Silk Road in Rare Books

Narratives on cultural heritage along Silk Road with figures and photographs from rare books.

Hedin, the Man Who Solved the Mystery of the Wandering Lake: Lop Nor and Lou-lan

Disputes Surrounding the Mystery of Lop Nor

In the latter half of the 19th century, the Lop Desert, located in Eastern Turkestan (around the Tarim Basin), attracted many of the world’s great explorers who sought to find out more about this vast geographic blank spot on the map. Lop Nor Lake[a], in particular, was the main target of their attention. It was recorded in Chinese histories that there existed a huge lake on the eastern side of the Tarim Basin. Despite the size of the lake, however, no one knew at that time exactly where the lake was located and this mystery continued into modern times. Solving the mystery of where the lake was located would be a significant geographic discovery- and this encouraged explorers worldwide to come and search for Lop Nor.


Where is Lop Nor? In fact, the mystery has a long history. The Russian explorer N. M. Przhevalskii was the first to explore the lower Tarim River region, suggesting a possible location for Lop Nor. He researched the lower Tarim River from 1876 to 1877 and discovered two lakes, Kara-Buran and Kara-Koshun (Map(1)). Since he saw no branches stretching eastward from the Tarim River, he concluded that these two lakes were the legendary Lop Nor.

The German geographer Richthofen[b] immediately opposed this theory. First of all, Chinese historical materials described Lop Nor as a saltwater lake, but the two lakes found by Przhevalskii were both freshwater lakes. Second, the two lakes were 400km south of the location indicated on Chinese ancient maps. In other words, according to Richthofen, the lakes discovered by Przhevalskii did not match the historical records, and therefore, the lakes were completely irrelevant to Lop Nor.

Thus, the mystery surrounding the location of Lop Nor developed into a major geographic debate involving V. Koslov (a follower of Przhevalskii) and S. Hedin (a follower of Richthofen).


In important clue to bear in mind is the Chinese record about the ancient walled city of Lou-lan (楼蘭姑師, 邑有城郭, 臨塩沢), which mentions that Lou-lan was located adjacent to a salty lake (Records of the Grand Historian Accounts of the Ferghana(2)). The word "salty lake" , together with various other words found in other ancient Chinese histories (such as 泑沢, 蒲昌海, 輔日海, 牢蘭海 and so on) indicating saltwater lakes or small seas, are all considered to be references to Lop Nor. The city of Lou-lan itself was also a mystery however. Recorded in ancient Chinese histories as one of the oasis cities located along the Silk Road in Central Asia, it was located at the junction of the Northern and Southern Route of the Silk Road, which branched off at Dunhuang, and functioned as an essential way-stop of trade. From the 6th century, however, the once flourishing town was abandoned to the desertification most of the surrounding area. And, by the end of the 19th century, nothing left was known about its location or anything about it. The Lop Nor Desert, therefore, had two mysteries: the mystery lake, "Lop Nor" and the mystery city, "Lou-lan".

Because it was thought that the city had been located nearby to the lake, to locate the lake would make it easier to try and locate the city. And further, if Lou-lan could also be found, because the city was noted in the histories as being adjacent to a "salty lake," this would also prove the existence of Lop Nor, thereby solving both mysteries at once. Hedin, in fact, who headed for Lop Nor during his 1900 expedition, first found traces of an ancient lake, and later, the ruins of an ancient city in the desert. This was confirmed as the Lou-lan site (L.A. site), and became the key for solving the mystery of Lop Nor.

The Discovery of the Lou-lan Site and the Solving of the Lop Nor Mystery

In 1900, Hedin planned to map out the Lop Desert in sectioned diagrams by traveling it from north to south. He thought that by searching for shapes similar to the lakes shown in historical maps he would be able to locate the former lake bed of Lop Nor. As he traveled on, he soon found there had been indeed a lake. He knew this by the numerous seashells, the dense layer of salt, and a dead forest of poplar trees. With these clues, Hedin continue on with his search.


As the team proceeded, they encountered several ruins and also found traces of human life. Good luck followed. One of Hedin’s Uigur attendants, Oerdek(3), forgot his shovel behind at the previous site. This shovel was the team’s only shovel and was necessary for them to set up their ents, etc. It was decided that Oerdek should return by himself to look for the shovel. On his way back to the site, he discovered numerous sites of dwellings including stūpas (Stūpa and Surroundings(4), Site Plan by Stein(5)). And, this site turned out to be Lou-lan.

“In recall, it was nothing but luck that he (Oerdek) forgot the shovel. If it was not for the incident, I would never have visited that ancient city again, nor made the great discovery that would shed a new and unpredicted light to the history of Central Asia." (from "My Life as an Explorer" )
(4) (5)

The next year in 1901, Hedin returned to the site where he found many written records on pieces of wood and paper. The manuscripts, written in both Chinese and Kharoṣṭhī scripts, sent back to Sweden where they were then deciphered one after another. The manuscripts were related to the movement of troops during Western Jin dynasty (西晋) and included both private and official records, as well as correspondences. It was also learned through an examination of the manuscripts that they were composed from around 265 to 330 and that the area had been called "Kroraina" by the locals (which was rendered as "Lou-lan" in Chinese). From these manuscripts, it became clear that the ruins were indeed the ancient city "Lou-lan" . That led to the conclusion that the lake floor that Hedin saw was "the lake adjacent to Lou-lan," that is it was Lop Nor.

