If the desert is a hiding place for human crimes, it is also an abyss into which those who shame, disgust, or threaten us may be swept. I had been reading about the Qing dynasty’s annexation of territory to the northwest of China in the 1750s. Throughout Qing rule of that region, which continued intermittently until 1911, tens of thousands of criminals and dissidents were sent to the newly annexed land. The severity of a person’s crime was reflected in the remoteness of their exile: “very near” (one thousand kilometers from the convict’s homeland); “to a nearby frontier” (1,600 kilometers); “to an insalubrious region”; or “to the furthest frontier.” The deserts of the far west, the Gobi and the Taklamakan, being both insalubrious and as distant from centers of population as it was possible to be while remaining in Chinese territory, were reserved for the gravest cases. Those exiled fell into two groups. First, ordinary criminals, who would usually be sent into slavery. This group included the families of those who had been executed for, say, murder, or incest, or treason. The second, smaller group consisted of disgraced government officials, or weifei—“troublemakers”—who had criticized official corruption or had associated with convicted traitors. Convicts on departure would be tattooed on both temples like a double stamp of lading: your crime on the right; on the left your destination. The far west was colonized not only by murderers, thieves, rapists, counterfeiters and sectarians, but by bureaucrats, army generals, eunuchs, and wenzi yu an or “literary cases.” The exiled scholar Ji Yuan, writing to his wife in 1769, described it as “another world.”
The hyper-arid deserts of China have figured in that country’s popular imagination as mere interstices, or collectively as a dread realm entered under duress or to reach the next oasis, even among those who populate the desert’s edge. One of the earliest recorded crossings is that of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang. Born in 602, he became a novice at the age of twelve and was soon recognized by his elders as a student of uncommon brilliance. Aged twenty-seven, sick of the disputing among his fellow monks on matters of dogma, he determined to travel across the great deserts of north-west China to India, the cradle of Buddhism, where he would retrieve scriptures that would resolve these disagreements. As Xuanzang and his nag make their way west, guided only by piles of bones and horse dung, they arrive at an expanse of desert where, according to the monk’s biographer, “there are no birds overhead, and no beasts below; there is neither water nor herb to be found.” Xuanzang went on to spend fourteen years travelling and studying in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, before re-crossing the Taklamakan in 645 with twenty-two horses carrying more than seven hundred works of Buddhist scripture.
One of those inspired by Xuanzang, 1,300 years later, was a British missionary named Mildred Cable. Following some “unaccountable impulse,” fifteen-year-old Mildred went alone to a talk by a member of the China Inland Mission. The speaker is unidentified, but seems to have been one Emily Wiltshire. Afterwards, she took the abashed young Cable aside: “I think the Lord wants you in China.”
When Cable arrived in China in 1901, aged twenty-two, Evangeline French, ten years older, had been in her own post for nine years. Meeting the new arrival in Huozhou, a city in the northern province of Shanxi, French wondered: “What possessed them to send such a frail child to our hard inland conditions?” Gansu and Xinjiang, where they would be going, lay a thousand kilometers and more to the west, as far from the sea as any place on earth. But if the girl appeared frail it was only the strain of the journey and the bleak years that preceded it. By some—for instance, members of the Bible Society back in Shanghai—she would become known as “Napoleon.”
In early autumn I booked a flight to Shanghai and from there flew 2,250 kilometers west to Jiayuguan, a city on the edge of the Gobi Desert in the province of Gansu. I stayed in a business hotel in a room whose floor, walls and ceiling were lined with the same white glossy laminate, as if designed to be hosed down between guests. Cable found Jiayuguan an unhappy place, besieged by the desert, its people either introverted into lethargy by the horrors beyond the walls, or compelled to violence. “There is nothing to do here all day but sit and listen to that howling wind,” the local women told her. The miller’s beaten wife killed herself by eating a box of matches; the blacksmith’s son was “so profligate that his father took a sledge-hammer and crushed his head as he lay asleep.” A century and more later the mood had changed. Under my window was a beauty parlor, whose dozen employees would file every morning onto the street in front of the store and, accompanied by shrill pop music, perform a synchronized dance in five parts, before one of them unfurled and lit a belt of firecrackers that exploded over the course of a minute, the manicurists vanishing into the smoke.
Outside the Jiayuguan fort, a woman in a yellow jumpsuit with a matching yellow headscarf and facemask sat hunched over an ice-cream chest. She opened the chest and I saw that it contained nothing but bags full of ice cubes. I bought one, and swinging it in one fist, set out into the Gobi.
