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American Gems

A gem miner's life, the grown-up version of a treasure hunt, is by nature a gamble. But your first look at this particular mine may make you question the sanity of the six men who come each year to this way-station on the ancient Silk Road in search of Tashmarine®, the first major gem find of this century.

Not that a look at the mine is a casual thing. It takes days to reach this remote corner of Xinjiang province in China. Kazakhstan lies directly to the west, the Taklamagan desert to the south. After leaving Asku, the capital of the region, the foothills of the Tianshan Mountain range makes travel by jeep slow and arduous. Everyone has to get out and push occasionally, especially when fording the rivers that make the road impassable in the rainy season. Actually, part of the way, the riverbed is the road.

The Tashmarine deposit is at an 8,000-foot elevation and the mining season lasts only from April to October, when the snows and bitter dry cold abate. It's cool here even in the summer: the mountain range has several glaciers with eternal snow, a welcome source of melt water in a dry district. The miners have a greenhouse to allow them to grow vegetables despite the nighttime frost.