Thus the two mysteries were solved.

The “Wandering Lake" Theory

However, another mystery surfaced. Now, we know that there was a lake located in the area during ancient times. But why cannot a single drop of water be found? To try and address this question, Hedin put forth a daring theory.

When Hedin surveyed the Lop Desert, he had noticed that the Lou-lan site in the north and Kara-Koshun in the south had only 2 meters difference in altitude. He thought that a river that flowed across such a flat desert would respond to the slightest environmental changes and thereby shift its course.

Hedin also presumed that this would explain why Lou-lan had perished. The latest Han documents excavated from the site were dated from around 330 AD, and it is argued that Lou-lan was abandoned soon after. Hedin believed this abandonment of the city was caused when the lower Tarim River that ran through the Lou-lan region changed its course south due to sedimentation in the 4th century. The river flowed into the two lakes in the southeast Tarim Basin, Kara-Buran and Kara-Koshun. If water did not reach Lou-lan and the lake dried up, it would have been impossible to maintain the city. Hedin believed this was the reason why Lou-lan had perished.

Further, Hedin also noticed sedimentation at both Kara-Buran and Kara-Koshun, and at the same time, erosion caused by windstorms happening around the Lou-lan site. This could mean that in the near future, the opposite situation would occur: the lower Tarim River would return to its former course and a lake would reappear at the location of the former Lop Nor.

Through these theories, Hedin became to propose a daring hypothesis that the Tarim River changed its course to and fro between southbound and northbound. And, that this caused the Lop Nor to alter its location according to the shift in the river. To make his point, he began to refer to the lake as the "Wandering Lake."


Hedin’s theory prevailed. From around 1921, the lower Tarim River began to change its route. While the river had been winding toward the southeastern direction until then, its flow began to return to its older river bed, to the east (right - The Southeastern Route about to Dry, left - The New Eastern Route(6)).

When this news reached Hedin, he departed once again for Lop Nor to see for himself. It was April 1934, more than 30 years after he had first proposed the "Wandering Lake" theory. Overjoyed that his theory had been proved so dramatically, Hedin then canoed down the newly born river[c].

“It could be well said that, it was bracing to trace the muddy river route into that desert that I had luckily been able to conquer 34 years ago. Our canoe sliding down above my own camel steps on the roadless river floor - undoubtedly my steps were swept away by the severe spring windstorms from the east over the 34 years, but all the more, this was where my caravan had proceeded in the March of 1900, unmistakably the floor of this same river." (from The Wandering Lake)
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Hedin canoed down the same route that he had once crossed by camels through the torturous desert (1901(7), 1934(8)). And at the end of the river was the Lop Nor, which had returned to its former location (9: map, 10: sketch by Hedin, 11: Hedin at the lake). It was just as he had stated: Lop Nor was a "Wandering Lake" that shifted its location according to the course of the river that flowed into it[d].

(9) (10) (11)

Thus, the exploration that began with the mystery of Lop Nor not only revealed the location of Lop Nor but also brought out this new idea of a lake that changed its location from time to time. And as a by-product of this exploration, the site of the ancient city "Lou-lan" was discovered, which became so significant to the study of Silk Road history.

The 4000-Year History of Lou-lan

Finally, we would like to give a brief overview of the history of Lou-lan. Since no historical account about the city exists in an organized form, it is not easy to trace its history. Fragmental sources such as Chinese history materials, excavated documents, and artifacts are the only clues to guess its history.

Prehistoric artifacts such as rock tools and colored earthenware had been excavated from around Lop Nor, which confirms that mankind had lived in the area from several thousand years ago. In addition, through the study of the Tocharian language, it became clear that people of the Indo-European languages had invaded the Tarim Basin. But nothing is known about when a kingdom was established at Lou-lan.

Lou-lan first appears in Chinese records in 176 BC. According to the "Accounts of Hsiung-nu (Xiongnu, 匈奴列傳)" in the "Records of the Grand Historian (史記)," the Xiongnu chieftain Mau-Tun Khan-yu (Modu Shanyu, 冒顿單于) mentions Lou-lan as one of the countries he had conquered in a letter to Emperor Xiaowen (孝文帝) of the Former Han dynasty. This tells us that a country called Lou-lan had been established at least before this date and was at the time under the rule of Xiongnu. Later on, since Lou-lan was located at an important point of East-West Trade, the city was caught between the conflicting interests of the Xiongnu and the Han Dynasty, which both aimed at controlling the profits from trade in the region. Lou-lan was then tossed back and forth as these two powers battled with one another.

