To Desert and Steppe
To Desert and Steppe
The vast reaches of central Asia are redolent with history, with stirring tales of Marco Polo’s epic journeys and all the romance of the Silk Road, an arduous caravan route that connected Asia and the West for hundreds of years. The archaeology of both central Asia and the Silk Road has yet to reveal all their secrets, for the area presents formidable obstacles for even the most experienced researchers and travelers. A century ago, the obstacles were even more severe—no rail lines, no roads beyond caravan tracks and horse trails, and endemic political instability, to say nothing of harsh deserts and high mountain passes. Despite these obstacles, Afghanistan, Tibet, and other countries along the Silk Road were the arena for what became known in the nineteenth century as the “great game,” the hide-and-seek struggle between Russia and Britain for control of a strategically vital area north of British India. Here, archaeological travel was in the hands of explorers and truly dedicated scientists, and certainly was not the domain of tourists. The logistics and enormous distances ensured that anyone traveling in central Asia vanished from civilization for months, and more often for years. During the nineteenth century, the occasional British army officer and political agent, and also French and German travelers, ventured widely through the region, although their concerns were predominantly military and strategic rather than scientific. The great game culminated in Colonel Francis Younghusband’s military and diplomatic expedition for Britain into Tibet in 1904, prompted by rumors that Russia had its eye on the country. After Younghusband’s return to India and because of his account of the fascinating, mountainous regions to the north, the rugged terrain that formed India’s northern frontier became a place where solitary young officers went exploring, hunting, or climbing mountains for sport. During this period, only a handful of travelers penetrated central Asia with scientific objectives, among them the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who traveled via Russia and the Pamirs to China in 1893–1897. He nearly died crossing the western Taklimakan Desert in the Tarim Basin to reach the Khotan River. This huge basin was a melting pot of different religions and cultures, a bridge for silk caravans between East and West.
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