The Ancient City of Loulan

Last updated by david at 2017/4/25

The Ancient City of Loulan – now the Ruins of Ancient Loulan – is situated on the western shore of the now dried-up Lake Lop (Lop Nur) in Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). Lake Lop itself is located at a point roughly equidistant (about 200 kilometers) from the border with Gansu Province to the east and the border with Qinghai Province to the southeast. The disappearance of the ancient city of Loulan – like the similar disappearance of numerous other ancient Silk Road cities of the Tarim Basin (think: Khotan (aka Hetian), Miran and Niya) – is most likely linked to the disappearance of Lake Lop itself, that is, the disappearance of Lake Lop's water. In other words, these ancient cities seem to have disappeared (were covered in sand) due to the same aridification/ desertification that caused Lake Lop to dry up (in the case of some of these ancient, sand-buried cities, they were abandoned with such haste that archeologists speculate that the inhabitants fled in the face of a sandstorm that was nothing short of biblical proportions).

Silk Road Tours

Before the human cultures that are known today to have inhabited the region, earlier humans – perhaps nomadic, Neolithic Age (BCE 10,000 – 2000 in China) hunters – either lived or passed through here, for arrowheads dating to circa 7500 BCE have been found in the area. A treasure trove of other artifacts have been unearthed here, including manuscripts, pottery, woolen and silken garments, bronzeware, glassware, ancient coins and of course ancient dessicated corpses called mummies, as the next section reveals.
Indeed, when the Ancient City of Loulan was eventually discovered by the Swedish explorer and man of many parts, Sven Hedin, it created a sensation the world over, though nothing like the sensation that the discovery of the Ancient City of Niya by the Hungarian-born American professor, explorer – and also man of many parts – Aurel Stein, would create (see the detailed references to both of these famous explorers farther below), causing Niya to be called "the Oriental Pompeii".
As a region, the area corresponding to the Ancient City of Loulan has two cultural histories: an older history of Caucasian/ European origin and a later, Caucasoid one of Indo-Iranian origin. In fact, there is a third, somewhat less ancient Loulan cultural history: one of Mongolian origin, though we will not deal with it separately here (during the later period of the history of the city of Loulan, all three of these cultural-ethnic groups lived together in the city, apparently harmoniously).

