China Unsolved is a SupChina weekly series profiling China’s most notorious unsolved mysteries.
Peng Jiamu found himself lost in the desert, on a former nuclear-testing site and restricted military zone, short on supplies and growing desperate — so he set off on an expedition from which he would never return.
That’s the official story, anyway.
Images by Katie Morton
In June 1980, renowned scientist Peng Jiamu 彭加木 walked into the Tarim Basin desert — and disappeared forever.
At the time of his apparent evaporation, Peng was vice president of the Chinese Academy of Science’s Xinjiang branch, and in the midst of field research, looking for potash seams in the dried-up salt lake of Lop Nor — or Luobupo 罗布泊, a former nuclear-testing site and restricted military zone, said to be strewn with ancient burial grounds and mysteries.
But Peng’s research team had badly miscalculated the seasonal climates. They’d begun running out of gasoline and water sooner than expected, and were having no luck finding either in the desert flats. While the team signaled base and awaited rescue from the army in Urumqi, their leader quietly decamped, leaving only a brief note that would prove to be his last words: “Gone east to find wells — Peng, 17/6 10:30.” Ignoring instructions from the military to stay put, Peng’s team apparently tried to follow his trail but soon had to turn back.
At noon the next day, helicopters arrived with fuel and water, and a proper search was launched. But, apart from a candy wrapper and a set of footprints that ended on the edge of the salt-encrusted basin, there was no sign of the scientist. Over the next three months, three more full-scale searches would follow, involving dozens of helicopters, airplanes, and cars, and hundreds of personnel, covering over 4,000 square kilometers. No trace of Peng was ever found, though; nor any indication of what could have happened to him.
After the fourth search was called off, the government declared that Peng a “revolutionary martyr,” although the speculation continued: He’d been abducted by aliens; he’d defected to the Soviet Union; the Americans had kidnapped him. In October, the Hong Kong newspaper Zhongbao (中报, “Middle Newspaper”) reported that an “American-Chinese scholar” called Zhou Guanglei had seen Peng Jiamu in a Washington D.C. restaurant. Peng’s wife Xia Shufang denied ever knowing Zhou, while Xinhua declared the report a hoax.
The initial organizer of the research expedition, Xia Xuncheng, also scoffed at such claims. “There were military radars near the camp,” he told the Beijing News, in a detailed report of the incident. “How could a U.S. or Soviet plane take him without our troops realizing?” Xia instead offered two plausible theories: Peng had either gotten lost in the Force 8-10 gale that blew in the night after he’d left the camp, or he’d been buried under a “yardang” (a compact but fragile ridge of sand) that collapsed while he was resting against it. If so, experts agree, his body could have been moved miles away under the desert’s shifting dunes.
Perhaps only one other credible claim has ever been put forward (though the source here, Falun Gong-owned NTDTV, is less than credible). It had been previously mooted that Peng might have been killed by a teammate in a dispute over water; in 2006, according to the report, Peng’s remains were finally found, along with evidence of 27 violent wounds.
During an ensuing investigation, Peng’s surviving teammates alleged that he had terminal cancer at the time of the trip, and was “weak physically, bad-tempered, stubborn, and a poor team player.” When the scientist insisted on pressing on with their research, despite his team’s dwindling supplies, several members decided to put a halt to Peng’s apparent suicide mission in the most firm way possible.
Rather than admit that “a famous [Communist Party] scientist was killed by his own people,” authorities decided not to publicize the findings. According to the Chinese government, though, while several bodies have been found in the desert, none ever matched Peng’s DNA. More likely, the scientist’s fate will forever remain a Cold War riddle of the sands.