew. When a gadfly appeared out of nowhere, it was a sight to remember;
later a raven circled overhead, giving them all hope. The Khotan river was only three days away
at furthest, they thought; before they reached it, they should be able to dig for water and find it.
It was no use turning back. They made camp when another of the camels--Chong-kara, the Big
Black--halted and refused to go on. The rest of Babai's saddle-stuffing made a good meal for the
other seven camels; then late at night, Babai himself came in, led by Mohammed Shah.
That was April 25th. They had marched twelve and a half miles that day.
April 26th: Hedin now went forward on foot, at daybreak, leaving his men to load the camels and
lead them slowly onward. He walked due east, with his compass in one hand and his field-glass
in the other--all alone, but calculating the distance traveled by measuring his own paces,
something which interested him greatly. Noon came. He had walked eight miles, when he
dropped flat on the crest of a dune and lay with his cap over his face. He fancied he could feel a
cool breath of wind . . . and he dreamed of green grass and leafy silver poplars, of waves washing
the shores of a lake and a bird singing in a tree-top--until a doleful bell-clanging woke him to the
reality of the Takla-makan.
Up staggered the camels, eyes dull and lifeless. Their ribs heaved as they walked, their breath
was more disagreeable than usual. There were only six camels now, led by Islam Bai and Kasim.
Yollchi and Mohammed Shah had stayed behind to nurse the Big Black and old Babai along; they
would come, the men said, as quickly as they were able.
Between the sand dunes were pools of inconceivably soft dust, so deep that the men and camels
sank into them to the knees.
Along the way, they found the bones of a donkey or wild horse. These were as white as chalk,
and crumbled like ashes when touched. The best-preserved parts were the hooves, and those
were larger than a donkey's, but smaller than any horse's. How long had they laid there?
There was no way of telling.
Hedin found snail-shells and a fragment of mussel-shell on a patch of hardened clay, along with
smooth pebbles and what looked like the fossils of reeds. The caravan halted here, too tired to
march longer. It was evening when Yollchi and Mohammel Shah staggered up to join them,
bereft of the two laggard camels. Babai and Chong-kara had refused to take another step, and
had been left to their fate. As soon as it became a little cooler, Hedin writes, he sent a man back
to fetch them; they had regained their strength, and came in around midnight.
But while the other men waited, they set about digging a well. First they dug through a hard
crust of clay; then clay mixed with sand; then after they got down about a yard, the clay was
moist! They set to with renewed heart, taking turns with the spade. Soon they got down far
enough that the man who dug was hidden in the hole, and the sand was brought up with a bucket
on a rope. The sand was cooler the deeper they got. At six and a half feet, it was moist enough
that they could squeeze it into balls, and by doing so they made their hands moist. And they
cooled their heated cheeks with the damp sand, and refreshed themselves for the digging with
swallows of water from the tanks; for were they not going to refill their tanks at the well they
A couple of candles lit the men gathered round their hole in the ground. All the animals were
waiting impatiently, sniffing at the cool, wet sand. Yolldash the dog came and actually lay down
on it, stretching out his forelegs as he watched. Even the hens came and looked on from time to
They had dug for three hours, they were over ten feet down. Kasim was in the hole, lit by the
feeble candlelight, and the others were standing round above, hauling up buckets of sand and
talking. Then they heard a groan from below. Kasim had stopped. He dropped the spade and
dropped in a heap, and up came his voice as if from a grave: "Kurruk kum!--the sand is dry!"
Kasim was right. The sand at the bottom of their 'well' was now dry as tinder. They had
exhausted themselves for nothing; all they could do was to literally collapse in defeat, too
dispirited even to look at each other. They staggered off to rest, but Hedin went and had a look
in the last water-tank. It held enough water for just one day. Then he too went to his bed-roll,
leaving the thirsty camels standing in a circle round the mockery of a 'well'--waiting in patience
for the drink they would not get.
Remember, all this is a true story.
