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SIR AUREL STEIN KCIE
FIRST EXPLORATION

 
 

Sir Aurel Stein's first venture into Chinese Turkestan was May 1900 - July 1901. After considerable effort he obtained permission and funding from the British India Government. By then he was considered an expert in Sanscrit and the early Buddhist archeological remains in western India - Gandahara. He had studied the text of the famous Chinese Buddhist monk, Hsuan-tsang, who reported on his trip to India in A. D. 630's. Stein invoked this monk repeatedly when explaining his purpose to Chinese authorities. And if there was a question that needed answers - a large quantity of documents that purported to be ancient texts found in Central Asia was defying translation due to its unknown language. Stein suspected forgery and wanted to confront the individual who claimed to have found them. He wrote three books about this expedition. The official report "Preliminary Report of a Journey of Archaeological and Topographic Exploration in Chinese Turkestan" (1901) - "Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan: Personal Narrative of a Journey" (1903) - and "Ancient Khotan" (1907)


 
 


Stein started his journey on 31 May, 1900 from Bandipur, Kashmir with a select team including an Indian surveyor and a carefully selected baggage train of equipment. For this first expedition he selected the most rapid route to Kashgar in western Chinese Turkestan via Gilgit and Hunza. At that time these were still primitive territories only recently under British control. The route led over numerous high mountain ranges through high passes. This required the assistance of groups of local laborers designated ahead of time to carry the equipment up onto a pass and then another group to carry it down the other side. On 1 June he crossed the 11,000 foot high Tragbal Pass in deep snow. Stein was always delighted to meet with a new ethnic-linguistic local tribe. Here, in Gurez, he found a Dard people unrelated in language to the Kashmiri people who lived further south. The next pass was the Burzil that separates Gurez from Astor, crossed on 3 June. Even at 10,000 feet the snow would become soft during the warm days, so Stein had to try to cross in early morning darkness. On 8 June he moved toward the Indus River, which makes a huge bend through these mountains. He was then able to rest briefly in government quarters in Gilgit. The next part of the climb during 15-19 June reached Hunza. The route along the narrow canyons of the Indus required frequent passage along narrow ledges and 'rafiks' built out from shere walls. He passed through small villages such as Nilth in Nagir territory, and Aliabad. Here he stopped as he so frequently did to receive and sent his remarkable volume of letters. The next stage began on 20 June with the assistance of numerous pack men provided by the local ruler. Next came the Little Guhyal, where the people were already Wakhis, from the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan. At each village he was greated ceremoniously by the local chiefs. On 24 June he crossed the Batur glacier. Next he reached Khudabad and then Misgar and then Topkhana where he was met by a agent from Sarikol (in China). The next stage was to cross the Kilik Pass on 28 June at 15,800 feet before which point Stein could send his Hunza porters back and change the loads to the Sarikoli yaks. Stein and Ram Singh began their topographic surveying on a 16,800 foot ridge. From there he also visited the Wakhjir Pass - the watershed between the Oxus and Yarkand Rivers - that is between West and East. Next he took a personal detour to climb mighty Muztagh-Ata after a brief stop at Tashkurgan (7 - 10 July). The climb occupied 10 to 23 July but he could not reach the top of Muztagh-Ata at 24,321 feet. He made it to 20,000 before turning back. But from there he deteremined to follow another difficult route, through the Gez Defile, to reach Kashgar. On 28 July they reached Tashmalik and still had two more passes to cross before using the main road to Kashgar
At Kashgar Stein engaged new assistants, Roza Akhun and Hassan Akhun, expert desert camel men, who served him on his later expeditions as well. He remained at Kashgar all of August meeting officials and organizing his team and equipment for heavy duty in the desert, including purchase of camels and ponies. He made arrangement with the local Chinese officials to receive support at all places throughout Turkestan. On 4 September he made a brief local tour to see yet another shrine - stupa. Then the main expedition got underway on 12 Sept. Again he chose not to use the commercial caravan route to Khotan but struck out into adjacent desert to visit another abandoned shrine. On 17 September he finally reached Yarkand, the major commercial market of western Chinese Turkestan. There he was received by the local Indian merchants, who had been alerted to his coming. He had to wait, however, to receive more silver from Kashgar and used the delay to inspect local agriculture and irrigation methods. .


