Rai Bahadur Lal Singh ~ an Expedition

Taklamakan continues to call me and I patiently await the day I will be able to follow the footsteps of Rai Bahadur Lal ...

Rai Bahadur Lal Singh

Amardeep Singh

Jan 6, 2014: At a time when the “Great Game” was being played in Central Asia between the political powers of Britain, France and Russia, it was Sir Aurel Stein (1862 – 1943), a Hungarian adventurer, who led an expedition into the Taklamakan desert (present day Xinjiang, Uyghur Autonomus Region of China). Prior to this it was believed that entry into the Taklamakan was a one way road. Enter at your own risk and don’t expect to return. Rai Bahadur Lal Singh (1860 – 1930), a Sikh cartographer accompanied Aurel Stein as his key confidant in the expedition to set out to confirm the theories about the rich past of the Silk Road (connecting China with Central Asia). Rai Bahadur Lal Singh’s motivation in this expedition was to map the remote Taklamakan territories.

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The expedition was successful in discovering many Buddhist paintings and sculptures. Amongst these were the 100 wooden tablets of 105BC, written in ancient Indian script bearing Indian seals. The most noteworthy discovery was “The Caves of a Thousand Buddhas at Dunhuamg”. The artifacts were contributed to the Britsih Museum and later split across the museums in Britain, India and Hungary.

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Sir Aurel Stein's Taklamakan expedition

The Chinese government views Aurel Stein’s expedition as a loot journey by a foreign devil, robbing the history of the Taklamakan region. But one may argue that the artifacts lying in museums across the world survived destruction at the time of the Chinese cultural revolution.

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Aurel Stein is recognized in photos clicked during the Taklamakan expedition, always with his dog, named Dash. In his team of explorers one would generally find two turbaned Sikhs. One of them being Rai Bahadur Lal Singh.

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There can be no doubt of Sir Aurel Stein’s high regard for Rai Bahadur Lal Singh. There was clearly an appreciation of his professional and technical capabilities. Stein himself had studied cartography as part of his military training in Budapest, and liked to think in terms of ‘archaeological reconnaissance’. But this was not the only thing they had in common. They were roughly the same age (Lal Singh was born in 1860, Stein in 1862) and they seem to have shared an appreciation of certain human qualities: of independence, self-reliance, resilience and a respect for and understanding of the physical world around them. While it is clear that they enjoyed the company of others (and that others enjoyed their company), they also welcomed a certain amount of solitude away from others. Stein had very fond memories of working with Rai Bahadur Lal Singh, and it would seem that the sentiments were mutual. On 11 August 1930, when Stein set out from Srinagar, he wrote in his notes: “Started from Macphersons at 3 p.m. down Chinar Bagh Canal, after farewell to dear old Lal Singh whose visits had been daily”.

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During my extensive travel in Tibet, a drive over two weeks, with my elder daughter (Tarni Kaur) from Lhasa to the remote western region of Indo-Tibet border at Guge Kingdom, many a times we wished we had more time at hand to extend the drive via Kashgar and enter the Taklamakan desert, leading to Urumqi. We could not make it to the Taklamkan but in photos below is the road we traveled at 15,000 feet, close to Sheeshapangma mountain, that would have led us to Kashgar and Urumqi.

Click photos below and scroll to view the photo series in slide show. These are the photos I clicked of the road leading to Kashgar from Lhasa, near Sheeshapangma mountain.

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Today, travel to remote areas of the Taklamakan is made easy with the development of a high altitude road but imagine the time Sir Aurel Stein and Rai Bahadur Lal Singh travelled these areas on foot, accompanied with their Bactrian (double hump back) camels.

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Taklamakan continues to call me and I patiently await the day I will be able to follow the footsteps of Rai Bahadur Lal Singh, reliving the life of this adventurous cartographer.


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