The Lop Nor desert has been the death of hundreds. But Chinese biochemist Peng Jiamu seized the opportunity to explore and study its mysteries, writing, “I have a strong wish to explore the frontiers. I have the courage to pave a way in the wilderness.” Now, 34 years after going missing on his final research mission in Lop Nor, his body has never been found.
Stretching out toward Northwestern China in the Xinjiang region is a thirsty expanse of the Lop Nor desert, a largely infertile landscape of shifting sand dunes and a salt-encrusted basin where the Tarim Lake once sat. It dried up in the late 20th century when dam construction choked water flowing onto the bed, and what remains is a dark swirl of sand, an empty gulf in a mass of yellow-gray clay.
Despite its inhospitality, the Lop Nor desert called to Peng Jiamu. Born in Guangdong Province in 1925 and graduated from Central University of China (now called Nanjing University) in 1947, he appealed to the Chinese Academy of Sciences when they organized an expedition into Lop Nor, and, upon acceptance, journeyed by car, horse, donkey, canoe and on foot across the desolate terrain in 1964. His purpose was to measure the amount of potassium in the mineral-rich dust bowl, but he also discovered dozens of wild species.
Newly-appointed as the vice-president of the Xinjiang Branch of the academy, Peng Jiamu led a team of chemists, geologists, biologists and archaeologists on a second expedition into Lop Nor in the summer of 1980. But the road — which shifted from marsh to moving dune to jagged gravel — was difficult to cover, and the team’s water was running out. When some colleagues suggested they turn around, Peng brought them together and lectured, “Science is to walk a road not travelled by other people!” So they continued.
Five days later, Peng left a note in his tent relaying that he had left camp to search for water, and never came back. Two holes had been dug close by, but no sign of his body was found. This frustrated the top government officials at the time, and they launched a large-scale, highly-publicized investigation to search for him, which came up fruitless.
Years later, in the late 1990s, a TV-series titled “Searching for Peng Jiamu” was aired across China, and every few years, skeletons found in the Lop Nor desert are accredited to the late scientist, but none has ever been proven. Experts presume that his body is buried somewhere beneath the sandy basin, mummified by the desert’s brutal forces.