Starting from his base in Kashmir
in May 1900, Stein travelled across Gilgit to the
Hindukush chiefship of Hunza. By the end of June, after
crossing the Kilik Pass, Stein arrived to the Chinese
territory at the head of the Taghdumbash Pamir.
Descending eastwards to Tashkurghan, it became possible to
figure out the ancient topography of Sarikol by identifying
the localities which the great Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang had mentioned
when passing there in 649 C.E. Stein later referred to Xuanzang as his
“patron saint”, because on his expeditions in Chinese Central Asia, he
followed in the footsteps of this 7th century Buddhist monk who travelled
from Central Asia to India, returning later to China with Buddhist sutras.

In Ilchi, the capital of the Khotan district, Stein had evidence of the practice of forging old books, and possibly
other antiques. He then travelled into the desert, later surveying and mapping the Kunlun range. He visited
ancient sites of Yotkan, Dandan-Uiliq, Niya, Rawak and Endere.

In May 1901 his journey, undertaken on horseback and by foot, covering 3,000 miles, came to its end at Osh, Ferghana, and he returned to Europe across Russia.

Stein published a popular account of the first expedition entitled Sand-buried
Ruins of Khotan
(1903), and the detailed archaeological report Ancient Khotan
(2 volumes, 1907).

In the last years of the 19th century,
an increasing number of manuscripts,
both in known and unknown scripts and
languages, as well as other findings, appeared
in the region known at that time as Eastern
or Chinese Turkestan. They stirred up keen
interest among European scholars, but their
provenance was entirely unknown,
because the local treasure-seekers who
offered them for sale concealed
their origins. Hence Stein
decided to carry out
systematic archaeological
excavations in this territory.
From 1900 to 1901, he conducted
research around Khotan. This first
fieldwork was already characterized by
the comprehensiveness of all his subsequent
expeditions. Alongside archaeological
research, Stein also paid attention
to the geography, anthropology,
and linguistics
of the region.