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  Journeys on the Silk Road  

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Aurel Stein

Aurel Stein in Lahore, circa 1900. Image from Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Aurel Stein in Lahore, circa 1900.
Image courtesy Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Aurel Stein was a British-Hungarian explorer whose travels through Turkestan — now far western China — led him to the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, near Dunhuang. Accompanied by his fox terrier, Dash, he embarked on a two-year journey to Central Asia in 1906.

Stein was fascinated by early encounters between East and West and the way in which culture and ideas spread. He wanted to know how Buddhism, born in the Indian Himalayas, had reached China. He was convinced that answers lay beneath the sands of the great Taklamakan Desert.

Travelling overland from India through the rugged mountains of present-day northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, he followed the route of an ancient Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, his "patron saint".

Working in searing heat and bitter cold, Stein dug his way around the Taklamakan Desert, uncovering evidence of lost Buddhist civilizations.

His ultimate goal was Dunhuang, once a thriving Silk Road oasis between the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts. For years he had dreamed of seeing a network of painted Buddhist grottoes just outside the town.

When he reached Dunhuang, Stein heard a rumor that within one of the caves a hidden library had been recently discovered. It was said to contain thousands of ancient scrolls and other objects. Among those was a printed copy of the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist teaching. The sutra was dated 868AD. It subsequently proved to be the world's oldest printed, dated book.

Stein's travels to and from the caves are at the heart of Journeys on the Silk Road.