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Jade in Khotan

Since my earliest contacts with jade, a visit to Khotan was on my agenda. This summer, having been invited by Mr. Mou (of the Liangzhu/FanShan Jades) and the Jade Culture Research Institute of Beijing to participate in a three day seminar on Jade in Hetian, I finally made it there.

This is my report to you.

1.0 A historical note

........On the 23rd of November 1900 we both [Aurel Stein and Ram Singh, his cartographer and surveyor] left Khotan. Our way was in common as far as Jamada, the village on the Yurungkash which I had passed before marching to Karanghu-tagh. I halted there for the night and received a cheerful welcome from Wang Daloi, a Chinese acquaintance of my previous visit.

For the last ten years the little Chinaman had lived there, trading in jade, which is washed from the Yurung-kash bed in the neighbourhood. He seemed to have ventured occasionally on speculative jade mining too, but fortune had never shown him favour; for my interpreter told me that he was still a long way from the sum that might take him back to Peking, apparently the life ambition of his exile.


Section of the 1903 Aurel Stein / Ram Singh map showing the Yurungkash River region south of Khotan with the villages of Jamada, the site of Tati and Chalmakazan and the Jade mining camp of Sirik-Toghrak.

I found in Wang Daloi an intelligent guide to the old sites which extend from Jamada to the south along the left river bank, and also genial company, as he talked a little Turki. Next morning I passed over the eroded old site known simply by the general designation of “Tati”, forming an area about a square mile covered with fragments of pottery, Chinese coins up to the time of the Tang dynasty are also found, but structural remains there was no trace.

Some six miles beyond we entered the region of jade-diggings. On the flat plain, from half a mile to one mile broad, which extends between the left bank of the river and a gently sloping ridge of gravels westwards, the precious stone is found among the beds of rubble deposited by the river at earlier periods. Jade is the produce that has made Khotan famous all over the east since ancient times. In China it has ever been valued more than anywhere else, and most of the information which the annals of the Celestial Empire give about old Khotan, we owe mainly to the interest attached to its jade.

It was therefore with a good deal of interest that I examined the burrows crossing the barren plain in all directions. For the first mile or two they seemed to have been deserted long ago, as sand had partially filled the great hollows. But higher up, we came upon diggings of more recent date not far from the old site known as Chalmakazan.

A vast quantity of pottery fragments, mixed here and there with bits of broken glass and slag, strews the plain for about a mile and half, from river to the foot of the ridge. In the middle of this area a low mound, covered with large stones from the river bed, attracted my notice. Its round shape suggested a Stupa, and a closer examination proved this to be true.

Unfortunately, others before me had guessed the nature of the structure, and a large trench run down into the very centre of the mound showed that “treasure-seekers” [of antiquities] had been at work. The mound in its present condition has a diameter of about ninety-eight feet, and rises about fifteen feet above the ground. From the excavation made, it could be seen that it was constructed of closely packed layers of rough stones as base, with a circular wall of similar material above it. A kind of well in the centre filled with loose earth probably contained the relic deposit.

There can be little doubt that the old settlement indicated by these remains was connected with the jade mining in the immediate neighbourhood. On the southern edge of the site jade pits are still worked.

For a mile and a half we had to thread our way between them before reaching the little miner’s camp of Sirik-Toghrak, where I pitched my tent. The pits vary greatly in size and shape. Usually, a square oblong cutting is made trough the layer of gravel and river sand. At a depth from ten feet downwards strata of rubble are reached, and in these search is made for the pieces of jade that the river once washed down.


A picture, taken by A. Stein in November 1900, showing a party of jade diggers in the jade pits near Sirik-Toghrak.

Finds of great value occur very rarely; but there is always the chance of sudden wealth, and this suffices to attract at all time “Bais” i.e. small capitalists from Khotan and other Turkestan towns. They engage parties of labourers, ten to thirty strong, from among the poorest of the agricultural class, and set them to work on a digging of proportionate size. The men receive food, clothing, and six Khotan Tangas (say two Rupees) as monthly pay. They have no share in the jade finds, but get extra rewards in case of special profits. According to Wang Daloi’s testimony, many never see any return for the money they have sunk in these mining ventures.

Yet from time to time great hits are made. A Khasgar Bai, whom I found at one of the diggings superintending his twenty men, acknowledged that during the last three years he had cleared a hundred Yambus of Silver (say Rs.13.000) worth of jade at an expense of some thirty Yambus.

Though the Chinese administration exercises no control whatsoever over the jade mining, claims” once opened are scrupulously respected by other prospectors. I saw diggings which had been left partially unexploited by other prospectors. I was assured that the right of the original workers would never be disputed. None of the diggings went to a greater depth than twenty feet from the surface; lower down, I assume, the water from the river would probably percolate and stop work. The flat deposits along the river banks for a day’s journey up the valley, up to the point where latter becomes a narrow gorge, are visited by jade-diggers. But the work is carried on only intermittently and by small parties at the various points which bear the general designation of “Kumat”. Now in the winter months only about two hundred men were engaged in mining, and even in the summer, when the privations of life in this barren region are less, the number probably is not more than doubled.