The Beauty of Loulan: The Lake Lop Area's Oldest Cultural Roots

The earliest settlers in the Lake Lop area appear, by all scholarly accounts (think: the empirical DNA evidence of the so-called Tarim Mummies combined with the evidence (references) gleaned from the ancient Chinese historical records), to be Caucasoid peoples who stemmed from two separate geographical areas: Europe (including the Russian part of Europe), and Iran, or Persia. Chinese authorities have been very reluctant to permit foreign researchers to do an independent laboratory analysis of the Tarim Mummies with respect to their DNA identification. However, in recent years, the Chinese authorities finally acceded to outside requests for such permission, and it was this outside (of China) independent laboratory analysis that confirmed the European and Russian DNA origin of the earliest of the Tarim Mummies.
Ancient Chinese records mention a race of very tall, blue-eyed, fair-haired people – and some with green eyes and red hair – living in the region in question who had distinctly non-Chinese, long noses (or long-bridged noses, if you will, i.e., noses that protrude far from the face, whereas some Altaic (Turkic) races have rather long noses that do not protrude far from the face). The first outsiders to notice the dessicated bodies in the region in question (so-called mummies – they were "preserved" by the aridity of the Tarim Basin and the Turpan Depression alone (note that the city of Turpan, which lies in a great natural depression, is sometimes referred to as "City of Hell")) – were the Swedish geographer, topographer, photographer and explorer, Sven Hedin, the German archaeologist and explorer, Albert von Le Coq and the Hungarian-born British archeologist and explorer, Sir Marc Aurel Stein.
These three explorers were more interested in the ancient geography of the region and its archeology than in its anthropology. Hedin and Stein in particular were focused on finding the ancient Silk Road cities mentioned in the historical annals (see the reference to the monk, Xuan Zang, farther below), but which seemed to have disappeared. The anthropological quest would have to wait until an American professor and philologist specializing in Sinitic and Indo-European languages, Victor H. Mair, saw a collection of these preserved, dessicated bodies in the cellar of the Xinjiang Regional Museum in Urumqi, and decided to act.
Mair, who is more broadly recognized as a specialist in Indo-European studies (i.e., in linguistic-, archeological- and literary-related studies), took steps to have the dessicated bodies – which he immediately recognized as non-Chinese, both from their physical appearances as well as from their clothing – preserved from further deterioration (together with professor J. P. Mallory, a fellow archaeologist and Indo-Europeanist, Mair published the book, The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West). In addition, Mair invited a textiles specialist (the clothing of the Tarim Mummies, both that which they were wearing and that which they had brought along for the journey to the "next world", was remarkably well-preserved), Elizabeth W. Barber, to help identify the cultural-historical origin of the mummies, the results of which can be seen in Barber's book, The Mummies of Urumchi.
The most famous of the Tarim Mummies is a rather slight female believed to be of remarkable beauty (an artist's restoration of what scientists believe she might have looked like suggests that she was indeed beautiful), the so-called Beauty of Loulan.  She is believed to be one of the oldest of the Tarim Mummies – her remains are dated to be from circa 1800 BCE. An infant Caucasian mummy from the same period was also found recently. Most of the other early Tarim Mummies of distinctly Caucasiod features are 6 feet in height and taller. Some of their clothing suggests a Celtic origin, while certain articles of their clothing actually resemble modern-day tartans (plaids). 
It should be remembered that the Eurasian Steppe, at least in ancient times, was a large, east-west oriented swath of land that stretched from Hungary in the west to present-day Inner Mongolia (Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region) in the east, meaning that these people may not have migrated in the usual sense (i.e., of fleeing war, famine and the like) but may simply have been drawn farther and farther eastward along this "steppe highway", as long as there were pastures farther ahead for their livestock to graze on. Of course, they would have been forced to cross the rather inhospitable Pamir Mountains before entering China, but perhaps scouting parties went in advance and reported back that there was indeed "greener grass" on the other side, though this is pure speculation.
Mair and Mallory suggest that the area around Lake Lop was inhabited exclusively by the same flock of "European" Caucasians as the Beauty of Loulan for about a 1000 years, after which time Indo-Iranian Caucasoid types began to appear in the area. Some sources have suggested that these earlier Caucasians were one and the same as the historical group, the Tocharians, but in this case, the "European" Caucasians would have penetrated deeper into China proper than hitherto believed, since, according to historians, the Tocharians are quite possibly descended from the Yuezhi, and these latter were eventually driven out of their "strongholds" in west-central China by the more militant Altaic tribe, the Xiongnu, who descended into China from the north.
The Yuezhi cum Tocharians, according to these sources, then fled westward into the arid lands of the Tarim Basin. No Yuezhi or Tocharian remains have been uncovered (unless, in the case of the Tarim Mummies, we are in fact looking at them!); the only evidence from them being their language, which belongs to the broader Indo-European language family. The last word on these mysterious, "European" Caucasian migrations eastward has of course not been written.

