The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxxix.

Of the City of Lop and the Great Desert.

Lop is a large town at the edge of the Desert, which is called the Desert of Lop, and is situated between east and north-east. It belongs to the Great Kaan, and the people worship Mahommet. Now, such persons as propose to cross the Desert take a week’s rest in this town to refresh themselves and their cattle; and then they make ready for the journey, taking with them a month’s supply for man and beast. On quitting this city they enter the Desert.

The length of this Desert is so great that ’tis said it would take a year and more to ride from one end of it to the other. And here, where its breadth is least, it takes a month to cross it. ’Tis all composed of hills and valleys of sand, and not a thing to eat is to be found on it. But after riding for a day and a night you find fresh water, enough mayhap for some 50 or 100 persons with their beasts, but not for more. And all across the Desert you will find water in like manner, that is to say, in some 28 places altogether you will find good water, but in no great quantity; and in four places also you find brackish water.1

Beasts there are none; for there is nought for them to eat. But there is a marvellous thing related of this Desert, which is that when travellers are on the move by night, and one of them chances to lag behind or to fall asleep or the like, when he tries to gain his company again he will hear spirits talking, and will suppose them to be his comrades. Sometimes the spirits will call him by name; and thus shall a traveller ofttimes be led astray so that he never finds his party. And in this way many have perished. [Sometimes the stray travellers will hear as it were the tramp and hum of a great cavalcade of people away from the real line of road, and taking this to be their own company they will follow the sound; and when day breaks they find that a cheat has been put on them and that they are in an ill plight.2] Even in the day-time one hears those spirits talking. And sometimes you shall hear the sound of a variety of musical instruments, and still more commonly the sound of drums. [Hence in making this journey ’tis customary for travellers to keep close together. All the animals too have bells at their necks, so that they cannot easily get astray. And at sleeping-time a signal is put up to show the direction of the next march.]

So thus it is that the Desert is crossed.3

NOTE 1. — LOP appears to be the Napopo, i.e. Navapa, of Hiuen Tsang, called also the country of Leulan, in the Desert. (Mém. II. p. 247.) Navapa looks like Sanskrit. If so, this carries ancient Indian influence to the verge of the great Gobi. [See supra, p. 190.] It is difficult to reconcile with our maps the statement of a thirty days’ journey across the Desert from Lop to Shachau. Ritter’s extracts, indeed, regarding this Desert, show that the constant occurrence of sandhills and deep drifts (our traveller’s “hills and valleys of sand”) makes the passage extremely difficult for carts and cattle. (III. 375.) But I suspect that there is some material error in the longitude of Lake Lop as represented in our maps, and that it should be placed something like three degrees more to the westward than we find it (e.g.) in Kiepert’s Map of Asia. By that map Khotan is not far short of 600 miles from the western extremity of Lake Lop. By Johnson’s Itinerary (including his own journey to Kiria) it is only 338 miles from Ilchi to Lob. Mr. Shaw, as we have seen, gives us a little more, but it is only even then 380. Polo unfortunately omits his usual estimate for the extent of the “Province of Charchan,” so he affords us no complete datum. But his distance between Charchan and Lob agrees fairly, as we have seen, with that both of Johnson and of Shaw, and the elbow on the road from Kiria to Charchan (supra, p. 192) necessitates our still further abridging the longitude between Khotan and Lop. (See Shaw’s remarks in Proc. R. G. S. XVI. 243.)

[This desert was known in China of old by the name of Lew-sha, i.e. “Quicksand,” or literally, “Flowing sands.” (Palladius, Jour. N. China B. R. As. Soc. N.S. X. 1875, p. 4.)