Still, Sven Hedin and his small caravan were now in such desperate straits that their tale resembles
fiction, not fact. Other travelers who got themselves into trouble like theirs, seldom returned to
tell the story . . . Marco Polo crossed this desert, the Takla-makan, and wrote that it was
haunted by crying ghosts; the archeologist Sir Aurel Stein, a few years after Sven Hedin, passed
through and found the buried cities of the Indo-Europeans. In some places, the sand dunes were
littered with literally hundreds of copper arrowheads; in some, there were the remains of ancient
Chinese walls, built from clay and grass; in some, other archeologists excavated the fortresses of
Tibetan armies, and said that the garbage dumps they dug up stank worse than anything in their
Until about eight hundred A.D., this country was filled with Buddhist cities, and the people of
these cities were Indian in most respects. A few expeditions by Chinese armies passed through
(there are historical records of them) and the nomadic enemies of the Chinese (who resembled the
Mongols and Kirghiz who now live in the Gobi, but were of other tribes) also crossed this terrain.
Some ended up in Persia, some in Russia, some in India and some in China. Meanwhile,
caravans bearing bales of silk crossed the Gobi to the west, and jade miners found alluvial jade in
the rivers of Yarkand and Kashgar, and sent it east by camel-back to China. Some of the pieces
of jade they sent were immense, big enough to carve entire thrones out of . . . but this was the
region from which came virtually all China's jade.
Then in eight hundred A.D. Tibetan armies swept through the whole area north of the Himalayas,
all the way up into southern Russia; Tibetan inscriptions have been found by the shores of Lake
Issyk-kul, far north in the Tien Shan mountains. Then, the Chinese and the Tibetans fought a
devastating war. The Chinese ended up in possession of the Gobi. Four hundred years later,
Genghis Khan and the Mongols came out of the Gobi and ended up in possession of all China.
Across this battlefield, the sandstorms blow: the 'yellow sandstorm' that colors the sky a murky
yellow-grey and hides the sun, the brown storm that may blow eight days long, and the terrible
'black sandstorm' which is the worst caliber of disaster, turning day into night and rendering
travel utterly impossible.
And what was the result? A vast desert littered with perished towns and buried treasure. In the
eastern Gobi, every sandstorm that blows uncovers artefacts and precious jade; there is more to
find there than the bones of dinosaurs. For almost two thousand years, caravans have traveled
the Silk Road across the desert. At the turn of the century (when Sven Hedin was exploring the
region) it was the custom for caravaneers in trouble to unload their camels and stack the baggage
by the roadside for later collection. How much jade and silk was lost to the sand this way? No
one could possibly tell. Other caravans perished in the desert, and the goods they carried were
The sand dunes they crossed the next day, Sven Hedin wrote, were the highest yet they had seen:
fully two hundred feet high. They formed a maze of criss-crossing hills, so difficult to ascend
that Hedin and his men spent most of their time trying to find the best way through . . . but they
had to make so many detours that sometimes they were forced to travel in the opposite direction
they wanted to go! Hedin got up on his camel Boghra's back for a brief ride, and the camel
carried him without a sound of protest--but when he noticed how the beast's knees tottered with
every step, he got down again and walked. The other men walked. Yolldash the dog trailed the
camel with the last water-tank. Whenever they halted, he yelped and sniffed hopefully at the
tank, and then began to dig in the sand as if to remind the men that such things as well existed.
Mohammed Shah had trailed behind the others, nursing along the two weakened camels Babai and
Chong-kara. After the caravan made camp that night, he turned up on his own. The camels,
though unburdened, had refused to go on and he had abandoned them to their fate . . . though
they could be saved, he thought, if the men could find water before long and send some back for
Hedin sat in his camp, perhaps with a cup of tea which was all he would drink himself, and
imagined the two camels abandoned amidst the sands: "thrown upon the desert" in the phrase
used by Gobi caravan-men. They would lie down, stretching out their necks, too weak to take a
single step. Eventually, after two or three days, they would die.
Thick steel-blue rain-clouds crossed the western sky, filling it to the horizon. The men were
filled with hope, and set out the empty water-tanks to collect any rain that fell. They stretched
Hedin's tent on the ground, with a man at each corner to lift and gather the raindrops. But the
clouds slowly drew away to the south, and no rain fell.
Mohammed Shah said that they were all under the spell of telesmat, and would never find their
way back to the world of the living. Islam Bai said calmly that first the camels would fall, and
then the men, and they would all die; it was inevitable. Kasim said nothing. Yollchi the guide
mocked at Hedin's compass--his kebleh-nameh (the shower of the direction to Mecca)--which
was surely leading them round in circles, never to return. Sven Hedin wrapped himself in his
furs (for the night was cool) and pulled his hood round his head, and lay down to sleep under the
When he woke, he was buried in sand.
