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Brief Introduction to Loulan

Loulan, one of West China's 36 ancient states, whose exact location is unknown, mysteriously disappeared after 500 years of continuous prosperity. The rapid disappearance of such a large, prosperous trading hub on the thriving Silk Road, which dealt mainly in the trade of silk, glass, and perfume, is one of history's biggest puzzles.

Returning from his Western journeys during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Tang Xuanzang had already seen the bleak scene of the Loulan city buildings, with very few people.

Some 1,500 years later, a Swedish adventurer named Sven Hedin and his guide discovered Loulan on March 28, 1900. The discovery actually caused a great sensation at the time, and was reputed as the "Oriental Pompeii." For more than 100 years since, Loulan has stirred the enthusiasm of adventurers, historians and travelers both from China and abroad. Loulan Beauty, Loulan Tomb, Loulan Coffin … one miracle after another has persistently aroused world attention.

Scholars from home and abroad believe the Loulan relics are the most important discovery along the once-prosperous Silk Road for researching and exploring the rich history of Xinjiang and central Asian countries, the history of the Silk Road, cultural communications and mélange of East and West.

This tree has been standing in Loulan for more than 3,000 years.

The Site of Loulan State

The site was located on the west bank of Lop Nur Lake, which was once a rich water network, but has now entirely dried up. The expanse of vast sand dunes are dubbed the "forbidden zone to life" to the northeast of Ruoqiang County in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in Northwest China. The weather there is very extreme: during the summer, the maximum temperature tops 50 degrees Celsius, and in the winter it can fall as low as 30 degrees below zero.

Records from the Loulan kingdom abound in major historical works in both China and the West of over 1,600 years ago. Loulan was a sprawling kingdom of 360,000 square kilometers, whose domain bordered Dunhuang in the East and Niya city in the West. It had a population of over 14,000, and, as a key traffic hub on the ancient Silk Road, it served as an important trading center between China and the West, welcoming streams of camels loaded with exotic goods from many parts of the world. Many visitors and caravans were from the Mediterranean region.

The ruins unearthed so far cover an area of over 100,000 square meters, filled with the ruins of city walls, residential buildings, palaces, temples, workshops and towers, as well as broken beams and pillars.

The city has an irregular square shape, with the east city wall measuring 333 meters; the south wall, 329 meters; and the west and north walls 327 meters respectively. Archeologists believe there was once a water tunnel running through the city that divided it into two functional parts. The most eye-catching architecture is a wooden Buddhist pagoda located in the eastern city ruins. This octagonal-shaped pagoda is 10 meters high with a square base and a round top.

In the city center are rows of adobe houses surrounded by piles of wood, with some pieces of timber up to five or six meters in length. On the foundations of some of the houses we can still find traces of red paint. A large amount of historical documents have been discovered among these houses.

 Loulan Beauty

The greatest discovery in Loulan is without doubt the Loulan female mummy discovered in 1980. Perfectly preserved, delicate in appearance and with good skin, the relic earned the nickname "Loulan Beauty." Experts confirmed that the woman lived some 3,800 years ago. Later, more of such mummies were excavated also reflecting the region's characteristically dry weather. In 1998, the well-preserved body of an infant that died about 4,000 years ago and the remains of an old man who died more than 1,500 years ago, were also unearthed in the area. 

The woman has distinct Caucasian features: light-colored hair and steep nose bridge. The Loulan Beauty has long hair and is only 5.2 feet tall. Archaeologists also found colorful painted and crosshatched coffins that looked like new. Archaeologists believe that the area's residents were both Mongolians and Caucasians. But how the Caucasians came to Western China thousands of years ago and then suddenly disappeared remains a mystery.

The ancient city of Loulan was a small city established in the Western Regions in ancient times. It was in the western bank of Lop Nur, an only route by which to pass the Ancient Silk Road. In those days, around Loulan City there were criss-cross networks of waterways, shades of green tress, row upon row of houses, crowds of merchants and travelers doing brisk trades. But what makes people at a loss to account for is that such a city once with a population of thousands, its business economy fully developed, suddenly disappeared from the history after several prosperous centuries. The rise and fall of the ancient State of Loulan has all along presented a baffling mystery to us. The ancient State of Loulan was completely submerged by the desert. It was in the early part of this century that Sven Anders Hedin, a Swedish explorer, had found this ancient city of Loulan during his desert exploration to Lop Nur in Xinjiang. Immediately after the news was spread out, the world academic circles were greatly surprised and so people could see the historical relics of the ancient Loulan for the first time. At the beginning of 80’s in this century, the archaeological team of China formally carried on archaeological investigations and unearthing work at the ancient city of Loulan. They found a great number of historical relics in the ancient city of Loulan and also some historical remains of ancient waterways, farmlands, Buddhist pagodas and graves. The culture of the ancient Loulan has reappeared in the world.Tourists, too, have been intrigued by this site and many venture there despite adverse weather and terrain conditions.

The culture of ancient Loulan has been submerged by the desert for many years, and at last it has reappeared in the world. In order to answer this historical "mystery", many historians, archaeologists and explorers have explored for several decades, but it is only from the ancient Loulan ruins that people can find the answer.

But when was the ancient Loulan city abandoned at all Nobody can tell the exact date, but from the historical documents we can see that in 399, when the eminent monk Faxian passed here, he described it as the desert without any people, so the last half of this century should be the period when the ancient Loulan became extinct after flourishing for some time. One slip in Kharosthi script discovered from the ancient Loulan city almost shows the same historical situation. The contents of this slip is: "In the reign of Fa Ser Mona Kingon July the eleventh, many people had left far away from the state".Fa Ser Mona was the last king of the ancient State of Loulan-Shanshan, and he ruled from 321-234. From the records of the slips in kharosthid scripts we find that in the period of his reign, many people had left their state, among whom there were taxpayers, people who lost their land and had no houses of their own, etc. This record is basically the same year as the slip in Han characters, so from this we know that the ancient Loulan city was abandoned probably in the year after the 30's of the 4th century. Obviously, the residents' leaving from the ancient Loulan city, the withdrawing of the generals and soldiers who had garrisoned and reclaimed the region here made the farmland become desert, and their rigatoni canals were blocked up because they had long been out of repair. Aridity and desert covered these oases. This ancient city ruined at last.

Although the ancient Loulan city became the historical relics, the discovery of its historical culture provides new magnificence to the history, and it will be kept in the people's mind forever.

Travel Tips: Because of the difficult elements, Loulan is also known as 'the forbidden zone.' Bring lots of water, warm clothes, necessary medicines, handi-wipes and eyedrops. Be prepared for high temperatures and dust. The road to the ancient city is extremely difficult and it is advised that visitors travel in groups. Visitors should also be reasonably fit. There are sightseeing buses in Ruoqiang County, but they cannot enter the archaeological site. If you want to go to the location of the cultural relics, you will need to either walk or ride a camel.

Admission Fee: CNY 5
Opening Hours: 8:00 – 16:00
Best time to visit Spring and Autumn