A most interesting problem is connected with the situation of Lob-nor which led to some controversy between Baron von Richthofen and Prjevalsky. The latter placed the lake one degree more to the south than the Chinese did, and found that its water was sweet. Richthofen agreed with the Chinese Topographers and wrote in a letter to Sir Henry Yule: “I send you two tracings; one of them is a true copy of the Chinese map, the other is made from a sketch which I constructed today, and on which I tried to put down the Chinese Topography together with that of Prjevalsky. It appears evident —(1) That Prjevalsky travelled by the ancient road to a point south of the true Lop-noor; (2) that long before he reached this point he found the river courses quite different from what they had been formerly; and (3) that following one of the new rivers which flows due south by a new road, he reached the two sweet-water lakes, one of which answers to the ancient Khas-omo. I use the word ‘new’ merely by way of comparison with the state of things in Kien-long’s time, when the map was made. It appears that the Chinese map shows the Khas Lake too far north to cover the Kara–Koshun. The bifurcation of the roads south of the lake nearly resembles that which is marked by Prjevalsky.” (Preface of E. D. Morgan’s transl. of From Kulja across the Tian Shan to Lob-nor, by Colonel N. Prjevalsky, London, 1879, p. iv.) In this same volume Baron von Richthofen’s remarks are given (pp. 135–159, with a map, p. 144), showing comparison between Chinese and Prjevalsky’s Geography from tracings by Baron von Richthofen and (pp. 160–165) a translation of Prjevalsky’s replies to the Baron’s criticisms.

Now the Swedish traveller, Dr. Sven Hedin, claims to have settled this knotty point. Going from Korla, south-west of Kara-shahr, by a road at the foot of the Kurugh-tagh and between these mountains and the Koncheh Daria, he discovered the ruins of two fortresses, and a series of milestones (potaïs). These tall pyramids of clay and wood, indicating distances in lis show the existence at an ancient period of a road with a large traffic between Korla and an unknown place to the south-east, probably on the shores of the Chinese Lob-nor. Prjevalsky, who passed between the Lower Tarim and the Koncheh Daria, could not see a lake or the remains of a lake to the east of this river. The Koncheh Daria expands into a marshy basin, the Malta Kul, from which it divides into two branches, the Kuntiekkich Tarim (East River) and the Ilek (river) to the E.S.E. Dr. Sven Hedin, after following the course of the Ilek for three days (4th April, 1896) found a large sheet of water in the valley at the very place marked by the Chinese Topographers and Richthofen for the Lob-nor. This mass of water is divided up by the natives into Avullu Kul, Kara Kul, Tayek Kul, and Arka Kul, which are actually almost filled up with reeds. Dr. Sven Hedin afterwards visited the Lob-nor of Prjevalsky, and reached its western extremity, the Kara-buran (black storm) on the 17th April. In 1885, Prjevalsky had found the Lob-nor an immense lake; four years later Prince Henri d’Orleans saw it greatly reduced in size, and Dr. Sven Hedin discovered but pools of water. In the meantime, since 1885, the northern (Chinese) Lob-nor has gradually filled up, so the lake is somewhat vagrant. Dr. Sven Hedin says that from his observations he can assert that Prjevalsky’s lake is of recent formation.

So Marco Polo’s Lob-nor should be the northern or Chinese lake.

Another proof of this given by Dr. Sven Hedin is that the Chinese give the name of Lob to the region between Arghan and Tikkenlik, unknown in the country of the southern lake. The existence of two lakes shows what a quantity of water from the Thian Shan, the Eastern Pamir, and Northern Tibet flows into the basin of the Tarim. The Russian Lieutenant K. P. Kozlov has tried since to prove that the Chinese Lob-nor is the Kara–Koshun (Black district), which is a second lake formed by the Tarim, which discharges into and issues from the lake Kara-buran. Kozlov’s arguments are published in the Isvestia of the Russian Geographical Society, and in a separate pamphlet. The Geog. Jour. (June, 1898, pp. 652–658) contains The Lob-nor Controversy, a full statement of the case, summarising Kozlov’s pamphlet. Among the documents relating to the controversy, Kozlov “quotes passages from the Chinese work Si-yui-shui-dao-tsi, published in 1823, relative to the region, and gives a reduced copy of the Chinese Map published by Dr. Georg Wegener in 1863, upon which map Richthofen and Sven Hedin based their arguments.” Kozlov’s final conclusions (Geog. Jour. l.c. pp. 657–658) are the following: “The Koncheh-daria, since very remote times till the present day, has moved a long way. The spot Gherelgan may be taken as a spot of relative permanence of its bed, while the basis of its delta is a line traced from the farthest northern border of the area of salt clays surrounding the Lob-nor to the Tarim. At a later period the Koncheh-daria mostly influenced the lower Tarim, and each time a change occurred in the latter’s discharge, the Koncheh took a more westward course, to the detriment of its old eastern branch (Ilek). Always following the gradually receding humidity, the vegetable life changed too, while moving sands were taking its place, conquering more and more ground for the desert, and marking their conquest by remains of old shore-lines. . . .

