“The Mysterious Realm of Lop Nur” and “Curse of Kanas Lake”: Xinjiang’s Answer to Tibetan Fiction Fever?

The phenomenal success of He Ma’s The Tibet Code (《藏地密码》, 何马著)—reportedly over 3m volumes sold—has罗布泊秘境 spawned a host of thrillers and mysteries driven by a similar fascination with Tibetan history, religion and relics. The popular 3-volume Tibetan Mastiff (藏獒) by Yang Zhijun (杨治军), now an animated film co-produced by a Sino-Japanese partnership, is just one example.

But Tibet is certainly not the only area of the People’s Republic rich in non-Han culture and history with strong
potential for such fiction. Two novels by former journalist Jueluo Kanglin (觉罗康林), including the newly launched 罗布泊秘境 (literally, The Mysterious Realm of Lop Nur), are bound to raise Xinjiang’s profile among aficionados of the “exploration thriller” genre.

As a site engendering curiosity and even fascination, Lop Nur’s credentials are impeccable and ancient: archaeologists unearthed the (controversial) Tarim mummies along the lake (Lop Nur means “Lop lake”); explorers such as Marco Polo, Ferdinand von Richthofen, Nikolai Przhevalsky, Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein all set foot in the area; and more recently, Chinese scientist Peng Jiamu disappeared there (1980), and Chinese explorer Yu Chunshun died trying to walk across Lop Nur (1996).

In a recent interview about his new novel (锡伯族作家), Jueluo Kanglin mentioned several international explorers and others such as Japan’s Zuicho Tachibana and France’s Pierre Gabriel Édouard Bonvalot, but the author did not detail which aspects of the Lop Nur “legend” he delves into in his novel.

Unlike He Ma and Yang Zhijun who are Han writing about Tibet, Jueluo Kanglin, the author of The Mysterious Realm of Lop Nur and Curse of Kanas Lake, is a member of the Xibe ethnicity born in Xinjiang’s Yili, and reportedly speaks Xibe as well as several Turkic languages, including Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz.

The Xibe’s roots lie in the Nonni and Songhua river valleys in central Manchuria, but in 1764 they were garrisoned by Qing Emperor Qianlong in newly conquered areas of then eastern Turkestan (today’s Xinjiang) to guard the new border. The Xibe spoke a Tungusic tongue which is a dialect of Manchu, and it is still a living if endangered language (see Language of Exile).

Curse of Kanas Lake (喀纳斯湖咒), published in 2012, highlights legends of the Tuvan people surrounding this beautiful lake (now a preserve) which is located in Altay Prefecture where Xinjiang borders on Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia.

The tale takes place in modern Kanas. A petroglyph uncovered by a flood is taken away by an anthropologist—ostensibly for research—but eventually treated as a money-making oddity that is exhibited in a museum. But the local elders are very disturbed by this, and the Shamaness believes that the slab is inhabited by the spirit of an ancient folk hero. Removing the stone slab from its natural environment disturbs the natural order of things, and presages a series of disasters.

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