A multimillion-copy bestseller in China—now available in English! In this heart-pounding adventure, a group of individuals who have come together for an expedition, each with a specific interest, soon find themselves motivated by one common goal: the sheer will to survive.
THE QUEST: To find the lost city of Jingjue, a once-glorious kingdom, along with the burial chamber of its mysterious queen. Both lie buried under the golden dunes of the desert, where fierce sandstorms and blazing heat show no mercy.
THE TEAM: Teenagers Tianyi, who has the ability read the earth and sky through feng shui, and Kai, Tianyi’s best friend and confidant; Julie, a wealthy American whose father vanished on the same trek a year ago; Professor Chen, who wants to fulfill a lifelong dream; and Asat Amat, a local guide gifted in desert survival.
THE OBSTACLES: Lethal creatures of the desert and an evil force that wants to entomb the explorers under the unforgiving sands of China’s Taklimakan Desert forever.
Translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang, whose recent work includes NEVER GROW UP, the translation from Chinese of the autobiography from action movie superstar Jackie Chan.
An Excerpt fromThe City of Sand
My grandfather gave me my name, Tianyi, which means “as the heavens intend.” His name was Hu Guohua, and our family were once wealthy landowners, known for miles around. At their height, they had more than forty houses on three adjacent alleyways and could count important ministers and merchants among their number.
But as the saying goes, wealth never lasts past the third generation--no amount of money can buy restraint on the part of your descendants--and so by the time my grandfather was born, the Hu clan was poor once more. My grandfather didn’t exactly help matters by getting addicted to opium as soon as he was of age. His small inheritance was quickly gone.
Never one to be deterred, my grandfather decided to squeeze a bit of cash out of his uncle. Now, the uncle knew that Hu Guohua would only squander it away at the opium den, and refused to help him at first. He only changed his mind when my grandfather said he needed a loan to get married.
The old man was moved to tears that his nephew was finally going to make something of his life, with a virtuous woman to get him back on track. He handed over twenty silver dollars, saying how delighted he was that Guohua was giving up his vices, and adding that as soon as he had some time to spare, he’d come to visit his new niece.
You’d think this would stump my grandfather, but he was endlessly resourceful. As soon as he got home, he went to see the village paper craftsman, who made all the sacrificial goods to be burned for the dead. This artisan was extraordinarily skilled. Whatever you asked him to make--houses, carriages, livestock--he’d come up with detailed and realistic versions conjured from nothing but paper. It was easy for him to fulfill Guohua’s request: a silhouette cut from white paper, features and clothes added with watercolor paint. He was done in no time, and as long as you didn’t get too close, it looked just like a living person.
My grandfather brought his paper bride home and tucked her into bed. Taking a step back, he thought this should work--when his uncle came to visit, he’d just say his wife was too ill to receive visitors. The uncle wouldn’t come past the front door, and from that distance the deception couldn’t fail. Happy to have solved the problem so easily, he went out to get some opium, humming cheerfully.
A few weeks later, the uncle arrived with gifts for his nephew’s new wife. Guohua met him at the door and said how sorry he was that his wife was unwell, raising the curtain a little to give his uncle a peek at the woman tucked up in bed. Instead of being satisfied, however, his uncle got annoyed and said that that was no way to treat a relative. He wanted to greet the new wife in person, and if she was very sick, he was going to fetch a doctor.
My grandfather naturally came up with more excuses, but this just increased his uncle’s suspicions. After they’d argued for a bit, the uncle pushed his way in and was confronted with a terrifying sight--a completely flat woman, face crudely smeared with rouge, blank eyes staring at the ceiling. When he realized what he was looking at, the uncle just about had a stroke. He died three days later--some said of anger.
Hu Guohua’s entire family shunned him. They wouldn’t even give him a spare grain of rice, never mind lending him money. Finally, he was reduced to selling a sandalwood chest that had belonged to his late mother for a couple of silver dollars. He’d wanted to keep it as a memento, but in the end his need for opium trumped that. Having exchanged the money for a small amount of the drug, he rushed back home to smoke it and soon was floating on blissful clouds.
