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The Hexi Corridor, or Gansu Corridor, is part of the Northern Silk Road and a historical route stretching 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) along oases wedged in the desert sands. One of these oases is Crescent Spring, or Wowa Pond, at the foot of Mingsha (‘Echoing-sand’) Mountain. The Singing Sand Dunes surrounding the crescent-shaped pool are mentioned in the Shiji or Records of the Grand Historian Sima Qian who describes the sound as listening to music on a day with fine weather. According to legend, Emperor Wu (157 – 87 BC) of the Han dynasty obtained a heavenly horse at Wogui Pool which was associated with Crescent Spring by his descendants and commemorated with a stone bearing an inscription at the site.

© Rick Wang / Shutterstock

This covered earthenware jar dates to the second or first century BC and was used as a mortuary vessel. It depicts, amongst other things, a blue beast which represents the star Sirius, better known as the Heavenly

Wolf in China. T’ien Lang, the Celestial Jackal, governed the realm of thievery and looting, and can be seen lunging at a mounted archer with bow and arrow who represents China. The Heavenly Wolf was associated with the Xiongnu tribes with whom the Han people warred. A shift in the star’s position was seen as a sign that battle was coming. © Metropolitan Museum of Art

I saw there a stick of bamboo and some cloth [from Sichuan, China]. When I asked … how they had obtained possession of these, they replied: ‘The inhabitants of our country buy them in Shendu [India].’” Now Zhang could return with something in hand that might offset the failure of his main task. Carrying this seed of a lucrative trade network, Zhang, Ganfu, and perhaps some others departed in 127, this time opting for the southern route rather than the northern. Yet he met the same fate: around the salt lake of Lop Nor, he again became a Xiongnu prisoner. Incredibly, the following year in the chaos of the Xiongnu overlord’s death, Zhang slipped away. In 126, Zhang and Ganfu reached Chang’an and ended their odyssey. “When Zhang Qian started on his journey,” wrote Sima Qian, “his caravan consisted of more than a hundred men; thirteen years later, only two lived to return.” Ordinarily, relating his inability to recruit allies would earn reprimands, or worse, from the court, but Zhang’s report on his travels, based on his experiences and those of delegates he dispatched elsewhere, curried imperial favor, as it offered an alluring vision to Emperor Wu.

“The Son of Heaven … reasoned thus: Dayuan and the possessions of Daxia and

Anxi [Parthia] are large countries, full of rare things, with a population living in fixed abodes and given to occupations somewhat identical with those of the Chinese people, but with weak armies, and placing great value on the rich produce of China.” News of the heretofore unknown urbanized trade centers must have thunderstruck the Chinese court and encouraged the mercantile class to rub its hands together in glee. Zhang gained renown and the emperor’s ear, yet his fortunes remained unsteady. He proposed an expedition to India via Sichuan, but this failed. With the Han-Xiongnu War raging since 133, Zhang joined a military campaign in 123, distinguishing himself with his local knowledge by guiding the army’s horses to pasturage; for this he was ennobled as a marquis. Yet his fortune turned again: in a later campaign, the high-ranking Zhang did not reach a battle in time to prevent defeat. Usually a capital offense, he squeaked clear by paying a penalty, losing his noble title, and accepting a reduction in rank to private.

The redemption of Zhang Qian

“Wusun may be 2000 1i northeast of Dayuan. Of archers they have several tens of thousands, all daring warriors. For-

Ancient History 22 12

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