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The Tarim Basin

Tarim Lake was a salty lake which once covered more than 10,000 square kilometers (3,900 sq mi) in a dry region of Xinjiang, China.  The Lake was formed because the Tarim River and the Shule River both emptied into an endorheic basin–a landlocked area which prevents the outflow of any water. Since the time of the Yuan Dynasty the region has been called Lop Nur— a Mongolian name which apparently means something like “lake of many converging water sources”.  The name has become ironic: because of climate change, deforestation, and a series of ill-conceived dams, Lop Nur is now an inhospitable desert with a few small seasonal salt ponds. The region is today an arid wasteland.

Ruins of Loulan City in Xinjiang

Lop Nur boasts a complex history stretching back to before the Bronze Age and the region has been the site of a number of fascinating but mysterious archaeological finds. A number of exceptionally preserved mummies (known as the Tarim mummies) which date from 1900 BC to 200 BC intrigue scholars because of their Caucasian features and DNA. These inhabitants of the Tarim Basin probably spoke Tocharian, the eastern-most known Indo-European language.  As history ebbed and flowed, the Tarim/Tocharian people became mixed with Uighurs, Kazaks, Kyrgyzs, and Han Chinese to form a vibrant culture.

A Tarim Mummy The mummy of a young woman nicknamed "The Beauty of Xiaohu", dating from about 1500-1800 BC

Lop Nur is thus the site of one of the great lost cities from Chinese history. During the time of the Han Dynasty, a large oasis town now known as the Loulan Ancient City flourished by the lake and grew rich from its position along the Silk Road.  But in the 7th century, due to a changing climate, the Loulan Ancient City vanished entirely destroyed by desertification, sandstorms, and other factors.   It is believed that the deforestation of the swampy poplar forests around the lake may have been an important factor contributing to the swift decline.  The region holds on to its treasures fiercely.  Numerous archaeologists and treasure hunters have been killed by the dunes, quicksands, and flash floods of the desert including noted archaelogist Peng Jiamu, who disappeared in 1980, and the explorer Yu Chunshun, who died there in 1996.  Because of its desolation and danger Lop Nar is also called the forbidden zone.

Satellite photo of Tarim Basin

There are other even more compelling reasons that the region has that name. The Red army uses parts of the desolate and unpopulated evaporite wasteland as a testing ground (much in the manner the US Defence department makes use of certain desert regions Nevada).  In 1964, Lop Nur was the site of the first successful thermonuclear fission test by the Peoples Republic of China, a project which was blandly codenamed “596”. Three years later in an exercise known as “Project Number 6” the Chinese military successfully tested a hydrogen bomb at the site thereby simultaneously demonstrating their power, scientific aplomb, and ability to craft boring secret names.

A Photo of Project 6 a hydrogen bomb detonated in the air at an altitude of 2960 meters (9549 feet)

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