For one reason or another, I have been reading The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable and Francesca French. In the history of exploration and enquiry into far-flung parts, it’s easy to overlook that regiment of indefatigable women – particularly Victorian - who played extraordinary roles. Perhaps the most celebrated was, of course, Gertrude Bell, whose middle-eastern exploits changed politics and history. But in China, in the first couple of decades of the last century, there were three women, Mildred, Francesca, and the latter’s sister, Eva (Evangeline), who documented the landscapes and culture of that part of the world through quite remarkable travels. Yes, they were missionaries, but they pursued their goals with linguistic skills and a deep cultural sensitivity that resulted in accounts that are distinctly and fascinatingly different from the typical travel writing of the times and have become classics. And the classic of the classics is their description of their thirteen years in the Gobi, “following trade-routes, tracing faint caravan tracks, searching out innumerable by-paths and exploring the most hidden oases. ... Five times we traversed the whole length of the desert, and in the process we had become part of its life."
The story begins as they set out from the fort at what is today called Jiayuguan, the westernmost bastion of the Great Wall. Leaving the western gate, they passed a great mound of earth whose role was to keep out the evil spirits of the desert, and a stone tablet on which were inscribed the forbidding words “Earth’s Greatest Barrier.” Following the Silk Road westwards, they stopped at isolated and insular oases – Shachow, “City of Sands,” Shamen, “Gates of Sand.” These even before they reached the Taklamakan Desert proper.
But one of the things that intrigues me is the following account from their overnight stay in Huei-huei-pu, the “Moslem Tomb Halt,” whose location today I have yet to figure out. While wandering around the village, Mildred stopped at the local shop, where
There was something different here, however, for, in addition to the dull stock of the oasis shopkeeper, this man had a variety of articles made from a fine-grained, light-grey stone which was found near at hand. These were slabs on which to rub down the hard sticks of Chinese ink, and little pots to hold water with which to moisten them. The chief demand, however, was for small pieces to be used as whetstones for knives, razors or scissors, and many a carter passing that way added a hone to his small outfit of traveller’s necessities.
Having made some purchases, Mildred sat down and chatted with the shopkeeper about this and that, but then
I turned to go, and just as I was leaving, I noticed on his counter a jar of coarse grey sand. Taking some of it in my hand, I rubbed it between my fingers testing the quality of the grains, and as I did so I felt there was something unusual about it. “What do you keep sand for?” I asked. “Is there not enough of it by the roadside?”
“This is special sand, Lady,” he said. “It comes from near here but is not found elsewhere in the Gobi.It is so heavy that the wind does not blow it about, and it is the only sand which can be used for one process in the polishing of jade.Though it is hard enough to use even on jade, yet it never scratches the surface. It is very highly valued, and jade polishers send here to get it.”
So there’s my question – does anyone have an idea as to exactly what this highly valued sand might be?