The Loulan of the Indo-Iranians

The city of Loulan that would be the seat of the Kingdom of Loulan appears to have been founded not by the "European" Caucasians who lived in the area earlier, but by the Indo-Iranian Caucasians who lived in the area from early 2nd Century BCE onwards (their language belongs to the Saka branch of the Indo-European language family), though the city was surely built upon a settlement of sorts, i.e., a village. The city of Loulan, aka Kroran, was built in BCE 176 as part of the Kingdom of Loulan, as indicated, making it one of some 36 lesser kingdoms located in Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty China's "Western Regions". Loulan was subjugated by the Han Dynasty in BCE 77, and became thereafter a vassal state.
The Kingdom of Loulan spanned a large, sparsely populated (except for the Lake Lop region) geographical area of some 360,000 square kilometers, from the Ancient City of Charklik (alternatively Charkhlik, Qarklik, the same as present-day Qakilik, seat of Ruoqiang County) in the west to Yang Pass in the east (Yang Pass lies about 70 kilometers southwest of Dunhuang and immediately south of the famous Yumen Pass (note that the "yang" here comes from the ancient Chinese duality concept, 'the yin and the yang', where yin can also mean "the northern side/ slope" while yang can mean "the southern side/ slope"), both passes being situated at the western extremity of the Great Wall – i.e., they are passes, or gates, in the Great Wall that opened out upon potentially dangerous "heathen lands"), and from the A-erh-chin Mountains (aka Altun Mountains) in the south to the Hami Basin in the north, near the present-day city of Kumul.
At its height of prosperity, the Kingdom of Loulan was home to a very diverse population of over 14,000 inhabitants, including Yuezhi/ Tocharins, Indo-Iranians, Xiongnu and other nomadic, Mongoloid steppe tribes. The city of Loulan became an important stopping-off point along the Silk Road. Indeed, the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Loulan mined jade – as did their "forefathers", the earliest Yuezhi/ Tocharins who lived here – which they sold to China in order to purchase, among other luxury items, silk. Chinese emperors as far back as the Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasty were quite fond of jade, while the rulers of Greece, Persia – and later of Rome – seemed not to have been particularly interested in this commodity at the time, though the whole world now prizes this unique commodity, especially ancient jade artworks.
Seen in a larger perspective, the Ancient Ruins of Loulan reveal a set of city walls surrounding numerous buildings ranging from "palaces" (relatively speaking), temples, guard towers and residential buildings. Segments of stone and adobe walls, some depicting murals, can be seen here and there, displaying remnants of woodwork, including large pillars and beams. The structures that served as houses for more ordinary people – probably for extended families –were generally made of wood; their simple walls were often clothed with straw-reinforced dried mud.
The Ancient City of Loulan was altogether a smallish, square-ish city, judging from the remnants of its ancient walls. The northern wall measured 327 meters while the southern wall measured 329 meters. Like the northern wall, the western wall measured 327 meters, while the eastern wall was the longest, at 333 meters.
The arid climate of the Tarim Basin preserved not only the corpses of the humans who had lived here 2000 years before the birth of Christ, 1400 years before the Parthenon was built and 1000 years before Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, it also preserved the wooden structures built by the earliest Caucasian settlers in the area, though it couldn't protect them from pilfering or from the ravages of war. However, quite a lot remains yet of the later-built Ancient City of Loulan.
The arguably most interesting architectural discovery at ancient Loulan is the Sanjian Fang (san-jian-fang = "three room house"), or yamen (official residence) – whose walls were built in a thick, adobe style (sand, clay and plant fibers, mixed thoroughly with a bit of water, then allowed to dry) and which house stems from the period when the kingdom was a vassal state to the Han Dynasty. The "Three Room House" served as the official residence of the region's governor. A later Loulan structure that is almost as interesting is the 10-meter-high wooden Pagoda located on the eastern perimeter of the ruins. It is octagonal – and pyramidal – in shape, with a large, square base and a round top.
As indicated above, numerous other interesting artifacts have been unearthed here, including Han Dynasty manuscripts as well as handicraft items such as bronzeware, glassware and pottery. One of the most significant of the Han Dynasty manuscripts found here is a copy of the Zhan Guo Ce, or the Strategies of the Warring States Period, which is an extensive history of the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty that is believed to have been compiled by numerous contributors over a period of some 200 years, from the 3rd to the 1st centuries BCE.
Most of the manuscripts found at Loulan were taken from a series of ruins with adobe type walls that occupied the center of the city, prompting archeologists to suggest that these buildings housed whatever local government was present at the time, though these structures would most likely have been erected after the city became a vassal state to Han China – it is hardly likely that they stem from the same period as the Beauty of Loulan. Flanking the adobe-like structures in the center of the city are the ruins of numerous wooden structures. Some of their pillars and beams measure up to 6 meters in length. A small, underground tunnel, believed to have served as a sort of aqueduct, runs through the city, diving it into two halves.
