Saving old to promote the new

WANG Jianxin knows the ancient Silk Road like the back of his hand. He has visited hundreds of sites along the routes in the past 20 years and believes he is almost ready to lay bare the secrets of the Greater Yuezhi, an ancient nomadic kingdom.

Wang, 64, is a professor at the Northwest University of China in Xi’an, capital of the country during the peak years of the Silk Road’s glories. He specializes in the corridor of territory which stretches from the city then known as Chang’an to Central Asia, home to many minority ethnic groups that have since vanished.

The disappearance of the Greater Yuezhi people has been a mystery to historians, anthropologists and linguists for many years, he says.

The ancient nomads were a branch split from the Yuezhi people who were first reported in Chinese histories living in the west of the modern Chinese province of Gansu. An answer to the mystery of their whereabouts is also about the ethnic origin and composition in Central Asian countries.

Wang found the ruins of the Greater Yuezhi’s royal palace and tombs and some community sites, one of China’s 10 most important archeological finds in 2007, but he was shocked when he first visited Central Asia in 2009.

“You should have come earlier! Why do you Chinese archeologists come to join us so late?” an Uzbek archeologist asked him. Archeologists (and treasure hunters) from all over the world had flocked to Central Asia for archeological or art purposes since the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

So, in 2013, in the arid wilderness on the border of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, he set up his research base and began working with Uzbek colleagues. They have found a large tomb believed to belong to the royal family of the Kangju Kingdom in southern Uzbekistan.

Amriddin, director of Institution of Archeology under the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan, is optimistic about cooperation with China. Chinese archeologists know the importance of protecting sites after excavation, and their methodology should be promoted, he says. But despite substantial international acclaim for his work, Wang has endured plenty of difficulties in his search for final destiny of the Greater Yuezhi.

Wang has trekked for hours across harsh terrain to reach inaccessible sites. He broke a rib in a traffic accident but returned to work only days later.

He and his team have been widely praised for their work in the western Tianshan Range and are leading the way in archeological cooperation along the Silk Road, says Arnayev, an Uzbek professor at Termez State University in Uzbekistan.

With looming development expected to proceed more quickly than ever, the need to protect the cultural heritage and the many unique, often fragile, environments along the Belt and Road has never been more urgent.

Wang says more overseas archeological centers and Silk Road-related archeological centers should be established to attract experts from various fields such as geology, biology and environmental planning to come up with more academic achievements to benefit the mutual learning among different civilizations.