36 SARÎKOL AND THE ROUTE TO KÄSHGAR [Chap. II
In a previous section I have already explained the topographical facts which make the
vicinity of Tâsh-kurghân the political centre of the Sarikol region, and the natural meeting place for all the routes from the Tarim Basin to the Upper Oxus. In the fertile riverine flat to which the bottom of the main Sarikol valley widens out just before the river takes its sharp turn to the east and enters the narrow gorge of Shindi, there is no position offering greater advantages for a settlement, capable of defence and yet easily accessible, than the site of Tâsh-kurghân. It occupies a narrow but well-defined plateau of conglomerate cliffs rising immediately above the broad bed of the river and at the extreme eastern edge of a fertile plain, from three to four miles broad, which spreads from the foot of the high range westwards. The numerous irrigation canals fed by the Shingun river, which comes down from the Naiza-cash Pass and debouches here into the valley, render this plain the most cultivated part of Sarikol. It is probable that the silt brought down by these canals has helped to reduce not inconsiderably the difference in level between the site of Tâsh-kurghân town and the adjoining plain. But seen from the wide expanse of meadow land to the east and south over which the river spreads itself in numerous branches, the commanding position of the plateau is fully realized ; the rise of its steep banks to a height of about a hundred feet suffices to render the walls that crown them a conspicuous object from afar.
The area enclosed by these walls, as seen in the plan (Plate X I X), may be thoroughly described
as an irregular quadrangle, having a circumference of about one mile. It comprises the highest portion of the plateau, being separated from its continuations both to south and north by shallow depressions, in which the drainage of the plain behind finds its way towards the river. A small portion of this area, on the east side facing the river, is occupied by the modern Chinese fort visible in Fig. i o. With the exception of the portion where its high and carefully plastered walls of sun-dried bricks hide the earlier foundations, the edge of the plateau shows everywhere the remains of massive stone walls now crumbling to ruin (see Fig. 9). Only unhewn stones of varying size seem to have been used in their construction. Large blocks are to be found, particularly in the foundations ; these, however, owing to the quantity of débris encumbering the slopes, are traceable only at a few points. The walls are best preserved on the north and west faces ; elsewhere they show wide gaps, attributed to a severe earthquake which is said to have occurred some thirty years before my visit.
The interior of the circumvallated area is strewn with the crumbling remains of houses,
found particularly thick towards the south side. These rubble-built dwellings were tenanted as long as the risk of raids from Hunza made it impossible for the scanty colonies of cultivators to live near their fields. Since peace has come to Sarikol and the present fort of Tash-kurghân was occupied by the Chinese, in 1892, new villages have sprung up near all the cultivated places, and the stronghold has become deserted. When the earthquake of 1895 shook down most of the dwellings there was no need to rebuild them.
The walls of the town had already suffered by earlier earthquakes, and from general decay, which continued unchecked during the disturbed conditions prevailing throughout Sarikol for some time previous to Yaqûb Beg's rebellion, and again after its collapse is. Rebuilt undoubtedly again and again after successive periods of neglect, and always of unhewn stone, the walls now in ruins cannot afford any distinct criterion of age. But the high mounds of débris over which the extant walls rise, in some places to a height of over twenty-five feet, plainly indicate that these fortifications mark the lines of far more ancient ones.