Mildred Cable allowed “Gobi” to stand for the entire extent of her range, from Jiayuguan as far as Urumqi, 1,500 kilometers west. “Gobi” is not only a proper name, however; it’s also used locally for the flat sand-and-gravel plains that are distinct from the sand-dune desert of the Taklamakan or the salt-lake desert of Lop Nor. It was impossible to know where one named desert ended and the next began, where Gobi became Black Gobi, where Gashun Gobi degenerated into the Kumtag Desert and the salt fields of Lop Nor, where the threshold was between Lop Nor—a body of water until it was drained last century—and the Taklamakan.
Behind me, beyond the fort, the smoke-churning skyline of Jiayuguan city was visible—coke, cement, fertilizer, the raw material provisioned, like the region’s water, by the surrounding mountains. Under the final stretch of the Great Wall a few kilometers south, a road ran to the border with Xinjiang, flanked by the railways—the old line to Kashgar, a thousand kilometers away, and the new high-speed bullet-train line, yet to be opened, that would rush Han Chinese passengers westwards.
Everywhere half-buried scraps of polythene were shivering in the breeze. The place was a dumping ground, as the desert’s shore always is, wherever it is accessible and unpoliced. A solitary Christian grave could be made out, with its double headstone, epitaphs sand-scoured to illegibility. Here and there darker stones had been arranged to form Chinese characters. In a land so mobile there are few forms of writing assured of greater permanence, and Cable describes leaving lines of scripture on Gobi hillsides using the same method. For my own part I collected a handful of brown pebbles and arranged them to form an arrow pointing back the way I’d come. You couldn’t be too careful.
Surrounding the fort there had once been a moat containing not water but fine sand raked daily to betray the footprints of deserters. But according to Cable nothing would induce the soldiers garrisoned there to enter the desert beyond the fort’s western gate. “Demons, they are the ones who inhabit the Gobi.” Cable conceded it was desolate: “but in the silence and solitude God is still there.”
My train was crossing the eggshell-colored plain I’d walked the day before, the easternmost edge of the Gobi. Within forty minutes, habitation and cultivation were left behind, and the only human features of the desert were the endless pylons, gleaming as if new—squatting, hunched, or marching humanoids—and the trappings of the railway itself, in the form of fencing, culverts, and hills of soil dug a half-century ago. To repel sand the line was flanked by railway-sleeper walls and saw-tooth concrete buttresses and by withered ranks of desert poplars. Several times a year the line has to be closed while drifts are cleared. It is the perpetual confrontation of the occupied desert.
The Gobi is not a place of dunes but of flat expanses broken only by low hills and shallow basins and dried riverbeds. The action of water was everywhere visible, even where water itself had not flowed for decades or centuries. The flatness was limitless, or rather limited only by the horizon, or by visibility, the extent of the air’s clarity. In my bunk I listened to the low, cardiac double thump of the rails, and this alone gave me any sense of motion; the terrain outside told you next to nothing. The view scarcely altered in character from hour to hour. It was like being on a treadmill. The slightest variation—a darkening or lightening of the desert surface, a clustering of pylons or wind turbines, a derelict cement factory, the threaded bed of a dried-out stream, a rink of inflorescent salt, a dispersal of bones—was enough to arrest the attention. Otherwise, to watch the passing landscape for more than a few minutes required an effort of will. Cable, on first encountering the Gobi, asked herself if she might die—“not, as some had done, of thirst or fatigue, but of boredom.”
Cable and Eva French were scarcely apart from the time they met in 1901 until Cable’s death in 1952. They were ultimately joined in China by French’s sister, Francesca, forming the party that would come to be known by the people of the desert as the Trio: “the three-in-one venerable teachers of righteousness.” Of the foreign witnesses to the Hami Rebellion of 1931, few were nearer than the three women. The rebellion, which spread across northwest China, followed the Chinese decision to abolish the ancient Muslim khanate of Hami after the death in 1930 of the last khan. With the end of the khanate came an influx of Han migrants (overwhelmingly China’s dominant ethnic group) to the largely Muslim city, which stood in Xinjiang, just over the border from Gansu province, and a hundred kilometers north of Dunhuang. The new regime exempted the migrants from taxes and handed them land that had formerly been farmed by Muslim Uighurs, the largest ethnic minority in Xinjiang. At the same time, Uighurs found that their agricultural taxes doubled, while in compensation for their fields they received unimproved, unirrigated land on the desert’s edge.