“The facts noticed by Sven Hedin have thus another meaning — the desert to the east of the lakes, which he discovered, was formed, not by Lob-nor, which is situated 1° southwards, but by the Koncheh-daria, in its unremitted deflection to the west. The old bed Ilek, lake-shaped in places, and having a belt of salt lagoons and swamps along its eastern shores, represents remains of waters belonging, not to Lob-nor, but to the shifting river which has abandoned this old bed.

“These facts and explanations refute the second point of the arguments which were brought forward by Sven Hedin in favour of his hypothesis, asserting the existence of some other Lob-nor.

“I accept the third point of his objections, namely, that the grandfathers of the present inhabitants of the Lob-nor lived by a lake whose position was more to the north of Lob-nor; that was mentioned already by Pievtsov, and the lake was Uchu–Kul.

“Why Marco Polo never mentioned the Lob-nor, I leave to more competent persons to decide.

“The only inference which I can make from the preceding account is that the Kara–Koshun-Kul is not only the Lob-nor of my lamented teacher, N. M. Prjevalsky, but also the ancient, the historical, and the true Lob-nor of the Chinese geographers. So it was during the last thousand years, and so will it remain, if ‘the river of time’ in its running has not effaced it from the face of the Earth.”

To Kozlov’s query: “Why Marco Polo never mentioned the Lob-nor, I leave to more competent persons to decide,” I have little hesitation in replying that he did not mention the Lob-nor because he did not see it. From Charchan, he followed, I believe, neither Prjevalsky’s nor Pievtsov’s route, but the old route from Khotan to Si-ngan fu, in the old bed of the Charchan daria, above and almost parallel to the new bed, to the Tarim — then between Sven Hedin’s and Prjevalsky’s lakes, and across the desert to Shachau to join the ancient Chinese road of the Han Dynasty, partly explored by M. Bonin from Shachau.

There is no doubt as to the discovery of Prjevalsky’s Lob-nor, but this does not appear to be the old Chinese Lob-nor; in fact, there may have been several lakes co-existent; probably there was one to the east of the mass of water described by Dr. Sven Hedin, near the old route from Korla to Shachau; there is no fixity in these waterspreads and the soil of this part of Asia, and in the course of a few years some discrepancies will naturally arise between the observations of different travellers. But as I think that Marco Polo did not see one of the Lob-nor, but travelled between them, there is no necessity to enlarge on this question, fully treated of in this note.

See besides the works mentioned above: Nord — Tibet und Lob-nur Gebiet . . . herausg. von Dr. G. Wegener. Berlin, 1893. (Sep. abd. Zeit. Ges. f. Erdk.)— Die Geog. wiss. Ergebnisse meiner Reisen in Zentralasien, 1894–1897, von Dr. Sven Hedin, Gotha, J. Perthes, 1900.

Bonvalot and Prince Henri d’Orléans (De Paris au Tonkin, à travers le Tibet inconnu, Paris, 1892) followed this Itinerary: Semipalatinsk, Kulja, Korla, Lob-nor, Charkalyk, Altyn Tagh, almost a straight line to Tengri Nor, then to Batang, Ta Tsien lu, Ning-yuan, Yun-nan-fu, Mong-tsu, and Tung–King.

Bonvalot (28th October, 1889) describes Lob in this manner: “The village of Lob is situated at some distance from [the Charchan daria]; its inhabitants come to see us; they are miserable, hungry, étiques; they offer us for sale smoked fish, duck taken with lacet. Some small presents soon make friends of them. They apprize us that news has spread that Pievtsov, the Russian traveller, will soon arrive” (l.c. p. 75). From Charkalyk, Prince Henri d’Orléans and Father Dedeken visited Lob-nor (l.c. p. 77 et seq.), but it was almost dry; the water had receded since Prjevalsky’s visit, thirteen years before. The Prince says the Lob-nor he saw was not Prjevalsky’s, nor was the latter’s lake the mass of water on Chinese maps; an old sorceress gave confirmation of the fact to the travellers. According to a tradition known from one generation to another, there was at this place a large inland sea without reeds, and the elders had seen in their youth large ponds; they say that the earth impregnated with saltpetre absorbs the water. The Prince says, according to tradition, Lob is a local name meaning “wild animals,” and it was given to the country at the time it was crossed by Kalmuk caravans; they added to the name Lob the Mongol word Nor (Great Lake). The travellers (p. 109) note that in fact the name Lob-nor does not apply to a Lake, but to the whole marshy part of the country watered by the Tarim, from the village of Lob to end of the river.

