tein’s explorations have been detailed in works such as “The Ruins of Desert Cathay,” and “The Sand Buried Ruins of Khotan.” I made great pains to find
these old and now out of print books, some complete sets now selling for as much as $25,000 for original first run printings of the five volume set where Stein recounted his three expeditions from 1900 to 1913.
Sadly, he did not survive his fourth attempt, but his work led to tremendous discoveries of ancient stupas, shrines, scrolls, pottery, sculptings and other artifacts
of the people who lived, traded and died along the Silk Road. I found myself transfixed with interest as I read his work, and oh…the maps! His third expedition yielded the most lovingly
detailed maps I have ever found of the region. I have spent many hours with them, wandering along the ancient tracks of the desert in my mind.
Then, in June of the year 2000, the faces of people and images of places I had studied just
seemed to leap into focus for me, and a story emerged from my unconscious that simply had to be given tangible form. I can remember waking from dreams where I saw the characters in my
mind’s eye, heard them speaking and bore witness their struggles. So one afternoon I shut away the world, put my fingertip on an empty spot on the map, and started writing. I entered that
timeless quarter that all writers know where the hours just seemed to fly by. Over the next few months I bent myself to the project with tireless energy. As the story unfolded, it demanded
more and more research into the languages, cultural traditions, currency, religion, trade practices, clothing, warfare and even the camels that brought the Silk Road to life. This information began
to infuse itself into my writing, until I realized I was deep into the process of creating a serious historical novel, enjoying the work immensely.
The story is a narrative that has a bit of the heroic quest in it, a la Tolkien, while being very
character centered like James Clavell’s “Shogun.” If you like either of these authors, you may
find Taklamakan very enjoyable reading. The book is structured in a series of relatively brief “scenes” rather than longer chapters. I believe that this has the effect of pulling the reader along
in the story and helps to keep the plot moving.
While the people in this story are my own fictional creations, the places are very real. My maps
now told me the finest of details: where the sand dunes drifted, where the rivers flowed gathering into salt marshes fringed by twisted remnants of tamarisk and toghrak poplars—where
each and every hamlet and village scratched out a living on the edge, and at times in the very heart, of the desert. They were all returning to life now in my story, where segments of the
dialogue were actually based on fragments of translated scrolls and old Tibetan woods unearthed during Stein’s expeditions.
This, then, is the story that emerged ….
“Taklamakan—The Land of No Return.”
- John Schettler
Read sample scenes from the novel.