A 'black sandstorm' was blowing over the Takla-makan. Columns of whirling sand dashed past
the camp, careening across the dunes; the wind was like a hurricane, and day was as dark as night.
The air was so choked with dust and sand that the sun was not even a glimmer and the crests of
the nearby sand dunes had become invisible. When Hedin stood up, he found the fine yellow
sand infiltrating through every opening in his clothing; he had to take it all off and shake it out,
and his furs were indistinguishable from the surface of the dune on which he had slept. Every
object in the camp was buried. They had to fish them all out with their hand-staves, locating their
belongings by touch.
Then they set out. All they could do was march blindly forward, men and animals in a clump. If
anyone had been separated from the rest, no amount of shouting would have helped find them; it
was impossible to hear anything, because the storm roared so loudly that no shout could have
risen over it. Hedin could barely see the camel in front of him. All he could hear was the storm:
it made a peculiar whining and moaning, perhaps from millions of sand grains whizzing endlessly
through the air. When the wind met them full in the face, all the men could do was crouch down
with their noses near the ground, hoping not to suffocate. Then the camels lay down with their
backs to the blast, and stretched out their necks flat against the ground; and the men sheltered
The 'black sandstorm' blew all day. During the course of it, another camel gave up. Yollchi the
guide had been leading it along, last of all in the line; when it fell and refused to rise again, he was
afraid to be separated from the others, and left it to its fate. When Hedin heard this, he sent two
other men back to find it. But the tracks behind them had already been obliterated by the
sandstorm, and they turned back because they dared not get too far away.
Thus they lost their third camel. Hedin judged that they marched twelve and three-quarter miles
That was April 28th. They had three and a half pints of water left, when they made camp that
They unpacked all their stores and went through them: cases of sugar, flour, honey, rice, potatoes
and vegetables, macaroni, and two or three hundred tins of preserved foods. (Remember, Hedin
had packed enough food for a year or two. Most of these were wrapped in carpets and left in a
cache--along with furs and felts, the books and journals, the stove and petroleum-cask--in a
hollow between two dunes. On the summit of a nearby dune, they planted a staff with a Swedish
journal hung from it for a flag. They took apart a crate and made a whole series of little flags like
the first, to plant on dunes and mark a way back to the cache.
Hedin sorted out all the tins with contents of a liquid nature, and shared them out. Once the men
were satisfied that no pork or bacon was involved, they set to and ate them all happily. The last
of the water was put in two pitchers, and they decided to bring along two of the iron tanks, just in
case they managed to dig a well.
They pulled the stuffings out of a saddle, and gave it to the camels to eat; but the camels refused
it, for their throats were parched shut.
April 29th. The storm had ended. At daybreak, Islam Bai came to Hedin and told him that one
of the two pitchers was empty. Someone had drunk the water . . . the men all suspected Yollchi,
but there was no proof. When he complained of pains in his chest and stomach, their suspicions
were reinforced. Perhaps he was sick from eating European sardines and tinned crab and
mushrooms--but his groans sounded like a pretense. Nevertheless Hedin felt it was his duty to
set an example, and so he gave Yollchi half his allotted water. Afterwards, Yollchi dropped
behind and was not seen again until the following morning.
That day they found the skeleton of a vole in the sand, and also a withered poplar tree.
Yollchi came into the camp sometime that night. Next morning, when the men were loading up
the camels, Islam Bai caught the guide with his back to his comrades, and the remaining pitcher
tilted to his mouth. He had already drunk about half the remaining water (which amounted to
perhaps two glasses full)--but Islam and Kasim sprang at him, threw him to the ground, struck
and kicked him, and would have killed him if Sven Hedin had not stopped them.
They all said that Yollchi had meant to kill them, so that he could escape and come back later for
Hedin's belongings. He vanished almost as soon as they began to march, and the others said
vindictively that he would never be able to keep up. He would die on their track, and they for
one would rejoice at it.
Yollchi failed to reappear when they made camp that evening, nor did he turn up during the night.