The Pievtsov expedition “visited the Lob-nor (2650 feet) and the Tarim, whose proper name is Yarkend-daria (tarim means ‘a tilled field’ in Kashgarian). The lake is rapidly drying up, and a very old man, 110 years old, whom Pievtsov spoke to (his son, 52 years old, was the only one who could understand the old man), said that he would not have recognized the land if he had been absent all this time. Ninety years ago there was only a narrow strip of rushes in the south-west part of the lake, and the Yarkend-daria entered it 2–1/2 miles to the west of its present mouth, where now stands the village of Abdal. The lake was then much deeper, and several villages, now abandoned, stood on its shores. There was also much more fish, and otters, which used to live there, but have long since disappeared. As to the Yarkend-daria, tradition says that two hundred years ago it used to enter another smaller lake, Uchukul, which was connected by a channel with the Lob-nor. This old bed, named Shirga-chapkan, can still be traced by the trees which grew along it. The greater previous extension of the Lob-nor is also confirmed by the freshwater molluscs (Limnaea uricularia, var. ventricosa, L. stagnalis, L. peregra, and Planorbis sibiricus), which are found at a distance from its present banks. Another lake, 400 miles in circumference, Kara-boyön (black isthmus), lies, as is known, 27 miles to the south-west of Lob-nor. To the east of the lake, a salt desert stretches for a seven days’ march, and further on begin the Kum-tagh sands, where wild camels live.” (Geog. Jour. IX. 1897, p. 552.)

Grenard (III. pp. 194–195) discusses the Lob-nor question and the formation of four new lakes by the Koncheh-daria called by the natives beginning at the north; Kara Kul, Tayek Kul, Sugut Kul, Tokum Kul. He does not accept Baron v. Richthofen’s theory, and believes that the old Lob is the lake seen by Prjevalsky.

He says (p. 149): “Lop must be looked for on the actual road from Charchan to Charkalyk. Ouash Shahri, five days from Charchan, and where small ruins are to be found, corresponds well to the position of Lop according to Marco Polo, a few degrees of the compass near. But the stream which passes at this spot could never be important enough for the wants of a considerable centre of habitation and the ruins of Ouash Shahri are more of a hamlet than of a town. Moreover, Lop was certainly the meeting point of the roads of Kashgar, Urumtsi, Shachau, L’Hasa, and Khotan, and it is to this fact that this town, situated in a very poor country, owed its relative importance. Now, it is impossible that these roads crossed at Ouash Shahri. I believe that Lop was built on the site of Charkalyk itself. The Venetian traveller gives five days’ journey between Charchan and Lop, whilst Charkalyk is really seven days from Charchan; but the objection does not appear sufficient to me: Marco Polo may well have made a mistake of two days.” (III. pp. 149–150.)

The Chinese Governor of Urumtsi found some years ago to the north-west of the Lob-nor, on the banks of the Tarim, and within five days of Charkalyk, a town bearing the same name, though not on the same site as the Lop of Marco Polo. — H. C.]

NOTE 2. —“The waste and desert places of the Earth are, so to speak, the characters which sin has visibly impressed on the outward creation; its signs and symbols there. . . . Out of a true feeling of this, men have ever conceived of the Wilderness as the haunt of evil spirits. In the old Persian religion Ahriman and his evil Spirits inhabit the steppes and wastes of Turan, to the north of the happy Iran, which stands under the dominion of Ormuzd; exactly as with the Egyptians, the evil Typhon is the Lord of the Libyan sand-wastes, and Osiris of the fertile Egypt.” (Archbp. Trench, Studies in the Gospels, p. 7.) Terror, and the seeming absence of a beneficent Providence, are suggestions of the Desert which must have led men to associate it with evil spirits, rather than the figure with which this passage begins; no spontaneous conception surely, however appropriate as a moral image.