Quite distinct from this jade-mining, the ancient industry of “fishing” for jade in the river bed after the summer floods still continues all along the valley above Jamada, just described as described in the old Chinese chronicles. No capital is wanted for this kind of search; so annually for a short period it attracts a large number of the poorer agriculturists of the oasis, who look to it as a kind of lottery. Very few find their labours rewarded, but the hope of turning up a valuable piece of jade among the rubble is a strong now among the poor of Khotan at it has been for many centuries.

The Annals of the old Chinese dynasties, from Han period downwards, contain many curious data and anecdotes about the jade (“yü”) which made the little kingdom of Yü-t’ien or Khotan famous in the Celestial Empire. Abel Remusat, the Sinologist, collected and translated many of these notices in his Histoire de la Ville de Khotan (Paris 1820), and it was a satisfaction to me to read his earliest contribution to the European literature on Khotan near the very pits which furnish the precious stones so learnedly discussed in it.

From M. Aurel Stein in Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan, Personal Narrative Of A Journey of Archaeological & Geographical Exploration in Chinese Turkestan, London 1903.

2.0 In Urumqi and on the way to Khotan or the modern Hetian

Hetian, an oasis town with about 200.00 inhabitants in Hetian Prefecture (4300 sq. Km and population 1.4 million) is located at the southern edge of the Taklamakan desert in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province in western China, or East Turkestan in ancient texts, This oasis of 720 sq. Km derives its existence, at an average altitude of 1500m, from two rivers, the Yurungkash and the Karakash River, which carry the melt waters from the Kun Lun snow fields to this otherwise waterless area (less than 38mm rainfall/year !). The local population, on the southern leg of the ancient Silk Road, is of Uighur ethnicity, the largest non-Han and Islamic population group (8.5 Million) of China.

The starting point of travel to Hetian is Urumqi or Wulumuqi in Chinese, the capital of Xinjiang, and distant, as the crow flies, of about 950Km. You can choose the daily 1h45m night flight with Southern China Air or take an express bus via Luntai and Minfeng over the Taklamakan cross desert highway or travel by train to Kasghar followed by a 7h bus ride to Hetian.

Coming from Hangzhou, I stayed in Urumqi over night with the intention to catch the night flight next evening together with at least 100 other Jade experts from all over China. However Hetian airport was shut down that night just before our take off from Urumqi due to near zero visibility caused by one of the 30+ dust storms hitting the Hetian each year.


The conditions at noon during the frequent dust- and sandstorms in Xinjiang when up 16mg of dust of flourlike consistency per cubic meter of air turns the sky saffron yellow and reduces visibility to less than 50m.

Urumqi, meaning beautiful pasture in Mongol, is located in a green oasis between the lofty ice-capped 5445m Bogda Peak of the Tian Shan range, the Turpan depression in the southeast, the rolling pine-covered Southern Hills and the sand dunes of Zunggar Basin in the northwest. Urumqi is situated a an elevation of 800 meters and is, with 2 Million inhabitants, the largest city in the western half of China and the remotest city from any sea in the world at a distance of about 2500 km from the nearest coastline (The Golf of Bengali).

Urumqi and Xinjiang is booming with the two blacks and the two white riches, oil and coal the two blacks, and cotton and jade, the two whites, fuelling and embellishing the growing Chinese economy.


The modern skyline of Urumqi (43°47’ N – 87°36’ E) as seen from Huang Shan Park


Not Paris nor Seattle but Urumqi with the Tian Shan mountain range and the glaciers of the Bogda peak in the background

In Urumqi, the Great Bazaar and a multi storey building on the Folklore Street are places to visit when you already there want to explore the availability of jade from the Hetian region or from the new green jade mines of Manas in the Tian Shan’s.


Satellite view of central Urumqi with the Peoples Square (top), the City Centre (centre) and the Jade stores on Folklore street (bottom) at exactly 43°47’02.24”N-87°36’52.82”E.


The multi-storey building on Folklore Street with the jade shops and yellow and red tiles covering its front porch.

In the jade shops of the building and on the temporary stalls on the outside, you will find a large selection of white jade from Hetian. The prices are steep and be aware that what looks white and has a nice russet colored skin may not be genuine Hetian jade but sometimes another milky white rock or mountain jade shaped into “pebbles” and artificially stained so to fool also experts.

At the entrance of the building you will see several large Jade boulders waiting there patiently to find a buyer. As prices are going only up and storage costs nothing, each week revaluates the stuff.


A large green jade boulder looking for a buyer.


Window polished into above boulder to reveal its colour.


Four tons of Hetian white jade with a reddish skin (artificial?).


Here the details of the seller, written both in Chinese and Uyghur/Arabic script.


Details of the reddish skin of the 4 ton white jade boulder.


Too precious to be shown to everyone – 1.8 tons of white jade under cover and the mobile phone number of the seller.


Assortment of white river jade pebbles available in the jade shops proper.


Jade pebbles with mother rock inclusions in the shape of mountains.


Jade pebbles with mother rock inclusions mounted on wooden supports.


White jade boulders artificially stained so to give a russet coloured surface skin which enhances their value. According to the “experts” this process takes about a month and the colour is fixed indelibly and well in the jade matrix.