In 77 BC, the king of Lou-lan was killed by an envoy from Han, and a new king under Han influence was enthroned. The name of the country was changed to Shanshan (鄯善), thereby becoming a puppet kingdom of the Han ("History of the Han Dynasty," Geographical accounts of the Western region). Rule of the Western region (Central Asia) by the Han dynasty was continued into the Western Jin dynasty, and further on to the Former Liang (前涼). The famous Li-Bo Manuscript uncovered by the Otani Expedition at Lou-lan (L.K. site) was a draft of a letter sent in 328 from Li Bo (李柏), the Minister of the Western area, to the King of Yanqi (焉耆), also known as the Kingdom of Kara-shahr.

Control by the Chinese continued intermittently. In the 5th century, the Northern Wei (北魏) installed a Chinese king in Lou-lan and called the city the Shanshan Fort. Then at the end of the 6th century, the Sui Dynasty (隋) established the city state of Shanshan at Loulan. From beyond the 5th century, however, the land was frequently invaded by nomads such as the Tuguhuns (吐谷渾), the Rurus (蠕蠕or Rourans, 柔然), and the Dinglings (丁零, Turks) and gradually became abandoned. According to history accounts (沙州伊州地志), by around 630 (at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty period), the remaining Shanshan people, led by Shan Fu Tuo (鄯伏陁), migrated to Hami (伊州) in the Northern area. Consequently, this led to the complete abandonment of Lou-lan. Xuanzang (玄奘), who passed through this region in 644 on his return from India to China, wrote, "A fortress exists, but not a trace of man" (he wrote this in Volume 5 of his The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions).

In addition to historical facts that can be gleaned from these historical accounts, the documents found by Hedin and Stein give us further insight into the history of Lou-lan, in particular concerning trade, transportation, products, agriculture, military, and battles. For example, we can see from the documents various issues that the Kingdom of Lou-lan confronted, such as difficulties in tax collection and the threat of invaders. Furthermore, the Chinese documents include correspondences addressed to families on military duty far away from home.

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Mummified bodies and relics (Hat(12), Embroidery(13), Hedin Inspecting a Mummy(14)) found from gravesites at Loulan have become important materials for learning about the people and their lives. Hedin described the mummies(15) found there, such as "The Princess of Lou-lan" and "The Noble Lady of the Desert" were found wearing colorful silk garments telling of the bygone glory of a city that had once prospered from its position on the Silk Road.

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“The face of the princess had become as hard as parchment, but her features and expressions remained as it were despite the long gone years. She lay with her eyes shut, and her eyes, under her eyelids, seemed to have slightly sunk. The princess had a smile, never having disappeared over the several thousand years. Her smile enhances her appeal as the mysterious princess, and moves peoples’ hearts…… " The Princess of Lou-lan" was awakened from her 2000-year sleep, and once again was dozing under the starlight." (from The Wandering Lake)

Since that time, 60 years has passed in which there were no new excavations around Lou-lan and even the location of the tombs that Hedin had discovered were all but forgotten. But in recent years, more Caucasian mummies were found one after another from the Ruins of Xiao He Mu (小河墓)(16)[e]), Gu Mu Gou (古墓溝), and Tie Ban He (鉄板河) gravesites. According to radiocarbon dating analysis (C14 method), the mummies can be dated to approximately 3800 years ago. In other words, Caucasian people lived in the area over a thousand years before the Lou-lan Kingdom appeared in Han history books.

Lou-lan was a place with a long history. What ethnic background did the people have and how did they live? In contrast to the mystery of the "Wandering Lake," many issues surrounding the Kingdom of Loulan remain even today shrouded in mystery.

[a] The Mongol name Lop-nōr, ‘lake of Lop’, adopted by Chinese and European cartographers for the whole complex of the terminal marshes of the Tārīm. (Serindia: Vol. 1, p. 318)
[b] Father of the term "Silk Road" . He called the East-West transportation route via Central Asia "Seidenstraßen" , meaning "the silk route" in German. The Silk Road is an English translation of the word.
[c] It was called Kruk Dalia meaning "dried-up river" , but after water began to flow, it became to be called Kum Dalia (river of sand).
[d] Lop Nor existed for a period of time after. However, sources such as satellite images have proved that it gradually became smaller and disappeared around 1972. It is thought that the drought caused by climate change at the Tarim Basin and irrigation at the upper Tarim River has caused the disappearance.
[e] T The graves found by archaeologist Forke Bergman in 1934, while he was apart from the main party of Hedin’s expedition. Since Oerdek led the way, the area was named "Necropole (town of the dead) of Oerdek" . It was rediscovered in 2000 by The Archaeology Institute of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and excavation and research began in 2003. It is located about 100 kilometers west into the desert from Lou-lan, and nearly 1000 mummies are believed to be left.

To Learn More

English Edition : 2007-09-18
English Revised Edition : 2010-04-14
Japanese Edition : 2005-07-29
Author : Makiko Onishi, Asanobu Kitamoto
Translator : Motoko Endo ; English adaptation by Leanne Ogasawara

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