He was abruptly brought down to earth when he noticed a dark shape crawling across his filthy bed. Bringing his eyes into focus, he saw a large mouse sitting not far from him. It was roughly the size of a cat. He knew it must be old because its whiskers were all white. It was sniffing away at the smoke coming from Guohua’s nostrils, as if it knew what a good thing opium was and wanted to try some.
Amused, my grandfather said, “So you’re an addict too? Come join in the fun.” He took another deep drag from his pipe and blew a plume of smoke at the mouse. The creature didn’t seem frightened. It lifted its nose to inhale deeply. After a short while, it seemed to have had enough and quickly scampered off.
For the next few days, the mouse showed up every day to sit by Guohua as he enjoyed his pipe. My grandfather was looked down on by everyone around him, despised by his family and neighbors. The mouse was the closest thing he had to a friend. Soon, if it was late showing up, he’d resist the urge to smoke until his companion had arrived.
Eventually, he ran out of things to sell, and his little hut contained only a bed and four walls. Sighing, my grandfather turned to his friend. “My dear mouse, this is the end of the road,” he told the rodent. “No opium to share with you from now on.” And with that, he burst into tears.
The mouse’s eyes gleamed, as if it was thinking hard, and it turned to leave. At nightfall, it appeared, panting from the effort of dragging a silver coin to Guohua’s bedside. My grandfather was overjoyed, and rushed straight into town to buy a hit of opium. Back home, he lit it from the lamp and lay back with the mouse, billows of contentment surrounding them.
The next day, the mouse brought in three more coins. Guohua didn’t know how to thank it, so he did the only thing he could. “My friend mouse, you’ve stood by me in my hour of need, and you’re my only true companion. Will you be my sworn brother?” From that time on, he called him Brother Mouse, sharing food and drink as well as opium, ripping up a sheet to make a little nest on the bed so the mouse could sleep there too.
They lived happily together. With the mouse bringing home at least a couple of coins a day, and sometimes as many as five, Guohua had nothing to worry about. In his later years, looking back, my grandfather would insist this time was the happiest of his life.
This bliss lasted six months, but as my grandfather’s wealth quietly accumulated, he caught the attention of a villain: the village wastrel, Wang Ergang. Unlike the fallen Hu clan, the Wangs had never been wealthy, so Ergang rejoiced to see the Hus lose their fortune. It made him feel better to insult Guohua whenever he could--how did it feel to be down in the dirt with the rest of them?
And yet now it seemed Guohua was doing well. How could that be, when he appeared to have no source of income? Where was the money coming from, to fund all those opium fumes seeping from his house on a daily basis? Ergang decided to keep a close eye on Guohua. If it turned out he was stealing, Ergang would catch him in the act and drag him to the courthouse. There might even be a reward in it for him.
That didn’t work. Apart from going into town now and then to buy food and opium, Guohua didn’t seem to set foot outside the house. That just made Ergang itch to know what his source of income was. The next time Guohua went out for supplies, Ergang climbed over his wall and slipped into the house, ransacking the whole place in an effort to discover the secret. He found nothing, but then he saw an old mouse asleep on the bed. Thinking he could at least have some fun, he tossed the creature into a pot of water and slammed the lid on firmly, planning to hide nearby and have a good laugh when Guohua next went to get a drink.
Before he could conceal himself, though, my grandfather returned and immediately knew Ergang had harmed his only friend. He searched everywhere for Brother Mouse. When he finally lifted the lid of the water pot and saw his drowned friend, Guohua’s eyes grew red, and he picked up a kitchen cleaver to attack Ergang. Fortunately, years of smoking opium had weakened his arms, and although Ergang was hit quite a few times, he escaped with his life, running bloodied to the nearest army outpost. The soldiers rushed to Guohua’s house and arrested him.
When he was brought to the courthouse, the judge bellowed at him, demanding to know what had gotten into him, to attack another man in broad daylight.
Tears streaming down his face, my grandfather gave his account of the story from beginning to end. Still weeping, he concluded, “Back when I thought I had no way out, it was the mouse who helped me live. And now my sworn Brother Mouse is dead. If only I’d been at home to save him. I’ll never have a friend like that again. Please punish me as you see fit for what I did to Wang Ergang. All I ask is that I be allowed to return home first to give my brother a good burial.”