Many shapes, colours and sizes of white jade available from this “flying” seller. The pieces in the front rows are all oiled to enhance their sheen.


A rich deep green, oval shaped piece of possibly nephrite jade. The surface is dimpled and the body has little translucency.


Diverse stands in the Great Bazaar selling carved jade items.


White jade you can eat – The famous seedless and very sweet grapes from the Turpan oasis just in season.


Xinjiang is famous for dried fruits – Here dried apricots, nuts and at least 8 different varieties of dried raisins, are offered for inspection, tasting and sale.

3.0 Jade from the Rivers in Hetian

During my 3 day stay in Hetian I have tried to gather as much as possible information on jade coming from the Yurungkash and Karakash River.

The questions on the table where:

- What do the Karakash and Yurungkash Rivers look like

- Which river carries what jade?

- Where is the respective source of this jade?

- How is jade extracted/collected?

- How much jade is still left?

- Where to buy locally jade?


This satellite view, looking south toward India, shows the Yurungkash and Karakash Rivers flowing north through the Kun Lun range toward Hetian and then disappearing in the Taklamakan Desert. The approximate locations of mountain jade mining and river jade collection sites are indicated.


Details of a map of Xinjiang published 2005 in Hungary, with north on the top, showing the Karakash und Yurungkash River source, populated places, mountain ranges, political boundaries and roads. The red road running from 9 o’clock to the bottom centre is the Kasghar-Lhasa highway G219 and the decision for its construction was one of the triggers of the 1962 war between India and China.


Details of a map of Xinjiang published 2003 in China, with north on the top, showing the Karakash und Yurungkash River source region at 7 and 4 o’clock respectively together with populated places, political boundaries and roads.

3.1 The Karakash River and its jade

The Karakash or Black Jade River has its source at approximately 35° 1’ 16” N – 78° 45 30’E at an altitude of about 5500m on the Aksay Chin/Tibetan plateau. On the way north to Hetian and over a distance of about 490Km, it picks up the water from the snow and glacier fields of the southern slopes of the Karanghu-Tagh Mountains, an east-west chain of the Kun-Lun range and of the Sanju-Tagh snow peaks. These mountains and their glaciers, culminating a 6945m, are on of the two sources alimenting Hetian, its population and agricultural activities, with dearly needed snow melt water. The peak water flow is occurring in late summer. In its middle course it traverses the Karakash valley from Dahonglioutan in the east to Shahidulla in the west before making a sharp turn north-east through the Sanju-Tagh range toward Hetian and then emptying out into the Tarim basin.

On the way through the Karakash valley is skirts the mountain jade sites of Konakan and Karala near Gulbashen (see also Early Modern European Explorers at the Mountain Jade Quarries in the Kun Lun Mountains – FOJ 2005). According to more recent information (FOJ Bulletin IX 1996) two other mountains jade mines, the Kardaban and the Saitur mine (jade colour unknown) are located north of the Karakash in the Sanju-Tagh range which could imply that additional and still unknown sources feed or fed once the Karakash with jade. These mines are about 210Km river length from Hetian.

I have followed by car the Karakash River along its length from Hetian for about 70km to the first peaks of the Sanju-Tagh range where, since three years, a hydroelectric dam at 36°49’ 30.34”N and 79°27’03.35”E, has tamed its waters. The resulting miniature Lake Powell, including pleasure boats, is about 12Km long and up to 500m wide.


The now tamed Karakash River, from the hydroelectric dam to Hetian.


The view from the hydroelectric dam downriver. The spill water channel is to the right. The dam is at 36° 49’ 30.34”N and 79°27’03.35” E.

The overall river bed is about 1.2Km wide with agricultural activities, fruit orchards and the white poplar trees, acting as wind breaker, occupying about half of its surface. The water flow from the dam is tributary of the electricity generation needs of Hetian although during my visit in August additional water was released via a spillway into the river. The river water is clear and does not carry glacier silt as the Yurungkash does. A search for of jade pebbles in the company of another jade expert, Mrs. E. Childs-Johnson, however revealed the all pebbles where covered by a fine layer of silt. This made any identification of jade, without cleaning each pebble, nearly impossible. The silt is loess dust blown into the river from the surroundings during the dust storms.


The “blue” Karakash waters just below the dam. The first peaks of the Sanju-tagh range, with about 3000m height, are in the background. The terrace along on the barren hill in the background denotes the prehistoric river levels and exposes gravel beds.


The satellite view of above site in the same general direction. It shows the cultivated river bed and terraces outlining the prehistoric Karakash river level. The river bed is here at altitude of about 1800m.


The stands of white poplar trees and a small, new village in the Karakash River bed just northwest of Hetian. The “hills” in the background are of prehistoric river gravel through which the river has cut its new bed.


Rows of white poplar trees border each field and act as wind breaker, air humidifiers and as fast growing source of wood. Here the leaves are covered by a thin layer of dust from a previous dust storm. The haze in the air is fine dust and a typical feature of the Taklamakan desert.


The silt coating on the pebbles in the Karakash river bed makes visual identification of jade nearly impossible.


