A Mass Grave Beneath The Sand Is All That’s Left Of This Chinese Empire

Located in northwestern China, the Lop Nur Desert is one of the driest places on Earth. Dubbed the "Sea of Death," the 1,100-mile desert was once a vast salt lake; its vicinity was home to a thriving realm called the Loulan Kingdom, a key stop on the Silk Road trade route. Over the years, however, it completely dried out - reportedly due to over-irrigation as well as naturally occurring sudden sandstorms and sand avalanches - and resulted in a big, dry wasteland. The hostility of the environment hasn't stopped people venturing into it, but their risk-taking has led to numerous deaths and unexplained disappearances.

As a result of this exploration, desiccated bodies pop up throughout the area from time to time; the most significant discovery of this nature occurred in the early 20th century when remnants of a previous civilization that inhabited the Lop Nur area were uncovered. The Tarim Mummies, found in the Tarim Basin, weren't intentionally mummified by living human counterparts - their bodies were dried out naturally by the extreme desert conditions.

In 1980, a well-known Chinese scientist named Peng Jiamu went into the Lop Nur to explore its resources. He was never found, and the disappearance of Peng Jiamu remains one of Lop Nur's greatest mysteries.


  • Scientist Peng Jiamu Disappeared While Exploring The Desert

    Biochemist Peng Jiamu set out to investigate the Lop Nur Desert in 1980. As part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), he'd previously headed into the desert on research expeditions. After becoming vice president of the Academy 24 years later, he decided to go back into Lop Nur with a team of other scientists. But the group didn't have sufficient supplies and when they set up camp, Peng left to resupply. Five days after they set up camp, the group discovered that Peng had disappeared. They found a note saying he'd gone out for water. But Peng was gone for good.

  • No One Ever Found Peng's Body, But Skeletons Turn Up Every Few Years

    Chinese authorities quickly responded to the scientists' call for help and sent three separate teams in search of Peng Jiamu that employed military planes, helicopters, and police dogs. All of the effort was to no avail, and Peng's body was not found. It was speculated that he probably died in a sandstorm or was buried under a sand dune. Periodically, mysterious skeletons turn up in the Lop Nur wasteland. Each one is tested to see if it might belong to the long-lost Peng, but as of 2018, none have proven to be his.

  • The Son Of A Communist Chinese Leader Says He Saw Peng In An American Restaurant

    Despite the fact that numerous skeletons have turned up in the Lop Nur desert since Peng Jiamu disappeared, none of them were confirmed as Peng's. But other sources say that Peng never died in the desert. Instead, some claim that he fled to the US. The son of a prominent Chinese Communist Party official, once a student of Peng's, claimed that he spotted Peng in a Washington, DC, restaurant. However, when confronted, the pseudo-Peng denied his identity and left the establishment.

  • Hundreds Of Mummies Were Found In The Giant Tarim Basin
    Photo: Martonkurucz / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Hundreds Of Mummies Were Found In The Giant Tarim Basin

    Over the years, the Tarim Basin, located in the Lop Nur desert, has yielded a multitude of bodies, aptly called the Tarim mummies. Totaling about 200 in number, the Tarim mummies, found at the site of Xinjiang, weren't intentionally mummified. Instead, their bodies were preserved by the arid conditions of the desert. The Tarim mummies are some of the oldest in the region, probably originating 4,000 years ago.

  • The Red-Haired Tarim Mummies Presented The Chinese With A Huge Question Of Ethnic Identity

     

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    The Tarim mummies raised a lot more questions than just "who were these people?" The individuals found were pale-skinned and red-haired, raising the question of where or how they were related to modern inhabitants of China. Tarim is located in a disputed area of China, the province of Urumqi, which has seen a great deal of cultural hybridization and political tension over the years. Thus, scientists and anthropologists began researching whether the Tarim mummies are biologically related to the Chinese people of today. DNA tests have revealed the Tarim mummies' close links to inhabitants of western Europe.

  • One Tarim Mummy Was So Pretty, She Was Dubbed "The Beauty Of Xiaohe"

    When excavating the Tarim mummies, archeologists noted the serene preservation of one particular woman. Even after 4,000 years, she was in beautiful condition, her body well-preserved because of the desert's extreme aridity. As a result, researchers nicknamed this mummy like "the Beauty of Xiaohe" or "Loulan Beauty." They also speculate she might have been of high status during her lifetime, as she was buried wearing a lavish white felt hat and furry boots.