The ruins: a traveller in antique land

“I met a traveller from antique land” – one of the most evocative opening lines in literature. Shelley was  thinking of ancient Egypt but by the early decades of the 20th century the civilisation of ancient Egypt had a secure place in history, literature and the popular imagination. The unknown places of the world were far from Europe and North Africa.

I have been fascinated by this week’s pictures for years. This blog is partly about photography itself and how quickly photographers grasped the possibilities of the medium. One of those possibilities is to bring the distant near. By 1912 travellers had ventured further in terms of distance than Sir Marc Aurel Stein but few of them had been so far into places which were largely unknown to Western imagination.

These pictures remind me of places from fiction like the plateau of Leng in H P Lovecraft’s stories, or the planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune series . At one point I was thinking of using them for a Halloween story. But the more I looked at them and dipped into the text of Stein’s enormous two-volume work “Ruins of Desert Cathay”  (MacMillan, 1912) the more I realised that these pictures didn’t need any embellishment from me. They tell their own story of a traveller in an unknown land searching for semi-mythical places.

The daunting mountains in the background were just the start of the journey.

Watch station at foot of Mintaka Pass with Sarikolos 32

There were deep gorges to navigate where unfamiliar rivers ran.

Bridge across Yurung-Kash River in gorge near Khushlash-Langae 65

Stein’s expedition travelled through the mountains north into Turkestan, the westernmost region of what was then the empire of China. In this region the cultural influence of India, both Hindu and Muslim met Buddhism and Chinese Confucianism, with British and Russian Christians adding to the the mix.

Muhammadan shrine and cemetery on road to Kasgar

There were towns and cities already familar to travellers here.

Mosque and avenue of Poplars near Borache, Khotan

Geographers, archeologists and scholars had visited before. Stein was all of those, and although he was a small man of Hungarian descent he was also in some senses Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. After trekking across the mountains he and his party were glad to arrive in Kashgar where they were known from previous visits and could stay with Macartney , the British resident.

The party picked up workers for hire as they went. Pathans and Gulabs:

Pathan and Gujar carriers from Kolandi

Locals from further on:

Wakhi head-men and carriers at Kok-Torok with Dash

[Head-men and carriers from Kok-Torok, with Stein’s dog Dash. Stein had several dogs on his expeditions, all of them called Dash]

Slightly more expensive was some administrative assistance from the secretary, Chang Sso-Yeh who was there to read Chinese texts. (He and Stein communicated in the one language they had in common, the local tongue Turki, which was difficult for both of them though in different ways.)

Chaing Ssu-Yeh Chinese secretary 39

From Kashgar the expedition moved on into desert territory.

They uncovered wooden structures from the sand – unexpected remnants of houses and settlements.

Door with wood-carving in sand-buried ruin at Niya site


Room in ancient residence at Niva site

After much effort they excavated stone structures.

Remains of ancient wall on erosion witness - Endere site104

Most of this ruin was under the sand.

Part of a wall. Stein always included expedition workers in his pictures to give a sense of scale, But they also convey the loneliness of these desert spots.

Ruined tower with remains of wind-eroded dwelling in forground - Endere site 105

They passed through desolate places where the sand had been blown into random patterns.

View from ruined stupa at Lop-Nor across wind-eroded ground

And found more ancient ruins.

Ruin of ancient stupa at Lop-Nor

Although it’s an effect of the photographic process the blank skies above these scenes add to the impression of the party making its way through a vast empty space with occasional outcrops of decay, remnants of fallen civilisations. There might be room for a few dark imaginings:

The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world’s rim; and strange winds, blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns. The dark, orblike mountains which rise from its wrinkled and pitted plain are not all its own, for some are fallen asteroids half-buried in that abysmal sand. Things have crept in from nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the gods of all proper and well-ordered lands; but there are no such gods in Yondo, where live the hoary genii of stars abolished and decrepit demons left homeless by the destruction of antiquated hells.

[Clark Ashton Smith: The Abominations of Yondo] [Smith was writing in the 1930s when distant and inaccessible places could be made to seen sinister and threatening as in his friend Lovecraft’s At the mountains of madness which depicts impossibly tall mountains in Antarctica. That story was nearly turned into a film by Guillermo del Toro. I’d love to have seen that.]

Looking through Stein’s book the page headings alone tell a mysterious story: Records from a hidden archive….Last days at a dead oasis……….Arrival at a frozen lake…Heads of Colossal Buddhas…Story of a magical elephant……..Ancient temples of Miran…..Last drink for the animals……Goblins of the Gobi…The town of the dragon

This picture shows the camels eating reeds as  they came to the edge of one of the desert regions the expedition crossed.

Camels grazing on frist reeds after crossing Lop-Nor Desert - Copy

An overgrown structure is disovered near the same spot.

Circumvallation of small fort of Merdek-Shahr, overgrown with reeds

But also in this region there were  more complete finds.

Ruin of domed Buddhist shrine enclosing stupa at Miran

A stupa, and below at a site called Miran:

Remains of colossal figures of seated Buddhas in ruined shrine at Miran

The remains of colossal figuures

Stucco head of colossal Buddha figure at ruined shrine Miran

No Ozymandias here but evidence of a great civilsation now fallen,

With its placid satues of Buddha, its strange beings depicted on frescos:

Frescoes of winged figures from dado of ruined shrine at Miran

(Stein puzzled over these almost Greco-Roman style images.)

And its own demons

Vaisravana Demon-King of the Northern Region

[Vaisravana, the demon king of the northern region]

At Miran

Base of Buddhist shrine at Miran

The edge of the Chinees empire

Ruin of ancient watch tower near westrn end of Tun-Huang Limes 153

A watch tower, and below, a fort.

Ruin of ancient Chinese fort 154

I’ve only taken you on part of the journey. There was still the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas and other wonders to see.

Stein and other explorers and archaeologists brought back a great deal of material before the Chinese government closed the region.  Was it theft or preservation? I couldn’t say. For me the treasure is in the pictures of unknown places from long ago and the strangers who ventured into them.


So we finally made it on the far journey. Having made this selection I looked again and found many more images I could have used , and this was just in Volume 1. Stein was a remarkable man. I won’t pretend to have done him justice here, but the photographs show some of the distant places of the world which are now also distant in time. Next week we’ll be back in K and C.

My background reading was Peter Hopkirk’s excellent Foreign devils on the silk road.









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