The spark was the marriage of a Han Chinese tax collector to a Uighur woman. At the wedding party, the newlyweds were killed (“with horrible ferocity,” according to Cable) by a mob that went on to murder a hundred Gansu families. Their heads were buried in the fertile soil of the fields expropriated on their behalf. The rebellion was given strength and direction under two ministers of the late khan. One of them recruited the commander of an infamous Gansu warlord family, Ma Zhongying (or Big Horse, Thunderbolt, Baby General) a young man of barely twenty, who, according to Cable, “terrified northwest Gansu by the violence of his methods of warfare.” In the township of Chenfan, Cable alleged, he left three thousand corpses liquefying in the street.
While the Uighurs of Hami welcomed the rebel army, the non-Muslim Chinese, many of whom had only arrived in recent years, took shelter in the ancient fortified town, precipitating a siege that would last a year and a half. It was only the discovery by the Chinese of a buried eighteenth-century arsenal that allowed them to hold out. Finally withdrawing, Ma rode west to attack the city of Urumqi. He and his troops were met in the desert by Chinese forces supported by White Russian troops and Ma was injured—“shot through both legs,” Cable tells us, not without some satisfaction.
At the railhead at Ansi (today’s Liuyuan) I boarded a packed minibus bound for Dunhuang, which lay eighty kilometers south across a plain scattered with saxaul, the green-gray bushes that are often the Gobi’s only vegetation. At Ansi, the ancient Silk Road split, and the reason for its splitting, like a stream around a boulder, was the Taklamakan Desert, 327,000 square kilometers of sand dunes, and a cause of dread even greater than the Gobi.
When Cable and the Frenches arrived in Dunhuang after two months of traveling, the Trio found the town inundated with Muslim refugees from Hami who “brought a terrible story of slaughter and devastation.” The Baby General and his troops having finally been routed, the Chinese soldiers and residents had taken revenge on the Muslims left behind. “Dunhuang became a city of beggars,” Cable wrote. “The typhus began to take its toll of victims and the temple entrances were full of men and women muttering in delusion.” The injured Ma, meanwhile, who was carried by litter from the desert battleground, established his new headquarters in nearby Ansi, “City of Peace.” Soon after their arrival in Dunhuang, Cable and the Frenches, with their rudimentary medical knowledge, received a summons to attend the injured general. As they set out for Ansi, a small band of converts came to see them off. “I am weak, but Thou art mighty,” they sang.
Again into the desert. “During the campaign,” Cable writes in A Desert Journal (one of the more than twenty books she co-authored with Francesca), “there were so many dead bodies left unburied on the Gobi battlefields that during the heat the stench was intolerable, and this winter wolves are rampant.” After four days’ freezing journey they arrived in the City of Peace to find the general in good spirits, displaying what Cable called “a smiling, cruel sensuousness.” As she tended Ma’s wounds, “his weary voice sharpened in fear, lest the disinfectant should cause a smart to his sensitive flesh.”
The road that took us to Dunhuang crossed a land of the severest flatness broken only by sporadic hazy islands of sandstone. Even this, the main highway to famous Dunhuang, was crumbling at its edges, its surface a mosaic of filled and refilled potholes, pocked every few hundred meters with new holes so deep that vehicles had to swerve to avoid them. This was what the desert did to infrastructure, as to stone: the daylight heat, the cold night, the wind and snow and the salt—even the most resilient materials were patiently prized apart. This was the terrain over which Cable and the Frenches moved back and forth—this, and worse. Here, at least, there was a little vegetation, waterholes, even occasional shade; further west, between Ansi and the Xinjiang border, was the feared Black Gobi, where you might go five days without fresh water, a region despised even by Cable, who had a genius for finding consolation in places others saw as irredeemable.
The saxaul became sparse lines of poplar and then fields, cotton at first, then the region’s famous melons, drip-fed with aquifer water and tenderly wrapped in foam squares against frost even as they grew. The desert was giving way to the oasis—so it seemed. But this was a false dawn, just an outlying island of watered land. As suddenly as the settlement had appeared, the desert and the saxaul, the salt crust and the pink grit, returned, the same as far as the eye could see, the same on the other side of the road. The bustling market town of Cable’s day when we reached it an hour later was now a tranquil gleaming Oz of designer boutiques and unaffordable hostelries. The streets were sluiced down twice daily to suppress dust. On my pillow when I checked in to my hotel was a pink teddy bear with enormous, brimming eyes.
