Taklamakan Desert – Uyghur people

The Taklimakan or Taklamakan Desert is a desert in Southwestern Xinjiang in Northwest China. It is bounded by the Kunlun Mountains to the south, the Pamir Mountains to the west, the Tian Shan range to the north, and the Gobi Desert to the east.


While most researchers agree on makan being the Persian word for “place”, etymology of Takla is less clear. The word may be a Uyghur borrowing of the Persian tark, “to leave alone/out/behind, relinquish, abandon” + makan. Another plausible explanation suggests it is derived from Turki taqlar makan, describing “the place of ruins”. Chinese scholars Wang Guowei and Huang Wenbi linked the name to the Tocharians, a historical people of the Tarim Basin, making the meaning of “Taklamakan” similar to “Tocharistan”. According to Uyghur scholar Turdi Mettursun Kara, the name Taklamakan comes from the expression Terk-i Mekan. The name is first mentioned as Terk-i Makan (ترك مكان / trk mkan) in the book called Tevarih-i Muskiyun, which was written in 1867 in the Hotan Prefecture of Xinjiang.

In folk etymology, it is said to mean “Place of No Return” or “get in and you’ll never get out”.


The Taklamakan Desert has an area of 337,000 km2 (130,000 sq mi), making it slightly smaller than Germany. The desert is part of the Tarim Basin, which is 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) long and 400 kilometres (250 mi) wide. It is crossed at its northern and at its southern edge by two branches of the Silk Road, by which travellers sought to avoid the arid wasteland. It is the world’s second-largest shifting sand desert, with about 85% made up of shifting sand dunes, ranking 17th in size in a ranking of the world’s largest deserts. Dunes range in height from 60 feet (18 m) up to as much as 300 feet (91 m). The few breaks in this sea of sand are small patches of alluvial clay. Generally, the steeper sides of the dunes face away from the prevailing winds.

The People’s Republic of China has constructed two cross-desert highways. The Tarim Desert Highway links the cities of Hotan (on the southern edge) and Luntai (on the northern edge) and the Bayingol to Ruoqiang road crosses the desert to the east.

In recent years, the desert has expanded in some areas, its sands enveloping farms and villages as a result of desertification.

“When I woke up one morning, I found I couldn’t open the door because of the weight of sand that had accumulated overnight. My crops were buried too, so I had no choice but to move” -Memet Simay, Qira County resident

The Golmud-Korla Railway crosses the Taklamakan as well.

Named areas in the desert include Ha-la-ma, A-lang-ha and Mai-k’o-tsa-k’o. The Mazartag mountains are located in the western part of the desert.


Because it lies in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, Taklamakan has a cold desert climate. Given its relative proximity with the cold to frigid air masses in Siberia, extreme temperatures are recorded in wintertime, sometimes well below −20 °C (−4 °F), while in summer they can rise up to 40 °C (104 °F). During the 2008 Chinese winter storms episode, the Taklamakan was reported to be covered, for the first time in its recorded history, entirely with a thin layer of snow reaching 4 centimetres (1.6 in), with a temperature of −26.1 °C (−15 °F) in some observatories.

Its extreme inland position, virtually in the very heartland of Asia and thousands of kilometres from any open body of water, accounts for the somewhat wide diurnal temperature variation.


The Molcha (Moleqie) River forms a vast alluvial fan at the southern border of the Taklamakan Desert, as it leaves the Altyn-Tagh mountains and enters the desert in the western part of the Qiemo County. The left side appears blue from water flowing in many streams. The picture is taken in May, when the river is full with the snow/glacier meltwater.

The Taklamakan Desert has very little water making it hazardous to cross. Merchant caravans on the Silk Road would stop for relief at the thriving oasis towns. It was in close proximity to many of the ancient civilizations—to the Northwest is the Amu Darya basin, to the southwest the Afghanistan mountain passes lead to Iran and India, to the east is China, and even to the north ancient towns such as Almaty can be found.

The key oasis towns, watered by rainfall from the mountains, were Kashgar, Miran, Niya, Yarkand, and Khotan (Hetian) to the south, Kuqa and Turpan in the north, and Loulan and Dunhuang in the east. Now, many, such as Miran and Gaochang, are ruined cities in sparsely inhabited areas in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China.

The archaeological treasures found in its sand-buried ruins point to Tocharian, early Hellenistic, Indian, and Buddhist influences. Its treasures and dangers have been vividly described by Aurel Stein, Sven Hedin, Albert von Le Coq, and Paul Pelliot. Mummies, some 4000 years old, have been found in the region.

Later, the Taklamakan was inhabited by Turkic peoples. Starting with the Han dynasty, the Chinese sporadically extended their control to the oasis cities of the Taklamakan Desert to control the important silk route trade across Central Asia. Periods of Chinese rule were interspersed with rule by Turkic, Mongol and Tibetan peoples. The present population consists largely of Turkic Uyghur people and ethnic Han people.

Scientific exploration

This desert was explored by several scholars, including Xuanzang, a 7th-century Buddhist monk, and, in the 20th century, the archaeologist Aurel Stein.

Atmospheric studies have shown that dust originating from the Taklamakan is blown over the Pacific, where it contributes to cloud formation over the Western United States. Further, the traveling dust redistributes minerals from the Taklamakan to the western U.S.A. via rainfall. Studies have shown that a specific class of mineral found in the dust, known as K-feldspar, triggers ice formation particularly well. K-feldspar is particularly susceptible to corrosion by acidic atmospheric pollution, such as nitrates and phosphates; exposure to these constituents reduces the ability of the dust to trigger water droplet formation.

1 Comment

  1. Another interesting, well researched article. It’s quite amazing the eclectic range of topics Michael writes about. I often wonder if he is a resident of some library, spending much of his waking times researching obscure histories.

    His clever and imaginative narratives, make some ( not all) of his writings interesting and informative , others are a bit too obscure for my limited intelligence.

    Thank you M.!
    Brian Rourke

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s