INTRODUCTION - Sample Chapters Here

 For as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination for maps—pouring over them, (as in pouring a lot of tea while I study them), drawing them, hanging them on my walls. Somehow the discovery of a new map sets my imagination to wandering over the landforms and tracing curious pathways along unknown roads and rivers. A good visit with a map has always been a way to go someplace I have never been, and I have often  gone to great pains to find more and more detailed maps once there, to fill in blank spaces in my view of the world and tell me tales of far away places.

This story grew from one of my typical evening sessions with an atlas! While squinting at  the heart of Central Asia one day, I was suddenly struck by the vast empty quarter of the Tarim Basin, which is now in NW China and is sometimes vaguely labeled “Autonomous Regions.” The basin forms a deep thumbprint on the “Roof of the World” and is bordered by the Tien-Shan Mountains to the North, Pamirs to the west, and the Kunlun and Altun Shan ranges to the south. At the heart of the basin is one of the most desolate and rigorous desert environments on earth, the Taklamakan.  I could recall being curiously drawn to it, staring at my maps and wondering what was actually there. What would it be like to stand among high drifts of sand dunes in a place that has been feared and avoided throughout all of human history?

A kind of synchronicity soon developed in my life, and I found that my interest was tuning me in to information about the region from many unexpected quarters. I encountered TV documentaries chronicling the find of ancient mummies in the desert. I found myself using the wonder of the Internet to download high-resolution satellite photos of the area, and put a picture in my mind’s eye, sketching out the empty hole that the great Taklamakan represented on most of my maps. The closer I looked at my maps, the more I came to find that there were human footprints all through this desolate and empty region! Small settlements still existed on the fringes of the desert, and I learned that in centuries past they had been major trading centers along the famous “Silk Road.”

Way leads on to way, as the poet says, and I soon began to look for information about the people and cultures that flourished on the edge of this great empty desert. I became interested in their daily lives and struggles. It was not long before I realized that I could not have been the first person to have such an interest. My research soon led me to a man who had spent the latter part of his life exploring the region, unearthing many of the remarkable relics and ruins of ancient civilizations that have long since been buried beneath the shifting sands of the Taklamakan. His name was Dr. Aurel Stein, a Hungarian born archeologist, who worked in the service of the British Empire nearly a hundred years ago.

S 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.