Cliffs and banks of loosely aggregated river pebbles on the left bank of the Karakash River. The cliffs are approximately 100m high.

The Karakash River is known to yield “kara” or “mo yu” black or ink (coloured) jade but the preference of the Chinese Artists and Connoisseurs for white jade made its extraction and utilization second in importance to the white jade from the nearby Yurungkash. The colour of jade mined near Shahidulla is defined as being of “…a very variable colour, from pale to somewhat darker green, approaching that of pure serpentine” by F. Stoliczka in 1874. The inspection of satellite images of the Karakash river bed from the dam down to its disappearance in the desert does reveal any digging activity comparable to that in the Yurungkash bed.

I have however been able to spot isolated pieces of black jade from the Karakash on markets. The sellers mentioned that they have been found “long time ago” (10 years) below the town of Karakash or Moyu (ink or black coloured jade) town.


Section of a Chinese map showing the localities north of Moyu town where black jade has been found in the Karakash river bed.


148Kg of dark green to black Karakash River jade (oiled) priced at 800.000RMB or 100.000$US, collected about 10 years ago and offered for sale at the jade and carpet fair held annually in August in Lop, a town to the east of Hetian.


The same jade piece as above, but with flash illumination so to reveal a little bit better its dark green colour.


The offerings, by a flying seller of jade pebbles in Hetian. The only pieces from the Karakash are the black piece at 11 o’clock and two flat pieces with white and reddish colour nearby. All other material is from the Yurungkash and these offerings indicate the relative proportions of material found or traded.

From the information gathered I can thus report that very little jade is collected from the Karakash and this jade is of very dark green colour. Latest collection efforts where concentrated in the river bed north of Moyu town. Manual search for jade is generally helped by furious reworking of the river bed by summer snow melt waters but already the beginning of 1900, the flow of water in the river was much reduced so that several on its banks sprung up villages and lived from cultivation in the river bed as maps by A. Stein show. The recovery of jade is now further hampered by the fact that the hydroelectric dam and associated reservoir lake retains whatever material is swept down from the middle course of the Karakash. The speed of water flow in the river is also not fast enough to wash away the fine silt accumulating on the pebbles so that a visual identification of jade is nearly impossible. As with Yurungkash jade, it is not (to me) known where the mother lode(s) of the Karakash River jade found near Hetian is situated. It is quite possible that such material has been swept down in much earlier geological or historical times when the rivers emptying into the Tarim Basin where carrying much more water. The last documented time of plentiful water flow was about 3000 to 5000 years ago when the Kun Lun and Tian Shan glacier fields, left over from the last ice age, where much more extensive. The continued reduction of the water flow into the Tarim Basin finally led, influenced also by collapsing political structures, to the abandonment of settlements in the hearth of the Taklamakan desert around 1000AD.

No commercial jade digging with mechanized means is noticeable on satellite images of the Karakash river bed north of Moyu town area.


A 25cm long, dark green Karakash river jade boulder.


An example of another Karakash river jade pebble showing white parts in a greenish matrix and plenty of reddish colouring.


Heavy reddish skin colouring of this other Karakash River pebble.

3.2 The Yurungkash River and its jade

The Yurungkash or White Jade River has its source at approximately 35° 25’ 21” N – 81° 29 07’E at an altitude of about 5300m as runoff from the extensive glacier fields peaking at 7120m and located at the frontier between Autonomous Regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. On the way north and, over a distance of about 390+Km, it flows through winding, narrow and desolate gorges and brings much needed snow melt water to Hetian. About halfway it skirts the south slopes of one of the three Muztagh peaks (7282m) of the Kun Lun range. This is the K5 peak on the maps of A. Stein.


The source of the Yurungkash in the glacier fields at the frontier of Xinjiang with Tibet.


2005 map showing the modern road from Hetian into the lower Yurungkash valley. A.Stein describes vividly the Yurungkash valley around Karanggutag in the Sand Buried ruins of Khotan p 206 ff. when he unsuccessfully attempted to reach the headwaters of the river.

I have been able to visit mechanized and “free-for-all” jade digging activities in the bed of the Yurungkash and drove, in the company of Mr. Mou, over a freshly paved road for about 63Km to a place in the valley at 36°40’18,76”N and 79°53’35,75”E.


Satellite image of the Yurungkash exiting the Kun Lun with the approximate limits of concession based mechanized and “free-for-all” jade digging.

The waters of the Yurungkash River were flowing much more rapidly in August than that of the Karakash and where grey from the glacier silt and loess carried along. A. Stein reported that in November, the glacier melt season now terminated, the waters in the upper valley were limpid blue.

The Yurungkash River is also dammed about 21Km north of Hetian where, at 1530m elevation, two diversion channels for agricultural water start toward Hetian and Lop. The resulting capillary network of channels distributes the water to all fields solely by gravity (180m drop in 25Km). This network of channels and the associated vegetation gives a characteristic leaf shaped aspect to the cultivated surface of the oasis of Lop, Hetian and Moju and the trace of many of these channels is more than 1000 years old. The water is deliciously cold and I never drank in China such refreshing and well tasting water directly from the tap. The water carries sizable amounts of very fertile silt so that the level of the fields gradually rises by few cm each decade. Not only the planted fields are irrigated but each row of the poplar trees becomes its ration of waster at fixed intervals.

