LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: Dead Cities of the Desert

Location can be a very important thing to a given story. Set it in a city, and you have a vast array of interesting things to do. A chance meeting at the museum, a shady encounter at the harbor front, an important business deal at an office firm—sometimes once you’ve picked a location, the story can unfold from there. So this new feature of the blog will be all about exploring particular locations from myth and legend, places both real and imaginary, to see what sort of story ideas might be lurking about.

For the first installment, let’s talk about the Taklamakan desert:


Seen here from orbit, the Taklamakan Desert is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. On three sides it is bordered by mountains, some of the tallest in the world, with the Kunlun Mountains to the south (themselves named after a quasi-mythical place) forming the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, which eventually rises up into the mighty Himalayas. To the east is the Gobi Desert, but the Gobi is much less harsh, if only because water is much easier to find there.

The Taklamakan itself is a long oval of shifting sands, more like dust then the sand you’d find at the beach. It’s very difficult to walk across the dunes, since you sink up to your knees or because the sand slithers away from under your feet. The ancient Silk Road split in two at the edge of the Taklamakan, right where it meets the Gobi, and went around the desert, along the mountain foothills to the north or south. There are ancient trade routes that cut right through the heart of the Sahara in North Africa, but not in the Taklamakan. Even the name is ominous. It’s Turkish in origin, though the precise etymology is disputed.  Popular legend claims “takla makan” means “if you go in, you will not come out.” Other proposed meanings are equally dire.

The western and southern edges of the desert were once much more friendly to human civilization; rivers fed by rain and meltwater from the surrounding mountains would form oases, and mercantile towns or even cities would spring up around them. However, these mountain rivers had a tendency to shift over the centuries. A thriving oasis that had existed for decades could suddenly dry up in a few months. This feature, combined with the kara-buran (“black hurricane”), a particularly violent form of sandstorm common to the region, turned the Taklamakan into an eater of cities.

The ruins are still out there, preserved by the incredibly dry climate. Many of them are buried, but here and there old weathered beams of wood jut out of the sand like the bleached ribs of some vast skeleton. In the 1800s, when European explorers were sweeping through Asia, these dead cities were a big attraction and many were looted for their artifacts. Of course, some un-plundered ones might still be out there, buried and inaccessible.

With such a reputation, the Taklamakan has naturally bred a number of legends. Both Marco Polo and the legendary Chinese traveler Xuanzang relate the stories of disembodied voices drifting across the desert. It was believed that spirits and demons made their home out on the sands, and they were always trying to lure caravans from the edge into the depths. Indeed, sometimes they were supposed to appear as phantom caravans themselves, so that a lost wayfarer might fall in with them or follow them, thinking himself saved, only to be led further and further away from help.

Given all the cities consumed by moving rivers and massive sandstorms, stories of how some of them were consumed for their sins, Sodom and Gomorrah style, are common to the region. One of my favorites describes it very poetically, saying it was as if the sky was raining dirt. Each raindrop was a single grain of soil, and it poured from the heavens, filling the streets, burying the city so fast not a soul could escape. When the storm abated, there was just a great hill in its place. While the Europeans raided many such ruins in the 1800s, they had to overcome local taboos to get help from guides and workers, as these ruins were thought to be the dwelling places of all the aforementioned spirits and demons.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better exotic location for fiction than the Taklamakan, really. Like I said before, location can sometimes generate the story. Once you’ve picked a place like the Taklamakan, the ideas can seem to just pour in. You could tell the tale of a man searching for lost treasures, or of a merchant crossing an inhospitable land to reach a distant goal on the far side, or of the last days of a doomed nation. Plus, one of the nice things about legends associated with an area is that, with a bit of tweaking, you can make them work almost anywhere and in any time period. How weird and frightening would it be if the “rain of earth” occurred in a place that wasn’t constantly subjected to sandstorms? Imagine if someone in London went outside, and it started raining pebbles instead of raindrops, until the Thames was choked and the only thing still visible was Big Ben sticking out of a mountain of detritus.


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