“According to the belief of the nations of Central Asia,” says I. J. Schmidt, “the earth and its interior, as well as the encompassing atmosphere, are filled with Spiritual Beings, which exercise an influence, partly beneficent, partly malignant, on the whole of organic and inorganic nature. . . . Especially are Deserts and other wild or uninhabited tracts, or regions in which the influences of nature are displayed on a gigantic and terrible scale, regarded as the chief abode or rendezvous of evil Spirits. . . . And hence the steppes of Turan, and in particular the great sandy Desert of Gobi have been looked on as the dwelling-place of malignant beings, from days of hoar antiquity.”

The Chinese historian Ma Twan-lin informs us that there were two roads from China into the Uighúr country (towards Karashahr). The longest but easiest road was by Kamul. The other was much shorter, and apparently corresponded, as far as Lop, to that described in this chapter. “By this you have to cross a plain of sand, extending for more than 100 leagues. You see nothing in any direction but the sky and the sands, without the slightest trace of a road; and travellers find nothing to guide them but the bones of men and beasts and the droppings of camels. During the passage of this wilderness you hear sounds, sometimes of singing, sometimes of wailing; and it has often happened that travellers going aside to see what those sounds might be have strayed from their course and been entirely lost; for they were voices of spirits and goblins. ’Tis for these reasons that travellers and merchants often prefer the much longer route by Kamul.” (Visdelou, p. 139.)

“In the Desert” (this same desert), says Fa-hian, “there are a great many evil demons; there are also sirocco winds, which kill all who encounter them. There are no birds or beasts to be seen; but so far as the eye can reach, the route is marked out by the bleached bones of men who have perished in the attempt to cross.”

[“The Lew-sha was the subject of various most exaggerated stories. We find more trustworthy accounts of it in the Chow shu; thus it is mentioned in that history, that there sometimes arises in this desert a ‘burning wind,’ pernicious to men and cattle; in such cases the old camels of the caravan, having a presentiment of its approach, flock shrieking to one place, lie down on the ground and hide their heads in the sand. On this signal, the travellers also lie down, close nose and mouth, and remain in this position until the hurricane abates. Unless these precautions are taken, men and beasts inevitably perish.” (Palladius, l.c. p. 4.)

A friend writes to me that he thinks that the accounts of strange noises in the desert would find a remarkable corroboration in the narratives of travellers through the central desert of Australia. They conjecture that they are caused by the sudden falling of cliffs of sand as the temperature changes at night time. — H. C.]

Hiuen Tsang, in his passage of the Desert, both outward and homeward, speaks of visual illusions; such as visions of troops marching and halting with gleaming arms and waving banners, constantly shifting, vanishing, and reappearing, “imagery created by demons.” A voice behind him calls, “Fear not! fear not!” Troubled by these fantasies on one occasion, he prays to Kwan-yin (a Buddhist divinity); still he could not entirely get rid of them; but as soon as he had pronounced a few words from the Prajna (a holy book), they vanished in the twinkling of an eye.

These Goblins are not peculiar to the Gobi, though that appears to be their most favoured haunt. The awe of the vast and solitary Desert raises them in all similar localities. Pliny speaks of the phantoms that appear and vanish in the deserts of Africa; Aethicus, the early Christian cosmographer, speaks, though incredulous, of the stories that were told of the voices of singers and revellers in the desert; Mas’údi tells of the Ghúls, which in the deserts appear to travellers by night and in lonely hours; the traveller, taking them for comrades, follows and is led astray. But the wise revile them and the Ghúls vanish. Thus also Apollonius of Tyana and his companions, in a desert near the Indus by moonlight, see an Empusa or Ghúl taking many forms. They revile it, and it goes off uttering shrill cries. Mas’údi also speaks of the mysterious voices heard by lone wayfarers in the Desert, and he gives a rational explanation of them. Ibn Batuta relates a like legend of the Western Sahara: “If the messenger be solitary, the demons sport with him and fascinate him, so that he strays from his course and perishes.” The Afghan and Persian wildernesses also have their Ghúl-i-Beában or Goblin of the Waste, a gigantic and fearful spectre which devours travellers; and even the Gael of the West Highlands have the Direach Ghlinn Eitidh, the Desert Creature of Glen Eiti, which, one-handed, one-eyed, one-legged, seems exactly to answer to the Arabian Nesnás or Empusa. Nicolò Conti in the Chaldaean desert is aroused at midnight by a great noise, and sees a vast multitude pass by. The merchants tell him that these are demons who are in the habit of traversing the deserts. (Schmidt’s San. Setzen, p. 352; V. et V. de H. T. 23, 28, 289; Pliny, VII. 2; Philostratus, Bk. II. ch. iv.; Prairies d’Or, III. 315, 324; Beale’s Fahian; Campbell’s Popular Tales of the W. Highlands, IV. 326; I. B. IV. 382; Elphinstone, I. 291; Chodzko’s Pop. Poetry of Persia, p. 48; Conti, p. 4; Forsyth, J. R. G. S. XLVII. 1877, p. 4.)

