The Accidental Tomb Raider

Dust Storm, Zagunluk Tombs, Cherchen

Dust Storm, Zagunluk Tombs, Cherchen © Jo James

I arrived in Cherchen in the middle of a dust storm. It had been gathering since I left Golmud the previous morning, gradually erasing the mountains and blotting out the horizon as we began to cross the southern lip of the Taklamakan Desert.

It was 8pm Beijing time when the bus arrived, which, when you’re that far west, means that you have another two hours of daylight left. I found a room, wrinkled my nose at the smell of the communal bathroom, and went out to see the sight (singular – Cherchen is only a little town) – a ruined ancient city

Outside, taxi drivers hardened against Cherchen’s incessant spring sand storms chatted through open car windows. I talked to a few of them, found one that I could understand (many Uyghur people in southern Xinjiang speak very little Mandarin), and climbed aboard his vehicle – a three-wheeled motorbike with a simple open trailer attached.

Mr Ma and I visited the best hotel in town, where the ebullient Sichuanese lady owner wrinkled her nose, as I had before her, when I told her where I was staying (“Not clean! Stay here next time…”). Then we visited the over-sized local museum, which was closed but staffed by a smiley Uyghur night watchman who explained what the exhibits were.

While we’d been driving around, I’d been discussing the ancient city with Mr Ma – a feat in itself considering the dust and engine noise. He hadn’t heard of any ruins, but he did know of a Qing-dynasty landowner’s house, perhaps I would consider going there instead? I would, and so we drove out of downtown Cherchen along poplar-lined lanes until we arrived at an ornate gate.

I was preparing to poke around the outside and imagine what the interior looked like when Mr Ma heaved himself off his bike – he had a problem with his leg, the result of polio, I think – and pushed the gate open. “Come on! This way…”

Inside the compound Mr Ma knocked on the door of the gatehouse. We were both invited in, where the caretaker Aniwar and his family were just finishing dinner. Mr Ma and Aniwar are friends, and while they sat chatting I tried to work out what they were talking about and tried to avoid staring at a weird looking bit of a sheep that sat in a large bowl at my side.

Something was decided, and Mr Ma, Aniwar, Aniwar’s son and I went back out into the dust and climbed aboard the trailer. A little confused by this turn of events, I decided that the best thing to do would be to make polite conversation, rather than ask what was happening – very British of me, I feel. This scene continued for a while until I realised that we’d been going for quite some time and still hadn’t reached the mansion, at which point my topics of conversation dried up.

It was now definitely dusk. We had left the houses and mosques of outer Cherchen behind, and were driving through mulberry orchards. At long last, the end of the road appeared through the gloom – a gate with a single streetlight illuminating it, and a sand dune behind it. We arrived at yet another gatehouse, where it was Aniwar’s turn to go and persuade someone to do something they didn’t need to do at 10 o’clock at night. I stood there, looking sheepish at all the trouble I was causing and wondering what on earth was behind the gate. The gatekeeper (who may have looked a bit like Omar Sharif wearing a flat cap, although that may have been the dust) opened the gate and Aniwar, his son and I walked along a rough path up the slope, leaving Mr Ma and his leg to wait for us at the gate.

There was a sign just inside that I read by the light of my phone, “Zagunluk Ancient Tombs” – all started to become clear, well clearish. We walked out across the desert, leaving the Cherchen oasis behind. It was a dramatic, yet melancholy scene – the duststorm darkening the sky, the trees forming a thick dark line at our backs, and with just the streetlamp’s yellow light for illumination. Ahead of us was a small house, quite dark and alone in the desert. To either side of us were series of indistinct humps – pointing at them Aniwar said “Those graves haven’t been opened yet.”

When we reached the hut, Aniwar unlocked the door and wedged it open, then turned on the lights. As I stepped into the warm light I was completely unsure what to expect. I later found out that the Zagunluk tombs were all created between 3000 and 2500 BC. Only one pit, Grave #1, has been fully excavated. Within in they found the remains of fourteen people, both adults and children, who are thought to all be related. The grave was constructed like a room, with pillars and a roof of woven rush mats similar to the ones still used in rural Xinjiang today, and filled with replicas of everyday objects. What I saw when I stepped into the room was a large open pit, with the bodies all laid out as they had been found.

Describing it now it seems to present a rather creepy scene. At the time it merely felt extremely peaceful, with the bodies lying there oblivious to the dust whirling around outside, much as they must have been for the last five thousand years.

I crept around making notes, wondering about the grave’s inhabitants – who were they? How did they live and die? – feeling like I was intruding or a real-life tomb raider. We backed out of the room and returned to Mr Ma and the bike, guided by the glow of the lone streetlamp.

P.S. I’ve never seen such heavy surveillance on such a rustic tourist site, so I don’t really fancy an actual grave robber’s chances. Just in case that hasn’t put you off heading out there to see what’s in those unopened graves, I happened to chat about this with Mr Lin from my Road to Golmud post and he told me that one of his friends was sentenced to ten years in jail for doing something similar…

P.P.S. We made it to the mansion after this, and it was interesting as well, but had a hard act to follow after the above experience…

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