Then they said he had gone back, meaning to nourish himself from the tinned stores in the cache;
if he survived, he would certainly fetch help to carry off the rest of the baggage. Perhaps he had
confederates somewhere. Treasure-hunters were all tramps and thieves anyway. Perhaps he
was already dead.
The four remaining men had moistened their lips at noon; that was all the water they planned to
have all day. In the evening, they would divide what remained: a swallow each, no more.
All along, Sven Hedin had kept a journal. Never, he wrote, did he omit to note down every event
of the journey, along with his compass bearings and the number of paces he took in each
direction. He wrote of all these things that night, and ended with the words: ". . . But when
evening came we discovered that Kasim and Mohammed Shah, who led the caravan, had stolen
every drop! We were all terribly weak, men as well as camels. God help us all!"
May 1st. It was the beginning of spring, the season of renewal and joy.
Early that morning, Yollchi the guide reappeared among the other travelers. The men refused to
speak to him. They had warmed the last few drops of sesame oil which had been meant for the
camels, and sat dipping stale bread into the rancid mixture and eating the result. As for Sven
Hedin, he poured out a few pints of the alcoholic concoction called Chinese brandy, which they
had brought along to burn in the Primus cooking-stove. Luckily, the others (they were all
Muslims, of course) refused to touch the stuff. Hedin managed to choke it down, though it
burned his throat; the dog Yollchi ran up wagging its tail, but took one sniff and slunk away
whining. Afterward Hedin hurled the bottle into the side of a dune.
They loaded the camels and staggered on.
Hedin walked at the tail of the caravan, falling further and further behind. Eventually he lost
sight of them; later, the tolling of the lead camel's bell faded into the distance. It was burning
hot, and his legs were unable to carry him; he fell repeatedly, but kept getting up and tottering
onward, and his reward came when he caught sight of the caravan again. The five remaining
camels had all laid down and refused to go a step further.
There was nothing the men could do but unload them and let them rest. Meanwhile they put up
the tent, so they could at least sit in the shade of it. Hedin wrote that he crawled on hands and
knees into the tent, stripped off all his clothes for coolness' sake, and collapsed; Islam Bai and
Kasim followed suit, and the dog Yolldash crawled in and joined them, as did the sheep. Yollchi
the guide sat outside in the shelter of the tent's shadow. Mohammed Shah was delirious: he sat
outside in the full sunlight, weeping and laughing, letting sand run through his fingers.
Hedin wrote: "The poultry were the only creatures in the caravan which kept up their spirits.
They sauntered about in the blazing sunshine, picking at the camels' pack-saddles and the
provision bags. As yet it was only half-past nine. We had not covered more than three miles,
and had an interminably long day before us. Nobody ever longed for sunset so earnestly as we
did that 1st of May in the year 1895."
But when sunset eventually came, they were still all alive, and Hedin found his strength renewed.
To give up was unthinkable, he decided. To vanish into an unknown grave in the Gobi was
equally inconceivable. Islam Bai and Kasim stirred, and when he told them of his resolve, they
said they were of the same mind as he was. Mohammed Shah lay outside the tent, muttering to
himself and twitching feebly. As for the guide Yollchi, he came crawling to Hedin, shaking his
fist and demanding water--just a few drops of water, no more. When Hedin reminded him that
he had drunk more water than anyone else, he crept away sobbing.
Hedin helped Kasim and Islam to cut the rooster's throat, and each of them had a swallow of
blood. It was the only way they could think of to get a little moisture. But it was not enough;
and though they were reluctant, at last they held the sheep down, turning its head toward Mecca,
and cut its throat too. The blood drained into a bucket and almost immediately began to
coagulate. The taste and smell were so sickening that Hedin could not choke down more than a
spoonful. The other men did little better, and finally offered the bucket to Yolldash the dog to
lick clean. In their desperation, next they collected a saucepan of the camel's urine, added
vinegar and sugar, and held their noses while they swallowed the unsavory result. Hedin and
Kasim both refused to touch it . . . and they were wise not to, for soon after, the three who had
drunk were doubled up with violent spasms of vomiting. When he had recovered slightly,
Yollchi the treacherous guide cut out the sheep's lungs and sat beside the tent, gnawing them.
There was blood on his face and hands, a horrible sight; he looked quite mad.
