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Geography of the Tarim Basin

THE TARIM BASIN designates a major river and great basin located in the Uighur Autonomous Region of Sinkiang of extreme northwestern China, north of the Tibetan Plateau. Tarim also connotes the bank of a river that flows into a lake or that becomes indistinguishable from desert sands. The basin occupies nearly 1 half of Sinkiang and is encircled by the Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains) to the north, the Pamir Mountains on the west, and the Kunlun Mountains in the south. It is 850 mile (13,687 kilometer) east to west and nearly 350 mile (564 kilometer) north to south. The Tarim Basin is also known T’a-li-mu Ho (Wade-Giles Romanization), Tarim He (Pinyin), and Dayan (Mandarin). The basin comprises 215,000 square mile (557,000 square kilometer), has a central desert with scattered, isolated oases along the rim, and lies at an elevation of 2,500 foot (760 meter) above mean sea level in the east, rising to 4,000 foot (1,220 meter) in the west. The central desert, Takla Makan (Taklimakan, Taklamakan), covers an area of 105,000 square mile (271,950 square kilometer and includes at its eastern end the Turfan Depression 505 foot (154 meter) below sea level. The Tarim River flows along the north rim of the Takla Makan desert but constantly shifts its bed and is formed by the confluence of the K’a-shih-ka-erh (Kashgar) and Yarkand rivers to the west, then flows northeast to be joined 230 mile (370 kilometer) downstream by the A-k’o-su and the Ho-t’ien (Khotan) rivers. The Yarkand-Tarim system is 1,260 mile (2,030 kilometer) long and reaches Lop Nor, a saline lake bed, at the eastern end of the basin and drains intermittently into Lake T’ai-t’e-ma (Taitema) 100 mile (161 kilometer) southwest of Lop Nor. The Lower Tarim Basin, an arid plain composed of alluvium and lake sediments, is the driest region of Eurasia. Archaeological evidence documents that the basin was a part of the Silk Road and that people thrived there from 1800 Before Common Era to 500 C.E. Especially intriguing are the mummified remains of many Caucasoids and Mongoloids. The Tarim became a barrier to Chinese expansion west and Arab expansion eastward. The contemporary local population numbers 5.5 million and is composed of Uighur Muslims (84 percent), Han Chinese (12.5 percent), Kirgiz, Mongols, and Kazaks. The largest city is Kashgar (Kashi) located in the west and the capital is at Wu-lu-mu-ch’i.
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