The sound of musical instruments, chiefly of drums, is a phenomenon of another class, and is really produced in certain situations among sandhills when the sand is disturbed. [See supra.] A very striking account of a phenomenon of this kind regarded as supernatural is given by Friar Odoric, whose experience I fancy I have traced to the Reg Ruwán or “Flowing Sand” north of Kabul. Besides this celebrated example, which has been described also by the Emperor Baber, I have noted that equally well-known one of the Jibal Nakús, or “Hill of the Bell,” in the Sinai Desert; Wadi Hamade, in the vicinity of the same Desert; the Jibal-ul-Thabúl, or “Hill of the Drums,” between Medina and Mecca; one on the Island of Eigg, in the Hebrides, discovered by Hugh Miller; one among the Medanos or Sandhills of Arequipa, described to me by Mr. C. Markham; the Bramador or rumbling mountain of Tarapaca; one in hills between the Ulba and the Irtish, in the vicinity of the Altai, called the Almanac Hills, because the sounds are supposed to prognosticate weather-changes; and a remarkable example near Kolberg on the shore of Pomerania. A Chinese narrative of the 10th century mentions the phenomenon as known near Kwachau, on the eastern border of the Lop Desert, under the name of the “Singing Sands”; and Sir F. Goldsmid has recently made us acquainted with a second Reg Ruwán, on a hill near the Perso–Afghan frontier, a little to the north of Sístán. The place is frequented in pilgrimage. (See Cathay, pp. ccxliv. 156, 398; Ritter, II. 204; Aus der Natur, Leipzig, No. 47 [of 1868], p. 752; Rémusat, H. de Khotan, p. 74; Proc. R. G. S. XVII. 91.)

NOTE 3. —[We learn from Joseph Martin, quoted by Grenard, p. 170 (who met this unfortunate French traveller at Khotan, on his way from Peking to Marghelan, where he died), that from Shachau to Abdal, on the Lob-nor, there are twelve days of desert, sandy only during the first two days, stony afterwards. Occasionally a little grass is to be found for the camels; water is to be found everywhere. M. Bonin went from Shachau to the north-west towards the Kara-nor, then to the west, but lack of water compelled him to go back to Shachau. Along this road, every five lis, are to be found towers built with clay, and about 30 feet high, abandoned by the Chinese, who do not seem to have kept a remembrance of them in the country; this route seems to be a continuation of the Kan Suh Imperial highway. A wall now destroyed connected these towers together. “There is no doubt,” writes M. Bonin, “that all these remains are those of the great route, vainly sought after till now, which, under the Han Dynasty, ran to China through Bactria. Pamir, Eastern Turkestan, the Desert of Gobi, and Kan Suh: it is in part the route followed by Marco Polo, when he went from Charchan to Shachau, by the city of Lob.” The route of the Han has been also looked for, more to the south, and it was believed that it was the same as that of the Astyn Tagh, followed by Mr. Littledale in 1893, who travelled one month from Abdal (Lob-nor) to Shachau; M. Bonin, who explored also this route, and was twenty-three days from Shachau to Lob-nor, says it could not be a commercial road. Dr. Sven Hedin saw four or five towers eastward of the junction of the Tarim and the Koncheh-daria; it may possibly have been another part of the road seen by M. Bonin. (See La Géographie, 15th March, 1901, p. 173.)— H. C.]

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