Whereas above the dam, the Yurungkash River is a narrow, 40m wide fast flowing stream, below the dam the water quantity is significantly less and the river expands into multiple shallow, knee to hip deep streams over a much wider width.


The water diversion dam on the Yurungkash with two canals, one leading on the east bank toward Lop and the other one, on the west bank, toward Hetian. The approximate location of the Sirik-Toghrak jade mining pits of A. Stein is also shown.


A typical white poplar lined road with policemen’s keeping the donkey taxis on the side so to allow the Jade Seminar buses to drive through the villages at full speed. Sorry for that!

The large amount of evaporation from the poplar leaves and from fast flowing, glacier- fed river water in the many channels, acts as natural air conditioner. We ate once in a local Uyghur restaurant where Yurungkash water was flowing under the raised tables giving added cooling.


The raised bench type tables of local Uyghur tradition below which a small channel was carrying a fast flow of Yurungkash glacier water and cooling the atmosphere above.

As it essentially never rains in Hetian (<35mm/year), the single storey rural houses are built with a framework of poplar tree trunks and mud walls. If a freak rainstorm happens these walls may liquefy and rebuilding becomes necessary.


A typical example of a rural house in Hetian with walls made with wooden frames and mud. Pergolas with vines and large, century old walnut trees furnish shade.

Mechanized jade digging is happening in the ancient and new gravel beds south of Hetian whereas the free-for-all digging activities are mainly confined to the river bed between separating Hetian from Lop.

3.3 Mechanized jade digging

In the framework of the Jade seminar the organizers brought us by busses to a mechanized jade digging site on the Yurungkash. As I had done my homework and explored the valley via the satellite images of Google Earth, I was able to exactly pinpoint the location on the images I had with me and was also able to confirm, from completed roadwork, that the new Yurungkash Google images are less than two years old.

The representative of the Hetian Government explained that the concessions for jade digging are attributed via bidding and cover lots of multiples of 330 square meters. The typical concession fee for a single 330 sq. m lot amounts to 15.000 to 30.000RMB and a recent bidding, of probably a very promising lot, reached 100.000RMB or a never seen 12.500 US$ level. The lot is then attributed to the winning bidder until he returns it back to the government.


Key dimensions of the Yurungkash in the mechanized jade digging section. The complete Yurungkash river bed is between 1.4 and 2.2Km wide. The actually reworked river bed is about 1Km and the river itself, about 40m wide. The total white jade concession area covers thus about 32sq.Km.

A typical cross-section through the valley is shown in the following picture.


The height annotated cross-section of the Yurungkash showing the valley banks at the visited site at about +1615 to +1630m and the reworked river bed about 20 to 30m lower. The river flows at +1582m and the step banks drop by 7 to 10 meters where the river eats directly into the pebble banks. The adjacent hills rise to about +1715m. The paved road into the Yurungkash valley is on the left of the image and the visible road repair work at 9 o’clock allowed the dating of the image.


The hills and mountains bordering the left (western) bank of the Yurungkash showing the draping of all slopes, like snow, with a thick layer of flourlike yellow dust.

One of the surprising features of the mountains south of Hetian is the extensive draping of their slopes with a thick layer of extremely fine yellowish dust which, like snow, obliterates all geological and mineralogical features of the rocks which are otherwise so apparent in other deserts of the world. Whenever you walk outside a paved road or path you immediately sink ankle deep into this dust.


The caked together, flour like dust layer on all surfaces and slopes of the mountains

At difference to plain desert sand, this dust coating cakes up and can drape over rocks forming slopes with an angle larger than 90°.


Westward view, across the Yurungkash River bed, toward the approximate location of the jade pits mentioned by A. Stein.

The mechanized jade digging site shown to us is located at Google Earth 36°50’47,00”N and 79°53’33,75”E and the details of this operation are reported below.


The typical layout of a mechanized Yurungkash jade digging operation.

For the mechanized jade search you need two front loader dumpers, plentiful new ones are on show and available in Hetian for about 80.000$ each, two drivers, one supervisor and four jade sorters. One front loader is used for clearing away yellowish dust, sand and small pebble layers until you hopefully hit, not too deep, an ancient gravel bed with pebbles at least of a cantaloupe size. Once this horizon is reached, the second front loader is called in, which scoops up 10 ton bites of the potential jade bearing river material. This front loader carries the load to a point 40 to 60m away and dumps it slowly, in the presence of four eagle-eyed jade pickers, on a heap. The location of this heap is strategically chosen in such a way that it does not too much interfere with the full exploration of the allocated concession surface. This sorted material is visible on the above picture as gray bluish material in contrast to the virgin one with its yellowish dust cover. This goes on day-in day-out with the hope to find sizable white jade boulders and until the concession area is completely worked over or the temporary owner of the lot runs out of money.

From my observations the jade digging and commerce is the hands of the local Uyghur population and certainly contributes not little to the wealth of Hetian. As many of these jade deals are sealed with a handshake only and thus escape taxing, no exact statistics of how much material and money changes the hands is available.


