China | Xinjiang Province | Khotan | Rawak Stupa
On March 6, 1925, the Roerich Expedition led by mystic painter, occultist, alleged spy, Shambhalist, and all-around intriguer Nicholas Roerich left Darjeeling, India on what would be a three-year journey through Central Asia and Tibet, with stops in Kashmir in India, Xinjiang Province in China, the Russian Altai Mountains in Siberia, Ulaan Baatar and Amarbuyant Khiid in Mongolia, the Tibetan Plateau, and numerous places in between.
Nicholas Roerich claimed he was looking for inspiration for his paintings, and his son George, Harvard-educated and world-class Tibetan translator (see Blue Annals), was supposedly engaged in various ethnological and linguistical researches. From the three books churned out by Nicholas Roerich about the expedition it is pretty clear however that they were actually looking for Shambhala.
The pilgrims are passing on their way bringing new messages. In Urga [Ulaan Baatar] will be set a place for the temple of Shambhala. When the image of Rigden-japo (presumably the 25th Kalkin King of Shambhala] will reach Urga, then will flash the first light of the New Era—Truth. Then will the renaissance of Mongolia arrive. In Kucha [oasis town on the northern rim of the Tarim Basin], in the bazaars, recently two arriving lamas distributed images and a prayer of Shambhala. Here, also, the nuclei of revivified Buddhism have found shelter. The celebrated Suburgan near Khotan must be the place of one of the manifestations of the New Era. Khotan is the path of Buddha. . .In his book Heart of Asia Roerich Senior adds,
Not far from Khotan are many ruins of old Buddhist temples and stupas. One of these stupas is identified with the legend: That in the time of Shambhala, a mysterious light wll shine from it. It is said this light has already been seen.George Roerich’s book Trails to Innermost Asia mentions that while in Khotan they visited various ruins, but mentions by name only the Rawak Stupa, then as now the most conspicuous stupa in the area. Therefore I assumed that the “celebrated Suburgan” mentioned by Roerich Sr. was in fact the Rawak Stupa. Naturally I wanted to see it.
On my first day at Khotan I had been unable to find the Khotan Regional Museum. I had walked up and down the street where according to my guidebook the museum was supposed to be four or five times and had seen nothing resembling a museum. I had asked numerous passers-by in both Chinese and Uighur where the museum was and got no reply except for blank stares or outright hostile glares. I invariably visit all museums wherever I am at, but especially in China museums are good sources of otherwise hard-to-find information about local history and often a good place to find someone who speaks at least a little English. But here I struck out completely. Not only couldn’t I find the museum, but I had been in Khotan for almost a full day and had not encountered a single English speaker nor heard an English word, unless you count “Bush.” I bought some Uighur flat bread—nan—and retreated to my room for a dinner of bread and tea. In order to lift my spirits I treated myself to some forty-two year old Puerh tea from Yunnan Province in China. This stuff costs 7000 yuan ($845) a kilo, but the woman who owns a tea shop I frequent in Beijing had given me thirty grams as a free sample.
I appeared to be the only guest in the cavernous hotel, which my guidebook had touted as Khotan’s best, complete with a restaurant and travel agency. I had seen no sign of either a restaurant or a travel agency. Except for the two lugubrious Uighur women at the reception desk who had automatically discounted my room to less than half the listed price without me even asking—an indication of how hard up for they were for business—I had not seen another soul in the place.
Then about eleven o’clock a noisy group of eight or so middle-aged Uighur businessmen with a passel of young women in tow appeared and took over three or four rooms at the end of the hall. A lot of stomping up and down the creaky floorboards of the hall ensued, along with raucous shouting and laughter and blaring pop music, both Chinese and Uighur. By three in the morning things had quieted down, the silence broken only by an occasional female moan or shriek, whether from pleasure, pain, or a combination of both it was hard to tell.