Once I left behind the cool, swept streets of the tourist city, Dunhuang began to seem like the oasis it was: palm trees and poplars growing from the dust; a verdancy that felt provisional. Turn a corner and, a few kilometers away, pale as a daytime moon, the Mingsha dunes, an immense range known locally as “the mountains.” At the edge of town I climbed the steep slipping flank of a thirty-meter dune, knowing that, to the west, five kilometers away, lay the Crescent Moon Lake, a natural spring ringed by dunes, “small, crescent-shaped and sapphire blue,” according to Cable, who recognized it as a sacred place. Finger-sized orange lizards scattered like fish in a boat’s wake. I was conscious that my steps obliterated the cleanness of the line, so that the ridge resembled the crimped edge of a pie, though no sooner had prints been made than they were obliterated. The wind was constant. Sometimes a slope would feel solid as concrete underfoot, then an infinitesimal change in gradient would cause me to sink ankle-deep with every step. There was a low tearing noise, shifting in volume and pitch. And there, maybe a kilometer away, clambering across the flank of a dune: a figure, a man in black.
Finally allowed to return to Dunhuang following their summoning by the Baby General, Cable and the Frenches found that his troops—whose comrades in Ansi they had just been nursing—had turfed them out of their quarters, stolen their best mules, and ransacked their medicine chest. Homeless in the Gobi’s midwinter, the women and their small entourage took the road between the “Singing Sand Dunes,” to the Crescent Moon Lake.
On one occasion, while they were staying at the temple beside the lake, the Trio was “awakened by a sound like a roll of drums.” Fearing attack by brigands, Cable was reassured by the resident priest: “Don’t be anxious, Lady. It is only the drum-roll of our sand-hills. Rest your heart.” The famous lui-in emitted by the dunes was recorded by Marco Polo when (he tells us) he crossed the Gobi seven hundred years earlier, though he attributed it to “spirits of the desert,” which, he adds, “are said at times to fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the crash of arms.” The cause of the sound, which explorer Wilfred Thesiger described as a “low vibrant hum” like that emitted by a low-flying airplane, remains unexplained, despite the efforts of scientists. The sand can be coarse or fine, hard-packed or loose, quartz or carbonate, though it occurs only when the surface is disturbed—by someone sliding down the face of a dune, for instance, as the French sisters do in Cable’s description—and in the driest of dunefields. It may be produced by the vibration of air between sand grains, or by the friction of grains one against the other.
The noise had gained in volume and pitch; a shadow swept across the arena of sand far below. It was not the lui-in, the thunder roll, but a tourist microlight, and its noise was joined by the growing buzz-roar of dune-buggies. The sand was streaked with their exhaust smut. From the next summit I looked down on a parade of mounted camels fifty strong, filing along the foot of the dunes. It was an ancient scene—apart from the single loudspeaker on its stand beside the camels’ path, its cable snaking away between the dunes, playing Chinese pop, and apart from the riders’ calf-length fluorescent orange booties. You could hire them at the ticket office if you didn’t want sand in your shoes.
I had an hour before sunset, and veered south, deeper into the desert. After a kilometer or so I had left the noise behind and only the distant humming of the microlights was audible under the wind. And there, on the summit of the dune I was climbing, he was, the fellow in black, sitting with his back to me, looking out to the horizon. As I got closer I heard that he was singing to himself. Black shirt under a black suit, and flat black office shoes. He was in his thirties, an engineer at the Tuha oilfield in Xinjiang. (I would pass through the Turpan–Hami oilfield the following day on my way to Urumqi.) I asked him if he’d ever heard the lui-in. “You must come when it’s quiet,” he said, “when no one’s here. But someone is always here!” He laughed. It was Saturday, and this was his leisure-time stroll, a quest for quiet. The municipal desert. I didn’t detain him for long, but every now and then, as I approached the Crescent Moon Lake, we would spot one another across a kilometer-wide dune valley and each raise a hand.
From the surrounding dunes the lake thirty meters below revealed itself as a kidney-shaped slick presided over by a pagoda tower and modern pavilions. As dusk approached, the temple was still busy with visitors. It was no longer possible to stay there, as Cable had a hundred years ago, but such was the immensity of its setting that a hundred coach-loads of bright-bootied tourists wouldn’t have diminished the tranquility. Between the terrace and the water was a band of rushes and desert willows. It was here on the banks of the Crescent Moon Lake that Cable “began to see that the acceptance of a severe rule of life is an integral part of the absolute freedom which is theirs whom He makes free.”
It was a 1936 decree against foreigners that finally forced Cable and the French sisters to abandon the Gobi. The Trio moved together to a hamlet in rural Dorset, to a house called Willow Cottage. Where could be more pastoral-sounding, more English? Jasmine, honeysuckle, and mignonette bloomed in the garden. Cable died in 1952, aged seventy-four; the sisters within a month of each other, six years later. The dream of home had never quite been quellable. But sometimes in Willow Cottage, thinking of the thunder roll of the Mingsha dunes, she tells us, Cable would “take up a handful of Crescent Lake sand, and try to make it sing.”
An excerpt from The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places by William Atkins (Doubleday, July 2018).