A load of white jade boulders of a party of Uyghur’s under way to the prospective buyer in our Hetian Hotel.


The participants of the Jade symposium on the way to inspect mechanized jade digging.


A 5 to 6m thick “jade inert” overburden on the site showing alternate bands of coarse sand with fine gravel and the yellow, wind carried dust.


Front-hoe equipment used here to remove the overburden with the hope reach a gravel bed with large boulders similar to those at 4 o’clock.


The front loader is working now at a prehistoric gravel bed horizon of the Yurungkash River where large white jade boulders, at least of cantaloupe to watermelon size, are hoped to have accumulated.


Everyone hoping to strike it rich immediately but nobody did!

The white jade boulders sought after and hoped for, are in the dimension of the medium sized boulders shown above.

With a price of about 20 to 30$ per gram of premium white Yurungkash jade, such boulder pays off the front loader in one find.


The moment of truth!

The front loader slowly dumps the coarse river gravel under the careful watch of the “jade pickers”. Two of them, near the wheels, are watching the material tumbling down toward the front loader and two others watch the material accumulating on the pile.


Not the size of white jade pebbles they are looking for, but such a small piece is worth a nearly a month of salary of the worker.


The exact location of the jade digging, described above, is at 10 o’clock on this satellite/aerial image taken about 2 years ago.


The glacier silt gray waters of the Yurungkash River about 9m below as seen from the “position shooting pictures” in above picture and looking upriver and south-westwards. The gravel heaps sloping into the river at 2 o’clock can be seen on the satellite image.


View, from above position, of the Yurungkash flowing northwards toward Hetian. According to Russell Beck of New Zealand, which visited the Yurungkash about 20 years ago, the leading edge of the gravel bank at the very river level at 3 o’clock would be worthwhile to be searched for Jade.

As conclusion of this small note on mechanized jade digging, possible over an area of 32 sq. Km in the Yurungkash River bed south of Hetian, it can be said that success depends on a) reaching a virgin ancient river horizon where large boulders have been laid down and b) that in this particular section of the horizon white jade boulders have accumulated. Again this depends if the particular section was at the leading (favourable) or trailing edge of gravel bank forming at the water level in a low water speed section of the river. As the continuity and frequency of the supply of white jade boulders from the mother lode(s) upstream is unknown, not only the requirement a) and b) has to be fulfilled but some years or centuries before the precise moment when the boulder layer was laid down, the rivers waters had to erode upstream jade bearing seams. According to the Schlagintweit and Stolicza reports the jade is present in the Kun Lun’s as short veins and lenses which could however reach thicknesses of up to 6 to 12m and thus a discontinuity in time of jade supply and transport can be expected.

The organization of the digging seems still to be similar to what has been described by A. Stein 106 years ago at the difference that mechanized means are used and the Chinese Administration does not anymore neglect this activity.

As for the ultimate quantity of white jade to be still found it logically depends how much has been eroded by the river out of the mother rock and then collected by men over the ages. As the mechanized jade digging is only concentrating mostly on the upper third of the up to 20m high gravel banks the hope is still here that more can be found in the future albeit with increased costs and difficulties. The mechanized digging has touched most of the 32 sq. Km of the dry river gravel beds above the water diversion dams but activity is limited nor as destructive as recent reports in the press can make believe. Neither there are 20.000 people scampering around in the river bed in search of jade.

According to information obtained locally this August, one active white (?) jade mine, the “Almaz” (?) mine is located in the upper Yurungkash valley about a three (?) day pony ride up the mountains from the village of Pisha. Two other mines, the Hara and the Agayjunger mine, also in the Yurungkash valley, have been mentioned by Wang in FOJ Bulletin IX but I have no further news about them. The contribution of these mines to jade in the river is however doubtful as only strata touched by the glacier fed Yurungkash can now be eroded and supply jade. As very little rain or snowfall is occurring in the area, transport from distant slopes into the bed of the Yurungkash is very improbable.

It is also not known (to me) how far upstream the 390+Km of Yurungkash length jade in general and of which colour specifically is found in the river bed. By plotting these sites one could put some constraints on the location where the jade was eroded out by the river.

A descent of a sizable portion of the Yurungkash by river raft, in late fall with associated low water levels and clear waters, could yield interesting information and a sizable bounty of jade boulders as the locals seem not to venture into the bed of the river where it still flows flanked by tall walls.

To explore this possibility I drove, together with Mr. Mou, into the Yurungkash valley along the freshly paved road linking Hetian to Pisha. This road, in a great loop through the mountains, reaches after 283 Km Qira, an oasis town in the plains east of Hetian.


Near Tonguzlik village and last greenery before entering the Yurungkash valley.


At the gate of the Yurungkash valley with mechanized jade search, at 3 o’clock, on the prehistoric gravel beds now about 30 to 40m above today’s water level.


Farther up the Yurungkash valley and looking downriver, one can see the excellent paved road on the eastern terrace above the river.


Prehistoric river gravel flanking the road and now many tens of meters above the actual river level.