Both the presence of the primitive aqueduct and the wooden beams are testimony to the Loulan area's past – before the Tarim River changed its course and thus changed the course of Loulan's history – as a lush oasis, abundant in trees and gardens, and prosperous enough to warrant even a system of "running water", however primitive, that was delivered to the city thanks to a cleverly built, undergound tunnel that diverted water to the city from the nearby Tarim River.
The city of Loulan seems to have "perished" (was probably buried by a sandstorm) in CE 330, or thereabouts. Several years earlier, the Tarim River had shifted its course, as indicated, no longer feeding Lake Lop, and the lake slowly dried up; without water, there is no basis for life. Why the Tarim River shifted its course is not known for certain, but it could have been related to flooding (excessive seasonal runoff from the Tian Mountains that rim the northern edge of the Tarim Basin) or to the ever-shifting patterns of the sands of the Taklamakan Desert which spans much of this arid basin (the Taklamakan Desert is constantly spreading, though the Chinese authorities have taken steps to at least slow if not block this trend).
Since the weather can be extremely cold here during winter – just as it is extremely hot during summer, namely, from a summer high of 50 degrees Celsius to a winter low of minus 30 degrees Celsius – it is likely that the buildings on the northern side of the city were of stone, rammed earth, and, later, of adobe material, though this is pure speculation (but it fits the general building pattern throughout China), given that these building materials have greater insulating properties, and the coldest winter winds blow from the north (indeed, the aforementioned "Three Room House" faces southward, or rather, its back, where there would be few, if any, windows, was to the north).
The famous Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty monk, Xuan Zang, whose writings inspired turn-of-the-century explorers such as Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein to search for the ancient lost cities of the Silk Road, noted in his travel diary  during his stay in the city of Loulan that the city was practically a ghost town even then.*
It is strange to think that this mysteriously abandoned city was once a thriving center of commerce along the Silk Road, frequented by numerous camel caravans heading either eastward into China proper – and stopping off at Loulan not just for fresh provisions, including perhaps extra (and fresh) camels, but also to pick up the jade that was so prized by the Chinese emperors – or westward toward Soghdiana, Bactria and points farther west such as Constantinople and Rome. It is stranger still to think that this ancient Silk Road city had an even more mysterious prior past that briefly linked East and West (a thousand years is but a moment in the history of man), belying the famous opening line of the poem, The Ballad of East and West, by the British novelist and poet, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936): "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet".
* The life of Xuan Zang, who traveled from China to India during the Tang Dynasty period in order to learn about Buddhism firsthand (i.e., from the source, since Buddhism originated in India) – and who kept a well-annotated travel diary – was chronicled in the 16th century novel, Pilgrimage to the West (alternately known as Journey to the West, Monkey King or simply Monkey). The likeable but somewhat bumbling monk (as depicted in the novel) was accompanied on his journey by three assistants – chosen of course by the Buddhist deities themselves – in order to make sure that Xuan Zang accomplished his mission.
Each of these three rather bizarre assistants, or side-kicks, Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing – who were humans reincarnated as a monkey, a pig and a monster, respectively – had their own particular strengths and idiosyncratic weaknesses, but the individual members of the little team, taken together, complemented each other perfectly, which makes Monkey as modern a story today as it was fresh at the time it was written.
In fact, both the makers of Star Wars (think: the mythical Wookiee, "Chewbacca" and all of the other half-animal, half-human characters in that film) and Shrek ("Donkey", "Puss in Boots") owe a debt of sorts to the author of Pilgrimage to the West, who is believed to have been the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty author, Wu Cheng'en, who presumably wrote the work during the 1590s (the key word being "presumably"... had it not been for Cervantes (Miguel de Cervantes, 1547-1616), whose famous work, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha (aka Don Quixote), was verifiably published in two volumes, the first in 1605 and the second in 1615, the author of Monkey might well have been credited with having written the world's first novel).

Solo Adventure Tips:


How to Get There?

Ticket Price:

Opening Hours:

More Tips:

Information accuracy:

We try to make the information on China Travel accurate when we write/edit it. If you find any outdated information, please inform us.