Souvenirs from the Silk Road

Article excerpt

The early-20th-century archaeological expeditions made by Sir Marc Aurel Stein into the desert wastelands of China captured the public's imagination. In the West, he was hailed as the greatest Silk Road explorer, but to the Chinese, he was an imperialist villain who robbed them of their history- the Lord Elgin of Asia. Over three decades and 40,000 kilometres, Stein liberated more than 100,000 manuscripts, paintings, murals and textiles from the deserts of Central Asia. An efficient leader, he seldom chose Western travelling companions, opting instead for local guides and a fox terrier named Dash. In 1909, he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's Founders Medal for 'explorations in Central Asia'. Here, Geographical presents a selection of the 8,000 photographs Stein took to document his travels and his discoveries

Left: camels and horses approach the dunes to the south of Maralbushi in Turkestan (today part of the autonomous region of Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu in southwestern China) during Stein's third expedition to the region, c. 1913-16. During this trip, he revisited sites discovered in previous expeditions and traced an ancient route across the Lop and Gobi deserts; Above: Hungarian-born Stein led eight Silk Road expeditions over a period of 30 years, uncovering a wealth of historical artefacts that today reside in the museums of 12 countries. In 1904, he became a British citizen, but lived most his life in Lahore and Kashmir. His quest for knowledge lasted well into his old age. In 1943, at the age of 81, he arrived in Kabul, intending to explore Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past. Sadly, he became ill and died within a week, and was buried in a Christian cemetery

Below: the shifting sands of the Taklimakan Desert beyond the Kefiya River, c. 1925. Stein found mummified remains in coffins and tombs in the desert, the dry air keeping them in remarkably good condition. The mummies could be as much as 3,000 years old

Above left: an ancient burial ground at Loulan, on the edge of the Lop Nur salt flat, Sinkiang, c. 1906-08; Above right: rock-cut graveyards in Old Siraf, Iran, c. 1932. Stein spent four years exploring Iran, uncovering a 5,000-year-old Neolithic settlement; Below: crossing the Taklimakan Desert, 1906-08. During this expedition, Stein suffered from frostbite in the Qilan Shan mountains, east of the desert, and the toes of his left foot had to be amputated

Above: Kirghiz people and their ak-ois or yurts in the Pamir Mountains below Merki Pass, Mustagh-ata Range, on the border between Tajikistan and China, c. …