A short stop with Mr. Mou on the way south at the edge of the Yurungkash canyon walls formed of schistose rocks and compacted gravel. Jade digging is visible on the terrace at 3 o’clock. If jade is indeed found there, then its transport downriver was occurring in the Yurungkash already 50 to 100.000 years ago based on the actual river water level and an erosion rate of about 40m in 100.000 years as observed under similar conditions by the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

As all rocks are covered by a thick layer of dust, only at fresh road cuttings and with the help of a splatter of water, can their nature be identified.

Here a finger thick quartzite or calcite vein meandering through its layered host formation could prefigure how a meter thick white jade vein could look like ready to be eroded by rushing waters and transformed into well rounded pebbles.


A finger thick, quartzite or calcite vein at a fresh road cutting prefiguring possibly how a much thicker white jade vein looks like.


Dust blanketed mountains peaking at about 2000m near the southernmost point of our drive into the Yurungkash valley. The river is now flowing nearly out of sight at the bottom of a steep walled canyon (at 6 o’clock).

3.4 The free-for-all jade search in the Yurungkash River

Since ancient times and with more or less supervision by local potentates and governments, people of Hetian have collected jade in the Yurungkash River bed to complement their agricultural income. Also this August I have been able to witness how individuals or entire families where carefully combing through river gravel with the hope to find the one or the other palm to thumb sized jade pebble and complement their income.

This search is carried out as soon as shifting waters and a lower melt water flow from the distant glacier fields makes unsearched gravel banks accessible by foot or by wading through knee-deep water.

You can most conveniently witness this activity from the river bank near the older Yurungkash Bridge spanning the river in the east of Hetian.


Satellite view of the eastern part of Hetian town with the old (top) and the new bridge across the Yurungkash.


The official name of Yurungkash river and the date of the bridge’s inauguration (August 1965) on the cubicle of the bridge guardian.


The best place to see people jade digging is to walk southwards along the eastern concrete river berth, immediately after the end of the bridge, and then descending into the river bed proper.


This is the haystack in which you have to find the jade needle!


The intrepid one - Seeing us arrive, this boy quickly swam through cold glacier water so to offer us his trove for purchase.


The ladies corner – Yes, but the piled up pebbles where not of jade!


An entire family clan digging away at the banks edge.


A private Yurungkash River yes, but where is the jade?


Mechanized digging but the old fashioned way!


And today’s lucky finder of a green jade pebble is this proud Uyghur!


The piece of green Yurungkash jade just as found in the gravel!


Jade home delivery - Few minutes after arriving at the rivers edge, sellers pop up in troves from nowhere to offer you jade for sale.


The status symbol of the successful seller – an aluminium attaché case to carry the river pebbles, here with many of them additionally stained, to the customer.


More sellers than buyers or I check with my wife first (at 3 o’clock!).


The friendly black witch offering jade on the Yurungkash Bridge!


My now grown collection of small white jade pebbles! The strong orangey one at 6 o’clock is an example of a possibly artificially coloured one.

3.5 Where to buy jade in Hetian?

The choice is essentially dictated by how much money you are willing to spend. Because you are closer to the source does not mean the prices are lower but the choice is wider and you bought it in Hetian! For about 150 to 300$US you can get two to three nice pieces about 6cm in length. But you have to bargain vigorously and make a counteroffer at the price you want to pay or alternatively at 1/3 to ½ of the price asked. If you reach finally your price goal, the local etiquette demands that you buy the piece and not just walk away laughing. Be careful as jade simulants and white mountain jade shaped as river pebble and possibly artificially stained (undistinguishable from the true one) are offered aplenty.

There are several jade shops in downtown Hetian or in the lobbies of the hotels but the best choice is to look around the Yurungkash Bridge and in the villages bordering the road into the Yurungkash valley. Just after the bridge to the right, the locals congregate on Thursday and Friday early evening to sell and trade jade.


When you see this sign after crossing the bridge, you are at the bifurcation of the road leading into the Yurungkash valley and the key places of jade trading.

For those with an obscene amount of money to spend on white river jade, try to contact the jade dealer which business card is shown below.


A mayor, first quality white river jade merchant of Hetian.


The jade merchant’s house on the road to the Yurungkash valley, hosting a showroom with an exceptional collection of white Yurungkash river jade pieces for sale.

I have been able to photograph some of the pieces nonetheless being constantly pushed around by nearly 30 other jade enthusiasts crowding into small room and wanting also to see and touch these marvels.


A white jade boulder with russet skin and with residues of the host rock matrix visible on the backside.


You can touch it to believe it - True mutton fat white jade!


White jade worth a fortune – If you have to ask for the price, you cannot afford it!


The Ying-Yang boulder - A Yurungkash white river jade boulder with the customary reddish skin turned black.


Another view of the boulder revealing that, when sufficiently thin, the black skin turns reddish!


A Han Dynasty Rhinoceros sculpture incorporating such a natural black to red staining. (from Enduring Art of Jade Age China, E. Childs-Johnson p 136)

4.0 Some further notes


The opening ceremony of the Jade seminar in Hetian presided by Yang Boda of the Place Museum in Beijing and Arken Tuniyaz, Commissioner of the Hetian district.