The next morning I breakfasted on green tea (Lung Ching from Zhejiang Province: 1200 yuan [$144] a kilo) and the now cardboard-like nan I had bought the evening before. At eight I ventured out of my room. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I had to do something or this trip to Khotan was going to be a total bust. By the entrance to the hotel was a small gift shop which has been closed the day before. Now the door was open and inside was a Chinese girl perhaps sixteen years old. “Hello, please come in.” she said in English. Striking up a rudimentary conservation as she showed me a selection of silk scarves I discovered that she had studied a bit of English in school and liked to listen to English-language pop music. She was big on Britney Spears and Whitney Huston. I tried to find out if it was possible to hire a car at the hotel, as there were some trips I would like to make, but she didn’t seem to understand. “Sorry, my English very poor,” she kept saying. Finally she called someone on her cell phone. “My friend—she speak English. She come now.” Her friend, a Uighur woman in her mid-twenties, arrived in ten minutes. She was the proprietor of another nearby gift shop which sold carpets. As she tried her best to sell me a carpet I grilled her in English. She spoke a little more than the Chinese girl, but not much. She did understood that I needed someone to guide me around Khotan. She called a friend of hers on her cell phone.
Her friend, another Uighur woman in her early-twenties, arrived in five minutes. She also spoke only a little bit of English. She explained that she did speak fairly fluent Japanese, which she had learned at a language institute in Urumqi, and that she worked as a guide for Japanese tourist groups who came through Khotan. Japanese were by far the most numerous of the foreign visitors to Khotan, she said. They were big buyers of silk carpets and were not afraid to spend their money. She could not help but wonder what I was doing here by myself. No foreigners ever came to Khotan by themselves, she claimed. She kept apologizing for her poor English, which wasn’t all that bad, but added that she knew a young man who was going to a university in Urumqi but was home for the summer and that he spoke very good English and sometimes worked as a guide.
She called him and he arrived ten minutes later. His name was Anwar. He was tall and thin, with shoulder-length black hair, long moustache, and aviator sunglasses. He did indeed speak pretty good English. I explained that I wanted to go to some places in the countryside outside of Khotan, one of them being the Rawak Stupa. “Ah,” he said, “that is a problem. The Rawak Stupa is a Class A historical monument and no one is allowed to there without a guide from the local museum to make sure they don’t damage or steal anything.” And where is the museum I wondered, explaining that I had been unable to find it. The museum, it turns out, had just moved to a brand-new building in a different part of town from the old museum. Anyhow, I wanted to visit Rawak Stupa. Could he arrange it? Anwar called the museum, talked to the curator, who also serves as the guide to restricted sites, and found out that he was free at the moment and would be able to accompany me to Rawak Stupa this morning, for a fee of course. He could also arrange for a four-wheel drive vehicle to drive to the site, which he said was in the Taklamakan Desert about forty kilometers north of Khotan city. He added that we would have to walk the final three or four kilometers to the stupa.
The curator was in his mid-thirties. He had studied for several years in Canada and spoke almost perfect English. He even had a valid USA visa but was not able to use it because he had to return to Khotan to look after his ailing father. As we drive northward from Khotan I discovered that he had read in English the accounts of all the great Western explorers of the region, including Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin. He added his museum was very interested in organizing trips to places of historical or cultural interest in the Khotan region, either by jeep, horse, or camel.
Location of Rawak Stupa. See Enlargement of MapAbout ten miles north of the city center the Khotan oasis, lush fields of corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and melons divided by rows of poplar trees abruptly ends. After a couple of miles of gravelly flats the sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert begin. A mile or so into the desert is a checkpoint with a chain across the road to stop unauthorized access to the stupa site. The curator has a key to the lock.
After five or so more miles the sand trail ends and we set off on foot around the sand dunes. After about two miles we come to the stupa. The curator says that it was built circa 150 A.D. It was probably abandoned before the arrival of the Islamic Turks in the late tenth century. The Hungarian-born archeologist Aurel Stein rediscovered the stupa half buried in the drifting sands in 1901, as he describes in his Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan.
Some of the holes in the side of the stupa have been made by treasure-hunters in the last five years or so, despite the efforts of local officials to guard the site.
Ancient streambed near the stupa. This river, which flowed north from the Kun Lun Mountains, no doubt provided the water for the inhabitants of the stupa complex. The curator has no idea when the river went dry.