Hetian Travel Guide

Last updated by david at 2014/5/4

Hetian Overview

The present-day town of Hotan (aka Hetian), like all of the original towns and cities of the Tarim Basin, was the site of an oasis town, i.e., a town situated along a route frequented by travelers (think of camel caravans) and which catered to the needs of those travelers. During the early years of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, the city's original name was changed from Yutian to Hetian. In 1959 the name was again changed, this time to Hotan. Hotan lies on the southern rim of the Tarim Basin, just north of the Kunlun Mountains, and thus lies on what was once the southern route of that portion of the Silk Road which ended, in the east, in China.*

In the western part of China, i.e., in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang, for short), the northern route of the Silk Road followed the curvature of the Tian Shan mountains in the north along the northern rim of the Tarim Basin, while the southern route followed the curvature of the Kunlun Mountains in the south, corresponding to the southern rim of the Tarim Basin. The Tarim Basin is in the shape of an oval whose axis is horizontal (think of the almond-like shape of an eye in an ancient Egyptian painting).

Silk Road Tours

At the site of present-day Hotan, the old, Silk Road city of Yutian was rediscovered in 1907 by the Hungarian-born British archeologist, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, who had let himself be inspired by the works of the Swedish explorer and geographer (and man of many other parts), Sven Anders Hedin, to rediscover not only the ancient city of Yutian, but also the ancient city of Niya which Stein had unearthed six years earlier, in 1901. The ancient city of Niya, like the ancient city of Yutian, lay on the southern route of the Silk Road (to learn more about the ancient city of Yutian, referred to by Marco Polo as Khotan, click here - to learn more about the ancient city of Niya, click here).

Two rivers run through the city of Hotan - the Karakash ("Black Jade") River and the Yurungkash ("White Jade") River (indeed, the name "Yutian" means "place of jades" in Tibetan), both rivers being branches of the Hetian River, which goes a long way in explaining how Yutian came to be an oasis town on the southern camel caravan route of the Silk Road. Much of the Tarim Basin is synonymous with the Takla Makan Desert, the world's second-largest moving desert (outstripped only by the Sahara Desert). In fact, the Takla Makan Desert begins just north of the city of Hotan.

Since ancient times, Hotan has been famous for its abundant crops, especially its opulent fruit crops - including grapes - and its flowers. It has also been famous since even more ancient times for its jade and its silk, the latter of which spawned a cottage industry in carpet-making. Both jade (nephrite- and emerald jade), raw silk, and carpets were commodities traded along the Silk Road route. The grapes grown in Hotan were not cultivated with an eye to making wine (but who can deny that a local sultan here or there may have had an excellent recipe for that most wonderful of alcoholic beverages?!), but rather, to produce fruit to be eaten. Moreover, the growing of grape vines was a way to hold back the encroaching desert sands, in the sense that rows of grape vines kept the soil intact and they also served as a wind barrier of sorts. Shepherds have always tended small herds in the area. Today this is more organized, with better irrigation facilities that support the raising of commercial livestock.

Hotan has an abundance of natural landscapes that are of interest to visitors. These include: towering ice- and snow-covered mountains, some replete with glaciers; deep, serene grottos with ancient petroglyphs**; forest-clad foothills that are as dense as jungles in some places; odd-colored (reddish and whitish) mountains; lakes, ponds and rivers; broad grasslands; and of course the vast Takla Makan Desert. The principal tree varieties include the giant walnut tree, the giant fig tree, the giant grape shrub, and the giant phoenix tree, which can live to be hundreds of years old (all of these references to "giant" naturally means that the trees/ shrubs are quite large, just as in the state of Texas in the US, things tend to be larger (or so believe Texans!) than elsewhere). There are also the remnants of ancient castles here, as well as ancient battlefields, fire towers, and the riverbeds of ancient, dried-out streams.

There is also a rich music tradition in Hotan, with links back to the Silk Road era. Historical records indicate that the Han Chinese of bygone eras who visited the city were enthralled by the music of Hotan ("Yutian Music", as it was known). "Yutian Music" can still sway the hearts not only of Han Chinese visitors to the city, but of everyone who witnesses this unique music form.


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* To the west of China was another northern-southern split in the Silk Road - the westward split actually originated in the Chinese town of Kashgar on the western edge of present-day Xinjiang. The northern route of this portion of the Silk Road followed roughly along what is the border between present-day Kyrgystan to the north and Tajikistan to the south, then on through the cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan, and finally farther westward into present-day Turkmenistan, while the southern route followed roughly along the northern strip of Afghanistan just north of the Hindu Kush Mountains in the east, then passed through the city of Termez in the west in present-day Uzbekistan (the city of Termez, which sprang up in the 3rd century BCE solely due to the Silk Road traffic, lies in what was once the ancient kingdom of Bactria (referred to as "Daxia" in the Chinese annals of the period), once under the suzerainty of Alexander the Great and before Alexander "acquired" it (i.e., took it by force), it was under the suzerainty of the Persian emperor, Darius III), near the Afghan border with Turkmenistan, before linking up with the northern route of this portion of the Silk Road in the city of Merv, in present-day Turkmenistan.

The city of Termez was a cross-roads, as it also lay on another Silk Road route, the one which proceeded southward through Kabul, in Afghanistan, and on southward through present-day Pakistan (Peshawar and Lahore) and then on into India (Delhi, Agra and points farther south).


** There is an important distinction between, on the one hand, the petroglyphs of China (they are present in practically every region of China where grottoes exist) and the petroglyphs of, for example, Australia on the other hand. Whereas the latter are generally interpreted as being entirely shamanistic - that is, related to primitive religion and believed to be created in an altered state of consciousness, with or without the help of hallucinogenic substances - the former are believed to be iconographs relating to the real world, from icons representing cultural interactions both within and between tribes to icons that mark territorial boundaries between tribes to icons that register agreed-upon (neutral) meeting places, etc.

As such, petroglyphs were forerunners of written language. One might reasonably think of them as the equivalent of today's pictographs. Anthropologists believe that the practice of creating petroglyphs most likely died out with the appearance of written language.

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Hetian Travel Guide

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