Published: January 2002

Alashan: China's Unknown Gobi

By Donovan Webster
Photographs by George Steinmetz

Ghosts live here. That's what the Chinese say. They claim this place, a walled fortress abandoned in the 14th century and called Khara Khoto—Black City—is inhabited by demons and spirits.

I understand why. Around me Khara Khoto is a haunting pile of drifted sand that partly covers its 30-foot (9-meter) ramparts. Inside the city's walls lie ruins of a once vital kingdom. All that remains is shattered and tawny mud buildings crumbled long ago, scatterings of bleached bones unidentifiable with age, and smashed crockery pots and bowls. Granite millstones—their three-foot (0.9 meter) faces etched by lines seven centuries old—also sit half-buried in the sand.

In the slanting light of an October sunset the legend of the Black City's violent and bloody end spreads across the sand around me. The year was 1372, and the Mongol king Khara Bator—his people protected inside these walls, which were taken by Genghis Khan's Golden Horde in 1226—was witnessing the end of Mongolia's reign across Asia. Outside, the armies of China's ascendant Ming dynasty were massing, and they'd employed the surrounding desert as their deadliest weapon. Diverting the Black River, the city's water source that flowed just outside the fortress, the Chinese denied Khara Khoto moisture for its gardens and wells. Then they simply waited.

As the Black City's thirst grew deadly, Khara Bator recognized his fate. Insane with fury, he murdered his family—then turned his sword upon himself. After his suicide Khara Bator's soldiers vainly continued inside Khara Khoto's fortress, weakening beneath the sun. When the Ming finally attacked, they slaughtered the remaining Mongols like livestock, leaving bodies unburied, the garrison sacked, and a stain of murder so dense on the sand it spawned the ghosts of today.

Walking from the walled city's center, I climb a sand dune inside Khara Khoto's fortifications to stand on the rampart's top. To the west the sun is touching the horizon. The day's tourists have gone, fearful of the ghosts and the hour-long drive across this rugged desert to the hotels of town.

Me? I'm staying.

In the night I'll walk the city's 12-foot (3.7-meter) thick outer walls—as much as 450 yards (410 meters) to a side—and doze beneath the stars. I'll listen to the stories of Wang Zegong, the 70-year-old guard at Khara Khoto, who sleeps in a canvas tent outside these walls every night from April to December. He's witnessed the ghosts' doings: the fuel-less flames that burn for hours and rise ten feet into the night sky, the roving pool of light that arrives after midnight and that once led him miles into the desert, left him for lost, then—when he called out for help—returned and guided him back to his camp through the darkness.

"My favorite story is this," he tells me over a bowl of instant noodles. "One night I heard two logs colliding, again and again, outside my tent. Bang! Bang! Bang! So I got up, went outside, and there were two big firewood logs lying near each other on the sand, exactly where the noise had been coming from. They were logs from my firewood pile, which is on the other side of my tent. I had not moved them. They had not been there when I went to sleep—but they were there now."

If there are ghosts here, I want to know them. During my travels I've encountered many things on the verge of being haunted: institutions and ways of life being abandoned by a China equally reverential of its past and hungry for its future. But actual ghosts?

So after dinner with Wang Zegong, I grab my headlamp and return inside Khara Khoto's walls. There I sit and wait for ghosts. Above me in the darkness, the bright pinprick of Venus slips toward the western horizon as constellations emerge. During the night a cold October wind rises to whip the corners of the ruins. But the ghosts never come. It is only me, sitting inside the ancient walls of a ruined city in the dark, pondering mankind's endless dance across these sands with time, events, and rain.

The Gobi isn't the world's largest desert (that's the Sahara) or its driest (the Atacama) or its most dramatically diverse with life (the Namib). Instead, it is Earth's northernmost desert and the least populated environment outside the polar caps. And it possesses a record of human habitation that is among the longest on Earth. Straddling the boundaries of China and Mongolia, and at 500,000 square miles (1,300,000 square kilometers) nearly twice the size of Texas, the Gobi is a place where often less than three inches (7.6 centimeters) of rain falls a year. In fact Gobi is a Mongolian word that means "waterless place." Geologists have tagged the word with a slightly more specific meaning. To them the word Gobi is shorthand for "gravel desert." And at this rocky, gale-scoured desert's heart, in the reaches of northern China, is the Alashan Plateau, a place so remote and sparsely inhabited it has scarcely figured in China's long history. Today it remains rarely visited owing to its status as a missile-testing zone for the Chinese military.

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