 
 


Stein moved on to Karghalik reaching it by 28 September. Here he again greated the local amban with Hsuan-tsang's book and obtained the desired result of immediate favor and assistance. He departed Karghalik on 2 October. So he had already spent 4 months and not really begun his major archeological exploration. The road east was through barren terrain to Guma oasis. He he began searching for ancient documents and artifacts. None of the local ruins revealed anything like the questionable documents circulating in India. He moved on to Kakshal, finding some medieval copper coins. Further east he came to Khotan at the Karakash and Yanagi-Darya rivers. He was met on 13 October by local dignitaries who showed him around the city fortified walls. In Khotan he met the amban, Pan Darin, who became his close friend during later expeditions as well. He immediately found his first forgery. Later he confronted the forger himself, one Islam Akhun, and secured the information that all the doubtful documents back in India were indeed forgeries. From Khotan Stein wanted to find the headwaters of the Yurungkash branch of the Khotan river. This proved more difficult later on than he had expected. It was very difficult terrain, but had been crossed several times beginning at least in 400 A.D. So Stein made an effort from 17 October to 15 November. In the mountains south of Khotan individual prospectors still searched for gold and jade. Stein reached the last village at Karangutagh near the Kunlun mtns. He reached a 14,000 foot ridge west of Kunlun mountain. The river was visible also, but in treacherous defiles. He and Ram Singh did their topographic surveying. After crossing 4 more high unnamed and previously unsurveyed passes they managed to connect his surveys with known peaks already surveyed from the Indian side. He crossed the Ulughat Pass back toward Khotan. There he received sample artifacts turned up in the desert by 'treasure seekers'. And he met Turdi, a real expert on the desert who was to guide Stein to many important finds.


 
 


The first ruin Turdi described was Dandan-Uiliq. First, Stein confirmed that ancient Khotan, known at Yu-t-ien was now burried under silt and called Yotkan next to Khotan. With winter starting it was time to enter the real desert. On 7 December Stein started out for Dandan-Uiliq via Tawakkel, following the Khotan River into the desert. There he hired local workers to dig at Dandan and departed eastward on 12 December. He reached Dandan in 6 days of below zero weather. At Dandan he found coins from 713-741 AD and much else wall - frescos of Buddha and Bodhisattvas - houses - an orchard - many documents in various languages and scripts - and more. He systematically excavated 14 buildings. Among these was the actual library of a Buddhist monastery. He found documents dated from 781 to 787 AD. Ram Singh arrived on 23 December, having executed a survey of 500 miles through the Kunlun mountains and then down the Keriya River and then west to Dandan. Their independent surveys closed with an location error of less than a mile - amazing. Stein completed this survey on 3 January and moved to Rawak, another place Turdi had found in the desert. There he found Han Dynasty coins and various stucco fragments. From there he moved east to the Keriya River and then south up the river to Keriya town by 13 January. He started north back down the river on 18 January to visit the shrine of Iman Jafar Sadik. At Ninya oasis he was told about another ruin in the desert. This was 90 miles through desert to the north. He began work at Niya ruin on 28 January. There he found many documents in Kharoshthi written on wood slips about northern India. He made floor plans of the buildings. He found many every-day articles from the houses. All of this had been preserved by being burried in the sand for centuries. The site had been abandoned in the late 3rd century. By 13 February he completed all possible work at Niya ruin and returned to the Iman Jafar Sadik shrine. .


 
 


From the shrine Stein cut east across the desert rather than going the long way through Niya oasis. This would allow him to cross the Yartungaz river and reach the Endere quickly. At the Endere he found the remains of a massive rampart and buildings. There he found Tibetan documents from the 700's as well as Sanskrit ones. He left on 26 February to return to Niya oasis and then on to Keriya. After a short rest Stein moved down the Keriya river to Karadong. It turned out to be only a kind of frontier fort. From 18 March to 19 April the spring sand storms hit with great force. He then visited "old Domoko" where he found a copper coin from Sung dynasty 1127-1278 - that is contemporary with Marco Polo. They reached Gulakhma on 29 March. Then he returned to Khotan via a stop at Keriya. He immediately set out to Ak-sipil in the desert and then another place called Rawak a ruined stupa with 91 huge Buddhist statues. There he worked from 11 to 19 April and found Han dynasty coins. He photographed the statues and remains and then buried them again to protect from the weather.


 
 


Back at Khotan Stein bade farwell to Pan Darin. He departed on 27 April being seen off by his many local friends and associates. It took him 6 days to reach Yarkand and three more to regain Kashgar on 12 May. Interestingly, he returned to India via London departing Kashgar on 29 May. This round about route was actually cheaper and quicker than going through the mountains directly. From Kashgar he could cross the Ali Pass to reach the terminus of the Russian railway at Osh and then rapidly cross Russia into Europe. He took his finds with him and all arrived safely through Russian customs. He reached London in 2 July.


 
 


Stein's findings were sensational to the archeological community. But this first expedition was but a 'warm up' for what was to come on the second and third expeditions. In order to accomplish those he had dealings with bureaucracy more trying than living in the desert and mountains in below zero weather.

 

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