Before the judge could respond, the army captain was already sighing in sympathy. He said to Guohua, “Incredible. If that’s how you feel about a mouse, how about a fellow human being? You seem like a good sort. Why not come be my deputy?”
In a time of war, might makes right, and a soldier’s word was law. The captain ordered his troops to beat Wang Ergang thoroughly and sent Guohua home to bury Brother Mouse. My grandfather carefully placed the mouse in a small wooden casket, wept over his body for half a day, then returned to throw in his fortune with the local army.
The Civil War was a time of great confusion, with a great many factions battling each other, and it was never clear who was on whose side. Alliances were constantly shifting; you might find yourself fighting alongside one group today, only to be at the other end of their gun barrels tomorrow. The troop my grandfather joined wasn’t very large, and in less than a year, their territory had been taken over by another warlord. Those soldiers who survived fled in all directions, though sadly, the captain who’d taken my grandfather under his wing was killed by a single bullet.
His entire unit destroyed and disbanded, my grandfather could only go back home, where he found that his house had collapsed. He’d fled the battlefield virtually empty-handed and hadn’t eaten for days. There was no alternative but to sell his handgun to local bandits, which bought a few days’ food and a little plug of opium.
Now what? He had nowhere to turn, and his supplies would run out very soon. Then he remembered that just over a hundred miles away was a graveyard where many important officials lay. Surely their burial goods must be worth a fair bit.
The old Hu Guohua would have been too scared to desecrate a tomb, but this battle-hardened veteran had no such fears. He’d heard stories from his comrades about grave robbing--what they called reverse dipping--and how much money you could make from it. It was a capital crime, but what choice did he have? And so he made the arduous trek to the grave site, arriving on a near-moonless night, equipped with a sturdy shovel.
The sky was cloudless, but mist blocked most of the moonlight. Local folk said nights like this were when spirits liked to walk the earth. My grandfather drank the rice wine he’d brought with him for courage and peered out across the hillside. A cold wind whistled through the grass, and will-o’-the-wisps hovered over the graves. Now and then a strange bird cawed, like nothing he’d ever heard before. The lantern he’d brought guttered, as if it might go out at any minute.
At least there was no one in sight, so even if he cried out in fear, no one would hear. Guohua strode into the graveyard, singing folk songs for courage. Trembling, he found himself in the middle of the expanse, near a weed-strewn mound that, unlike all the tombs around it, didn’t have a marker.
Even more strangely, the coffin wasn’t buried, but stood wedged into the top of the mound. A portion of the box was exposed, and it looked new, painted a bright scarlet that glistened in the faint light.
Doubts niggled at my grandfather. What was this doing here? Was it some sort of trick? But he was here now, and there was a grave he wouldn’t even have to dig into to rob, so why not start with this one? He was going to die anyway, either from starvation or opium withdrawal; it might be easier to get killed by an angry ghost. He’d suffered enough for one lifetime--what did he have to lose?
Having reached a decision, he raised his shovel high, then dug it into the soil, clearing a space around the coffin so he could see the whole thing. It took a long time--years of opium addiction had also weakened his lungs, and he had to keep stopping to catch his breath. When he was finally done, he was not in a hurry to get the lid off. He slumped against the coffin for a rest, digging in his pockets for an opium hit.
A few puffs on his pipe settled his nerves and gave him strength, and with a grunt he pulled himself to his feet, cracking open the lid with his shovel. The corpse within was a beautiful woman, looking like she’d just fallen asleep. There was thick makeup on her face. Smears of rouge across her cheeks blazed beneath the white powder that covered every inch of exposed skin. Her body was draped in bright red satin robes: a bridal dress.
Had she just been buried? This graveyard had been abandoned long ago, so where had she come from? But if this was an older grave, then surely she would have decomposed?
Although these questions troubled my grandfather, he was past caring. His attention was mostly occupied by the jewelry she was wearing. There were all kinds of gems, glittering in the light from his lantern, not to mention the mounds of silver dollars wrapped in red packets, gold bars next to them. So much wealth he could barely count it.