With Kasim and Islam to help him, Hedin went through their baggage for the second time,
discarding most of it. Hedin set aside only what he felt absolutely indispensable: his drawings
and notes, along with specimens of rock and sand he had collected along the way, scientific
instruments, and his Bible and psalm-book. They also kept provisions for about three days, and
their money--half a camel-load of Chinese silver coins, amounting to almost 280 English pounds
in value--along with their weapons, a lantern, a spade and rope and bucket, and a couple of boxes
of cigars and cigarettes. Among the things they left were Hedin's photographic apparatus and his
thousand photographic plates, two hundred of which were filled with photographs of the journey.
What they kept, they put in five Sart kurchins or double wallets made of sailcloth; they loaded the
camels with these, abandoning the camel-saddles.
They also opened a couple of boxes of preserved food--but though the contents were moist, they
could barely get them down. Their throats were too parched to swallow. The camels lay just
where they had fallen that morning, and their throats too were shriveled up: bluish-white with
dehydration, so that the poor creatures could scarcely breathe.
Everything they discarded was packed in crates and stored away inside the tent. They still hoped
to come back and recover it all later.
Hedin called that the Camp of Death. They left it behind them that evening: five emaciated
camels, and three staggering men. Yollchi the guide refused to come; as they left, he crawled
inside the tent and took possession of it, still gnawing horribly at the sheep's lungs. Hedin tried
to rouse Mohammed Shah, but the old Muslim was dying. His breathing was slow and irregular,
his body was terribly shriveled so that he looked like a mummy already; he seemed to Hedin to be
half-asleep and dreaming, lost in a mirage of Paradise. Hedin stroked his brow and told him they
would bring back water for him as soon as they found some, and he managed to lift one hand and
mumble something, of which only the word Allah was intelligible.
The six remaining hens, Hedin wrote, made a tragi-comic picture as they sauntered through the
campsite. They were cackling to themselves, and pecking happily away at the sheep's carcass.
With it to feed on, they would probably last longer than their Mohammed Shah or Yollchi. As
for Yolldash the dog, he followed the camels faithfully. Following caravans was all he knew in
This time they were traveling at night--something they should probably have done from the first.
It was too dark to see their footing clearly, but at least the air was cool. Nevertheless, they lost
another camel. It collapsed and they had to unrope it from the others and leave it behind. Islam
Bai was seized with repeated vomiting and could scarcely walk. Hedin rode for a while, then got
down and led the way, carrying the lit lantern.
Midnight came. Islam Bai collapsed, just as the camel had. The other four camels were too
exhausted to go further. Only Hedin and Kasim had a little strength left. Islam begged to be
left behind, and said he would die where he lay. Hedin told him to gather his strength, and when
he was rested, to forget the camels and their loads; he must follow on, even to his last breath.
Then the two remaining men turned their faces eastward.
Behind them, the dying camels lay couched with their necks stretched out flat on the sand, and
Islam Bai sprawled with the lighted lantern beside him. He did not glance up when Hedin and
Kasim left. Only Yolldash the dog stood gazing wonderingly after them, framed in the lantern-light. No doubt he thought they would come back with water; they never left the caravan alone
for long, after all. All his life consisted in following camel-caravans, and he stayed with the
Hedin never saw him again.
They walked--Sven Hedin and Kasim.
They lay down and napped, too sleepy to go on.
They got up and walked.
Dawn came. They walked. The sun rose; they let themselves rest for an hour. The heat grew
oppressive; they dug in the side of a dune and buried themselves in sand still cool from the night
air. They stripped their clothes off before doing so, and hung the garments on the spade to make
a sort of awning. Then, in the cool sand and the shade from their little awning, they rested all day
They walked until one o'clock at night, then lay down and slept. Near dawn, they woke and
When day broke, they saw a tree in the distance.
It was a solitary tamarisk. It was alive. They changed direction and steered toward it, and when
they came up to it, found green leaves and chewed them and breathed in the scent of the living
sap. The tamarisk grew straight out of the top of a sand-dune; if it had grown in the trough
between two dunes, they would never have seen it and might have wandered past without
knowing of its existence. But it gave them hope; they went on, and before nine o'clock that
morning they found a few withered reeds between the dunes, and then a second living tamarisk.
They dug themselves into a dune, and slept under the shade of the second tamarisk.
Nine hours they slept. At seven that night they roused, and forced themselves to go on.
