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Finding his station in life

By Wang Ru, Zou Hong in Bayingolin Mongol autonomous prefecture, and Mao Weihua in Urumqi, Xinjiang | China Daily | Updated: 2023-10-23 06:03
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A member of the Loulan cultural relics protection station patrols the site of Loulan ancient city in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in July. [Photo by Zou Hong/China Daily]

Even in the world today, some people still live an isolated life. Far away from crowds, with no cellphone reception or access to the internet, they are cut off from the rest of the world, left guarding time-honored cultural remains in a harsh environment.

The living conditions, however, have improved a lot compared to 25 years ago, when Jiao Yingxin, former head of the cultural heritage administration in Ruoqiang county, Bayingolin Mongol autonomous prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, began protecting the site of Loulan, an ancient city on the Silk Road.

Over the years, Jiao devoted himself to protecting cultural heritage in Lop Nur, the site of a former salt lake in Ruoqiang. The harsh environment, extreme solitude, and his family's misgivings did not hinder him, and his perseverance helped him build a deep bond with the places he guarded for decades.

With scorching summers, freezing winters, extreme droughts and sandstorms, few people set foot on Lop Nur, making it a famous, but unpopulated, area. However, it is home to many historical and cultural remains, since it was once a stop along the ancient Silk Road.

Historical records show that, before the 2nd century BC, Loulan was already famous in Xiyu (the western regions, a term to describe today's Xinjiang and Central Asia in ancient times), and it collapsed in about the 5th century. In 1900, Swedish explorer Sven Hedin discovered the site of Loulan, which covers an area of 120,000 square meters, according to Jiao.

In the 1990s, with the discovery of a number of mummified corpses, many grave robbers sought to steal cultural relics. To stop these illegal activities, a Loulan cultural relics protection station was built in 1998, although at the beginning, staff lived in tents or diwozi, shelters dug into the ground and covered with a straw roof above ground level. In 2003, it was turned into a long-term station.

The main work for station staff is to patrol the area they are responsible for, stop any illegal activities they discover, and check the condition of the cultural remains. Jiao has plenty of experience in the fight against relic theft, though in recent years, it has almost disappeared. While few and far between, it is unauthorized visits from curious travelers that cause the most harm these days.

"Since the site is so big, with many historical remains, casual visits by people can be a problem," explains Jiao, who adds that Lop Nur is also dangerous for inexperienced visitors, with frequent sandstorms that can make it easy to get lost.

At first, Jiao and his colleagues completed their patrols on foot, but now motorbikes have become the main source of transportation for them.

"With just a bottle of drinking water and one nang (Xinjiang-style bread), I could walk for 70 kilometers in Lop Nur. When it was scorching and I had to rest, it was difficult to find shade from trees or plants. I had to find a yardang (a sharp-crested ridge carved by wind) and rest in its cracks," recalls Jiao.

Even today, when the road has been built, it takes six hours by car to travel from downtown Ruoqiang to the station. In the past, it took several days.

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