Stephen F. CUNHA

An Uygur Muslim cemetery in northwest China, Tarim Basin, Turfan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The Uygurs, a Turkic minority people, have inhabited the basin region for two millennia. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Known for its sparse vegetation and extreme climate, the Tarim Basin is located in the northwestern corner of China and will play a major role in China’s oil and energy production in the coming century. It is one of the largest endorheic basins in the world, meaning that rivers that flow into it dry up rather than flowing on to the sea.

The Tarim Basin is located in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwestern China between the Tian Shan and Kunlun Shan mountain ranges. The basin encompasses 906,500 square kilometers (a little over half the size of the state of Alaska) of mostly shifting sands, undulating expanses of arid terrain, and dry lake beds. Rivers that flow into it off the surrounding mountains dry up into the earth or evaporate rather than flowing on to the ocean. (The Great Basin in the American west is an example of another such “endorheic” basin.)

The Taklimakan Desert, which is the fifteenth-largest nonpolar desert in the world and the world’s second largest sand desert, occupies the lower basin of the Tarim. The Silk Roads—a network of trade routes that connected eastern, southern, and western Asia with the Mediterranean area, including northern Africa and Europe—threaded the region and was split into two routes. The northern route ran along the northern edge of the Taklimakan Desert, and the southern route ran along the southern edge.

The term tarim describes a river that either flows into a lake or meanders amid desert sands. The desert climate has temperature extremes of ?20° to 50° C and precipitation of just 50–100 millimeters a year. The snow on K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, flows into glaciers that creep down valleys to melt. This melted water forms rivers that flow into the Tarim Basin. Vegetation is sparse except for riparian (relating to the bank of a natural watercourse) stands of wormwood and poplar and willows, Ural licorice, sea buckthorn, and Indian hemps.

The Han Chinese wrested control of the basin from the Xiongnu people at the end of the first century under General Ban Chao (32–102). Today the basin is sparsely settled by Tajiks and Uygurs and other Turkic peoples. Oasis agriculture in far-flung and small settlements produces cotton, fruits, grains, wool, and silk. Khotan jade, a nephrite jade that occurs in a variety of colors, is mined, and tourism is increasing in importance. Recent discoveries of oil and natural gas will make these an important source of China’s energy supplies in the next century.

Since the 1980s archaeologists have discovered remains of bodies dating back almost four thousand years in the eastern and southern parts of the basin. Dating from 1800 BCE–200 CE, some of the mummies have been linked to Indo-European Tocharian languages in the basin, although evidence is not conclusive. The cemetery at Yanbulaq yielded twenty-nine mummies, which have dated from 1100–500 BCE. The mummies have both Mongoloid and Caucasoid characteristics, suggesting ancient contacts between East and West. Their clothing indicates a common origin with Indo-European Neolithic (8000–5500 BCE) textile techniques. Many of the mummies are in excellent condition because of the desiccation of the corpses caused by the dryness of the desert.

Nuclear tests have been conducted at Lop Nur, a saline, marshy depression at the east end of the basin. Although once an important stop along the Silk Road, the lake, which has a tendency to shift its location due to blowing sands, has mostly dried up, mostly because of human activity.

Further Reading

Blackmore, C. (1996). The worst desert on Earth: Crossing the Taklamakan. London: John Murray.

Mallory, J. P., & Mair, V. H. (2000). The Tarim mummies: Ancient China and the mystery of the earliest peoples from the West. New York: Thomas and Hudson.

Rudelson, J. J. (1997). Oasis identities: Uyghur nationalism along China’s Silk Road. New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Cunha, Stephen F.. (2009). Tarim Basin. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2196–2197. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Tarim Basin, Subashi city in Xinjiang. The Han Chinese wrested control of the basin from the Xiongnu people at the end of the first century. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Tarim Basin (T?l?mù Péndì ?????)|T?l?mù Péndì ????? (Tarim Basin)

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