It’s not hard to die in the Tarim Basin of the Xinjiang Uyghur Region of northwestern China. Nighttime temperatures can be brutally cold, and daytime temperatures have been recorded over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. At least it’s a dry heat. The Lop Desert in the Tarim Basin is one of the most arid regions in the world, logging a mean precipitation rate of anywhere from .86 inches to 1.2 inches of rainfall per year.
If temperature swings or thirst don’t do you in, there are frequent sandstorms that have been known to bury healthy, native camels fast enough to entrap and kill them. In one 3-year period (2005-2007) six human skeletal remains were located in the region. And those are only the skeletons that were actually found.
When scientist Peng Jiamu went missing in the Lop Desert in 1980, his disappearance was chalked up the notion that it’s easy to die there. As sad as it was, his presumed death wasn’t that strange. The mystery wasn’t that he died. The mystery is why did he take off into an unforgiving environment alone in the middle of the night? He couldn’t have made it that far traveling by foot, as he was. So why, despite years of searching, has no one ever uncovered his remains?
Peng was born in 1925 and graduated from college in 1947 with a degree in biochemistry. He approached science with the curiosity and ambition of an explorer’s mentality. “Science is to walk a road not travelled by other people,” he said.
In fewer than 10 years, he was a rising star at the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. His plans were to begin new research abroad, when an opportunity came up in 1956 to join a Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) team conducting research in the Lop Desert. In his application, his ambitions between terrestrial exploration and science were blurred. “I have a strong wish to explore the frontiers. I have the courage to pave a way in the wilderness,” he wrote.
A Dynamic Desertscape
The Lop expedition turned out to be one of several to the great desert region for Peng. The barren desert of today belies a dynamic social and physical landscape historically. For hundreds of years, it was an inhabited stop on the Silk Road trade routes. The area could, and did, sustain agriculture, thanks in part to an enormous lake that once covered the area.
A combination of natural geophysical processes and human intervention transformed the area into desert and diminishing marshland. As recently as 1962 (the more popular claim of 1972 has been challenged as of late), rivers fed the region. The drying of the rivers is blamed predominantly on diversion and dam-building. The non-human processes are always at play, as well. Within hours, sandstorms can twist the landscape into something that is, perversely, precisely what you saw before the storm and yet completely unrecognizable with new sand dunes and buried landmarks. For a barren landscape, it’s wildly dynamic.
From geology to the social history, the entire area was rife for academic study. As a biochemist, Peng studied soil potassium levels and gathered information on native species. He thrived on the adventure of being in the field. The logistics and the conditions challenged the teams both physically and mentally. They traveled by donkey, foot, car, and canoe. Though roads existed, they were hard to find, and even harder to navigate.
The Questionable Decision to Go It Alone
By June 1980, Peng was a vice president for CAS when he was given the opportunity to lead another Lop Desert expedition. The team consisted of biologists, archeologists, and geologists. Travel was slow and tough-going. By the time, they reached a satisfactory base camp, the group was already low on water and food.
Five days after setting up the camp, Peng disappeared. Having discussed his plan with no one, he left camp sometime in the middle of the night. He left only a note that indicated he went out to look for water. He never returned.
In a society that revered scientific exploration and discovery, Peng was a rock star. The Chinese government wasted no time in implementing three massive rescue efforts. Military planes and helicopters were sent out; police with dogs tracked the area by foot. With his disappearance all over the news, the country united around its missing biochemist. When the recovery missions were called off, Peng was celebrated as a martyr for science.
It’s assumed Peng was either buried alive in an horrific sandstorm, or that he was buried by a collapsing sand dune while trying to find shelter from a storm. Though many skeletons and mummified remains have been located since his 1980 disappearance, none have even been conclusively linked to Peng through DNA.
It should be another Occam’s Razor mystery: the most evident answer should be the correct one. Still there are a few facts that don’t add up. The encampment couldn’t have been too bad off for supplies, as there’s no indication that anyone else died or even struggled from lack of food or water. So why did Peng leave in the middle of the frigid night and alone to seek water?
While a celebrated scientist, the government’s response was far more robust than the news we typically here from China in instances of people gone missing. The Lop Desert was the site of China’s first atomic bomb tests in 1964. Could there be a connection with Peng’s disappearance 16 years later? And what about defection? Sure, it’s easy to die in the Tarim Basin. But Peng was an experienced Lop Desert traveler who should have known better than to take off on his own in the middle of the night. These ideas are nothing more than speculation. Until his remains are found – in the Lop Desert or somewhere else – the disappearance of the rock star scientist will continue to be a mystery.
Photos from public domain. Memorial photo by Jun Jin Luo.