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For the novelette by Bruce Sterling see Taklamakan (story).

View of the Taklamakan desert

The Taklamakan Desert (Chinese: 塔克拉玛干沙漠pinyin: Tǎkèlāmǎgān Shāmò; Uyghur: تەكلىماكان قۇملۇقى‎, Täklimakan qumluqi?), also known as Taklimakan, is a desert in Central Asia, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China. It is the world's 17th largest desert. It is bounded by the Kunlun Mountains to the south, and the Pamir Mountains and Tian Shan (ancient Mount Imeon) to the west and north. The name is probably an Uyghur borrowing of Arabic tark, "to leave alone/out/behind, relinquish, abandon" + makan, "place". [1] Popular accounts wrongly claim that Takla Makan means "go in and you will never come out".[2]



Taklamakan Desert and Tarim Basin
Taklamakan by NASA World Wind

Taklamakan is one of the largest sandy deserts in the world,[3] ranking 15th in size in a ranking of the world's largest non-polar deserts.[4] It covers an area of 270,000 km2 (100,000 sq mi) of the Tarim Basin, 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) long and 400 kilometres (250 mi) wide. It is crossed at its northern and at its southern edge by two branches of the Silk Road as travelers sought to avoid the arid wasteland.[5] In recent years, the People's Republic of China has constructed a cross-desert highway that links the cities of Hotan (on the southern edge) and Luntai (on the northern edge). In recent years, the desert has expanded in some areas, its sands enveloping farms and villages as a result of human-created desertification.


Desert life near Yarkand

Taklamakan is a paradigmatic cold desert climate. Given its relative proximity with the cold to frigid air masses in Siberia, extreme lows are recorded in wintertime, sometimes well below −20 °C (−4 °F). During the 2008 Chinese winter storms episode, the Taklamakan was reported to be covered for the first time in its entirety with a thin layer of snow reaching 4 centimetres (1.6 in), with a temperature of −26.1 °C (−15 °F) in some observatories.[6]

Its extreme inland position, virtually in the very heartland of Asia and thousands of kilometres from any open body of water, accounts for the cold character of its nights even during summertime.


A vast alluvial fan between the Kunlun and Altun mountain ranges forming the southern border of the Taklamakan Desert, the left side appearing blue from water flowing in many streams [1]

There is very little water in the desert and it is hazardous to cross. Merchant caravans on the Silk Road would stop for relief at the thriving oasis towns.[7]

The key oasis towns, watered by rainfall from the mountains, were Kashgar, Marin, Niya, Yarkand, and Khotan (Hetian) to the south, Kuqa and Turpan in the north, and Loulan and Dunhuang in the east.[5] Now many, such as Marin and Gaochang, are ruined cities in sparsely inhabited areas in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China.[8]

The archeological treasures found in its sand-buried ruins point to Tocharian, early Hellenistic, Indian, and Buddhist influences. Its treasures and dangers have been vividly described by Aurel Stein, Sven Hedin, Albert von Le Coq, and Paul Pelliot.[5] Mummies, some 4000 years old, have been found in the region. They show the wide range of peoples who have passed through. Some of the mummies appear European.[9] Later, the Taklamakan was inhabited by Turkic peoples. Starting with the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese periodically extended their control to the oasis cities of the Taklamakan in order to control the important silk route trade across Central Asia. Periods of Chinese rule were interspersed with rule by Turkic, Mongol and Tibetan peoples. The present population consists largely of Turkic Uyghur people.

See also


  1. ^ E.M. Pospelov, Geograficheskiye nazvaniya mira (Moscow, 1998), p. 408. Gunnar Jarring,'The Toponym Takla-makan',Turkic Languages vol 1, 1997, pp 227-40.
  2. ^ "Takla Makan Desert at". Retrieved 2008-11-24. But see Christian Tyler, Wild West China, John Murray 2003, p.17
  3. ^ "Taklamakan Desert". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2007-08-11. 
  4. ^ "The World's Largest Desert". Retrieved 2007-08-22. 
  5. ^ a b c Bahn, Paul G. (2001). The Atlas of World Archeology. New York: Checkmark Books. pp. 134– 135. ISBN 0-8160-4051-6. 
  6. ^ "China's biggest desert Taklamakan experiences record snow". February 1, 2008. 
  7. ^ "Spies Along the Silk Road". Retrieved 2007-08-07. 
  8. ^ "The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith". Retrieved 2007-08-25. 
  9. ^ "Mysterious Mummies of China". Retrieved 2007-08-11. 


  • Jarring, Gunnar (1997). "The toponym Takla-makan", Turkic Languages, Vol. 1, pp. 227-240.
  • Hopkirk, Peter (1980). Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 0-87023-435-8.
  • Hopkirk, Peter (1994). The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. ISBN 1-56836-022-3.
  • Warner, Thomas T. (2004). Desert Meteorology. Cambridge University Press, 612 pages. ISBN 0521817986.

External links

Coordinates: 38°53′28″N 82°10′40″E / 38.89111°N 82.17778°E / 38.89111; 82.17778

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