After several hours, they sighted three poplar trees growing in the sand.
The leaves were too bitter to chew on. Instead they bruised them, and rubbed them over their
dry skin. Next they thought to dig a well . . . but found themselves so weak that they were
literally unable to hold the spade steady. It kept twisting in their grip, and then it would fall out
of their hands. They even tried to scratch the sand up with their fingertips, but got nowhere.
Next they built a signal bonfire out of the fallen boughs and twigs round the poplar trees, and let it
burn for a good two hours. There was no one to see it, but they did it anyway.
They walked on.
Now it was May 4th. Their four-day crossing of the Takla-Makan had stretched out like a
sentence of eternal punishment: though they now found many shrubby tamarisks growing at long
intervals in the dunes, there was never another poplar tree, and now they were so weak they could
not dig themselves into the sand to rest. Their courage began to flag, and they thought they
would never leave the desert.
When it became too hot to go on, they lay exposed to the sun all day. And by nightfall, Kasim
was unable to get up and walk. Hedin left him lying in the sand, and continued for a few hours;
then while he lay collapsed under a tamarisk, he heard a rustle and saw something moving. It
was Kasim, who had regained his strength and followed him. The meeting cheered them both,
and they went on together. Sometimes Hedin dropped to his hands and knees and crawled,
unwilling to halt; and once they veered in a circle and were briefly overjoyed to find human
footprints--but the tracks they saw were only their own. Hedin wrote of looking at Kasim: the
Muslim's tongue was white, dry and swollen, his lips tinged with blue, his cheeks sunken and his
eyes glassy. Both of them were so hoarse that they could barely speak or whisper.
The sun rose: May 5th. They had been traveling since April 22nd.
There was a line of black trees on the horizon. It was the forest that lined the bank of the
In the forest, Sven Hedin eventually found the bed of the Khotan-daria: it was a dead-level plain
of hard clay, almost two miles wide, and quite dry--for this was a desert river, which only ran in
the summer floods. But he followed it, and found water in a deep hole in the clay. Kasim lay
exhausted in the forest somewhere behind him by then . . . but after drinking what seemed like a
glutton's feast of water, Hedin took off his waterproof Swedish boots, filled them and threaded
the spade-shaft through their laces, and went back for him, triumphant.
He got Kasim as far as the pool of water, then went on ahead, looking for help.
The forest had a name; it was called the Close-tangled Wood. There were shepherds living in it,
pasturing the livestock of a rich Khotanese man; they tended his sheep and goats, as well as a
small herd of cattle, and were paid about nine shillings a month. There were three of them, to
split these wages up, and besides this they got maize meal, to make their daily bread. That bread
was all they ate, along with tea flavored with pepper. One of them had a wife, but he only saw
her once or twice yearly. Nevertheless, they were happy and contented, and they were pleased to
share their bread with Sven Hedin.
There were merchants passing regularly, traveling along the dry bed of the Khotan-daria. Three
of them found Hedin in the shepherds' hut, and addressed him by name. Just the day before, they
had discovered a man--more dead than alive--lying on the edge of the forest, while a pure-white
camel grazed beside him. He was Islam Bai, and they had given him water and bread and raisins,
after which he had begged them to find the others.
The very next day, Hedin found them all, alive and unharmed: Islam Bai, and Kasim (who had
fallen in with Islam some hours earlier) and one remaining camel. On the camel's back was all
Hedin's money, his instruments, and his notes. Two more of the camels were alive, Islam Bai
said, but they had run off into the forest and were lost. As for Yollchi and Mohammed Shah--not
to mention Yolldash the dog!--they had died and their bodies lay in the Takla-Makan.
Almost a year later, though, Hedin returned to the vicinity of Khotan. He was then preparing to
go south and climb into the Himalayas, still exploring; his eventual destination was Tibet. But the
Khotanese authorities told him this tale: some months previously, a local hunter had followed a
fox's trail and found a sand dune whose surface was white with flour. Digging in the sand, he
discovered Sven Hedin's tent and belongings, from the halt where they had killed the sheep--the
Camp of Death.
The top of the tent was buried a foot deep beneath the surface of the desert.
All this is a much-condensed account, taken from Sven Hedin's book Through Asia, volume one.
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Last Updated on September 15, 2000 by Sylvia