Wang Cunjin, 61, a farmer from a village in north China, never thought he would go abroad and help discover a lost ancient city, thousands of kilometers from home.
For the past two years, Wang has joined a Chinese archeological team in Uzbekistan each fall and spent more than two months there digging at the Mingtepa ruins in the Fergana Valley.
His unique skill of digging underground with a traditional Chinese tool called Luoyang shovel has amazed local archeologists, who have less experience doing archeological work where there are no signs on the ground surface.
The joint archeological team from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and its Uzbekistan counterpart has made significant finds as they unearthed an ancient city, almost the size of Monaco.
They found that about 2,000 years ago, Mingtepa was an important city in the Dayuan state, a state known for the precious Fergana horse breed and a key hub on the ancient Silk Road.
Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned the joint archeological work in June 2016, when he published a signed article in Uzbek media ahead of his state visit to the Central Asian country.
"The State Administration of Cultural Heritage of China, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Northwest University of China have worked actively with Uzbekistan on joint archeological research and restoration, making important contributions to restoring the historical sites of the Silk Road," Xi wrote.
This January, the project won a Major Overseas Archeological Discovery of 2016 award from the CASS.
Seeking a breakthrough
The ancient Silk Road was a conduit for trade and exchange about 2,000 years ago. It is drawing more attention nowadays, as the Belt and Road Initiative was proposed by China in 2013 as a trade and infrastructure network to better connect Asia with Europe and Africa.
"Culture exchange and cooperation consist an important part of the Belt and Road Initiative," said Chen Xingcan, director of the Institute of Archeology with the CASS. "Evidence from the archeological work will help countries along the ancient route learn more about the history."
Today, Chinese and foreign archaeologists are teaming up to rediscover the history in the ancient Silk Road.
The Mingtepa ruins have seen intermittent excavations for decades. Part of the city walls have been unearthed, circling an area 500 meters by 800 meters.
But there have been guesses that the city could be larger and there were undiscovered outer walls.
In 2011, the Institute of Archeology of the Uzbekistan Academy of Social Sciences and the Institute of Archeology with the CASS signed a deal to jointly excavate the site.
The work started the following fall, but the Chinese team did not rush to dig.
The team, headed by Zhu Yanshi, a specialist in the archeology of ancient capitals, spent three years drawing a digital map of the site, with the help of drones, and using technology of precision measurement and computer mapping.
In 2015, Zhu invited his old partner Wang, who is skilled in using the traditional Luoyang shovel, to the site.
A U-shaped cylinder four to six centimeters in diameter, the Luoyang shovel is widely used in Chinese field archeology. It lets the user extract a section of earth while preserving the soil structure.
Researchers can analyze the color, texture and intensity of soil for any evidence of underground structures, to find if it is soil from a road, a tomb or a city wall. Usually, the soil of a city wall is hard and firm. At the Mingtepa site, archaeologists started to look for the outer walls of the city, but with no signs on the surface. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
The Chinese team recruited 12 Uzbek farmers, and Wang taught them how to use the shovel.
Every day the farmers dug small holes, and Wang examined the extracted soil from each hole.