Presenting to Arken Tuniyaz, on the exact 150th anniversary (August 1856) of their presence in the Upper Karakash valley, a copy of my FOJ contribution “Early European Explorers at the Mountain Jade Quarries in the Kun Lun Mountains – the Brothers Schlagintweit” and hearing the whish ….please send more of western Friends of Jade to Hetian!


Sunrise in Hetian – As all China runs on Beijing time, Hetian is 2h behind when it comes to sunrise which light is here attenuated by the Taklamakan flour like dust in the air.


Out of sight – out of mind, the dust covered roofs of houses in Hetian.


Swish ------ swish-------swish, the first sound in the morning when to overnight deposited dust is swept away from the road.


The Hetian version of the Peking Duck, the glazed, sesame seeds sprinkled delicious mutton roasted in its entirety.


The omnipresent tasty shaslik spit stands which in Hetian use wood and charcoal from fruit trees and not the acrid smelling coal fire as elsewhere in Xinjiang.


Samsa, the bread pockets with minced mutton and onion cooked on the interior walls of vertical, barrel shaped clay ovens.


The delicious Hetian bread with a sprinkling of cumin, sesame seed or dried onions and used as plate and accompaniment for the roasted mutton servings.


Xinjiang music and dancing as a farewell to the participants of the Jade Symposium.

4.1 Google Earth Coordinates

I am using intensively Google Earth to look at Jade sites worldwide. If you use this program you can either navigate with the mouse until the coordinates at the bottom of the image correspond to those reported above or you can used to “Fly to” function.

The format of the coordinates has however to be adapted for examples as follows:

As-reported Yurungkash River jade digging area coordinates:

36°53’36.32” N – 79°53’42.74” E

Equivalent Google “Fly to” coordinates (watch the spaces!):

36 53,36 +79 53,42

The + sign before the second set of numbers selects the target in the Eastern or the “other” hemisphere of the world if you start from the Google Earth Start-up image , the North American Continent. If you want to fly to the Southern part of the hemisphere, you have to add the – sign before the first string of numbers.

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Reader Comments (10)

Thanks Herbert, This is a fantastic piece and should be enjoyed by all. I'm already looking forward to the next one. This really is a major effort, and much appreciated. You will likely hear from a number of FOJ members.

Fred Ward
October 21, 2006 | Registered CommenterFred Ward
A fascinating account by an accomplished jade journalist of a long journey into the heart of Asian jade fields, complete with annotated high resolution satellite photos courtesy of Google. A truly masterful job, Herbert!

October 21, 2006 | Registered CommenterAlan White
Herr Professor,

Thank you once again. This article with its historical extracts, geographical,climatic and social descriptions and wonderful photographs all combined to allow me to imagine myself accompanying you on this journey.

I am curious at the incredible prices these materials command albeit asking price and final selling cost may differ greatly $20K US to $30K US/kilo places this material above many other gemmier (sp?) materials in value. Even the 148K piece of "black" material was priced at half again the highest price I've encountered for truly fine black material.

Is it simply the historical association of this material fueled by a "market" of interested Nationals who if they comprise a fraction of 1% of the population of China represent a sizable potential base indeed? As a working lapidary I cannot help but think on this.

I would also be a bit interested to hear something relating to the context of the discussions held in the symposium.

I was relieved to have your report diminish somewhat the frankly depressing article from the L.A. Times which preceeded you.

Again, Thank You! Your many, varied articles alone make the price of addmission to FOJ a bargain.

Tom Finneran
October 24, 2006 | Registered CommenterTom Finneran
Can someone point me to a site where i can get jade stones. I have a huge jade plant that currently has white pebble rocks as a top bedding. I thought it would be neat to actually put real jade in there. Trying not to spend tons or get the best but im having a hard time finding pebble size stones in any kind of quantity.Not sure if this shows up but something of this color.Ty
June 13, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjillian
are there any retail stores available for high quality white jade rock suitable for pendants?
April 13, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterlarry
What a wondeful story...great pictures...made me feel like I was there walking along side of you...thanks so much for sharing it with us all...thanks..Rich
April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRich Kelly
I was thinking of exporting jade from Hotan is there a possibility to make profit from exporting from xinjiang to the west any help would be greatly appreciated!
July 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNik
Hi, my Name is Lea Steir, I noticed that you have pictures loaded on Google Earth and I was wondering if you can help me out. I am looking for lost family that I know is located some distance east of Khotan at approximately 37°29’04.13” N – 78°01’03.04” E. The family has an old German map listing the town as “Moshe”. I am not certain that Moshe is the correct spot though. There is also a family legend that nearby the town (in which they live) there is a river that bubbles all week long except Saturday. Being that you traveled so close to this spot I was wondering if you came across such in your traveling’s. Any and all info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks. Lea. Leah1356@gmail.com
August 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlea
An incredible piece Herbert.
I'm not sure if your aware but since your visit -
Jade has risen in incredible value.
I'm thinking of investing in some - if you have any thoughts on this please send me an email. I would be happy to hear from you.
January 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterByron Mae
i have also a big deposite of jade. i like jade stone. if anyone intrested in jade stone plz contect me in this number. 00923023870770.
October 31, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterhafiz ul asad

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