Who by Fire8 min read

Erica X Eisen visits China’s Western edge


Of Suoyang City only ruins remain: the scattered remnants of an imperial garrison town in the Gobi Desert that once fended off the advancing armies of Genghis Khan. Early in its history, the westering forces of Xue Rengui were besieged there; the general’s soldiers, depleted and half-starved, kept themselves alive by rooting in the sand for a parasitic purple-brown fungi that thrives in the arid region. When the siege was lifted, the men renamed the city after the only thing that had sustained them.

We– I, my fellow students, and our professors – had taken an overnight train from Lanzhou to research the conservation of Gansu Province’s Silk Road sites. There, where trading routes had twisted their way centuries before, merchants going and returning had enriched the local monastic communities with propitiatory offerings for journeys both complete and yet to come; the cliffs near oasis towns grew thick with richly decorated monastic cells and prayer halls, a testament to the wealth that changed hands along the way. But when viable sea routes to Asia from Europe were discovered, overland trade slackened, and watering holes dried up as the deserts shifted; by the time the first Western archaeologists arrived at the now-celebrated Mogao Caves outside of Dunhuang in 1907, the site’s sole occupant was a Daoist priest. Sand had filled a number of the abandoned grottoes, wearing away at the delicate murals like a file.

This was what had brought us to Gansu and its skein of Silk Road settlements: we wanted to see not only what remained of these places but also what might remain in the years to come. Between burgeoning tourism and floods borne of climate change, the present weighs heavily on these sites, so long preserved by their isolation. At Suoyang, we walked among the ruins on special plank paths laid down for visitors: here was a mass of windworn mudbrick, there the drum-shaped base of a stupa. Yet by and large the traces of the city blended so well with the landscape as to be indistinguishable one from the other. Suoyang City is not in local geographic databases; it is a place so thoroughly reclaimed by the land that humans have almost entirely relinquished their hold on it.

“Between burgeoning tourism and floods borne of climate change, the present weighs heavily on these sites, so long preserved by their isolation”

This past December, as wildfires raged across the southern half of California, I found myself forced to imagine what it would be like if my hometown were eradicated completely. It wasn’t the spectacle of destruction itself – the acrid reek of smoke, the lashes of flame – that captured my imagination as much as its cold consequence, and though the idea was terrible I willed myself to prosecute my thinking to its endpoint: the nothingness, the vast nothingness, and how it would feel to know that every trace and fiber of my childhood and adolescence had been razed to the ground beneath my feet.

I am not a stranger to fire. When I was nine years old, I awoke one morning to learn that a massive conflagration, among the worst ever recorded in California, was pressing at the outskirts of San Diego and threatening to burn its way to the sea. The flames never reached us, but their portents did – ash rained down for days, and when the wind was strong enough it brought charred fragments of books that could just be made out before they crumbled to dust in our hands. But I was too little to understand then, as I can now, that the pain of loss lies not only in the during but also in the after.

This line of thinking brought back to my mind the desert places of Western China that I had visited just a few months before. At the time of our trip, the blossoming tourist infrastructure – the visitor center near Suoyang; the new roads at the Yulin Caves; the tour guides at Mogao delivering information in French, English, and Japanese – had kept the  scope of human abandonment they represented at a certain remove. Given a second life as vacation destinations, these sites were difficult to see for what they were: places where human settlement had been taken up and then halted. But imagining the abandonment of my own hometown led me to realize the strangeness of visiting such places. Looked at from this angle, there is a darkness to lost cities like those that dot the Gobi Desert that pushes back against the kind of idle attention usually afforded by vacationers.

My classmates and I had gone as scholars to study what remained of these places’ history: we treated our destinations as fundamentally contained units, closed chapters that could be read from start to finish. Yet only later did it occurred to me that this was not, finally, the ruins’ message – that they are not merely of the past but also, in an essential sense, of an age to come. They are eerie because of their  potential to spread elsewhere, to the places we love and call home; they inspire unease not for what they are in themselves but for what they might mean for us. They bring us to the borderlands of human emotion; theirs is a kind of metaphysical leprosy, to be belled and contained and ultimately set aside. They are futurescapes, of this world but not of this time, beckoning like a mirror that returns an image of our face but aged, wrinkled, crumbling into dust.

“Given a second life as vacation destinations, these sites were difficult to see for what they were: places where human settlement had been taken up and then halted”

The changing tides of economic fortune and the ravages of wartime, of course, have long forced humans to leave their homes in search of a safer elsewhere. Ecological catastrophes have had their part to play in other regions, as well: many of the pueblos that once dotted the canyons of the American Southwest, for instance, were brought low when the drying-up of precious water sources made continued existence impossible. But absent an almost unimaginable shift in government policy, the coming decades will see, by fire or by flood, the mass reordering and evacuation of cities on an unprecedented scale. And where other types of disaster yet brook the possibility of reversal – a city block, however bombed out, can be cleared of rubble and rebuilt – environmental disaster engenders, by its completeness and its irreversibility, the extirpation of hope. To be forced from a place by the sea or the sand is to join the community of permanent exiles who can have no prospect for return.

To enter a deserted city, to be in the desert, is to come face to face with the vast indifference of nature towards human existence. But to falsely equate the end of humanity with the end of the world is to show ourselves still captive to the same idea of anthropocentrism upon which our current disaster is based. Perhaps what these places offer us is nothing more or less than this: the opportunity to realize the limits of our imagination when it comes to visualizing a place beyond ourselves.

Yet we must acknowledge that deserts are, to some degree, constructs of the mind: to those who can find plenitude in little, to people of the desert, such places are marked perhaps less by their emptinesses than by the bursts of abundance which they yet allow. I myself am from the desert: I remember California’s January rains that lashed down for days at a stretch like the wrath of a terrible god, and I remember the blooms that came after, when the mule-colored hills awoke to startling life in greens, yellows, pinks, with the joyful radiance of a painted bride.

At the border wastes of Dunhuang, the sands give way to an endless ashen burial plain where graves are marked with long vertical epitaphs or else mounded over, the sand weighted down by bricks. Some burials are recent, some very ancient indeed; to enter those tombs which have been excavated for visitors, one must climb down into the earth before reaching the cool central chamber within. Descending, I saw decorative masonry and paintings of auspicious animals and heavenly beings. There would have been bodies here once, I thought, and offerings to bear them to the afterlife, and funerary rites that thronged the graveyard with people in the vestiture of grief. But all of that is quite remote now: the feverish life that coalesces even around mourning is gone, and the elements have claimed this place for their own. As I took one last look over the sterile-seeming plain before entering the tomb, it occurred to me that never before had I been to a place that seemed so hostile to the notion of life itself, that set its teeth against it. Yet meanwhile, not far off, in the sand and the scrubgrowth, animals native to this country – for whom my existence, whether I emerged from the tomb or not, was ultimately of little consequence – hurried about their business, gave me not a thought, and went quietly on. ∎


All images courtesy of the author.