Memories of great desert explorer live on

By Jia Hepeng (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-04-19 06:59
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When Gong Zhuxun heard the news that a corpse deep in the Lop Nur desert might be that of lost scientist Peng Jiamu (1925-1980), he could not hide his anxiety.

Memories of great desert explorer live on
Wu Shiguang (left) and other team members of the recent expedition hold a memorial ceremony for Peng Jiamu at the late scientist's tomb in the Lop Nur desert. [China Daily]

"We all hope this time we can find him," said Gong, a retired scientist at Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

"If he could be found, we would have the chance to tell the complete story of the great scientist," he told China Daily.

The 68-year-old scientist used to work with Peng, who disappeared in his desperate exploration of the Lop Nur desert in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of northwestern China in 1980.

Colourful career

Born in Guangdong Province in 1925 and graduated in 1947 from the then Central University of China (now Nanjing University) as a biology student, Peng's life has been closely tied with scientific exploration in China.

In 1956, already a famous biologist at Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, when Peng heard that the CAS would organize a massive expedition in Xinjiang, he immediately gave up his chances of studying abroad and filed an application.

"I have a strong wish to explore the frontiers. I have the courage to pave a way in the wilderness," wrote Peng in his application letter to the then CAS President Guo Moruo (1892-1979).

In 1957, he was diagnosed with a malign tumour, but after recovering in Shanghai, Peng immediately returned to Xinjiang for further exploration.

In an article written in 1999, Chen Zicai, a scientist of Xinjiang Institute of Chemistry, CAS, recalled his work with Peng in Lop Nur in 1964.

Lop Nur used to be a huge marsh in the eastern part of Xinjiang. With the drying up of the Tarim River in the late 20th century, it largely became an infertile desert, but still dotted with soft and wet riverbeds. Its complicated topography, extreme weather and frequent movements of sand dunes have caused the deaths of hundreds of people.

Despite the harsh conditions, Peng did not hesitate to trek into the desert. By car, horse, donkey and canoe, he travelled thousands of miles on that trip. Eventually, his team measured that the annual accumulation of potassium in the desert was 750,000 tons, according to Chen.

In his repeated field explorations, Peng also discovered dozens of wild species in Lop Nor and other parts of Xinjiang.

Chen described that during the expedition, Peng's car often plunged into soft riverbeds or moving dunes.

"But Peng was always optimistic and had high confidence in his work," Chen wrote.

During the disastrous "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Peng, Chen and other scientists in the expedition team could not continue their explorations. However, Chen recalled that Peng firmly believed he would soon have the chance to explore Lop Nur again.

Peng's hopes were not in vain. In 1979, he was appointed as the vice-president of Xinjiang Branch of CAS and in the summer of 1980, he led a team of chemists, geologists, biologists and archaeologists into Lop Nur again. The trip turned out to be fatal for him.

Wang Wanxuan, Peng's driver in his last expedition, recalled in a recent article in Beijing-based magazine Social Observation that the road was very difficult and water was running out. Some people in the team began to complain and wanted to return in advance. Peng convened his team members and said firmly: "Science is to walk a road not travelled by other people!" His confidence helped the others keep working.

"I can never forget the encouraging words and the decisive attitude of Peng," Wang said.

Five days after the speech, on June 17, Peng disappeared outside the camp of the team, after leaving a note saying he was going out to find water.

Ceaseless searching

Peng's disappearance upset the top Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997). The central government ordered the military to dispatch more than 10 planes and helicopters and hundreds of soldiers to search for him.

Six police officers from Shanghai and provinces of Shandong and Jiangsu were called to search with their police dogs.

In his book "Travel with Peng Jiamu," Xia Xuncheng, Peng's associate and former director of Lanzhou-based Institute of Desert, CAS, recalled the search.

Peng's colleagues, the military and local governments organized three large-scale rescue operations.

In November 1980, another search team drove into the area for another attempt.

"In each hunt, we searched nearly every inch of land around the camp site," Xia said.

But nothing was found.

Meanwhile, Peng's disappearance made headlines in newspapers nationwide. He was portrayed as a martyr ready to sacrifice himself for science.

Xia, who led the search and subsequent scientific desert explorations, summarized two possibilities for Peng's fate.

One possibility is that Peng was buried by sand storm. Between June 16 and 17, there was a wind of up to 10 degrees. "We found a camel buried, with just the lower part of one leg above the sand, just three days after it was lost," wrote Xia.

Another possibility is that Peng was buried by loose soil hills. The hills were often used by travellers and explorers as protection against strong winds and sunshine, but the hills were prone to collapse.

Xia, now nearly 80 years old, joined a team to explore Lop Nur to identify a corpse suspected to be Peng's body last week.

After 1980, the enthusiasm to find Peng remained in official scientific exploration, and gradually grew among grass-roots explorers. In late 1990s, a TV-series named "Searching Peng Jiamu" was broadcast across the nation.

The latest exploration team, in which Xia participated, was mainly organized by grass-roots explorers. It began to prepare last year, after Dong Zhibao, a scientist from Lanzhou-based Institute of Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research, CAS, located a body during an exploration.

Dong reportedly found the corpse in a remote sand pit in the Lop Nur desert. He kept the body in its original place and recorded its location before returning.

While the efforts for finding Peng were escalating, Tian Song, a researcher of the history of science at Beijing Normal University, said the continued public interest in a lost scientist results from the combination of the general psychology of pursuing science and the zeal to explore mystery.

"Many scientists lose their lives during their work, but most of them are unknown to the public, while Peng became highly famous upon his disappearance," Tian said.

Chinese people were deeply touched by Peng, whose image became the symbol of scientific heights.

And the interest in Peng has gradually shifted from scientific areas to his continued exploration of unknown domains.

"Now for many people, Peng touched them not for his scientific achievements but for his great determination to explore unknown areas," Tian said.

(China Daily 04/19/2006 page13)